But, holy shit, was this a bad, bad episode.
Fox starts the show with a series of assertions that we don’t really know American history, that the textbooks are wrong, and that history as we know it is going to be overturned. She drives through what the on-screen graphics identify as “Rural, Pennsylvania,” even though “rural” is not the name of a town according to a Google search, and she travels to Meadowcroft Rock Shelter to complain about the Clovis-first paradigm, the old 1960s-era idea that the first Americans were the Clovis people who hunted megafauna in the Ice Age, arriving around 13,000 years ago. This paradigm was introduced in the middle twentieth century, in large measure due to the lack of evidence for a preceding occupation, but the evidence from sites like Monte Verde in South America and Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania eventually convinced the majority of archaeologists that people had come to America pre-Clovis, though the length of time before Clovis is still disputed. At any rate, it is at least several thousand years, and perhaps much more.
Fox describes this as “new archaeology” and says that the “textbooks” and “history books” are all wrong, but pre-Clovis arrivals were in my textbooks when I was in school almost twenty years ago. I am older than Fox, which means that had she attended higher education she would have been exposed to these ideas decades ago. These are not “new” ideas, being decades old, but Fox is at least somewhat correct that Clovis-first was taught in many high school texts into the early 21st century, though that was still almost twenty years ago. Some districts probably never bought new textbooks and probably don’t teach much about the first Americans at all.
As in the previous episodes, the first half hour, minus the fringy rhetoric, is a fairly conventional account of the archaeological evidence for pre-Clovis occupations in North America, particularly underwater along the continental shelf, which was exposed more than 12,000 years ago, and the likely site of most of these occupations. Then, of course, the episode goes off the rails and starts hunting giants.
Fox uses the largely resolved controversy of over Clovis-first as part of a broader search for an imaginary lost civilization that might once have occupied North America. She also investigates whether such a civilization might have been the work of a lost race of giants. These two claims are related, but were not traditionally connected, though they developed in parallel and simultaneously.
It’s worth noting that Native cultures across America, just like people around the world, had stories about giants. Of course, people around the world also have stories about talking animals. This does not mean animals used to talk. The stories about giants, like those of talking animals, are wildly diverse and consistent with people telling tales about imaginary events, wildly exaggerated, perhaps from the observation that some people are bigger than others. In Peru, the giants are cannibals who engage in gay orgies and rape normal women to death with their massive penises (Pedro Cieza de Leon, First Part of the Chronicle of Peru, Chapter 52). The North American version is a little more complex. The most common version told today is, as I wrote years ago, “a confection of unrelated material, first and foremost an alleged oral history given by the Paiutes, which is no such thing. The original claim comes from an 1882 book by the Native American author Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins called Life among the Piutes (sic) where she describes having a dress with sewn-on locks of old red hair” supposedly related to a tribe killed off by the Paiutes. This got mixed up with modern accounts of giants. Such stories, however, are basically a human universal. Megan Fox, however, can’t imagine why folk tales and myths might not be a true account of human history.
I oversimplify a bit, but the hunt for a lost civilization goes back to the colonial era, when the first European explorers had difficulty believing that Native Americans could have built the earthworks that they encountered. Over time, Europeans developed a myth that a previous civilization, almost certainly white, had constructed the mounds and possessed the rudiments of civilization. According to the typical version popular in the min-nineteenth century, the lost white race (be they a Lost Tribe of Israel, an ancient Aryan people, Tartars, Atlanteans, or early Europeans) died when “Asiatics”—the ancestors of modern Native Americans—invaded North America sometime during the European Middle Ages and killed them all, squatting in their abandoned ruins. There were dozens of variants on the theme, but this was the most common, at least before Cyrus Thomas disproved the Mound Builder myth at the end of the nineteenth century and sent the myth into the fringe.
Simultaneously, the discovery of the bones of mastodons and mammoths and other megafauna in the Americas led early explorers to interpret them as the remains of the Biblical Nephilim giants. Catholic priests were especially liable to name such bones as those of giants. Peter Martyr received one such bone from Mexico and wrote about it to Pope Adrian VI. In North America, Cotton Mather and the governor of Massachusetts were both fooled by a mammoth tooth that they mistook for that of a Nephilim giant. We know this is what happened because “giant” bones kept being excavated, and where knowledgeable experts were present to view them, they found them to be those of mastodons and mammoths, and more than a few of these bones still survive. However, the bone finds merged with observations that many Native peoples were taller than their European counterparts and with primitive ways of estimating the height of unearthed Native corpses that exaggerated their heights. The result was a nineteenth century popular belief in an ancient race of giants.
The two themes intertwined from time to time in the nineteenth century—Josiah Priest, for example, speculated that the lost antediluvian race was one of giants, and some authors suggested that the giants were Mound Builder kings—but tended to operate on different tracks. The lost race theorists tended to focus on minimizing Native American accomplishments to justify the seizure of Native lands and the mistreatment of Natives. Giant believers tended to use their faith as a cudgel to combat “Darwinism” and the secularization of science and knowledge. Racism and creationism merged in the twentieth century as part of a general reaction against liberalism and modernism in all its forms, and it was in this context that fringe writers began to develop elaborate speculation about a lost race of white-skinned, red-haired cannibal giants, their civilization, and their power.
The modern version of the story is all over the map. It inherited from Christian fundamentalism the idea that the giants were violent cannibals—a claim, ultimately, going back to intertestamental Jewish texts like the books of Enoch and Jubilees—but it also took from lost civilization speculation the idea that the giants were builders and civilizers. The contrast is strange because the early accounts made the Native Americans the violent cannibals, but this doesn’t work with the Biblical underpinnings. By contrast, white nationalists reverse all of it and retain the violent, bloodthirsty Native Americans but imagine the lost white race to be gentle white Europeans of normal height.
Legends of the Lost plays with all of these themes without understanding their origins or how they came to be associated with American history.
Fox meets with Chief Joseph Riverwind, a Christian minister and Nephilim theorist whom regular readers will remember from his appearances in Nephilim theorist L. A. Marzulli’s mound builder videos. Riverwind presents himself as the keeper of Native oral traditions, though these stories are transparently Bible tales dressed in Native garb. Fox describes these Bible stories as an accurate account of how the end of the Ice Age led to a Noachian Flood.
Fox meets with Jim Vieira, of the Search for the Lost Giants show, and calls him a “historian” and his investigation of nineteenth century newspapers as “the science of gigantology.” Ugh. Vieira’s claims about giant reports in old newspapers are, of course, little more than hearsay. No less an authority than the founder of the New York Times warned that journalists passed on fictitious stories about monsters and giants as curiosities and hoaxes. The truth, of course, is that the skeletons alleged to be those of giants were typically (a) misidentified megafauna, (b) bones whose size was incorrectly estimated due to poor estimation conversion methods, and (c) hoaxes. Vieira is treated as an expert, and Fox announces that she arrived to the interview as a “pre-convert” to gigantology.
Vieira brings up the Denisovans, the newly discovered hominin species from Russia, which are currently the monsters du jour for fringe writers, who can project onto the largely unknown species anything they like. Denisovan remains total a couple of large teeth and a small bone or two, and Vieira declares them giants. Fox accepts this without question and suggests that the Denisovans traveled to America—an unproved claim—and gave rise to half-human half-Devisovan hybrid giants, just like the Biblical Nephilim, whom she introduced only moments before. Naturally, not a shred of evidence beyond newspaper stories is presented.
Fox was raised in a Christian fundamentalist culture, and it is no surprise that her view of American history includes both Noah’s Flood and pre-Flood Nephilim dressed up in the language of science, with the Flood rendered into the rising sea levels at the end of the Ice Age and the angel-human Nephilim hybrids turned into Denisovan-human hybrids.
Near the end of the episode, Fox turns to the controversial claim that an unknown hominin species lived in California 130,000 years ago.
In the spring of 2017, a controversial paper by Steven R. Holden et al. in the journal Nature claimed that an unknown species of hominin occupied was now San Diego county in California and was responsible for butchering a mastodon about 130,000 years ago—ten thousand years before anatomically modern humans are believed to have left Africa. The claims were controversial at the time and remain so today. The evidence used to support the claimed date revolves around markings found on the bones of the so-called “Cerutti mastodon” that the researchers interpreted as intentional signs of butchering; however, at the time Tom Dillehay and others noted that the authors failed to adequately exclude natural processes that might have created similar damage. No unequivocal evidence of stone tools, and no hominin bones, were found in connection with the Cerutti mastodon.
Nevertheless, the controversy continues. As I wrote this fall:
Earlier this year, six experts, led by archaeologist Joseph V. Ferraro, published a communication in Nature challenging the original study. The authors did not question the age of the site but provided evidence, including examples from comparable sites, where natural processes produced the same damage to bones. They faulted the original authors for failing to consider disturbances to the site over the past 130,000 years, evidence for which they said was present in the original data. Citing the “equivocal” nature of the damage and the lack of supporting evidence for human presence in California at that early date, the authors concluded that “caution requires us to set aside the claims of Holden et al.” Holden and co-authors then replied with a rebuttal, and this spring Ruth Gruhn of the University of Alberta concluded that the breaks in the bones could not have been caused by modern heavy machinery, thus making them “an anomaly.”
As far as I know, this is where the controversy stands as of the airing of tonight’s episode. Fox, of course, does not present any of the mitigating evidence and accepts the extreme claim at face value.
Thomas Demére, one of the authors of the Nature paper, gives Fox a guided tour of the mastodon bones, but he comes across as somewhat odd presence because he claims that fellow scholars rejected his conclusions out of ignorance and spite, adherence to a “paradigm,” and the fact that only paleontologists work on the layers far enough back to find the evidence of hominin occupation that he believes remains to be discovered.
Fox ends the show by rhapsodizing about what secrets might be found in the 130,000 “missing pages” of American history, where she hopes to locate Bible giants.
All told, it was a terrible episode that used real science as a cover for nasty pseudo-historical propaganda that originates in some dark and unpleasant places, and whose consequences Fox has clearly never considered.
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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