It’s been a big week for research into why people believe weird things. Yesterday I reported on the Chapman University survey of American fear, which found that more than 1 in 5 Americans professes a belief in ancient astronauts. I read in the Pacific Standard that some new psychological research confirms that the people most likely to buy in to fear-mongering conspiracy theories, such as governments hiding evidence of ancient astronauts, are people who have a combination of low self-esteem and a strong sense of identification with a specific subculture or demographic group.
While different groups were associated with different conspiracy theories, it isn’t hard to connect this finding to the tendency of fringe historians to “discover” that ancient history’s greatest actors happen to be people who share the same racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural background as the investigator and his audience.
Meanwhile, in Canada, a professor of cultural geography has begun studying paranormal communities, such as UFO believers, to try to find out why people make the jump from a passive interest in the paranormal to becoming an active “investigator” of things like aliens, Bigfoot, or ghosts. “Despite the secularization and rationalization of western cultures, I’ve noticed there has been an increase, in the past decade, in paranormal cultures,” Prof. Paul Kingsbury said. I’m going to say that there probably isn’t really an increase overall, and I’m pretty sure there have been large paranormal cultures for most of the past half century. The difference, as Kingsbury alluded to in an interview, is that today there are more cable TV channels broadcasting paranormal programming. But that’s as much a function of the economics of niche programming in a saturated market as of increasing belief, and it’s odd that a professor would take TV coverage for a reflection of reality.
Unfortunately, though, Kingsbury doesn’t have anything interesting to say about the investigators just yet, and to judge from his interview, where he praised UFO hunters for their rigorous methodology and ghost hunters for their concern with their clients’ welfare, I’m going to guess that the results will be more ethnography than exposé. I hope he finds something useful to report beyond the truism that communities exist because their members feel they benefit from belonging to them.
Meanwhile, I had a disappointing time investigating what I had hoped would be an interesting “lost city” I had only vaguely heard of, the City of the Caesars, a supposedly gold-drenched metropolis somewhere along the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, allegedly seen in the time of Sebastian Cabot. The name of the city made it seem like the Europeans were looking for a Roman city, but I was gravely disappointed to learn that the city’s name derives from the fact that the company that allegedly reached the city was under the command of Francisco César, a deputy of Cabot’s, after whom his band took the name of the Césares, or in English, the Caesars.
His story was first told by Pedro Cieza de Léon in his Wars of Chupas, written in the 1550s but not published until the nineteenth century. He knew César and his men, and he wrote in chapter 85 that “I have often heard them talk, and affirm with an oath that they saw much treasure and great flocks of the cattle we call here Peruvian sheep, and that the Indians were well dressed and of good mien. They said many other things that I need not write of” (trans. Clements Markham).
This was apparently sufficiently mysterious a reference to treasure that later writers tried to expand on it. Thus, decades later Ruy Díaz de Guzmán, writing in La Argentina 1.9 (1612), claimed that he heard from one of the last survivors of the expedition the real story of what happened. I translated the whole chapter, but the highlights only take a few lines:
They continued their journey back to the south, where they entered a province of great size and with many people, rich in gold and silver, who had together a large number of cattle and sheep of the land (llamas), whose wool they made into a great amount of tightly woven clothing. These natives obey a lord who rules over them, and for greater safety the Spaniards sought his protection and determined to go where he was. They arrived in his presence, and with reverence and respect they gave their embassy, in the best way possible to them, giving him redress for their coming, and asking friendship on behalf of His Majesty, who was a powerful prince who had his kingdom and dominion on the other side of the sea, not because he needed to acquire new lands and estates, nor for any other interest than to have him as a friend, and to preserve their friendship, as he does with many other princes and kings, and for his zeal to let him know the true God. In this particular the Spaniards, with great modesty, did not fall afoul of that gentleman, who received them kindly and treated them well, really enjoying the conversation and manners of the Spaniards; and there they tarried for many days, until César and his companions asked him permission to return, which the lord gave them, liberally presenting them with many pieces of gold and silver, and loading them down with as much clothing as they could carry, and he gave them Indians to accompany and serve them…
It’s not exactly the lost city of legend, even in this more detailed form. It’s not even the story of a city, for that matter. Indeed, it’s rather a boring story to have based a legend on. Yet somehow, this story turned into an enchanted city populated by a lost race of Patagonian giants located by a mountain of diamonds. All of that, though, was a later invention, added onto the original version in the 1700s and after.
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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