I don’t usually cover the same fringe theorist twice in the same week, but I am making an exception because of the shocking new release from L. A. Marzulli that the Nephilim theorist announced yesterday. It also happens to coincide with the subject of my (other) forthcoming new book, tentatively titled Monuments of an Unknown People, which will be published a little more than a year from now. I can’t give more details until the contract comes through, probably next week. Anyway, Marzulli announced his newest DVD, On the Trail of the Nephilim: The Mysterious Moundbuilders. Yes, those Mound Builders—the imaginary lost race of (a) Jews, (b) cannibal giants, (c) ancient Aryans, or (d) Solutreans who were alleged to have been the true builders of the Native American mounds of North America back in the days when white Americans were too racist to admit that Native Americans could make large earthworks out of piles of dirt, a skill they believed only the white race had mastered.
In the new DVD, Marzulli explored American earthworks and alleges a biblical conspiracy to suppress the truth about the scriptural origin of the mounds—claims famously put forward by both early Mormons and Victorian racists.
Let’s take a look at what Marzulli’s fans have to say about the resurrection of this nineteenth century pseudohistory:
“If you at all wondered how the mounds found all over the world could have actually been built, who built them and even why this is the documentary to watch,” evangelical podcasters Brian and Audrey Vanderkley write. “Could our history be wrong? Why does there seem to be a managed narrative and bias by secular academia?”
“Awesome! There is no way someone can watch that production and not realize secular history is fabricated,” Todd Reed said.
Evangelicals hate any knowledge that exists independent of Bible stories, and thus the emphasis on the corruption of “secular” academics and historians in these twisted endorsements. It’s strange how much they resemble the apocryphal story told about the Caliph Umar and the burning of the Library of Alexandria: “If these books agree with the Koran, they are useless; if they disagree, they are pernicious: in either case, they ought to be destroyed.”
The fascinating thing about the Mound Builder myth is how unnecessary it always was. During colonial times, it was utterly uncontroversial to assert that the ancestors of contemporary Native Americans had built the mounds, and it was indeed the standard explanation, at least among the educated, down to the founding of the Republic. For a time afterward, it still held pride of place, and when Thomas Jefferson famously excavated a mound near Monticello in the 1780s, he reported—correctly—that it showed every evidence of being the work of Native Americans.
This view, however, faced a serious challenge when white Americans moved into the Ohio Valley and were forced to contend with evidence that the Native peoples they were actively attempting to displace had sophisticated cultures that marked them as something more than the “savages” that early American propaganda painted them to be. At the same time, the new Republic was casting about for a mythic history to rival the antiquities of the Old World and show that America was the equal of Britain or France. In this environment, it was no wonder that a generation of early American elites, including Noah Webster, members of Congress and state governments, and religious leaders, casts about for hypotheses that would active recreate the history ancient America in a way that would compete with European Antiquity and which would lay claim to the priority of white people in the newly settled lands.
When you assemble the various ideas in chronological order, as I do in my book, it becomes easy to see how early European efforts in the colonial period to understand how the denizens of the New World fit into the Noachian history of humanity were twisted into a new narrative of a lost white race. Colonial Europeans tried to explain the existence of Native peoples as a lost tribe of Israel or some other offshoot of Noah’s progeny, but the ongoing hostility between Native groups and the white Americans trying to displace them made it difficult to image them as equals. The new narrative—one, weirdly, that was actually rooted in the correct and prescient deduction that Native Americans came to North America from northeast Asia—repurposed the old colonial claims by imagining an original group of white settlers who were killed off by bloodthirsty “Asiatics.” This, in a nutshell, became the Mound Builder myth, and it was in place by the early 1800s.
It lasted for a century, until the weight of evidence for the Native American origins of the mounds—conveniently collected in the late 1800s by Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian in its Twelfth Annual Report—became so overwhelming that all but the most recalcitrant racists accepted it.
The Mound Builder myth, however, didn’t die. Instead, it fell in with other discredited beliefs in the growing fissure between science and popular prejudice. Much the way evolutionary theory caused conservative Christians to embrace creationism, and critical evaluations of the Bible cause them to endorse fundamentalist readings of the Bible, the failure of archaeology to endorse the existence of Nephilim-giants and Lost Tribes of Israel in middle America created counterculture of anti-scientific belief in which the Mound Builders remain white and pure and holy now and forever.
Anyone who plays in this sandbox needs to understand the history of the ideas he endorses before unleashing them again on the world. When L. A. Marzulli goes hunting for lost white giants among the Mound Builders, he repeats and endorses not just anti-scientific beliefs but also the long history of racism that has animated the Mound Builder myth since the beginning.
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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