A correspondent asked me for my opinion about the theory that Atlantis was “really” the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian. This theory, one of many Atlantis theories to recur time and again, rests on the dubious contention that the Caucasus region was flooded in historic times, that memories of this persisted, and that these memories were transferred across the Black Sea to the Aegean where they were faithfully preserved for centuries, if not millennia—but no other information from that time and place. The support for the theory derives, ultimately, from Herodotus’ contention that the Colchians were Egyptian colonists, something supported only by the shared rite of circumcision but no archaeological, linguistic, historical, or genetic evidence.
The current issue of Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating article by Abigail Tucker on "The Great New England Vampire Panic." Tucker tells the story of how New Englanders began exhuming their loved dead and mutilating the corpses, correlating outbreaks of such acts of desecration with tuberculosis outbreaks. Folk belief in the region, probably brought from Germany by immigrants, held that tuberculosis was caused by the hungry dead rising from their graves to suck the life force from their living kin. The only cure was the ritual destruction of the corpse.
When I don’t have anything in particular to write about for my blog, I try to find some news stories or other blather about alternative claims to discuss. It’s been rather dry in the areas of alternative history and ancient astronautics this month, so it probably shouldn’t surprise me that all of my Google News searches return recent articles by the freakishly prolific Benjamin Radford. After criticizing him this week, I thought I’d recommend his brief but important little summary of the case against Atlantis published on LiveScience last week. (Seriously—I write fast, but how can anyone churn out that many columns every week?)
After this week’s flap about the BBC/Animal Planet documentary allegedly about ancient astronauts, I thought it might be a good idea to talk a little bit about primary sources and why they are so important. I was going to begin this piece with a famous quotation from Mark Twain, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on,” and relate it to the way newspapers worldwide picked up the erroneous Discovery News story without fact-checking. Unfortunately, this quotation is an object lesson in exactly my point about primary sources: Twain never said it; in checking for primary sources, it turns out that the exact quotation was from C. H. Spurgeon, who was reworking still earlier versions tracing back, in different form, to Jonathan Swift in the Examiner: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
My cold got the better of me yesterday, and I felt miserable for most of the day. Today I’m doing a little better, and after rereading my post from yesterday, I suppose my fuzzy brain was a bit harsher than I meant to be on Ben Radford. I criticized Radford for attempting to debunk a British television documentary allegedly about ancient astronauts without checking the facts since the program was, in fact, not about ancient astronauts. None of the facts I presented was wrong, but my tone was probably a bit sharper than I would have written it today.
For the record, here is a link to the video of the relevant portion of “Strange Islands” from BBC’s South Pacific documentary series which Radford and UFO buff Dave Masko claimed discussed ancient astronauts on Easter Island.
I have a bit of a cold today, so I’m not quite as sharp as usual today. Nor are my fingers doing a particularly good job of typing. So, I’m going to try to keep today’s post a bit short.
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry today is promoting a piece skeptic Ben Radford wrote for the Discovery News Blog earlier today in which he claims that a British TV series suggested that Easter Island’s statues were carved by extraterrestrials. Radford admits that he did not see the series and is basing his lengthy critique on a summary he gleaned from an “article” on dubious news site Huliq by Dave Masko, a UFO buff whom my readers may remember for his weird claims about Stonehenge as a UFO command center in that same publication this past January.
[Update: Radford has updated his post to correct the errors noted below. My comments refer to the original version of his piece posted on September 15.]
Due to a series of minor but time-consuming home-improvement problems today, I ran out of time for a blog post. So, instead, I'd like to share with you this insightful paragraph from a Salon.com article by Classical scholar Kate Billotte on the importance of history and literature. While I disagree with Ms. Billotte's assertion that Republicans are solely responsible for the cheapening and degradation of public discourse (it's a culture-wide problem, not just one political party's), this paragraph is nevertheless very true:
I find it strange that two distinct threads of the ancient astronaut “theory” have recently begun merging. These threads are the “scientific” ancient astronaut speculation and the “spiritual.” The scientific speculators ape the language of science and marshal (alleged) facts and evidence to suggest a material ancient alien scenario whereby humans are the result of extraterrestrial beings mistaken for gods. The spiritual by contrast attributes more or less supernatural powers to the aliens and essentially uses them to replace the gods they supposedly impersonate, even making them objects of worship.
A few days ago, I told you how Rod Serling became involved in ancient astronauts as his Night Gallery series was in the process of being cancelled. Serling’s producer for the In Search of Ancient Astronauts documentary that launched the ancient astronaut “theory” in the United States was Alan Landsburg, who turned his follow-up documentary, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, into a book of the same name. So why did Landsburg fail as an ancient astronaut theorist?
In his 1974 collection of Forteana called Mysteries of Time and Space, Brad Steiger mentions the case of a small boy who, in 1910, allegedly uncovered two slabs depicting elephants within Indian ruins at Flora Vista, New Mexico dated to around 800 CE. This story has been repeated by any number of alternative authors, and so far as I can tell, no one can trace back a solid scientific provenance for the claim. Steiger certainly doesn’t, though I would guess he got it from some source drawing on a 1971 article in Science Digest (a popular magazine, not a scientific journal), or perhaps Edwin Booth Sayles’ Fantasies of Gold (1968). Steiger's bibliography does not make clear his source.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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