Today, let’s talk a bit about the perils of copying. Alternative authors do it all the time, and like a game of telephone (also known as Chinese whispers), copying begets errors and changes meaning. As we’re going to see next month with Jim Marrs’s new ancient astronaut book, Our Occulted History, almost every alternative history text is cobbled together from lengthy quotes, endless paraphrases, and other direct borrowing from earlier alternative claims.
First, I’d like to direct your attention to John J. McKay’s excellent blog post on the transmission of a truly bizarre claim that is frequently repeated in alternative and creationist literature. The claim is that a 90-foot-tall, flash-frozen plum tree, complete with green leaves and ripe fruit, was pulled from the ice in Siberia. This tree is then used to “prove” that Siberia had formerly had a tropical climate before (a) a pole shift, (b) alien intervention, or (c) other catastrophes that “instantly” changed the Siberian climate.
McKay traced this weird claim back to it source, a late nineteenth century geological survey conducted by Baron Eduard Gustav von Toll on behalf of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. Von Toll reported:
The surprising thing in this instance is the discovery of Alnus fruticosa which is so wonderfully preserved that the leaves hold fast on the twigs of the boughs–indeed even whole clusters of blossom casings are preserved. The bark of the twigs and stems is fully intact, all the stems of the Alnus fruticosa along with the roots, in the length of 15-20 feet, jut out of the profile as can be seen in both figures of the table. With a magnifying glass, one can even recognize in figure 2 the blossom casings of the Alnus fruticosa.
Through a truly bizarre game of telephone, this report about a fossilized green alder—a shrub—became a 90 ft. tall plum tree. (“Fruticosa” was misunderstood, thanks to a typo, as “fruity” rather than “bushy,” yielding “fruit tree,” corrupted to “plum tree.”) McKay has all the details, and I urge everyone to read them. The final product of the confused transmission was the canonization of the tree in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, in the article on the New Siberia Archipelago, containing a fateful mistake of 90 ft. instead of 20 ft., which number still had its roots folded into its total height:
Along the southern coast of Bolshoy Baron Toll found immense layers of fossil ice, 70 ft. thick, evidently relics from the Ice Age, covered by an upper layer of Post-Tertiary deposits containing numbers of perfectly well preserved mammoth remains, rhinoceros, Ovibos, and bones of the horse, reindeer, American stag, antelope, saiga and even the tiger. The proof that these animals lived and fed in this latitude (73 20' N), at a time when the islands were not yet separated from the continent, is given by the relics of forest vegetation which are found in the same deposits. A stem of Alnus fruticosa, 90 ft. high, was found with all its roots and even fruits.
Since this edition of the encyclopedia had a sterling reputation for accuracy, and, just as importantly, was the last to fall into the public domain, its information has been endlessly mined by alternative writers who could repeat, rewrite, and copy with impunity.
I previously documented how such copying—and copying errors—led to the creation of the false claim that the Mahabharata contained a description of the fallout from a nuclear bomb. Now Francesco Brighenti has provided the final piece that explains how the last corruption in the story came about, and based on that information, I have been able to finally figure out exactly how the last mysterious error occurred. Thanks to Brighenti for pointing out that the mistaken name Gurkha appears in Chariots of the Gods, a fact I had forgotten.
In my article, I noted that Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, the first alternative writers to claim that the ancient Sanskrit text had nuclear reports, had mistakenly transliterated the divine name Sakra (a.k.a. Indra) as “Cukra,” which I imagine has something to do with how the name is spelled in the French translation of the Mahabharata. The name is transliterated as Çakra in the 1899 French translation of L. Ballin and the 1864 edition of Hippolyte Fauche, the “Ç” having an “S” sound. The mistake of “u” for “a” is probably either a transcription error or a printer’s error, as is dropping the cedilla (the little hook) from the Ç.
But the mistaken change from Çakra to Cukra produced a fateful error when Erich von Däniken sat down to borrow material from Pauwels and Bergier for Chariots of the Gods.
In the same book [the Mahabharata], in what is perhaps the first account of the dropping of an H bomb, it says that Gurkha loosed a single projectile on the triple city from a mighty Vimana. The narrative uses words which linger in our memories from eye-witness accounts of the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb at Bikini: white-hot smoke, a thousand times brighter than the sun, rose up in infinite brilliance and reduced the city to ashes. When Gurkha landed again, his vehicle was like a flashing block of antimony. And for the benefit of the philosophers I should mention that the Mahabharata says that time is the seed of the universe.
This passage is quite clearly modeled on the Pauwels and Bergier excerpts from the Mahabharata, which combined material from two different sections of the text, but which von Däniken misunderstood as being part of one unified narrative.
It would at first appear that von Däniken misread the c-cedilla as a G, except that the French text of Morning is also missing the cedilla. In attempting to transliterate the incorrectly printed Cukra into German, von Däniken rendered the C as a G, transposed the k and r, and then added an “h,” perhaps because he misidentified “Cukra” as the well-known Nepalese military units, the Gurkhas. (Yes, the “h” appears in the German text, so it is not an English translator’s error.)
Von Däniken’s mistake led directly to the continued misuse of Gurkha in place of Sakra in New Age, alternative history, and ancient astronaut books down to the present day.
I have updated “The Case of the False Quotations” to reflect this new information.
1/10/2013 05:45:30 am
Le Matin des Magiciens de Louis Pauwels et Jacques Bergier, la racine de tous les maux..
1/10/2013 02:57:56 pm
Once again, thank you for the attention. Backtracking these standard anecdotes, which are so endlessly recycled in alternative literature, has been a hobby of mine for about twenty years. As an unemployed historian, it's nice to find a community that is interested in such things.
1/10/2013 03:14:58 pm
Unfortunately,John,you don`t show the same impeccable integrity & professionalism in fact checking when you discuss issues related to international relations & geopolitics.
1/11/2013 05:12:18 am
Now you think our disagreements are based on a lack of integrity on my part?
1/10/2013 10:26:31 pm
I'm so sorry! I'm a terrible typist (and a bad speller), and if it weren't for spell check, I probably wouldn't be able to write at all. I clearly know how to spell your name, but somehow, my fingers don't get the message. I've fixed it above. Sorry again!
1/11/2013 05:12:10 am
1/11/2013 06:53:23 am
John J. McKay. Absolutely not, but you made specific statements that are based on ideological & political perceptions, not as the result of Real politik considerations & analyses. I am still waiting for you to respond to my comments on your blog ,by the way.
1/11/2013 02:52:28 pm
Okay, I've put up a partial response over there.
1/11/2013 04:31:30 pm
Thank you John.
2/6/2013 04:49:48 pm
This passage is quite clearly modeled on the Pauwels and Bergier excerpts from the Mahabharata, which combined material from two different sections of the text.
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Checking sources must help in this case.
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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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