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For week ended January 02, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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Summarized by Kent Larsen

Mainstream Archaeology vs. Book of Mormon Evidence
Atlantic Monthly Jan00 N6
by Marc K. Stengel
You've probably heard of those crackpot theories about ancient Phoenicians or Chinese in the New World. Maybe it's time to start paying attention

An article in this month's Atlantic Monthly magazine examines the 'Diffusionist' movement among archaeologists - those that believe that the Americas had extensive contact with the rest of the world before 1492. While the movement seems to be gaining some respect, it is still a long way from gaining respectability among mainstream archaeologists. And for believers in the Book of Mormon, it is still a long way from the views of most diffusionists to evidence supporting the Book of Mormon.

Diffusionists have long been viewed as crackpots by mainstream archaeologists. Relying on artifacts like a Norse spatha type sword discovered in Pennsylvania and a stone containing carved Phoenician-era Iberian script found at Grave Creek, West Virginia, they have raised the possibility of contact from the rest of the world.

The Diffusionist cause has not only been hurt by the reactions of mainstream archaeologists, however. Often the suggestions of Diffusionists have been poorly thought out and poorly researched, or ignore a wealth of evidence that doesn't support their claims. In addition, those making the diffusionist claims often have no training relevant to their claims.

The retired curator of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Stephen Williams, calls the diffusionists "Cranks." His 1991 book, "Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory" is almost a catalog of diffusionist theories, which Williams attempts to debunk in a heavily sarcastic tone. Another influential mainstream professor, Brian Fagan of the University of California at Santa Barbara, finds diffusionist theories exasperating, "Why do such lunatic ravings persist?" he asks in "The Great Journey: The Peopling of Ancient America" (1987). "To read the crank literature on the first Americans is to enter a fantasy world of strange, often obsessed, writers with a complex jargon of catchwords and 'scientific' data to support their ideas."

But the mainstream theory has its problems also. That theory says that the ancestors of the American Indian crossed the land bridge from Asia before 10,000 years ago, slowly spreading south through the Americas, before reaching the southern part of South America about 3,000 years ago.

But archaeologist Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky at Lexington has found evidence of human beings in southern Chile from 12,500 years ago and Brazilian scientists have found the remains of a young woman that date to 11,500 years ago; and the woman's features suggest Negroid origins instead of Mongoloid as predicted by the theory.

More recent artifacts, such as the Grave Creek stone, also point to the possibility of additional contact, in spite of the isolation predicted by the theory. "It amazes me," says Mike Xu, a professor of modern languages and literature at Texas Christian University, "that while there are authorities who propose visits to North America by boat some twenty-five thousand years ago, [most orthodox academics insist that contact across the sea in the past 3,000 years is] "simply unthinkable."

One of the most popular of the diffusionists was H. Barraclough "Barry" Fell, a Harvard biologist who became an epigrapher, studying the man-made markings of ancient peoples. In 1976 Fell published "America B.C.," a discussion of the implications of epigraphy on archaeology. The book excited many readers with its talk about "Druids in Vermont?" and "Phoenicians in Iowa before the time of Julius Caesar?"

While Fell had a good reputation among his biologist colleagues and bearing academic credentials from one of the world's most imposing Universities, Fell failed to use a scientists objective approach to his study and expressed absolute certainty in his explanations of the origin of American-found artifacts. In "America B.C." and his subsequent books, "Saga America" and "Bronze Age America," Fell claimed that Europeans, Africans and Asians made routine visits to the Americas which are not remembered in history.

But mainstream archaeologists viewed Fell as a self-promoting pseudo-scientist who threatened their careful work by approaching a nonspecialist -- and therefore easily fooled -- audience. Critics cited numerous errors in Fell's chronology and interpretations, and pointed out that Fell's work hadn't been reviewed by his peers. "Unable to trust some of his discoveries, mainstream academics have generally elected not to trust any of them." says Stengel.

But not everyone threw out the baby with the bathwater. Archaeologist David Kelley of the University of Calgary can't bring himself to simply dismiss Fell's work, in spite of the many errors that he sees. He writes that, "Fell's work [contains] major academic sins, the three worst being distortion of data, inadequate acknowledgment of predecessors, and lack of presentation of alternative views."

Kelley says his colleague's reaction to Fell isn't completely justified, "When it is clear that a 'fantastic' interpretation has many reasonable components if the data are valid, most professional archaeologists regard that as .... adequate reason to assume that the data are invalid." He says that Fell's work needs a different kind of hearing for his work to be evaluated fairly, "The problem I see with Barry Fell," he says, "is that the people who can evaluate him accurately are the people who are least likely to be reading him. It needs somebody with a professional understanding of linguistic evidence and a willingness to look at some quite unlikely-seeming material."

Meanwhile, Diffusionists have tried to become more careful in their research and conclusions. Supporting the claims of diffusionists is the work of BYU professor John Sorenson and the Harold B. Lee Library's Martin Raish. Sorenson and Raish published a two-volume work, "Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans" detailing more than 5,100 books, articles, dissertations and presentations, pro and con, on diffusionist theories. However, because the work was produced by a group with strong Mormon beliefs, establishment scholars have dismissed it.

Diffusionists also suffer because they often approach their research from non-traditional perspectives. Most archaeologists look for physical evidence of contact from outside the Americas, so called "dirt archaeology." But much of the evidence isn't physical. Calgary's Kelly says that the impact of visitors just wasn't physical, but instead was 'ideological.' "The problem is in the fact that there are influences, but they don't show up in 'dirt archaeology.' Basically, they show up in ideological materials: mythology, astronomy, calendrics. These are precisely the areas which are hardest to deal with archaeologically. And so they don't get much attention from traditional archaeologists."

But Native American activist Vine Deloria Jr. sees a more pervasive reason for the mainstream archaeologist's refusal to even consider diffusionist claims, "There's the Stephen Jay Gould attitude out there that believes science can do whatever it wants unless it comforts religion -- because religion is considered a mere superstition. But if you look at it, most things that they're calling religious are not really religious. They're oral traditions; they're ancient memory."


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