George Kelley points me to a news story by Batya Ungar-Sargon appearing in the Tablet online Jewish magazine about the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, also called the Los Lunas Mystery Stone, a New Mexico rock carved with a mysterious inscription some think may be a pre-Columbian copy of the Ten Commandments.
The origins of the Los Lunas stone are a bit murky. According to most reports locals in New Mexico in the 1880s first saw the stone but it was not reported until archaeologist Frank Hibben himself saw it in 1933. There is no written evidence Hibben saw the stone, and it may be an apocryphal story. The claim derives from Jeffrey Tabor, a professor of religious studies, who stated that Hibben had told him the story in 1995. Hibben, however, was widely accused of faking archaeological evidence for peoples predating the famed Clovis culture (once thought to be America’s first) as part of his belief that Spaniards from the Solutrean culture (c. 20,000 BCE) sailed to America and taught the Paleoindians how to make spear points. Ironically, he needn’t have faked evidence since there really were pre-Clovis peoples, as demonstrated by the widely-accepted Monte Verde site. The Solutrean connection, however, is not widely accepted because of the extreme time difference between the end of the Solutrean in Europe and the start of Clovis 5,000 years later.
At any rate, the stone became known sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Everyone who has seen the stone has had a different idea of what its text seems to say. Robert Hoath La Follette, a lawyer, claimed the text described a freak rainstorm in Phoenician, Etruscan, and Egyptian (hieratic or demotic?) characters, promiscuously mixed. Dixie L. Perkins, another non-specialist, claimed the text was “early” Greek and told how a man named Zakynerous engaged in cannibalism in the desert and felt very bad about it. In 1949, Harvard’s Robert Pfeiffer claimed the text was that of the Ten Commandments, written in a mixture Moabite, Greek, and ancient Phoenician—remarkably literate for a text that experts in those languages say is riddled with grammatical and orthographical errors, including the use of modern Hebrew punctuation and symbols in an “ancient” text. Of course Barry Fell weighed in as well, dismissing the grammar and orthography problems and claiming that the modern Hebrew punctuation was actually in use in antiquity. Cyrus Gordon, a believer in the Bat Creek Stone who also held that the Greeks descended from the ancestors of the Jews and that both groups colonized America, declared the stone genuine. Tabor today is the leading advocate for Gordon’s claims, though he retracted a paper on the stone, claiming that he didn’t want anyone to “misrepresent” him on the issue.
The question of why an important document would be created from multiple alphabets is puzzling: When is the last time you added some Cyrillic or Arabic letters to your tax returns just for fun? Nor am I sure what “early” Greek would be. Perkins can’t mean Linear B, so she must be thinking of the first written Greek inscriptions after the revival of writing around 800 BCE, but they look nothing like this. The mention of Moabite is very telling since it speaks to the extremely close similarity the Los Lunas stone bears to the published versions of the Moabite Stone (Mesha Stele), the first non-Jewish source to mention Yahweh. The forms of the letters are nearly the same, along with the odd spacing and use of word dividers. The Los Lunas inscription also contains a caret, a modern proofreading symbol, one not used before the modern era.
By most accounts, the text is meant to be Hebrew.
Geological analysis of the stone is impossible since it has been repeatedly cleaned and otherwise altered by visitors between the 1930s and today. In 2006, vandals destroyed one line of the text. Still visible is an apparent signature from “Eva and Hobe,” dated 3-13-30. (Some sources, such as Ancient Celtic America, misreport this as “Hobe Eva, March 1930.”) At the University of New Mexico, an oral tradition states that the named individuals were anthropology majors who had hoaxed the inscription but were found out. There is no proof the story is true, but many archaeologists working in the area are convinced that the two are the likely culprits.
What is fascinating is that the inscription remains fresh and sharp, as if it had only been carved in the 1930s. Archaeologist Ken Feder has examined the stone and determined the carvings are recent, and he is troubled by the fact that there is not a shred of evidence of any kind for any Hebrew presence in the area. Advocates of its antiquity counter that repeated cleanings and an infestation with lichen have given the stone the appearance of being new when it is in fact old. I am not sure how cleaning and rubbing down the edges of the inscriptions, or having a plant eating away at the surface, would somehow make their edges sharper rather than duller.
According to Ungar-Sargon, most of the visitors to the stone are Young Earth Creationists, who see the stone as evidence of a young earth, the Lost Tribes of Israel, and the inerrancy of the Bible. Another group very excited by the stone are the Mormons, whose holy book states that Hebrews were in America at the time, eventually giving rise to the Native Americans when God cursed some of their number with red skin for being sinners. However, even many Mormon archaeologists concluded that the stone is a fraud. Today, the most visible proponents of the stone’s authenticity are religious extremists and extreme proponents of diffusionism.
I give Ungar-Sargon credit for asking an actual Native American, Martin Abeita, for an opinion about the stone: “It’s a pain in my ass is what it is. It’s a money-maker for the state.” Abeita explains that the stone sits on land the state put in trust due to water rights issues, and the Natives would like the land back. That won’t happen so long as tourists want to come to see where the Hebrews inscribed the Ten Commandments (at a state-ordered fee of $25 each) and the state can use that to keep control of the water.
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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