Last week, Garry Nolan, the team geneticist for Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars Academy of Science, published results of a DNA test conducted on the so-called “Atacama Humanoid,” a mummified twentieth century stillbirth from the Atacama region of Chile. Ufologists like Steven Greer had promoted the tiny corpse as a potential extraterrestrial for the past fifteen years, but the new study found that the body was fully human, though suffering from genetic diseases. Now the New York Times reports that the Chilean government has condemned Nolan’s study as unethical and is investigating whether the body was illegally exhumed and exported in violation of grave robbing and heritage laws. Nolan denied knowing that the body had been stolen, though it’s sort of hard to imagine how else a human corpse of recent vintage ends up on the UFO sideshow circuit. Few people will their bodies—much less their kids’ bodies—to ufology. That said, the Chilean government only started to care about the corpse when it was proved human; for the fifteen years UFO believer declared it alien, the government took no action. The lesson is pretty clear: Pretend bodies belong to space aliens, and you can do what you want with them. There might just be a market for black market “alien” kidneys, too…
Last weekend I share with you an excerpt from the book I am working on about the mound builder myth. After reading some of the feedback on the chapter, I decided to see if I could start working on the book again. I sent off some additional queries to literary agents, which resulted in some quick rejections. One even responded on Sunday afternoon to ensure that I need not wait more than 24 hours for said rejection. In the meantime, I tried to pick up where I left off, and that’s when I remembered why I had stopped writing. I had hit a brick wall.
The main body of the book begins in the 1700s with colonial encounters with Native American mounds, a story I framed around Thomas Jefferson, the first to excavate a mound, and Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, Jefferson’s friend and the French consul, who also happened to be a notorious fantasist. Subsequent to that, I proceed forward in time, framing each new period around some key figures to help keep a very complicated story relatively straightforward. For example, a subsequent section frames the debate over the origin of the mounds around the rivalry between Caleb Atwater and Constantine Rafinesque, who fought viciously and publicly over whether the mounds were the work of Hindus (Atwater) or Native Americans (Rafinesque), and another contrasts Joseph Smith’s use of the mound builder myth in Mormonism with Andrew Jackson’s use of it to support Indian Removal.
But having gotten all the way to 1833 using this method, I hit a wall. You see, at that time the most important work on the mounds was American Antiquities, a 400-page doorstop of a book by Albany resident Josiah Priest in which the unscrupulous author attempted to demonstrate that the mounds were not the work on Native Americans but rather of a lost white race whom the Natives had exterminated in their violent reign of evil. Oh, and that America was also where Noah lived after the Ark landed here, and the Vikings fought a war against Native Americans in the Finger Lakes, specifically near Auburn, my hometown. Don’t laugh—in the sequel he argued that Blacks were genetically inferior and condemned by God to be slaves in America because God had cursed Noah’s Black son Ham here in the U.S. of A. Priest’s American Antiquities is a monument to pseudohistory, and it is the template and model for all that would come after, instantly familiar to anyone who has read Fingerprints of the Gods or any of the 1960s mystery-mongering books.
Here is where the problem occurs. There is almost nothing one can say about Josiah Priest. You’d have thought that I’d have an easier time of it. I live in Albany, less than two miles from Priest’s old house, and the New York State Library has the largest collection of his works still extant. But Priest left virtually nothing in terms of letters, journals, memoranda, testimonials, etc. His friends and family said almost nothing about him that anyone thought fit to record. For a man who was so influential in shaping (wrong) beliefs about the prehistory of America, he is himself almost a void. It’s very difficult to frame a chapter around someone whose entire life story, in the most elaborate telling I could find, warranted a paragraph or two. Specifically, he is the subject of two academic articles. The first, by Winthrop Duncan, was published the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society in 1935. It is primarily a bibliography of Priest’s books, with a couple of paragraphs about his life attached. The second, by De Villo Sloan, was published in the Journal of Popular Culture in 2003 and makes no bones about the fact that all of the biographical details are drawn from Duncan’s article.
So, what was I to do? I couldn’t find an entry point that could fold Priest into my narrative with the same level of detail and incident as other important figures who left much more of a paper trail. The chapter sat there unwritten for a long time.
When I tried again this week, I finally found a piece of information that would let me frame the story the right way. It turns out that Priest got into a scuffle with Constantine Rafinesque, who had developed his own bizarre mound theory in the meantime, when Rafinesque had come here to Albany to give a lecture right at the same time that the second edition of American Antiquities came off the printing press. Rafinesque was horrified to discover that Priest had pirated a number of his articles and stuck them in his book without permission—and more importantly, without compensation—and Priest had painted Rafinesque in a poor light, all but accusing him of being a Satanist who was trying to “overturn the Scriptures.” This gave me the entry point I needed. I decided to frame the story around Rafinesque’s anger. Earlier in the book I describe his rivalry with Caleb Atwater, which degenerated into vicious accusations and the ruination of Rafinesque’s career. Here, in miniature, he made the same mistakes again.
Here’s a very rough draft of how I am approaching the incident:
Rafinesque, however, was not done with Priest. After a roundabout tour of upstate New York and ten days in New York City, he returned to Philadelphia in September 1833. Rafinesque’s rage had grown, and it apparently remained with him for a long time after. On January 5, 1835, Rafinesque composed a lengthy letter to Priest, which began with a facetious thanks to the author: “I have lately read the Second Edition of your Work on American Antiquities. I ought to be very grateful to you for the handsome manner in which you have mentioned and made use of some of my labors on American history; although I perceive that you have distorted a few of my remarks, to suit your own views.” He spoke of Priest’s arguments as “learned dreams” and pretended to omit the “ridicule and blame” he might heap upon the work.
There was a little good news for Rafinesque, however. Priest realized he could be sued, so he dropped Rafinesque’s articles from subsequent editions of American Antiquities, and he got out of the ancient mysteries business. He turned his literary talents to new subjects. Thereafter, he would write about why Blacks were racially inferior and why Native Americans were evil, bloodthirsty monsters. I need not point out that these propositions were hardly disconnected from his belief in a lost white race of mound builders.
This brings me to my final subject: American Antiquities is one of the most important fringe history books ever written, and I’d love to add it to my Library. However, I haven’t the time or the patience to transcribe (or proofread the OCR for) the text. I see that someone has transcribed about one-third of the book on the Oliver Cowdery website, but that still leaves 100,000 words to go. If anyone has good ideas for how we might get the book transcribed to make the text available online, I’d be interested to hear.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.