In National Geographic magazine’s November 2012 issue, there was a story about how the gradual disappearance of the Dorset people in the late fourteenth century. The Dorset were a Native people who inhabited parts of what is now Nunavut and Greenland from 500 to 1500 CE; they are believed to be the skraelings the Vikings met, and the Inuit have legends about destroying their culture after their arrival in the Arctic. The article discussed the work of archaeologist Patricia Southerland to unravel the story behind the Dorset’s eventual disappearance. Southerland had uncovered Norse artifacts at Dorset sites, which she interpreted as evidence of contact between the Dorset and the Norse.
This month, in the March 2013 issue, National Geographic ran a selection of correspondence from readers about this article. Even in the edited form presented in the magazine, the letters made very clear that the story touched a nerve.
Karl Hoenke of Kelseyville, California, wrote to inquire why article author Heather Pringle didn’t explore the racial implications of the cache of Norse artifacts. Hoenke concluded that the discovery of Norse artifacts implied that Dorset were actually Norse people who had explored the Arctic centuries before modern historians credit them with doing:
Rather than trying to explain all the Norse artifacts found in the Dorset context as signs of “friendly contact” and noting that the Dorset “relished trade,” why didn’t she explore the possibility that the Dorset were in fact Norse or from a common, Arctic-exploring ancestor? After all, the Norse are indisputably the most successful and capable Arctic explorers known. They didn’t suddenly gain these skills in the 800s A.D.
Regular readers will immediately recognize this argument as of a piece with the claims of America Unearthed and other diffusionists, who are quick to see the presence of artifacts as an indication of the presence of peoples, like Unearthed did in assuming that Mesoamerican motifs in Georgia implied the existence of a Maya colony. Never mind, of course, that the Dorset differed in their technology, their art, their living arrangements, etc.
National Geographic duly appended a note to Hoenke’s letter stating that archaeologist Max Friesen’s DNA study on Dorset people found clear distinctions between the Dorset and Norse, proving that there is “no shared ancestry.”
Another writer to the National Geographic, unnamed, was equally blunt: “The Norse interbred with the Dorset people, making their Inuit descendants partially European.”
The Inuit are genetically distinct from the Dorset, too. But we’ve seen other claims like this in the diffusionist literature, too, especially in New Zealand where Barry Fell, the patron saint of America Unearthed, claimed that the Maori were “really” the hybrid offspring of Greco-Egyptian colonizers; David Childress was blunter still, arguing that the Polynesians were the offspring of ancient white people and their black slaves. We’ve also seen this argument used on America Unearthed in suggesting that Native American tribes like the Mandan are the descendants of European travelers.
What confuses me is why the opposite isn’t true: Alternative writers have claimed that Native Americans “discovered” Europe in 60 BCE (the subject of my recent Skeptic article), but we don’t hear that consequently Europeans are “partially Native American.” Similarly, during the “Black Athena” controversy, there was a great uproar over the suggestion of African influence in Europe, with mutual cries of racism from advocates and opponents. (I oppose the Black Athena idea because it mistakenly attributes Near East ideas to sub-Saharan Africa.) Even today, when it is well-accepted that ancient Greece had sustained contact and influence from the ancient Near East, popular accounts of Greece are still resistant to the suggestion of intermarriage across cultural boundaries. It’s OK to say that the Greeks traveled to Asia Minor, Colchis, or India and intermarried with the locals, thus diffusing Greek culture, but the reverse is still thought shocking. Culture apparently can only diffuse from perceived high cultures to perceived lesser cultures.
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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