Stephen C. Jett Argues for Multiple and Repeated Pre-Columbian Contacts with the Old World in New Article
Stephen C. Jett, a retired professor of geography, has been an advocate for hyper-diffusionism for most of his life. A quarter century ago, he appeared in the New York Times as part of an article profiling the “America Before Columbus” convention alongside the usual suspects, who, all these decades later, remain advocates of the same claims with the same evidence and the same arguments: J. Huston McCulloch, Carl L. Johannessen, Nancy Yaw Davis, etc. It’s rather astonishing than in 25 years, the ambiguous evidence and inconclusive arguments have changed nary a lick. Anyway, this is a long way around saying that Jett has a new article in the current edition of EdgeScience to promote his new book Ancient Ocean Crossings in which the 78-year-old editor of the diffusionist journal Pre-Columbiana claims that science is shackled by what he calls “blinder beliefs” that prevent mainstream historians and archaeologists from accepting the truth about pre-Norse transoceanic cultural diffusion.
I will admit to being puzzled how a man who worked as a professor of geography could make this astonishing claim to explain why no Old World artifacts have been found in ancient America:
Actually, archaeologists’ finding any recognizably foreign artifacts would be a needle-in-a-haystack proposition, and discoveries—especially, unofficial ones—of “new” lands would likely normally have been kept deeply secret to preserve political and economic advantage.
Conspiracy! Of course, it must be a conspiracy. Now, the claim that Old World artifacts are unlikely to be found argues against the idea that transoceanic contact was of any depth, length, or lasting consequence. But the idea that the discovery of a whole continent could be kept secret for financial advantage is ridiculous. The example of Columbus argues against it, but so, too, does the example of the Vikings. They couldn’t keep it a secret. Adam of Bremen found out about it from blabbermouth Danes: “Vines grow there naturally, producing the best of wines. That unsown fruits grow there in abundance we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes” (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4.38, my trans.). The same thing can be found as far back as we care to look. The Carthaginians, upon discovering sub-Saharan Africa, promptly raised a monument to the discovery, carving it in stone and erecting it in the Temple of Baal Hammon. Even the evidence for supposedly “secret” discoveries is nothing of the sort. Both Pseudo-Aristotle (De mirabilis auscultationibus 84) and Diodorus Siculus (Library of History 5.19-20) report that the Carthaginians tried to keep secret the discovery of fruitful islands off the coast of Africa (possibly the Azores or Canaries, if not completely fictitious), yet somehow these two authors managed to get hold of the secret information.
But leaving this aside, Jett builds his case on what he feels is a logical argument by trying to establish whether ancient people had the means to cross the ocean, a motive to do so, and left evidence that they seized the opportunity to do so. He offers no specific evidence for means and motives except to say that Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki and Tim Severin’s experimental ships demonstrated that ancient boats could cross the ocean, though of course this does not mean that they did. To that end, he offers as motive the pursuit of “high-value, low-bulk products such as precious metals and stones, ivory and valuable shells, psychoactive drugs, aromatics, luxury textiles, and so on,” as well as religious proselytizing. And yet, Jett also claims that these intrepid merchants “had not brought along much to offer to the local Amerinds in return.”
The evidence in favor of contact is underwhelming and frequently challenged: cocaine in Egyptian mummies, ancient Old World art that vaguely resembles maize, etc.—classics of the genre. But he adds a few new(er) items, skillfully using elements of actual archaeological findings to inflate the case for constant and sustained contact. To that end, he is happy to recall that archaeologists are increasingly of the opinion that there is evidence for Polynesian contact with South America, especially evidence in the form of chicken bones. To this he adds evidence from parasites and bugs. Specifically, he argues that human intestinal parasites like hookworm, whipworm, and pinworm could only have entered America through transoceanic voyages in historic times because the cold of the Arctic prevented them from traveling on their own. Now, I can’t find any scientific reason for this, given that intestinal parasites tend to travel in human intestines, and therefore wouldn’t be subject to glacial cold. They could well have been carried by Native Americans traveling from Beringia on southward. Far from being suppressed or discounted, I found reference to these microbes in a plethora of texts on New World cultures going back decades. Jett claims that scientists have “partially suppressed” evidence to a tobacco beetle found in King Tut’s tomb, a claim that Gavin Menzies popularized, and which I discussed almost five years ago:
In 1982, J. R. Steffan reported that he had found a single specimen of Lasioderma serricorne (commonly called the tobacco beetle) in the mummy of Ramses II. More turned up in Egypt (one was found in Tut’s tomb), and in 2000 Eva Panagiotakopulu reported a specimen found on Santorini. However, as it happens, this species is apparently pan-tropical and may have been indigenous to the Mediterranean region in the past. In fact, the discoverer of the beetle on Santorini said as much: the beetle “was part of the pest fauna of the period, and [the Santorini find] points to a Near Eastern rather than New World origin.”
This is suppression?
He accepts, too, the work of David H. Kelley and David B. Kelley alleging that the Mexican and Asian calendars are closely related. I discussed this claim just two months ago, and I explained at the time that the Kelleys essentially gave a modern gloss on a faulty claim made by Alexander von Humboldt two centuries ago. While Jett was impressed by David B. Kelley’s efforts to salvage a claim that even the Victorians had debunked in the late 1800s, I explained in detail why his computer-aided comparison used bad inputs to derive faulty outputs. Essentially, he cherry-picked matches from the 100 different Chinese calendars and dozens of variations on the Mexican calendar to find a few similarities, even though no two calendars from the two cultures actually match, or even come close.
Based on all of this, Jett makes a false conclusion, namely, that transoceanic contact is the driving force behind “cultural evolution.” He claims that only contact with distant cultures can inspire a culture to innovate. “Isolated societies, on the other hand, deprived of exposure to outside ideas, have tended to remain culturally static, sometimes for thousands of years.”
There are many faults with this line of reasoning. Cultures evolve for many reasons, including environmental pressures that force societies to adapt or die. Inspiration from Europe or China isn’t the only way to develop a more complex culture; were that the case, then we have an unsolvable paradox: whence came any original innovation if all is simply copies of copies of copies? But more importantly, even if contact with other cultures were the key element in innovation, Jett discounts the fact that there are plenty of cultures in the Americas to contact one another and spark innovation. There is plenty of evidence, for example, of the long reach of Teotihuacan and Tiwanaku in their respective regions. Mississippian culture had a vast reach across North America. Jett seems to want to treat the Americas as a homogenous backwater waiting for sophisticated Europeans and Chinese to come inspire them to greatness, when the fact is that at its height, Teotihuacan was the world’s sixth largest city, and easily more populous and sophisticated than the capitals of the barbarian kingdoms of early medieval Europe.
The point is that Jett wants to exaggerate the evidence for limited pre-Columbian transoceanic contact (Polynesians in South America and Norse in North America) and extrapolate from it a stream of cultural diffusion that the evidence doesn’t support. We know what happened when sustained contact actually did occur, after 1492, when Old World diseases devastated the New World, and New World products flooded European markets. The fact that none of this happened prior to 1492 would seem to be compelling evidence against sustained contact and meaningful trade.
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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