Guess who is still angry with me. Did you guess Scott Wolter? Well, OK, yes, he did post a response a couple of months ago to an Amazon.com book review of his Hooked X® that referred to me and falsely claims that I was wrong about his honorary master’s degree not existing: “Just what exaggerated credentials are you talking about? You obviously didn't read my response to the misleading and incorrect blogger’s post in the Internet about my academic credentials.” We here “in the Internet” know the difference between a master’s degree and a cup of coffee, which is what he was actually awarded, but I don’t want to talk about him. Instead, Dr. Greg Little is the one who’s still mad at me this week!
You will recall that last month Little published a piece in something called AP Magazine criticizing a blog post I made about claims made by yet another fringe figure, Micah Hanks, regarding the existence of “giant” skeletons in Native American burial mounds. The details of that piece are given here.
Little has published a new article in AP Magazine, and he takes a swipe at me for linking to a reprint of his first AP article rather than to its source publication: “he didn’t take the time to find the original article.” That’s fair, I guess, in that I had never heard of AP Magazine, and “Alternate Perceptions” isn’t even in the top five of organizations I associate with the initials AP. In fact, I couldn’t find the original article because I couldn’t discover by press time what AP was supposed to stand for. I first thought, of course, of the Associated Press—which was obviously wrong—but I thought at the time it was the Alternative Press magazine, which is the top Google result for “AP Magazine.” Sadly, I was wrong about that, too. Little’s AP Magazine doesn’t even make the first page of Google results for the name. No wonder I couldn’t find it.
But this is a minor concern compared with Little’s more developed attacks.
Little is a psychologist rather than an archaeologist (his Ed. D. degree is in counseling), but he criticizes me and those who agree with me because “skeptics are not archaeologists.” Now as it happens I do have an undergraduate degree in archaeology, and I’m happy to send him the names of several qualified professional archaeologists who are happy to tell him that he’s full of it. Nevertheless, let’s look at what he thinks I as a non-archaeologist have gotten wrong about his claim that America was once home to a race of six to eight foot giants.
Let’s begin with the ridiculous:
Even American archaeologists have called skeletal remains found in Peru “giants”—and those giants were only 6 feet tall. There is a real genuine mystery here that has no current explanation.
I guess the “mystery” is one of definitions. By redefining “giant” downward, Little can make more of them, and make use of fortuitous turns of phrase, like turning a comparison of six foot people to those who were less vertically gifted into proof of a separate “giant” race.
But Little is still fixated on a few lines from one of my blog posts from 2013, which he complained about last month. In that blog post, I suggested—but by no means insisted—that a description of a specific skeleton in a specific mound seemed to reflect a scientific process in which wet bones can freeze and thaw, causing some expansion.
Here Little insists—even after I clarified this for him last month—that I am somehow explaining all giant bones in all times and places, creating a universal dismissal of bones more than six feet tall:
A few bloggers have tried to make the topic go away by making pseudoscientific assertions that defy logic. One blogger, Jason Colavito, has bizarrely stated that buried bones increase in size and length over time because of freezing and thawing, but archaeological publications reveal that buried bones under such conditions simply shatter. […] The idea that bones become gigantic over time, as proposed by a blogger, is simply preposterous and utter claptrap. Not a single actual mainstream archaeologist has made such a claim with respect to the skeletons recovered by the Smithsonian and the other archaeologists who excavated large skeletal remains. But it’s clear that a small group of people want to believe it and make the topic disappear.
Isn’t it cute that both Little and Scott Wolter insist on reducing me to the status of “blogger” (read: internet troll)? They who insist on their titles and honors prefer not to refer to me as an author, even though I have published well-received and widely-cited books of history and pop culture. Rhetoric, of course, is reserved for them; for me to use similar strategies would immediately produce cries of outrage. In fact, it did: Little threw a fit last month that I identified him as an Atlantis investigator and believer in Edgar Cayce, even though he is.
Anyway, here is the key sentence of what I said, but the full 1000+ word passage can be found here.
The Smithsonian researchers noted that the mounds in question, being on a low-lying island in a river, were heavily saturated with water. Standard texts on paleopathology state that the repeated freezing and thawing of the water “will produce expansion by ice crystal formation.” This can make the bones appear larger, until such time as the ice crystal formation process results in the bones shattering.
I was referring to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology, which stated that
Freeze-thaw conditions may shatter a buried bone. Thawing conditions permit the accumulation of water within a bone and subsequent freezing will produce expansion by ice crystal formation to a degree that will fragment the bone structure.
I note that the expansion of bones by freeze-thaw cycles is so uncontroversial that it was discussed in relation to the Iceman mummy in various publications (Brenda Fowler’s Iceman from 2001 mentions it) and appears in a guidebook for museums on how to handle human remains, Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions (2007), which cautions that temperature changes cause “repeated expansion and contraction” of sub-fossilized bone and a loss of structural integrity. It’s not like I made it up as Little seems to think I did.
But I obviously do not insist on it doing anything more than adding a slight amount to the overall measurement of bones, or even that this explanation applies to any specific case. I put it out as a possibility because the bones in question were said to have been soaked with water, to be soft to the touch, and to shatter on contact. I can’t fathom why Little would write article after article refuting something I put forward as an idea—or why suggesting an explanation related to science is somehow “mak[ing] the topic disappear.” Making it disappear is pretending it doesn’t exist. For all I know, my offhand idea is wrong, and I would never claim otherwise. I do not pretend to know what I do not or cannot know, and I have never declared it the definitive explanation of anything.
Does Little’s own investigation count as fraudulent for attempting to explore this “mystery”? Of course not! When Little discusses a topic it is obviously a serious and objective investigation seeking the “truth.” When I do, it’s suppressing the truth because I disagree with Little, Hanks, and their creationist colleagues. Heaven forfend that two people evaluate evidence and come to different yet still honest conclusions.
Little, however, is a rhetorician before he is a scholar, so he purposely twists my mild suggestion that such a process could add an inch or two to the overall measurement of a skeleton into a volcano of crap spewing bullshit high into the sky:
Taking this illogical and inaccurate idea to its logical conclusion, it seems that the few people making this (ever-increasing bone size) claim might believe that the “large” dinosaurs were actually quite small when they were alive, perhaps the size of a house cat. After being in the ground for 65 million years or so these small bones became gigantic. It’s difficult to fathom how anyone could believe such nonsense.
Remember, I originally wrote that “Obviously, of course, this kind of expansion won’t add feet to the size of the bones…” and that it ultimately results in shattering. Also: This applies only to sub-fossilized bones, not to fossils (which are no longer actually bone). Reading comprehension is not Little’s strong suit; of course, if it were, he wouldn’t be in the fringe science business in the first place.
Contrary to Little’s false impression, I specifically noted that human height varies and that individuals who were six feet tall or taller were likely treated to special burial (and thus subject to later discovery in the mounds) because they were taller than average in life. (This is also why more prehistoric graves of the elite survive than those of the abject poor: Better quality is reserved for high status individuals.) The only point on which Little and I disagree is that I don’t see this natural genetic variation as indicative of a separate race of slightly taller people genetically distinct from their countrymen, any more than NBA players are genetically distinct from the rest of humankind. But the arguments are most vicious when the stakes are so low, if I may paraphrase Sayre’s Law.
Let me finish with one more misleading claim for which Little attacks me under my nom de guerre of the “blogger”:
In addition, there is not a single case where one of the old newspaper reports about the so-called giant skeletons was found to be a misidentified mastodon or mammoth bone, which has been a feeble attempt by a blogger to avoid the facts.
There are obvious problems with that sentence. The “old newspaper reports” are notoriously unreliable—and not just on nutty fringe issues—and these so-called “giant” skeletons largely don’t exist at all. Any report of a “giant” can’t also report that it was a mammoth since anyone who mistook a mammoth for a giant wouldn’t recognize the error. That said, when the “giants” can be tracked down, they just aren’t what the papers claim. The most famous are those of Lovelock Cave, supposedly full of “giant” bones. But Ancient Aliens—an impeccable source!—gained access to these skeletons in 2010, and David Childress showed the skulls on TV. They were utterly and completely normal in size—if anything, somewhat smaller than David Childress’s swollen head. The claim that mammoths were mistaken for giants in this case does not originate with me; if originates with Georges Cuvier in 1806. Adrienne Mayor wrote about the Lovelock case in Fossil Legends of the First Americans and explained that the Paiute may have mistaken nearby mammoth bones (from a known bed of them) for those of giants, creating the legend of Lovelock Cave. Later, after archaeology found only normal sized skeletons in the cave, (white) hucksters created roadside displays to fool tourists into thinking they saw Bible giants. Their fake skeletons, first set out in 1911, were still on display as late as the 1960s.
But more to the point, the so-called “giant” bones from here in upstate New York that fooled the governor of Massachusetts and Cotton Mather (writing in the Philosophical Transactions, which to be fair is not technically a newspaper) in the eighteenth century were later shown to be those of a mammoth. In the Old World, the correlation is even clearer as scientists systematically studied the bones of so-called giants preserved in royal collections and churches and found them to be almost entirely those of fossil elephants. These included the bones of a “giant” found in 1577 in Switzerland and revealed to be a mammoth in 1706; the “arm” of a saint revealed as an elephant femur in 1789; the bones of Teutobochus, discovered in 1613 and declared a giant, and found to be an elephant decades later (revised to a mastodon in the 1800s and a deinotherium in the 1980s). The list goes on and on. Heck, the claim is so old that Suetonius reported that his countrymen mistook fossil bones for those of the giants, writing of “the monstrous bones of huge sea monsters and wild beasts, called the ‘bones of the giants’” set up in Caesar Augustus’ country villa (Twelve Caesars 2.72).
Who is the one avoiding the facts?
But we’ve been over this before. Little defines giants down to six feet so he doesn’t have to deal with claims of giants 10-30 feet tall, almost certainly a combinations of hoaxes and misidentified megafauna bones. The smaller bones, however—well, who’s arguing there weren’t six foot tall people? Little wants to pick his terms, defining giants his way and excluding claims for other and larger giants, or even for normal human variation, so he can invent a whole race of people by systematically restricting categories until he can simply define them into existence.
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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