In the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, a reporter tells Jimmy Stewart’s character that he won’t be reporting the truth about the story Stewart told him. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he says. In many ways storytelling supersedes truth in many ways, and today we have three examples of how the stories people tell create a framework that governs how facts are received.
Our first example comes from the world of paleontology, where the remains of a giant one-horned hairy rhinoceros from Central Asia have been described as the “Siberian unicorn.” Although this creature, Elasmotherium sibiricum, has been known to science since 1808 (with its horn known since 1878), the news is that a newly discovered skull of one such creature from Kazakhstan indicated that it died out 29,000 years ago instead of 350,000 years ago. Naturally, some creationist Christian conservatives on Facebook imagined that this creature was newly discovered. One such creationist posted to Facebook that this was proof that “secularists” were wrong to “mock the Bible for mentioning unicorns.”
In 1878 A. F. Brandt used the Siberian legend of a unicorn with a massive horn to suggest that the story was based on the fossils of (or folk memory of) the Elasmotherium, thus allowing him to reconstruct the creature’s gigantic horn, an example of which has never been found but rather is inferred from the creature’s bone structure.
The Biblical unicorn, however, has nothing to do with Siberia. The Biblical unicorn occurs in the King James Bible and is the result of the translators rendering the Hebrew re’em as “unicorn,” following the Septuagint and the Vulgate translations. At the time, the meaning of re’em was unknown so they essentially guessed by equating it with some other mysterious creature, but today it is widely accepted, based on the parallel Akkadian word rimu, that it refers to the extinct auroch.
Meanwhile, fringe historians have been proven wrong once again by news out of Newfoundland that a potential second Viking New World settlement has been found at Point Rosee, hundreds of miles from the first known Viking settlement at L’anse aux Meadows. Fringe historians have routinely accused archaeologists of refusing to acknowledge Viking penetration into the Americas, and America Unearthed host Scott F. Wolter has gone so far as to declare it a conspiracy by academics to keep Columbus as the first European in America, a claim no one has believed since the 1830s. Despite fringe historians seeking out Viking settlements everywhere from Oak Island to Rhode Island and beyond, their methodology, such as it is, failed to predict the actual location where a real Viking settlement was found. Fringe historians look for “symbolic” sites related to ley lines, sacred geometry, and other nonsense. The new potential Viking site was found by looking for disturbances in the ground via satellite in locations where resources important to the Vikings, such as bog iron, could be found.
Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to a Vice article about the so-called White City of Honduras. One of the country’s leading historians, Dario Euraque, is accusing National Geographic and the U.S.-led archaeological team promoting the discovery of the “White City” of appropriating archaeological sites long known to Honduran archaeologists and exposing the ruins to potential looting. The myth of the White City cannot be traced back before the early twentieth century, when it arose among workers in the country’s then-booming American-dominated rubber industry.
“The only ‘new’ thing about the expedition is that they are planning to put what they’ve found inside a museum,” Euraque told Vice. “The Honduran government does not have enough resources to protect these sites, so publicly announcing their existence only makes them vulnerable to looting.”
Meanwhile native groups in Honduras have asked archaeologists and the media to stop referring to the ruins as the “City of the Monkey God,” which they consider to be racist and colonialist, given that the name isn’t found in historic sources but rather in a sensationalized mid-twentieth century account of an attempt to find the fictitious White City of legend. A group of 24 anthropologists and archaeologists from Honduras and elsewhere signed an open letter to the country’s president protesting the move to turn the real excavations of ruins in La Mosquitia into a tourist destination tied to the White City and Monkey God modern myth. Americans Chris Begley, John Hoopes, and Rosemary Joyce have been prominent critics of the White City claims and the sensationalism surrounding them.
For the record, the alleged “White City” ruins are missing something important: A white city. The gleaming buildings of white stone the originators of the legend claimed to see in the 1920s are nowhere to be found.
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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