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Douglas Hunter holds a PhD in history from York University and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo. His books have won the National Business Book Award and have been a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the Governor-General’s literary award for non-fiction. You can learn more at www.douglashunter.ca.
I’ve been familiar with pseudohistory since I was a kid and Erich Von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods?, the megaseller that proposed aliens built the Egyptian pyramids and were the geniuses behind advanced cultures of Mesoamerica like the Maya. Sometimes now I encounter it in published form or in television programs. It crops up when people email me or approach me at a talk I’ve given. Pseudohistory is the term I’ve settled on for an array of fringe historical theorizing that also is referred to as fantastic, crypto, and cult, which has parallels in archaeology—a lot of pseudohistory, in fact, is grounded in pseudoarchaeology.
The pseudo is the wacky stuff that mortifies mainstream historians and archaeologists. Most professionals would prefer to ignore it rather than confront it. A lot of academics probably feel they have enough on their hands arguing with credible colleagues (and writing and teaching) without becoming bogged down in battles of wits with apparently unarmed opponents. That said, I believe it is not only necessary to confront the pseudo: it is also unavoidable as academia cultivates a bigger role in the world of "public" history.
The pseudo is also acquiring alarming new dimensions in the public sphere, mainly in the United States so far. Just as fundamentalist Christians have used legislative allies to force Creationism into public school science curricula, politically powerful right-wing interests have been having textbooks rewritten so that slavery is not a cause of the U.S. Civil War. Such revisionism deserves to be considered pseudo as much as Von Däniken’s ancient aliens do, and it is related to the sort of pseudo I have dealt with: a version of pre-Contact North American history that erases Indigenous peoples from their own past and gives no end of delight to White supremacists. At the same time, publishers and media outlets need to think more critically about the damage they are doing when they propagate ideas that on the surface look offbeat or fun.
It can be tricky to draw a firm line separating "real" history from the pseudo. History is not a science, and even science struggles with the "demarcation problem" surrounding the divide between proper and pseudo science. There’s not much in history that can be said to be unequivocally true, in that no other interpretation is possible. Nevertheless, real history, like real science, can pass tests based on methodology.
You are perfectly entitled to argue ancient aliens built Egypt’s pyramids if you can clear some basic procedural hurdles. Interpretation foremost needs evidence, and you have to satisfy everyone your evidence is reliable and not being taken out of context. Your interpretation of that evidence has to be sound. It has to answer to other potential interpretations. Above all, you have to be open to other interpretations, and be willing to change your mind, because of either a more persuasive argument or evidence you weren’t aware of.
Pseudo practitioners invariably fail these tests. The pseudos are not very good with evidence, tending to rely on outmoded and discredited books and each others’ writing. They’re largely unfamiliar with current mainstream research. They seldom work with primary sources or perform original research, either in archives or in the archaeological field. Even when they do, they’re dogmatic in their interpretation, and sometimes are driven by agendas. At the least, they have a romantic attachment to a narrow vision of the past. They tend to work with the same bits of discredited or misrepresented evidence as fellow pseudos, often to entirely different ends.
Foremost, pseudos are hostile to views contrary to their own. They invariably use the specious argument Von Däniken crafted as a preemptive strike against critics: professional historians and archaeologists are members of a closed shop that won’t listen to outsiders and who crush innovative thinking in defense of their ivory-tower guild. When academia does suffer occasional scandals of groupthink, the pseudos can declare, "Aha! What did I tell you?" Cliques and particular dominant schools of thought do occur in academia, and overthrowing them can be messy. But pseudos have no idea how routinely fractious the debates within the historical community actually are. They also have no idea how academics generally enjoy being exposed to new interpretations and evidence, eager to move their own work in fresh directions.
The pseudo is an ever-evolving growth industry, one that was certainly blooming by the late nineteenth century, when the arch-scientific enthusiasms of the modern age sparked rebellions against what some writers have called the disenchantment of the world. History no longer had any use for myth or religious texts as foundational truths, just as science had banished magic and the supernatural. The pseudo, entwined with occult revival movements such as Theosophy, reveled in lost continents and civilizations, ancient hermetic wisdom, and romantic and frankly racist ideas about the superiority of northern Europeans rooted in a heroic Celtic past. Templar knights are everywhere in the latest pseudo efforts, burying the Holy Grail and influencing and improving Native Americans. There is also a broad streak of conspiracy in pseudo reasoning. It shouldn’t be surprising that when you scratch the surface of some pseudo practitioners you also discover 9-11 truthers.
Much pseudo theorizing is harmless and silly, but the overt and otherwise implied racism of so much pseudohistory is why it is important for historians to counter it, and for publishers and the media to ask themselves why they are promoting it. Von Däniken’s ancient astronauts notions have been justly criticized for presuming that non-European cultures were so incapable of technological feats in the archaeological record that only beings from Outer Space could have done the work for them. Von Däniken’s ideas were merely an extreme version of hyperdiffusionist notions popular in early twentieth century archaeology that presumed all cultures arose from one great civilization, usually the Egyptians. At its extreme, this line of thinking has held that New World cultures could only have “progressed” if they were shown how by outsiders who had themselves been exposed to the wisdom of the ancients.
Quasi New Age notions that Medicine Wheels of plains cultures are part of a linked global network of henges are just as damaging. Such reasoning can only imagine Indigenous knowledge as a subset of a global hyperdiffusionist wisdom centered in Celtic Europe, not as something arising within and belonging to a particular culture. This isn’t to say people never migrated, or that ideas, cultural practices and technologies never diffused. But for Indigenous peoples in the Americas, these fringe ideas are part of a long Western tradition of supposing anything exceptional in their cultures must have been introduced to them by the outside world. Physical beauty and intellectual skill has been cited as proof of interbreeding with ancient European visitors.
Indigenous people in North America literally for centuries have been presumed to be too lazy and stupid to have created the artifacts of their own cultural heritage. Theorists (some of them learned academics) have participated in what I call an "anybody but the Indians" approach to deciding who made markings on stone in well-known sites such as Dighton Rock in Massachusetts and the Peterborough Petroglyphs in Ontario. Ignoring obvious clues to their Indigenous nature (and ignoring altogether the opinions of Indigenous people), theorists have assigned these markings to Phoenicians, Egyptians, Norsemen, refugees of Atlantis and lost Portuguese explorers, to name but a few. For most of the nineteenth century, the prevailing scientific opinion about the mound relics of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys was that they were the work of people far more sophisticated than the ancestors of living Native Americans. These so-called Mound Builders had been displaced or wiped out by the brutish ancestors of Indians that swept out of Asia across the Bering Strait. This version of pre-Contact history conveniently excused the at times violent displacement of Native Americans under way. After all, by this reasoning, Native Americans were not the first colonizers, and what is more had moved aside a superior original people. It was only inevitable and just that they now give way to a fresh wave of colonization by superior Europeans.
The Mound Builder mentality underlies much of pseudo theorizing today. Whenever a self-styled innovative thinker examines an ancient North American earthwork and declares it to be the work of Templars or a lost Roman army, or that shamanic glyphs on a rock are really an ancient European script, think harder about what they are really declaring.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
*Note, these books are fine counters to the practice of pseudohistory. Forget the martians and read these titles instead.
About the book: In arresting, but harrowing, prose, James Daschuk examines the roles that Old World diseases, climate, and, most disturbingly, Canadian politics—the politics of ethnocide—played in the deaths and subjugation of thousands of aboriginal people in the realization of Sir John A. Macdonald’s "National Dream."
It was a dream that came at great expense: the present disparity in health and economic well-being between First Nations and non-Native populations, and the lingering racism and misunderstanding that permeates the national consciousness to this day.
"Clearing the Plains is a tour de force that dismantles and destroys the view that Canada has a special claim to humanity in its treatment of indigenous peoples. Daschuk shows how infectious disease and state-supported starvation combined to create a creeping, relentless catastrophe that persists to the present day. The prose is gripping, the analysis is incisive, and the narrative is so chilling that it leaves its reader stunned and disturbed. For days after reading it, I was unable to shake a profound sense of sorrow. This is fearless, evidence-driven history at its finest." -Elizabeth A. Fenn, author of Pox Americana
About the book: The final decade of the 15th century was pivotal in world history. The Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus sailed westward into the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, determined to secure for Spain a more direct route to the riches of the Indies. But as Columbus struggled to capitalize on his momentous discovery of distant landfalls, a troubled Venetian bridge contractor in Spain, on the lam from creditors and remembered as John Cabot, audaciously reinvented himself as an explorer and mounted a rival quest for England.
In The Race to the New World, critically acclaimed author Douglas Hunter details the high-stakes race that threatened the precarious power balance of Europe and led both men to the shores of a new world that neither was looking for.
With the use of fresh historical evidence, Hunter tells an untold story of the parallel journeys of Columbus and Cabot—two explorers whose interconnected lives are only fully understood together.
Pierre-Esprit Radisson, The Collected Writings, Volume 1: The Voyages, edited by Germaine Warkentin
About the book: Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636?–1710) was many men. He was a teenager captured, tortured, and adopted by the Mohawk, and a youth relishing the freedom of the wilderness. He was the French-born servant of an ambitious English trading company and a hapless petitioner at the court of Louis XIV. He was a central figure in the tug-of-war between France and England over Hudson Bay and a pretender to aristocratic status who had to defend his actions before James II. Finally, he was a retired "sea captain" trying to provide for his children, and despite the pension he had fought for, the "decay’d Gentleman" described in his burial record. Radisson's writings, characterized by hubris and contradiction, provoke many questions. Was he a semi-literate woodsman? Are his accounts of Native life ethnographically reliable? Can he be trusted to tell the truth about himself? How important were his explorations? In this first volume of Radisson's complete writings, Germaine Warkentin introduces the life, travels, motivations, and work of this compelling and complicated figure while providing a comprehensive and authoritative edition of his masterpiece—The Voyages. In the four accounts of his travels to the far interior of the Great Lakes and James Bay, Radisson vibrantly depicts his life among the Mohawk, his encounters and relationships with Native peoples, Jesuits, English, French, and Dutch colonists and traders, as well as the hazards of the capricious politics of the New World and the thrilling surprise of discoveries.
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