The Misusable Past

Facts and Fantasies in North American Archaeology

By: Bryce Little

Originally Published in 1987

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Two of the most memorable incidents of my career in anthropology concern unusual visitors to my office. The first appeared unexpectedly at the door during a particularly frustrating moment of my dissertation writing, and his first action was to place in front of me a large paper grocery bag. Before I could compose a bewildered question he launched into a long monologue concerning his years of searching for particular sorts of stones, ones whose shape held cryptic and suggestive clues to the human past. It turned out that I was to be the privileged witness to an entire bag of such stones, which quickly appeared to be divided into two classes: those which, when maneuvered in proper fashion, manifested versions of the heads of Egyptian pharaohs; and those suggesting miniature versions of the African continent. All were further stated to have come from scuba dives off the Bahamas, and to be prehistoric relics of voyages from Egypt and/or other parts of Africa. I escaped after only four or five examples—only to have another visitor with another telltale bag a few days later. In this case the bag held “Egyptian” pebbles found in South Philadelphia!

This article traces some of the ways in which archaeology has been used, misused, and abused to provide solutions to questions and controversies concerning the New World and its early inhabitants. For Europeans and their descendants, the most important controversies have centered around two general issues. First, what was the origin of the peoples encountered in the New World, and how could their existence be reconciled with the lack of any explicit reference to America and Americans in the texts of the Bible, the writings of classical antiquity, and those of the church fathers? Second, what was the history of Native Americans in the area north of Mexico, and more specifically, had there been a decline in the level of their culture before the time of European contact? Put another way, could the North American Indians of the 18th and 19th century really have been responsible for the monumental earthworks and structures discovered by Europeans as they moved inland from the east coast?

The answers to these questions were frequently inventive, ingenious, and even downright eccentric—as illustrated by my own–experiences with Egyptian stones. But while such fantasies are interesting and amusing in themselves as examples of human gullibility, they also have a more serious aspect. As myths or popular explanations of Indian origins and customs they show some remarkably persistent patterns, deeply revealing of the ways Europeans and immigrant Americans have perceived the cultural worth of Native Ameri­cans, both past and present.

Early Origin Theories: Eden and the Ten Lost Tribes

Speculation as to the origins of Native American populations began with Columbus. From the moment that he anchored in 1492 off a Caribbean island and discovered it to be inhabited, the successful navigator had to grapple not just with the task of describing his ventures into the unknown and the hazards of unfamiliar waters, but also with less tangible conceptual issues.

The most immediate of these was the problem of geography and cartography: was this island merely a previously unknown outlier of the distant fringe of eastern Asia—or had he discovered a place known to the West only through myth, or perhaps not known at all? During his third voyage to the New World (1498), Columbus discovered the mouth of a mammoth river, now identified as the Orinoco in Venezuela. Assuming that he had reached the eastern shore of Asia, he suggested that this was the fourth river of the terrestrial paradise (Eden) of medieval legend, the others being the Ganges, Tigris-Euphrates, and Nile. This identification of the new lands with Eden received some support from Columbus’s description of the islanders he initially encountered as wonderfully innocent, docile, and hospitable (Dickason 1984:xiv).

Such ideas stemmed from the “Primitivist” tradition that had emerged in Western thought during the Renaissance. Combining the concept of the classical Golden Age with that of the biblical paradise, the Primitivists dreamt of lands occupied by peoples with close positive ties to nature, “unsullied by the wiles, complexities, and sophistication of modern civilization” (Berkhofer 1978:72). The voyages of Columbus seemed to provide concrete examples of societies retaining virtues of simplicity and innocence lost long ago in Europe and adjacent lands.

That the newly discovered territories were not physically a part of Asia at all, but were in fact a separate world of unexpected extent and diversity, was demonstrated in 1513 when the Spanish explorer Balboa stood silent on a peak in Panama, viewing the vast Pacific. By the mid-1500s it was generally accepted by cartographers that both North and South America were distinct from Asia, with the possible exception of the unexplored territories to the northwest (Johnson 1974:41). A search then began for evidence that would link the inhabitants of the “New World” with familiar peoples and places in the Old World.

The most widely accepted early theory, which waned quite slowly and indeed is still part of the dogma of a major religious sect (see below), was the identification of Native Americans as descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. According to the Old Testament, ten tribes were deported from Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C. This led to their physical (though not symbolic) disappearance from history. With the dispersion of the tribe of Judah in the following centuries, the concept of the Lost Tribes as a large, militarily powerful Jewish state persisting in some unknown land gained popularity. According to Christian sources, this state was headed by hostile leaders named Gog and Magog; their kingdom was successively located by theologians and cartographers in the Caucasus, in northern Europe or the Urals, somewhere deep in Asia, and finally in northeastern Siberia, presumably in close proximity to the newly discovered lands. Hence the Lost Tribes legend was easily transferred to the already misidentified “Indians.”

During the 18th century, a systematic attempt to document the Jewish origin of the southeastern Indians was undertaken by James Adair. Adair had lived and traded with the tribes of the south­east (including the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws) for over thirty years. In his History of the American Indians (1775) he presented a series of twenty-three “arguments” comparing the cus­toms of the Jews with those of the Indians. Elements of similarity included: a division into tribes; worship of Jehovah; a belief in angels; beliefs about purity and uncleaness; rituals; marriage laws; manners; types of ornaments; burial practices; and language (see Adventures on the Eastern Frontier).

The decline and eventual demise of this theory began when it was pointed out that customs similar to those shared by the Jews and the Indians were to be found throughout the world and could not be used as evidence for common ancestry. Nevertheless, Adair’s arguments did have a brief revival in the early 19th century, supported by respected public figures (such as Elias Boudinot, a friend of Thomas Jefferson), as well as by the eccentric English Viscount of Kingsborough, who died in a debtor’s prison after writing nine lavish volumes on the topic. One adherent who put his beliefs into action was the philanthropist Mordechai Noah, who in 1825 invited American Indians into his reserve for Jewish refugees at Grand Island, New York; none are re­corded as accepting (Ashe 1971:8).

Other speculative origin theories identified American Indians as descendants of the Danes, the Welsh, the Picts, the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Polynesians, inhabitants of the continent of Atlantis, and Asians. The ultimately correct hypothesis of an East Asian origin was first proposed in 1590 by Father Jose de Acosta. He suggested that the Indians had migrated from Asia to the New World, moving primarily overland with “short stretches of navigation.” As knowledge of geography increased an Asian origin became increasingly likely, and was widely accepted by the end of the 18th century (despite the revival of Adair’s theory described above).

A migration of hunting groups from Asia into the Americas during the latter part of the last glaciation is now solidly supported by studies of geology, genetics, and the archaeology of Siberia, as well as North America. A shift in the nature of the argument, from speculation about origins to a search for evidence concerning the history of the Indians, began in the late 18th century. Increasingly, this evidence was provided by the newly developed enterprise of archaeology.

The American Indians: Recent Arrivals or Longtime Residents?

Although permanent European colonies had been established on the Atlantic seaboard of North America by the early 17th century, it was not until the 1780s that a significant discussion of either the antiquity or the antiquities of this region appeared. This initial lack of curiosity was not simply a reflection of prevailing European attitudes toward the past. On the contrary, in England as well as on the continent there was an increasing focus on ancient things. Stone tools, mounds or barrows, stone monuments such as Stonehenge, and classical ruins had become items for rumination and investigation by poets, painters, and the educated gentry.

Nor was there a lack of suitable “ruins.” French and Spanish explorers and colonists had reported the presence of large mounds located in the central river valleys, particularly along the Mississippi. These accounts were available to educated English colonists, even if the mounds themselves still lay in foreign territory. While it is true that the east coast of North America generally lacks such prominent archaeological sites, the English colonists’ disinterest in the past is probably better explained by the attitudes of these people toward American natives.

The early New Englanders generally felt contempt for the Indians that they encountered. Cotton Mather, for example, described them as veritable “ruines of Mankind” (1820, 1:504). Even adherents of the Ten Lost Tribes hypothesis considered the Indians to be “villains in a sacred drama, counterpart of the heathen tribes that Joshua conquered, children of the Devil who tempted Christ in the desert, forerunners of the legions of darkness that would gather at Gog and Magog for a last furious but futile battle against the elect” (Bercovitch in Segal and Stineback 1977:17).

These attitudes had certain psychological as well as material benefits for the colonists. Since the Indians were heathens, their customs need not be treated with respect—particularly when those customs ran directly contrary to the Europeans’ own values. For example, the colonists observed great quantities of material wealth (guns, kettles, axes, skins, and wampum belts) being placed in Indian graves — “rotting in the ground for no good reason” (Axtell 1981:117). The reaction of the Pilgrims, recorded as early as 1610, was to “liberate” these goods by robbing the Indian graves. Grave-robbing could be justified as a religious act. When the Pilgrims despoiled the grave of a Massachusett chief’s mother of “two great Beares skinnes sowed together at full length,” they were simply doing their best to eliminate a heathen superstition. In this case, the rob­bers were very fortunate to escape with their lives, for not surprisingly the Massachusett warriors considered it “impious, and inhumane, to deface the monuments of the dead” (Roger Williams, Key into the Language of America, 1643:203).

Such attitudes on the part of the Pilgrims and Puritans scarcely encouraged a healthy or sympathetic investigation of the past. A separate and more important factor in discouraging archaeological inquiry was the belief that the Indian was the past, conforming to a way of life long surpassed by Europeans. Edmund Burke in 1777 stated that to look at the Indian was to see “the antiquities of all nations” (Dickason 1984:55).

Even if some historical development within the Americas was admitted, the chronological framework in use during the 18th and 19th century dictated that the presence of Indian groups on the continent was relatively recent. Interpretations of the Old Testament allowed less than 6000 years since the creation of the world. The linguistic diversity observed among Indian groups meant that they had migrated out of the Old World after the construction of the Tower of Babel and the origin of separate tongues. In terms of length of occupation, America was considered to be very much a “new world,” even to its native people!

How, then, was the diversity observed among Native American populations to be explained? Until the late 18th century, Europeans usually explained all variation between human cultures in terms of environmental causes. The Indian had been formed physically and culturally “by the nature of the forest which he inhabits, and the variable temperature of the heaven under which he lives” (Smith 1965:215).

An extreme but influential statement of the supposed effects of environment on American animal populations was that proposed in 1761 by the renowned French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon. Drawing general comparisons between the inhabitants of major geographical zones, Buffon claimed that all animal species native to the New World were smaller in size and fewer in number than related species in the Old World. As for the human species, . . . though the American savage be nearly of the same stature with men in polished societies, yet this is not sufficient exception to the general contraction of animated Nature throughout the whole Continent. In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, because more accustomed to running, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more cowardly and timid. He has no vivacity, no activity of mind…. The bonds of the most intimate of all so­cieties, that of the same family, are feeble; and one family has no attachment to another. Hence no union, no republic, no social state can take place among the morality of their manners. (Chinard 1947:31)

Buffon’s views are easily contra­dicted by firsthand accounts written in his own time, as well as by modern studies of the historical record. Their importance within the context of this discussion lies in the fact that Buffon was again supplying a myth—an intellectual and “scientific” justification for European colonialism. In historian Ray Billington’s words: “Buffon’s purpose was not to degrade the Indians, but to demonstrate that Europeans were better equipped to occupy the Americas than the red men. Nurtured in a healthier en­vironment, and hence stronger and more energetic, they were able to cut down trees, drain swamps, and improve the soils. The Indian had surrendered his birthright by over­long dependence on Nature; Nature was a ruthless destroyer unless man directed its aimless forces into productive use” (1981:12).

The real stimulus to a change in attitude toward the American Indians and a study of their monuments was supplied by the Romantic Movement in European literature and art. Twenty years after Buffon’s wholesale dismissal of Native Americans as biologically inferior, there was a sharp negative response from intellectuals in the newly independent United States. Like the Europeans, the colonists placed the Indians at the bottom of the developmental scale of human institutions, closest to Nature. Imbued with the new spirit of Romanticism, however, they considered Nature as a positive force, inspiring powerful and desirable emotions. Moreover, as the frontier expanded across the Appalachians, “Our American forefathers lamented the lack of a usable past. Many…were educated men, aware of the archae­ological treasures of Europe and the Near East. They expected to find in the green New World those traces of awesome antiquity on which romantic myths could be founded; they did not like to feel that they were coming into an empty land peopled only by naked wandering savages” (Silverberg 1968:1). In the tumuli and geometric earthworks that dotted the Midwestern forests, unexplainable by contemporary Indians, the raw material of a romantic past seemed at last apparent.

Mound Builders and Myth Building

Enthusiastic investigation of archaeological sites within North America began in the 1770s when missionary David Zeisberger and others reported the spectacular earthworks of the Ohio Valley. Naturalist William Bartram, the son of botanist John Bartram of Philadelphia, journeyed through the interior of the southeastern United States from 1773 to 1777. He not only described magnificent ancient monuments, but also the construction of a new mound by Creek Indians. This information, which documented the ability of modern Indians to construct earthworks, and might have discouraged the speculation concerning an ancient race of mound builders described below, was not made available to the general public until 1909 because of a series of mishaps.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to actively seek evidence for the nature of the Indian mounds through archaeological fieldwork. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, he wrote an eloquent rebuttal to Buffon and similar theorists (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787). In this book he recounted his excavation of an Indian mound in order to determine exactly how it was formed and used. As president and, simultaneously, as head of the leading American scientific group, the American Philosophical Society, Jefferson also did a great deal to systematize the geographical and ethnographic research of others, particularly that dealing with the mysterious mounds.

Not everyone considered the mounds in such a rational and logical way. Jefferson’s friend Benjamin Barton, also writing in 1787, suggested that the Mound Builders were Danish Viking lords, who eventually migrated to the south and became the Toltecs, leaders of the state preceding that of the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. Barton’s work is one of the earliest examples of the myth of the Mound Builders; a favored later version attributed the mounds to a group of white-skinned giants

The Mound Builder “theory” postulated an ancient civilized race that had inhabited the forests of North America long ago and then vanished. It had one important underlying premise: that the Indians who were found residing in the vicinity of mounds, having remained in a timeless state of savagery since their first arrival, could never have been responsible for works that indicated a higher level of civilization. (The native populations of Mesoamerica and the Andes were observed constructing and living in palaces and cities, so their achievements were not questioned.) A second element in many versions of the myth was the violent destruction of the Mound Builders by the Indians. Given these two premises, the Mound Builder myth at once provided a great romantic fantasy, and a justification for white dispossession of upstart savages (Trigger 1980:665-666).

By 1809, “direct” evidence for the Mound Builder theory was found in the form of a manuscript circulated by a clergyman, Reverend Solomon Spaulding (see Silverberg 1968:89­90). Spaulding claimed to have found 28 rolls of parchment in a structure of large flat stones atop a mound near his home in Ohio. Contained within them was the story of a group of Christian Romans of the 4th century A.D., who were sailing to Britain and were driven west across the ocean by storms. Reaching the Americas, they en­countered the Mound Builder race, who worked lead and iron, had a written literature, and kept herds of horses and domesticated mammoths. According to the manuscript, two “nations” of this race engaged in a war that resulted in the extermination of both. Only their great burial mounds and remnants of their cities survived.

Neither the date nor the authen­ticity of this incredible find was ever verified, and it might easily have been forgotten except for some similarities to the Book of Mormon discovered by Joseph Smith. In 1830 Smith published a text that he said he had received from an angel in Palmyra, New York. Inscribed on gold plates, it tells of not two but three ancient American races. The earliest was the Jaredites, immigrants from the Near East who destroyed themselves in a civil war. Around 800 B.C., a group of Israelites arrived; they later split into two groups: the Nephites or Mound Builders, and the Lamanites, ancestors of the

American Indians, who had been punished by God with dark skins. The Lamanites destroyed the Nephites in the 5th century A.D. (Silverberg 1968:90-93). Thus a version of the Mound Builder myth has survived into the present as part of the dogma of a major religious sect. This survival has in turn stimulated new archaeological research, since the Church of Latter Day Saints sponsors field projects in an effort to recover evidence related to its beliefs. This research, conducted by professional archaeologists, is objectively reported in scholarly as well as more popular publications.

Archaeological Beginnings

Armchair speculation about the Mound Builders peaked in the 1830s. It is probably not coinciden­tal that at this time the United States government had instituted a controversial policy regarding the eastern Indian tribes—their systematic re­moval to territories beyond the Mis­sissippi. In the following decades, fantastic origin theories still thrived, but there was also a new type of discussion, based on evidence re­covered through the systematic description and excavation of mounds by amateur archaeologists.

For example, Ephraim Squier (an Ohio newspaper editor) and his assistant E.H. Davis (a physician) made a comprehensive survey of sites in the Mississippi valley that was published by the newly established Smithsonian Institution in 1848. This work is still valuable today for its hundreds of pages of careful description and elegantly drafted maps of major mounds in the Midwest, most of them now destroyed. Its conclusions are less durable: they illustrate the truism that facts do not speak for themselves, but are usually interpreted in terms of already existing theories. Squier denied mound-building capabilities to the American Indians on the grounds of their innate “aversion to labor”; the Mound Builders (presumably white but of unspecified origin) must therefore have been a distinct, peaceable race which migrated to Mexico.

The Mound Builder myth was finally demolished at the end of the 19th century. In 1879, the United States government created a new agency within the Smithsonian Institution, the Bureau of American Ethnology. Staffed by capable scholars and dedicated specifically to Native American studies, it was headed by Major John Wesley Powell—the first man to run the Grand Canyon rapids of the Colorado River in a boat. In 1881 Congress added an appropriation of $5000 a year to Powell’s funding, to be spent for “continuing archaeological investigation relating to mound-builders and prehistoric mounds. Powell chose an entomologist and botanist named Cyrus Thomas to carry out this charge.

Year after year Thomas and several assistants labored to carry out the definitive survey and interpretation of North American mounds. At last, in 1894, the massive report appeared, compiling in dry detail descriptions of thousands of mounds all across the eastern United States. Thomas was able to show good archaeological as well as historical evidence for the continuation of mound building by many Native Americans after white contact, and for comparable technology and organization among more recent Native American groups.

This had important consequences for approaches to the old debates reviewed here—the origin and antiquity of American Indians, and the nature of contacts (if any) with the Old World after their arrival and before Columbus. The initial search for answers to these questions had produced rampant speculation and rudimentary data-gathering. By the end of the 19th century, sufficient information was available to enable rejection of the vast majority of origin and contact hypotheses. This information was first gathered by dedicated amateurs, followed by a small but growing cadre of professional archaeologists.

A more rigorous approach did not, however, mean that the old questions were resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Indeed, one result of the development of archaeology and anthropology as scholarly disciplines (as exemplified by the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of American Ethnology) was the creation of a large opposition faction outside these professions. To the present day, some members of this faction have advanced alternative theories that are, if anything, more exotic than those of the 19th century.

They have placed themselves before the public as being in conscious and continuous conflict with an increasingly formalized mainstream reconstruction of the Native American past.

Today, despite archaeological searches of unprecedented scale, only one tiny site in the Americas has been generally accepted as evidence for a European occupation before Columbus. This is L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, founded by Norse settlers in the early 11th century (see Ingstad 1968 and McGhee 1984). On the other hand, the last twenty-five years have produced the “Vinland Map” (published by Yale University in 1965, but its authenticity now in question); a Canaanite inscription from Brazil (exposed as a 19th century forgery); and Celtic cellars in New England (now iden­tified as Colonial root cellars).

See A New North American Fantasy


It has not been the intention of this article to ridicule all speculative activity on the Native American past, or to propose that no evidence for any contact (other than Norse) between the Old and New Worlds before Columbus can be found acceptable. Rather, my purpose has been to show how their own cultural values and attitudes structured the way in which Europeans and Euro-Americans first tried to explain the presence of ancient monu­ments and living peoples in North America. These values and attitudes included an acceptance of the Bible as a literal account of the early history of the entire world, a desire to justify colonial expansion, and the belief that Europeans were innately superior to other races. Early North American archaeology developed directly out of subsequent debates on the nature of Native American culture and its antiquity.

It has only been a century since professional archaeologists and anthropologists first granted sole credit for the architectural and cultural monuments found in North America to the tribes native to this area, and the prejudices that denied that credit are still tenacious in academia as well as in the American national consciousness. Immigrant Americans have long admired the valor of a Tecumseh, the determined resistance of a Chief Joseph, the religious fervor of a Black Elk. Perhaps in the next century, the remaining mounds and ruined pueblos can finally prove equally evocative, not of the imaginary deeds of lost European seafarers, but of the special qualities of America’s original and enduring peoples.

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Cite This Article

Little, Bryce. "The Misusable Past." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 2 (July, 1987): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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