It’s often the case that we in the Western world tend to downplay how utterly horrifying so much of the world was before modern medicine. As a result, when we see the frightening results, many, especially “alternative” theorists, are prone to attribute the unusual to extraterrestrials and lost civilizations when more mundane explanations better fit the evidence.
Fair warning: What you are about to see contains disturbing images.
In 1995, Robert Connelly photographed misshapen skulls and declared them evidence of alien-human hybridization. Most were the result of head-binding, a well-known anthropological phenomenon. But the skull below has taken on special life with ancient astronaut theorists because its shape is inconsistent with head-binding.
Most scholars who have looked at the skull recognize it as hydrocephalic, but it doesn’t really hit home until you see an actual person suffering from this rare condition, which is usually treated before it reaches an advanced stage. The October 2013 Fortean Times has a picture of Roona Begum, an Indian toddler with untreated hydrocephaly.
In the condition, the skull expands—in this case to three times its normal size—to accommodate fluid buildup in the brain. The child was eventually treated and underwent several operations to remove fluid and resize the skull.
The October Fortean Times also gives a positive review to Gary Lachman’s biography of Helena Blavatsky, with which I had some differences a few months back. The reviewer praises the book for being “even-handed,” which means that it treats both supernatural and non-supernatural explanations as equally valid. Readers, the review says, are “free to decide for themselves” whether Blavatsky really commanded supernatural powers of alien beings from parallel universe versions of Venus and the moon. This strikes me as akin praising a history of NASA for giving equal time to moon landing hoax claims while leaving it up to readers to “decide” the “truth.” False equivalence and artificial balance are ways of surreptitiously giving extra support to the side that lacks evidence, a subtle form of manipulation.
I should also give notice to another review, of The Piltdown Man Hoax: Case Closed by Miles Russell (History Press, 2013), a book unread by me, but which the review says makes a compelling case that the Piltdown hoaxer was Charles Dawson, as long suspected. According to the review, Russell has established the Dawson was responsible for at least 33 other fake artifacts, including a filed-down tooth he passed off as a transitional species between dinosaur and mammal in 1891, accepted at the time as Plagiaulax dawsoni in his honor. Like the Piltdown skull, many artifacts Dawson faked were designed to fill the gaps in biological or cultural evolution, including a horseshoe meant to bridge a gap in the development of horseshoes! A recurring theme is that Dawson’s fakes received acceptance because scientists had trouble conceiving of a gentleman faking mundane artifacts—despite, of course, the widespread and admitted fakery in the antiquities market for ancient art. Surely, fakers would fake something more profitable, like statues, not bone fragments and horseshoes. At any rate, this looks like a book to add to the reading list.
One thing I do want to know more about is a story apparently included in the new Legendary Beasts of Britain by Julia Creswell (Shire Publications, 2013) in which the Fortean Times reviewer says Britain’s last dragon hunt, in 1812, was occasioned by panic over the introduction of pheasants, mistaken for dragons. This seems like something worth following up on as an example of how monsters and aliens emerge out of practically anything. Sadly, though, I’m not able to immediate track down any sources for this, which must, I suppose, be local records in Wales.
The Other J.
10/4/2013 09:09:30 am
It seems fraudulent nature abhors a vacuum; if a gap exists and not enough evidence exists to provide a satisfying answer for what should be in that gap, that evidence will be manufactured somewhere.
10/4/2013 09:39:11 am
Your last paragraph is very interesting, Jason. The dragon is of course a symbol of Wales. The common pheasant was probably first introduced into Britain by the Romans. It later died out, possibly during the medieval period, and was reintroduced (or rediscovered) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries CE, which would tally with the "dragon hunt" mentioned.
The Other J.
10/4/2013 11:23:16 am
That's an interesting take on where the Welsh dragon comes from. Admittedly, I'm a little more convinced that it's a hang-over from Sarmatian occupation than pheasant misidentification. Peacocks are more flamboyant-looking than pheasants (but the golden pheasant is pretty striking). And pheasants aren't all that large. The worst I've seen a pheasant do is choke a bird dog that was trying to retrieve it, so I'm not sure how a pheasant would get blown up into a destructive reptile.
10/4/2013 12:51:28 pm
I haven’t been able to find the specific incident that allegedly occurred in 1812, but I did find a book on the folklore of Wales that offers what I think is the explanation behind Cresswell’s story. You’ll see in the link the stories of dragons (winged serpents) that were still current in the mid-nineteenth century when the folklorists collected them, including in Denbighshire, where Cresswell places the story. One of the dragons is described as being crested with “brilliant coloring around its head,” like, I suppose, a pheasant.
10/4/2013 03:00:38 pm
I dunno about pheasants, but the first time I saw a wild turkey face-to-beak, I remember wondering for a moment what the Hell I was looking at. It was at least sixty yards away, and its high posture and distinctive locomotion looked decidedly non-avian.
The Other J.
10/4/2013 04:13:16 pm
The common pheasant doesn't look too exotic or weird, even compared to a wild turkey (turkeys and vultures look like skeksis from The Dark Crystal). But the golden pheasant looks pretty cool, and at least from the colors you could see someone extrapolating from its appearance to something more supernatural. Google "golden pheasant" and you'll see what I mean (and they're in Britain).
10/5/2013 11:11:57 am
Well, Jason, people can manage to turn lens flares into spaceships, fragments of bone into aliens, and "There's no such thing" into massive world-wide conspiracies. Is pheasant to dragon really that much of a stretch by comparison?
10/5/2013 11:14:12 am
No, not really, but pheasants are just so small that it seems odd. I would have liked to have found some actual reports of the supposed dragon hunt, but I came up empty, and I'm not special ordering the book from Britain to find out.
10/7/2013 06:50:22 am
If there was any supernatural creature the pheasant might be mistaken for, I think it would be the alternate form for the basilisk.
10/7/2013 06:57:31 am
The review implied that the pheasant identification was Cresswell's own. If anyone reading this is from Britain and has seen a copy of the "Legendary Beasts of Britain" book, I'd be very interested in knowing Cresswell's source. So far, I can't find any reference to this dragon hunt anywhere.
10/7/2013 07:38:52 am
I think I found something relevant. Check out this link:
10/7/2013 07:44:30 am
That tallies exactly with Cresswell's claims, as summarized in the review. Not to knock her, but her research is not particularly deep, so that must be the source. And to think, I linked to the book in these very comments but missed that page because I wasn't looking for the right geographical name. Curse my lack of geographic knowledge of Wales!
10/7/2013 10:58:17 am
I reviewed the material, and it seems that Cresswell exaggerated in calling the creatures dragons. They were apparently small enough that people tried to catch them by hand, which certainly suggests a misidentified bird. Oh, well. You know what they say about not letting facts get in the way of a good story.
The Other J.
10/8/2013 01:27:37 am
Maybe they were actually wyverns. Easy mistake.
10/4/2013 03:31:48 pm
Folklore does travel and mutate as peoples travel and intermingle. We do know there were mass migrations of early peoples throughout all areas of the world and even across continents. Simple beliefs can transmogrify into complex belief systems/myths as a result of the cross contamination of cultures. Absent of written records, we don't really know what fed into what from where and what was the originator.
The Other J.
10/4/2013 04:27:13 pm
Do you know about Eagle Mountain International Church in Texas? Keep this in your back pocket if you ever run into that woman again: The church is an anti-vax church, and the pastor -- also a televangelist -- has promoted the idea that vaccines lead to autism on TV.
10/5/2013 12:23:48 pm
What a terrible story! At lease some good came of it with the pastor realizing the error of his ways and how he's endangered other people. Some people have to learn the hard way, I guess.
10/4/2013 05:52:16 pm
The folks who don't "believe" in vaccinations usually home school their kids citing that our education system is only valid for left/right? brain learners.
10/5/2013 12:22:38 pm
I don't know where you've gotten your information, Dave, but all the home-schoolers I know have had their children vaccinated at the time and ages recommended by the medical profession. I've not encountered anything that states that this is a problem with home-schoolers. I have read articles, however, about outbreaks of measles and other diseases in schools because of the lack of vaccinations.
10/5/2013 02:49:47 am
Your comments about vaccinations brought to mind this article. Some of the comments under this article are worth a look:
10/5/2013 12:34:09 pm
Thank you, CFC. I've read this article and a few others. There was one I read that went into detail about the damage done in Wales where they really bought into the link between MMR and Autism. Heartbreaking. Sadly I don't have the link.
10/5/2013 01:44:41 pm
Thane- If you find the link to other articles on this topic I would appreciate seeing them.
10/5/2013 03:02:47 am
Thanks, Jason. Actually, I don't take the pheasant-as-dragon hypothesis seriously, but maybe one shouldn't underestimate the ignorance, credulity, and superstitious nature of peasant folk back in the old days, especially in the rural areas of Britain, which remained intensely parochial until well into the industrial revolution and the resultant breakdown of the old way of life. Every valley had its own dialect, sometimes incomprehensible to its neighbors, and education was minimal, given solely by the Church -- not Roman Catholic but Anglican, which appears not to have been quite as dedicated as the former when it came to teaching. And one has only to examine bestiaries of the past to encounter the most fanciful depictions of "foreign" beasts and plants. In those days a pheasant would have been both strange and "devilish" to many country folk seeing one for the first time.
The Other J.
10/5/2013 07:53:19 am
Erik G --
The Other J.
10/5/2013 07:56:08 am
*Apologies for the number agreement errors; sent before I finished editing. There was only one body recovered for that test.*
10/5/2013 12:48:12 pm
The Other J, I had read that the ancient Britons were forced into Wales, Cornwall, and across the channel into what became to be called Brittany due to expansionist pressures by the Germanic influx (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, others). With some of the Britons lingering in the Gloucestershire and Wiltshire regions.
The Other J.
10/5/2013 01:58:33 pm
10/6/2013 01:06:24 pm
The Other J, Thank you for such a detailed response. I am fascinated by the genome tracking being done....but have been a indifferent student.Too many other obligations demanding my attention to really focus on this topic.
10/5/2013 08:36:03 am
"Other J" --
10/7/2013 04:05:15 am
While it is hard to imagine someone mistaking a pheasant for a dragon, don't forget all of the housecats being mistaken for large carnivors in the UK and US. Bad lighting, nothing nearby to give a size comparison, propensity for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, etc. can really mess with the retelling of an encounter.
10/7/2013 06:55:26 am
That's a good point about the size issue. It certainly is a factor in many UFO sightings.
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