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The Diffusionists Have Landed

You've probably heard of those crackpot theories about ancient Phoenicians or Chinese in the New World. Maybe it's time to start paying attention

by Marc K. Stengel

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

IT is arguably the biggest discovery never to have elicited any reaction whatsoever. In November of 1994 a small monthly newspaper called Y Drych (The Mirror), which serves as an expatriate journal for North America's Welsh diaspora, published the following curious item among a batch of breezy tidbits:

According to [Alan] Wilson and [Baram] Blackett ... the court of Camelot is more likely to be found in Kentucky! They claim that [King] Arthur was killed in North America by Indians after emigrating there ca. 579 A.D.

With telegraphic brevity the Y Drych contributor, Don John, ran through the few salient points: There were two Arthurs, who lived centuries apart. "It was King Arthur II who died in America. He was embalmed and taken back to Wales to be buried at Mynydd-y-Gaer, near Bridgend." Oddly, John failed to mention the discovery a few years earlier, by a man antiquing in Pennsylvania, of a two-edged sword of the Norse spatha type. That finding had recently been discussed in the pages of another obscure journal, The Ancient American, which quoted the same Alan Wilson. The sword was inscribed with seven letters of a script that Wilson identified as Coelbren y Beirdd, presumed to have been used by ancient Welsh divines in casting lots (coelbren = "lots, sortilege"; y beirdd = "of the bards"). Wilson proposed a rough translation ("The Lord ruler well beloved, the duty of the army mutually together to you") and posited a connection between this sword and Arthurian immigrants in North America circa A.D. 570.

John's scoop has apparently remained an exclusive for Y Drych: the big dailies and newsweeklies have run no follow-ups; no national television crews have combed Kentucky for relics of the Once and Future King. The silence, in the United States, at least, has extended even to a book on the subject, The Holy Kingdom, in which the popular paranormalist Adrian Gilbert elaborates on the Wilson-Blackett proposition in exhaustive textual, photographic, and genealogical detail. The book, brought out in England in 1998, has yet to find an American publisher.

It was ever thus, judging by the sentiments of those attending a recent annual conference of the Institute for the Study of American Cultures, held in Columbus, Georgia. ISAC mem-bers are accustomed to the professional and popular disregard that greets their unorthodox inquiries into the pre-Columbian history of the Western Hemisphere -- inquiries, generally known as diffusionist studies, that suppose intentional contact with the Americas by civilizations across both the Pacific and the Atlantic, beginning sometime in the late Stone Age (7000 -- 3000 B.C. ).

Arrayed against the diffusionists stand the so-called independent inventionists -- mainstream scholars who regard Western Hemisphere aboriginals as having been essentially free of cross-cultural contamination until 1492. What the inventionists and the diffusionists are fighting over is the right to propose -- or, better yet, to define -- the prehistory of the Americas. The two camps, it seems, agree on little before Columbus's landing. The Norwegian archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad's famous identification, in 1961, of a Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, from just after A.D. 1000 is, of course, a notable exception, no longer in dispute. But that discovery has so far gone nowhere. The Norse settlers, who may have numbered as many as 160 and stayed for three years or longer, seem to have made no lasting impression on the aboriginal skraellings that, according to Norse sagas, they encountered, and to have avoided being influenced in turn. The traditions of the Micmac people, modern-day inhabitants of the area, have not been seriously investigated; another people historically associated with this area, the reputedly fair-skinned Beothuks, have been extinct since 1829. The Vikings came, kept to themselves, and left -- that appears to be as much revision of the long-standing history of New World settlement as the hard-core academic establishment will entertain.

To many, the inventionists have clearly gained the upper hand, having marshaled shards, spearpoints, and other relics that indicate the independent cultural development of a native people whose Ice Age ancestors came overland from Northeast Asia. Still, the diffusionists have a habit of raising awkward questions -- questions that even some mainstream scholars find hard to ignore, much less to explain away. Who carved Phoenician-era Iberian script into a stone found at Grave Creek, West Virginia? How did a large stone block incised with medieval Norse runes make its way to Kensington, Minnesota? Why would a rough version of the Ten Commandments appear in Old Hebrew script on a boulder-sized tablet near Los Lunas, New Mexico? Conversely, how could the sweet potato, known to be indigenous to the Americas, have become a food staple throughout Polynesia and the Pacific basin as early as A.D. 400? And why would dozens of eleventh- to thirteenth-century temple sculptures in Karnataka, India, include depictions of what appears to be American maize?

At the ISAC gathering Mike Xu, a professor of modern languages and literatures at Texas Christian University, raised the possibility of direct Chinese influence on Mesoamerica's Olmec culture. Xu is young, quiet, and almost diffident about the bold proposition he came to reveal. Drawing on linguistic scholarship in his native China, he suggested that carved stone blades found in Guatemala, dating from approximately 1100 B.C. , are distinctly Chinese in pattern. Moreover, they bear ideographic writing that has uncanny resemblances to glyphs from the contemporaneous Shang Dynasty, which ruled North China from its center in the lower Yellow River valley. Xu was candid about the skepticism, even disdain, that his proposal engenders among orthodox archaeologists. With an engaging smile, he pointed out that no less an authority than Michael Coe, a Mayan-glyph decipherer and an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University, considers the Shang hypothesis totally spurious. Xu remains unbowed. "The problem," he told his ISAC audience, "isn't whether Asians reached Mesoamerica before Columbus. The problem is when they arrived and what they did here." Any proposal that smacks of diffusionism in today's academic climate, Xu continued, is immediately dismissed as irresponsible at best, malevolent at worst. "Here are all these American scholars," he pointed out slyly, "speaking European languages, and they dare to say 'No, there was never any diffusion; and yes, all Western Hemisphere cultures are indigenous.'"

The two-day ISAC conference passed quietly enough for a symposium that juggled such unorthodox topics as the Bat Creek Stone -- whose inscription, in what seems to be a second-century Semitic alphabet, complicates the stone's official provenance in nineteenth-century East Tennessee -- and certain Native American Earth Mother symbols that resemble icons from prehistoric Europe and Asia. Gloria Farley, whose book In Plain Sight (1994)has become a standard reference work among diffusionists, summarized the latest inquiries into the origin and the decipherment of rock carvings at an Oklahoma site known as the Anubis Caves. A self-taught archaeologist, still dauntless in her early eighties, Farley reviewed a career in which she was among the first to posit, fifty years ago, that the caves' myriad jumbled symbols represent pictographs and epigraphy with proto-Celtic, Iberian, and Phoenician affinities to a time pre-dating Jesus by centuries. The dramatic hypotheses being proposed by Farley, Xu, and other speakers stood in stark contrast to the humble setting of a small rented conference room in western Georgia.

Crank Science

THERE is a reason, according to the academics who uphold anthropological orthodoxy at universities and research institutes, why the diffusionists have elicited nothing but enmity or disregard for their views: they are crackpots and lunatics. "Crank" is the term employed for these scientists by Stephen Williams, a retired curator of North American archaeology at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. Williams's Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (1991) is virtually a catalogue of outlandish theories about pre-Columbian transoceanic visits to the Americas. Williams set out to debunk them all. Wielding sarcasm like a shiv, he was relentless in attack. He scuttled the "lost continents" of Atlantis and Mu; deconstructed the latent racism that he perceives beneath the nineteenth-century fascination with Moundbuilder cultures, whose barrows freckle the great river valleys of the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Mississippi; and squashed speculation about Norse, Semitic, and Celtic letters carved in stones from New Hampshire to New Mexico.

Similarly, for Brian Fagan, an influential professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, diffusionism is exasperating. "Why do such lunatic ravings persist?" he asked in his book The Great Journey: The Peopling of Ancient America (1987). "To read the crank literature on the first Americans is to enter a fantasy world of strange, often obsessed, writers with a complex jargon of catchwords and 'scientific' data to support their ideas." The Colgate University astronomer and anthropologist Anthony Aveni tends to be more sympathetic, perhaps because the field of archaeo-astronomy, which he has helped to ennoble, was itself an academic pariah until recent years. Nevertheless, Aveni's sympathies go only so far. "I think there is, beneath all this dialogue about diffusionism, a will to believe in bizarre ideas," he says. "This is a romantic idea that we're talking about here, after all. These are bizarre tales of an imagined era in an imagined past. And like the occult beliefs they resemble, they're really just wishful thinking. It's a belief that we can wish into existence the universe we desire and deserve."

The universe that we appear to be stuck with, however, at least as far as the peopling of the Western Hemisphere is concerned, is unromantic and fairly unambiguous. Fagan's book provides a succinct summary of establishment thinking:

The most conservative viewpoint argues that no humans lived in the Americas before the end of the Ice Age. Tiny numbers of big-game hunters moved south of the great North American ice sheets as the glaciers retreated after 14,000 years ago. The newcomers followed large Ice Age animals into more temperate latitudes. They expanded rapidly over vast tracts of virgin hunting territory, their immediate descendants [being] the famous Clovis people, whose distinctive stone spearpoints have been found over much of North and Central America.

For decades these Clovis immigrants have been assigned a settlement date around 10,000 B.C. , in what Stephen Williams, an adherent, calls "the Clovis hard-line position." Williams and other mainstream scholars contend that the wide distribution of the distinctive stone spearpoints first discovered in Clovis, New Mexico, in 1932 supports their theory that all pre-Columbian experience throughout the Western Hemisphere ultimately derives from an Ice Age monoculture with exclusively Siberian origins.

Lately, however, archaeological finds at various digs in North and South America have begun to call the Clovis-only scenario into question. For instance, the archaeologist Tom Dillehay, of the University of Kentucky at Lexington, has uncovered intriguing evidence that human beings reached Monte Verde, in southern Chile, 12,500 years ago -- in other words, that the extreme southern limits of the Western Hemisphere were settled at about the time that the supposed first Americans were crossing the Bering land bridge, more than 9,000 miles to the northwest. It is generally accepted that settlement across this distance would have required progressive immigrant waves over some 7,000 years. Moreover, Dillehay and his team have come across a campsite near Monte Verde that they believe may be 30,000 years old.

Less ancient but potentially more problematic for the Clovis hard-liners is the revelation in Brazil of what appear to be the oldest human remains ever found in the Western Hemisphere. Last October, Brazilian scientists announced evidence suggesting that the skull of a young woman found at Lapa Vermelha, in the state of Minas Gerais, is some 11,500 years old. Moreover, sophisticated reconstructive techniques performed on the skull in England indicate that Luzia, as the woman has been named, might have Negroid origins -- or at least is not Mongoloid, as any descendant of Bering Strait pilgrims must necessarily be. Luzia's remains were discovered in 1975, but it was not until twenty years later that anthropologists examined the skull closely and thought to question the Clovis-only hypothesis on the basis of the unusual cranial features.

How might the pre-Clovis settlers have arrived? One explanation is that early immigrants floated down the western coast of North and South America in small boats. This theory, considered heretical when, nearly three decades ago, it was proposed by the archaeologist Knut Fladmark, of Simon Fraser University, has been gaining adherents of late. Researchers such as Dennis Stanford, the chairman of the anthropology department at the Smithsonian Institution; Carole Mandryk, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University; and Daryl Fedje, an archaeologist with Parks Canada, are urging their colleagues to consider that canoelike or skin-covered boats -- prototypes of Inuit kayaks, perhaps -- might have aided migration toward the end of the last Ice Age, around 14,000 years ago. Jon Erlandson, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, has pointed out that boats were used in Japan 20,000 years ago. By Fladmark's estimate, travelers paddling six hours a day could have made the trip from the eastern Aleutians to Chile in just four and a half years. This route might also help to explain Luzia's presence in Brazil:the anthropologist who first noted her unusual features believes that her forebears originated in Southeast Asia and migrated "northward along the coast and across the Bering Straits until they reached the Americas."

Xu, for one, is amused by this archaeological approximation of a drag race backward in time. Although he welcomes any willingness among traditional academics to question the established settlement dates, he is puzzled by their apparently exclusive fascination with older contact. "It amazes me," he told his ISAC colleagues in Columbus, "that while there are authorities who propose visits to North America by boat some twenty-five thousand years ago," most orthodox academics insist that contact across the sea in the past 3,000 years is "simply unthinkable."


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

Marc K. Stengel is a writer and a television producer in Nashville, Tennessee. Stengel is at work on a historical novel and a documentary film, both touching on aspects of pre-Columbian transoceanic migration.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; The Diffusionists Have Landed - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 35-48.