Yesterday we had interesting news that genetic research determined that Europeans 7,000 years ago were not white but rather had dark tan or brown skin. This is strong circumstantial evidence that the 12,000-year-old white world-bestriding master race of Ignatius Donnelly, James Churchward, David Childress, and Graham Hancock could not have existed, though, of course it is not conclusive proof. There might have been a pocket of white people in a technologically-advanced island citadel, but it looks less likely now since 5000 BCE is well after the period (c. 10,500-9,500 BCE) when these authors claim the lost civilization/Atlantis/Mu dispersed its white people around the world to found civilization.
I may have more to say about this after I’ve had some time to digest the study. Meanwhile, on to today’s topic.
On Friday and Saturday we had two distinct but unusual claims about the nature of Native Americans societies before the arrival of Columbus. On Ancient Aliens, ancient astronaut theorists informed us that the shaman-priests of Casas Grandes (Paquimé) in Chihuahua, Mexico worshiped beings of light who teleported from another dimension and were mistaken for gods. On America Unearthed, Scott Wolter informed us that Native peoples from the Yucatan to Wisconsin all worshiped flying snakes because a group of Bronze Age Scots came to America around 2000 BCE and told them to. In both cases, the overwhelming but unspoken conclusion is that Native people are subservient to outside forces and require the intervention of non-Native people or beings in order to make spiritual or cultural advances.
Given the context of these juxtaposed assertions about the cultural tutelage of Native peoples to the superiors in Europe or outer space, it’s probably an opportune moment to share a blog post made by Ohio archaeologist Brad Lepper, published yesterday, in which Lepper discusses how ancient astronaut theories are, essentially, racist.
What matters is that there is an underlying racism, or at least ethnocentrism, to the theory. Think about it. Most of the marvelous monuments of antiquity that are said to have required the help of ancient aliens are in non-European countries. The Greeks evidently built the Parthenon on their own. The Romans certainly built the Colosseum (sic) without extraterrestrial assistance. And yet the champions of ancient aliens want you to believe that the Egyptians needed special help to build their pyramids. And those poor savages on Easter Island certainly couldn’t have carved and moved all those gigantic statues on their own.
Similar problems plague fringe history, where Native Americans’ works and beliefs in particular are singled out as obvious derivatives of European, Egyptian, or Atlantean originals. Few fringe writers would walk in to Notre Dame de Paris and declare Jesus just another “derivative” of Krishna, or Gothic architecture an imitation of Hindu temples from India; yet anything in the Americas vaguely resembling something from Europe is suspect.
So I thought I’d do some checking into the academic literature to see what we can learn about light beings in Chihuahua and feathered serpents in America.
The site of Paquimé is fascinating because it combines elements of Mesoamerican culture and Pueblo culture in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere. The architecture is most closely aligned to Pueblo structures such as Casa Grande on the Gila River in Arizona, but a study by Christine S. VanPool called “The Shaman-Priests of the Casas Grandes Region, Chihuahua, Mexico,” published in American Antiquity in 2005 (vol. 68, no. 4) suggests that pottery images can be used to connect the belief system of the Paquimé people to the shamanic cultures of Mesoamerica.
Her analysis is rather lengthy, but the short version is that images found on pots can be organized to document a classic “shaman’s journey,” which involves a (mental) voyage to and from the spirit world in an altered state of consciousness, and thus represents a close alignment to similar shamanic cultures known from Mesoamerican contexts.
By tracing the designs on the smokers, dancers, and macaw-headed humans, a transformation sequence of males smoking, dancing, and metamorphosing into supernatural entities can be observed. These individuals represent shamans who are depicted in various stages of a “classic shamanic journey” traveling to and from the spirit world.
She relates this to known shamanic state leaders in Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, and Moche cultures ad argues that shamanism was an intrinsic element of Mesoamerican chiefdom and state leadership. Thus, the remaining legends of “light people” or “Star Beings” associated with Casas Grandes are the faded recollection of the former power of the shamans, who were once believed to communicate with the spirit world and to be, in a sense, gods themselves. Given that such communication still continues in current shamanic cultures, where extraterrestrials are not present, there is no reason to suspect that these light beings had any more physical reality than the trans-dimensional creatures currently plaguing Graham Hancock’s nightmares and dreamscapes in his ayahuasca-induced shamanic voyages.
This contrasts with the less centralized shamanic culture of the Pueblo peoples, who did not restrict shamanism to only the political elite and did not worship their leaders as deities.
The Paquimé pottery shows shaman-kings transforming into supernatural creatures, which probably accounts for all of the surviving stories of supernatural beings at the ruins. Additionally, the dead were shown as naked, glowing spirits.
The shamans wore headdresses of plumed or horned serpents, something found in art across the desert southwest. In an image on a Ramos Polychrome jar found in the House of the Walk-in-Well, the serpent-shaman is decorated with three pound signs (#), something seen on other Casas Grandes pots, indicating that (a) symbols can evolve independently across time and space or (b) aliens invented Twitter hashtags. Apparently at Casas Grandes the # symbol was used to mark the shaman in his supernatural state.
The coincidence of the hashtag symbol at both Casas Grandes and on Twitter should serve to cast cold water on the idea that something as omnipresent as a snake could have entered human religious beliefs at only one time and one place.
This leads us effortlessly into a discussion of the serpent as a cultural symbol because at Casas Grandes, as across Mexico and the desert southwest, the serpent was one of the most important spiritual symbols, representing rebirth and transformation. Across the region, the serpent was believed to come from the underworld (since, obviously, snakes slither on the ground and vanish into holes), and to this day the Hopi believe snakes are messengers to and from the underworld.
But those are plain old everyday serpents. America Unearthed cares instead for feathered serpents, despite the complete and total absence of feathered serpents from Bronze Age European art. Indeed, if anything, the serpent cults of Europe are decidedly below ground affairs, associating serpents, like the snake-god Zeus Melichios, with the underworld or, like the snake-king Cecrops, with the earth itself.
Anyway, it has been known for a very long time that the Mississippians developed a complex and elaborate set of symbols, exchanged from Louisiana to Wisconsin, that bear a resemblance to those of Mesoamerica, though without sharing an identity. In the 1940s, the first academic descriptions of what is now called the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, but then known as the Southern Cult, noted the similarity to Mexican iconography and suggested that it might have been a religious revival—what we now call a cultural revitalization movement—that adapted and adopted elements of Mexican art (though not necessarily the underlying belief system) and spread it throughout the Mississippian lands.
However, the early archaeologists also claimed that Mexican iconography entered the United States during Tristan de Luna’s Spanish expedition of 1559-1561 and that the Mississippian culture dated to only 1600 CE. The advent of radiocarbon dating and other dating methods over the next few decades would prove these claims conclusively false with the recognition that the Mississippians flourished centuries before the Spanish Conquest. But even the archaeologists of the 1940s recognized that there were no Mexican artifacts ever found in the Mississippian lands—a fact that stood until 2002, when a single obsidian scraper found at Spiro Mounds was geologically linked to Mesoamerica.
In 1976, writing in Current Anthropology (vol. 17, no. 3) biologist Balaji Mundkur proposed in “The Cult of the Serpent in the Americas” that New World serpent worship came to America from northeastern Asia at some exceedingly early date as part of a global cult of serpent worship dating back to the dawn of humanity and encoded in primate DNA. He detailed these claims in his 1983 book The Cult of the Serpent. Mundkur saw all of the Americas as part of one single religious tradition, which Mundkur connected to those on the other side of the Bering Sea land bridge. That would be an impressive—and to my mind, unconvincing—amount of cultural continuity over tens of thousands of years and untold changes in culture, language, and circumstance.
For Mundkur, an evolution-induced fear of snakes led to humans making them gods or monsters, but I can’t really trust unconditionally anyone who uses hoax “artifacts” from Erich von Däniken’s Gold of the Gods as evidence, though recognizing them as modern fakes that somehow preserve ideas from earlier cultures. I also can’t quite connect “fear” of snakes to the beneficent role they played in the Near East outside of monotheistic Israel. I think he was probably right that similarities in human minds across time and space led to repeated eruptions of serpent worship, but I’m not sure that one could make the case that snakes are uniquely dangerous, or the only beneficiaries of such neurological events. David Lewis-Williams attributes serpent imagery to the zigzag patterns seen in altered states of consciousness, which early humans probably interpreted as serpents. This makes more sense to me and allows for more interplay between neurology and culture in creating religious expression.
Anyway, such claims could explain the existence of a serpent cult without the movement of Bronze Age Scots across the Atlantic.
But this is getting away from our subject. The Mississippians, around 1200 CE, began using imagery of a serpent with horns, wings, or feathers. This bears a resemblance to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. Adrienne Mayor, evaluating North American oral traditions, suggests that the creature originated in Native myths explaining observations of dinosaur skeletons. Since the serpent has been used in Native art for many centuries prior to the Mississippians, many anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that the feathered serpent was an outgrowth of the earlier, non-feathered serpent tradition whereby the feathers or wings were added to symbolize a celestial connection for the serpent. In this reading, the Mexican and Mississippian feathered serpents would have emerged independently from parallel attempts to symbolize a connection between the snake and the sky. Against this is the fact that in most post-Mississippian Native cultures the serpent known as the Great Serpent was an underground or underwater creature, often with horns, who battled the Thunder Bird, a heavenly force. This underwater serpent has a variant, the underwater panther, who is closely associated with a piece of mysterious rock art near Alton, Illinois, as I discussed some time ago, as well as effigy mounds (such as the one in Granville, Ohio).
Most recently, work identifying the Great Serpent with stars in what is for the West the constellation Scorpio provides evidence that Quetzalcoatl and the Great Serpent were independent creations. In this reading, the Great Serpent is underwater during the time when Scorpio is beneath the horizon, but as a sky creature also briefly rises into the sky in the summer, during the time when he battles the Thunder Bird and holds enormous power over the earth. Thus, the feathers or wings are what George E. Lankford, writing in a chapter in F. Kent Reilly III’s and James F. Garber’s Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms (U Texas, 2007) calls a “locative sign” indicating that this serpent in art is meant to be the one that we can find in the sky, not the regular snakes on the ground. He is the Great Serpent during the weeks of his above-ground power. Thus too does the Great Serpent typically have a red eye, which Lankford says likely represents the large red star Antares in Scorpio.
Lankford, an expert in Native American ethnoastronomy, also interprets the Ohio Serpent Mound as the Great Serpent. He reads the “egg” near the serpent’s mouth as its eye—Antares—and two unexplained blobs on either side of the head as “the remnants of some feather locative” that has since eroded and was not restored by F. W. Putnam in the 1880s.
It took me all of fifteen minutes to find Lankford’s research. I don’t know about you, but I find that much more interesting than an imaginary cult of Scots preaching the gospel of the serpent across America. It has all the same elements as Wolter’s version: a detective story spanning centuries, serpent symbolism, a widespread cult diffused across time and space, and even what Wolter wrongly calls “archaeastronomy.” It’s even associated with the Alton, Illinois rock art “mystery” (which would make a great opening act), and you could bring in Quetzalcoatl as the red herring that kept the truth hidden for far too long by leading early scholars on a fruitless quest for Mexican connections that weren’t there. The story is just as fascinating as Scott Wolter’s fabrication, and, most likely, true. But it doesn’t involve any Scots or Europeans or white people.
I can’t come up with a reason why America Unearthed would ignore such an interesting and exciting investigation and instead propose that the Scots brought serpent worship to America except for Eurocentrism; as I’ve shown, Lankford’s version has everything you need for a fascinating hour, duplicating nearly all of Wolter’s claims except for having Europeans in America. This either says something about the target audience for America Unearthed, or the show, or the laziness of one or the other or both. My guess? The show thinks the audience wants to hear about Europeans in America, and their research rarely extends beyond Frank Joseph and fringe literature, notorious cesspools of abandoned nineteenth-century Eurocentric claims.
This might sound like another non-issue of little importance, but let me remind you that a poll conducted in 2012 by the National Geographic Channel found that 36% of Americans believe that Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza are evidence of extraterrestrial involvement in prehistory. I don’t particularly trust this poll, conducted by “email invitations and online surveys” in conjunction with the now-canceled Chasing UFOs series, but it does begin to suggest the depth of the problem of people, particularly Americans, believing low-evidence, sensational claims about history thanks to cable TV and internet repetition. Every time a fact-free claim about Atlantis, lost white colonizers, or aliens goes out on cable, someone takes it seriously. This is a problem.
Ancient Aliens is a lost cause, but America Unearthed missed an opportunity to say something interesting about serpent myths in pre-Columbian America. As I’ve shown, it can be done. It took me all of fifteen minutes to do it, and I imagine that even on the tight schedule of America Unearthed, fifteen minutes wouldn’t be much more than the time taken to thumb through Ancient American magazine back issues. Even if you don’t believe Lankford’s interpretation, it is founded on vastly more evidence than anything America Unearthed imagined supports the idea of wandering serpent-worshiping Scots converting the Natives to European faiths.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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