This has been a particularly slow week for new claims in the world of fringe history, and it was also my birthday week. In honor of my birthday, and also to make time to work on my book, I’m going to be brief today. I wanted to share with you a racist meme that is popular on white supremacist forums. It was once featured on the now-suspended Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi website currently facing a libel lawsuit that threatens to expose its secretive finances., but it circulates across the white nationalist and racist hate communities on the internet, and has since at least 2013. Take a look:
This meme, using a still from the 2005 Discovery Networks documentary on the Solutrean hypothesis, Ice Age Columbus, merely puts in graphic form an argument that has been common among white supremacists for years. The radio host Frank from Queens, for example celebrates World Solutrean Day, a made-up white nationalist holiday, and enjoins his listeners to “Please, tell your children that Our Great White Solutrean Ancestors settled this land and were destroyed! Ours were a peaceful people, who welcomed the Beringians in peace, and were paid back in DEATH!” The Ice Age Columbus documentary is beloved by white nationalists because it depicts the Solutreans as white-skinned and Caucasian, while science suggests that in reality, the Solutreans were dark-skinned.
What fascinates me about this meme isn’t that it supports a pseudohistorical interpretation of the Solutrean hypothesis proposed by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian, which holds that Europeans from the Iberian Peninsula known as the Solutreans crossed the Atlantic around 20,000 years ago by hugging the edges of the ice sheet from Scandinavia to Iceland to Canada and set up shop in the New World. This hypothesis received an airing on American television this week when the Smithsonian Channel ran a Canadian documentary about it. Instead, what fascinates me is the way it actually shows how white nationalists are grafting cherry-picked semi-scientific hypotheses onto old folklore to give long-debunked beliefs a patina of scientific accuracy.
Consider some of these very old opinions that the modern racist use of the Solutrean seems to clearly draw upon, ideas from the early days of America first proposed to justify seizing Native American lands. Here is Noah Webster—yes, of the dictionary fame—describing a very early form of the Solutrean hypothesis, before anything like the Solutreans were even known: “But as all primitiv inhabitants of the west of Europe were evidently of the same stock, it is natural to suppose they might pass from Norway to Iceland, from Iceland to Greenland, and from thence to Labrador; and thus the North American savages may claim a common origin with the primitiv Britons and Celts.” This version wasn’t racist enough because it still allows Native Americans to be “white” by ancestry.
Indeed, Webster caught flak for this very reason: His peers booed him for tying the Indians to Europe when they were quite clearly a separate and inferior creation. This was actually his second stab at the question of who built the mounds of ancient America. His first guess was that the Spanish built them all when De Soto explored America, something that even racists of the era found ridiculous. One critic—who actually believed Native Americans built the mounds—named George Rogers Clark noted that the Spanish could not possibly have thrown up thousands of mounds in the few months they were in America. Webster revised his views yet again and finally gave us, unfortunately, the story that is still told by white nationalists today, as evidenced by the meme above. The following was published in The American Museum in July 1790:
What will the public say of the following opinions, that the Southern Indians, in Mexico and Peru, are descended from the Carthaginians or other Mediterranean nations, who found their way to the continent at a very early period, and spread themselves over North as well as South America—that these nations had become more civilized, than the present northern Indians, tho’ not acquainted with the use of iron—that at a late period of time, perhaps four or five centuries ago, the Siberian Tartars found their way to the North West parts of this country, and pushed their settlements till they met the southern and more ancient settlers—that, accustomed to a colder climate and more active and hardy life, they were the Goths and Vandals of North America, and drove the more ancient settlers from their territory—that in the contest between these different tribes or races of men, were constituted the numerous fortifications discovered on the Ohio, the northern lomes [sic], and in all parts of the western country. What facts may be found to support this idea, must be left to further investigation.
The “Carthaginians” from a “very early period” anticipate, in the parlance of an era when deep time wasn’t yet known, the geographic location of the Solutreans, sharing the Iberian Peninsula as a territory. While Webster’s timeline was 20,000 years too short, the story is otherwise indistinguishable from the white nationalist myth of today.
I have long thought that the pseudoscience of today reflects the passage of outdated old science into the realm of folklore. Many of the pseudoscientific beliefs held with such passion today—everything from Atlantis to homeopathy to ESP—were once legitimate areas of scientific and historical investigation, but were rejected as new evidence came to light. But despite this, those who grew up believing these ideas passed them on to the next generation, less as science than as lore. As late as the 1990s, I remember encountering people whose parents had taught them the theory of spontaneous generation, even though it had been debunked in the mid-1800s. It seems that the Solutrean hypothesis succeeds among white nationalists because it harmonizes, by coincidence, with the debunked former scientific theories that have become part of their folklore.
But isn’t it amazing that nearly 230 years later, racists are still repeating the same story? You can’t even get people to remember what happened 20 years ago, yet they recall a failed argument from 230 years ago perfectly. If that isn’t evidence that this is folklore, I don’t know what is.
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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