The Radioactive Skeleton of Mohenjo Daro: How Soviet Propaganda Spiraled into a Extreme Fringe History Claim
Today I wanted to share with you the fascinating work of Philippe Hernandez, who has posted an interesting exploration of the origins of the myth that Mohenjo Daro contains the remains of a nuclear massacre of that civilization’s people. As Hernandez discovered, the original source was Russian, and later authors’ lack of facility with the language allowed a modern myth to prosper.
In the English-speaking world, the story of Mohenjo Daro’s radioactive skeletons is one of those half-formed claims that lingers in the background of more spectacular ones. The English translation of Jacques Bergier’s and Louis Pauwels’s Morning of the Magicians made available in English claims of Russian origin that ancient Indian texts contained references to nuclear explosions. These texts were heavily manipulated to conform to expectations for a nuclear event, but they set the stage for a growing myth of prehistoric atom bombs. David Childress, in his Technology of the Gods (2000), alleges that not only is there evidence that Mohenjo Daro had been nuked but that the human remains found at the site were proof of radioactive fallout. “These skeletons are among the most radioactive ever found, on par with those at Nagasaki and Hiroshima,” he wrote, plagiarizing his own Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific (2000), where he offered the same thoughts in some of the exact same words.
Childress, to his credit, actually tells us where he borrowed this information from: Alexander Gorbovsky’s Riddles of Ancient History, published in Moscow in 1966. Childress describes Gorbovsky as an archaeologist, but Hernandez correctly notes that he was actually a mystery-monger, writing all manner of paranoid and paranormal tomes on subjects associated in the West with the New Age.
Riddles of Ancient History, first published in 1965 as ЗАГАДКИ ДРЕВНЕЙШЕЙ ИСТОРИИ, literally “Mysteries of Ancient History,” covers the kinds of material that Russian stooge Peter Kolosimo would help make famous in the West—giants who built Inca walls, etc. Hernandez translates the shockingly small paragraph that gives the origin for the claims of Mohenjo Daro’s nuclear crisis:
There are some other finds that also surprise the investigator. In this regard, one is reminded of the find of a human skeleton in India, which radioactivity was 50 times higher than normal! (ref. "Problems of Space Biology", vol. II, p.23). The deposits that were found in the skeleton could only have had such a high radioactivity if this person, who died 4,000 years ago, had eaten food, which contained radioactivity hundred[s] of times higher than normal.
I will leave it to you to read Hernandez’s excellent investigation to trace back the 1962 Russian academic article by A. V. Lebedinsky and Y. G. Nefedov that Gorbovsky incompletely cites, and from there the discovery that this article completely misunderstands its source, a 1960 British report by W. V. Mayneord, which referred to an Egyptian bone from the British Museum, not a skeleton from Mohenjo Daro. And the bone wasn’t highly radioactive either. Although Hernandez does not dive into the matter further, there are two compounding errors. Mayneord concluded that the Egyptian bone contained radiation levels similar to modern humans. Levedinsky and Nefedov disagreed, however, and alleged that the amount of radiation was 50% higher than that of modern man, comparing Mayneord’s value to a modern figure whose origins they do not disclose. This is really neither here nor there, but the important point is that Levendinsky and Nefedov don’t identify the bone by geographic location, instead saying only that it is from “4000 years ago.” They do so, however, two sentences after describing “monazite sands in India.” Gorbovsky compounds the error by accepting the 50% above modern figure and assigning the bone to India, where it expanded to an entire skeleton. Basically, he didn’t realize that Levendinsky and Nefedov were talking about two different things and sloppily combined them.
There are some missing links. First, Gorbovsky doesn’t mention Mohenjo Daro. Was this David Childress’s error? Well, sort of, yes. Childress combined two bad sources into one worse one. The first was Charles Berlitz, from whom Childress copied his information about the “massacre” at Mohenjo Daro. At the end of Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds (1972), Berlitz cites Soviet propaganda to allege that India was the subject of a nuclear attack in ancient history. In a different part of the book, he writes of Miohenjo Daro that “It ended in sudden conquest and ruin by invaders from the north in about 1500 b.c. so suddenly that skeletons of the slaughtered inhabitants have been found preserved at the old street level.” This is a myth—early archaeologists misinterpreted purposely disrespectful burials—but Childress took this and, thinking that “India” is all one place, decided that the “Indian”—actually Egyptian—skeleton from Gorbovsky was one of those from Mohenjo Daro, and he folded the whole mess in with the Soviet propaganda about nuclear bombs in India that had been circulating in Morning of the Magicians, Chariots of the Gods, Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds, and other such books of lies.
And thus in 1988 Childress compounded the error yet again, but he hid it by plagiarizing himself 12 years later in a more popular book, which most readers think is his first word on the subject, thus obscuring the compounded error.
Hernandez also points out that Gorbovsky’s book was never released in English, and the title is a translation of its Russian original. This raises a fascinating question: Childress does not appear to speak Russian, so how did he come across this information? Here I think I have something to add. Soviet propaganda is the vector to explore, but we’ll get there in a roundabout way. So let’s start in India. Sure enough, at the very time Childress included his “facts” borrowed from Gorbovsky, that is, 1988, we find that the Illustrated Weekly of India just happened to report the exact same “fact,” also from Gorbovsky, twenty years after Gorbovsky’s book came out: “This academic, foraging in far thresholds, discovered a human skeleton 40 centuries old, restless in its fossilhood, with a disconcertingly high level of radiation.” According to the Illustrated Weekly, the source was Soviet propaganda, referring to a “news item from the Statesman, under the heading Ancient India may have had n-arms. The story, datelined Moscow, September 8, 1986, described the findings of a Soviet scholar Dr A A Gorbovsky.”
The Statesman is an Indian daily. The news account alleged that Gorbovsky had uncovered a skull in Kurukushetra, north of New Delhi, and that it was 5,000 years old and emitted radiation like those exposed to a nuclear blast.
But let’s not beat around the bush. The Indians were spinning Soviet propaganda into Hindu nationalism. They borrowed and rewrote at will, and here the Indian reporter was copying from our old friend, the Soviet propaganda magazine Sputnik, long a source of ancient astronaut material for Western writers. In the September 1986 edition—on newsstands earlier—the English language journal contained an article called “Riddles of Ancient History” by Gorbovsky, adapted from his decades-old Russian-language book, whose title is given in miraculously the same translation that Childress assigns to it. What a surprise. I haven’t seen the original, but excerpts quoted in later Indian sources include language that is identical to a 1982 Reader’s Digest book on the Mysteries of the Unexplained. How that happened, I could not say.
I can’t imagine that it is a coincidence that a reference to Gorbovsky appeared in Sputnik at the end of 1986 and Childress had then incorporated it into his book when writing it in 1987 for a 1988 publication. Basically, Childress repeated Russian propaganda and did the Russians’ dirty work by mangling it even worse in combining it with still other sources like Charles Berlitz who had used other Russian propaganda by different Soviet writers. The only question is whether Childress ever saw Sputnik himself (and thus fabricated the end note to look like he read the book) or whether he copied from someone else who had mangled the reference.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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