The 'mystery' of who built the earthen mounds in the Midwest was nothing but white dude propaganda


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/02/28/the-mystery-of-who-built-t.html


#2

Not shocking that they did this. It’s akin to all kinds of modern denialism which spans the political spectrum.


#3

I didn’t realize there was a “mystery” that anyone other than the Native Americans built the mounds. There is evidence of a huge city that may have had as many as 40,000 people - but even if it was a fourth of that number it is hugely impressive.

What is a mystery is why it declined and was abandoned, as it appeared to happen a little before Columbus. If it was post Columbian, I’d have ventured to guess Old World disease, which wiped out 80-90% of the people. Which when you do that, you are going to lose a lot of the oral history and knowledge.

One thing I have heard from kooks though is that the giants from the bible lived in the Americas :confused:


#4

I say this, with authority: white people are dicks.

Edit: I don’t really believe all white people are dicks. Obvs. Though when talking about stuff from the past you can sure as hell bet there’s some crazy shenanigans going on.


#5

Archaeologists haven’t peddled in that silly myth since the mid-19th century. It’s been common knowledge that various groups of indigenous peoples built the mounds since then; as an Ohio schoolchild in the late 70s and early 80s, visiting the mounds and learning about the tribes that built them was a frequent and common field trip.


#6

Sure, but something worth remembering about it is how much it reflects common white American ideology at the time. How you gonna keep stealing from and eradicating people unless you deem them worthy of such treatment?

Most Americans are taught as children about “Manifest Destiny,” but usually not the additional fact that it was widespread, “commonsense” belief that “settling” land all the way to the western shore would “manifest” the destiny not just of America, but more specifically, of the “white Anglo-Saxon race.” In that context, failing to see anything indigenous as evidence of complex humanity was just another common white blind spot. And while archaeologists no longer peddle a silly myth, such common white blind spots remain with us today, relentlessly undercutting the circumstances and opportunities of non-white people.


#7


#8

Although one suspects that it was still being promulgated in popular literature for some time thereafter. Similar to the origin stories for Great Zimbabwe.


#9

Many such “mysteries” (think of the major Amazonian and Central American civilizations only now being rediscovered through advances in archaeology and remote sensing) stem from the way epidemics wiped out indigenous populations.

Diseases spread from the coasts inland much faster than explorers, conquistadors or colonists did, so that large majorities of pre-contact populations were wiped out long before Europeans even set foot in places like Cahokia, or at least (in the case of the Amazon) before a second party of explorers paid a visit.

No European ever saw the place as a thriving city, only as a post-apocalyptic ruin. If Cahokia fell before the arrival of the plagues, the point still stands because even after the fall there would have been many more people in the area in the period between the fall and the plagues. Combine that with the respectable academic opinion (until recently) that pre-plague indigenous populations were an order of magnitude smaller than they most likely truly were, and it’s easy to start fabricating tall tales of aliens or Vikings or whomever to “explain” such monuments.

Similarly, the first Europeans to sail up the Amazon came back with stories of a mighty civilization that thrived in the immense garden that was the Amazon basin. A few decades later the next Europeans found nothing of the sort, so the stories were written off as fanciful fabrications. Except they weren’t.

An interesting side note is the passenger pigeon, often held up as an example of humanity’s rampant abuse of nature, their population having been reduced from billions to zero in a few decades. While there is truth to that, what’s usually left out is that a significant reason they were so prolific is that the people who used to eat them had nearly been wiped out in the 16th century.

Great pair of books on the topic: Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus; and Mann, again: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. On the Amazon in particular: The Lost City of Z by David Grann or the New Yorker article of the same name.


#10

Equally interesting are all the legal battles around where De-Soto traveled through the Southwest where places that claim part of the route are willing to sue archaeologists and historians who may write otherwise.

Or the competing claims of the oldest European settlement - La Carolina or St. Augustine to the point where the owners of tourist attractions will sue anyone claiming otherwise.

also reminds me of Zimbabwe the stone fort, that white settlers claimed must have been built by some lost white race.


#11

acheologists certainly haven’t. but channels like the history channel, discovery, And other “educational” venues are all about it. Psuedohistorical science. Especially psuedoarcheology is loaded with bad racist ideas and claims drawn from bad, racist, And highly outdated science.

The “mystery” of the mound builders is huge among creationists, Mormon’s and other biblical literalists as well.


#12

I’m sure there are morons who insist that Natives could never have heaped up earth in large amounts.

However, every natural history museum in the Midwest has no shortage of displays about the indigenous peoples who built the mounds over the course of 5,000 years.


#13

We also don’t believe that ancient British people could have built Stonehenge without help from aliens. Because obviously aliens would travel across time and space to show us how to stand some stones on end.


#14

But there are variations of the myth all about us. In New England there is a movement trying to argue that Bronze Age Mariners came to North America and taught Native Americans things, while building roots cellars. For the most part these people run similarly close to conspiracy theorists, yet are able to find support for lecturing at small local colleges where their ideas can take on a dangerous veneer of authenticity.


#15

Yes, there will always be a tiny cadre of backwards creationist types who view Natives as helpless idiots who had to be taught how to farm and fish and make tools by their white saviors. Luckily, the vast majority of people have rejected those myths for over 150 years.


#16

It’s a mystery if you’re starting with the assumption that the local native are subhuman savages genetically incapable of building such a settlement. Even scientists today aren’t totally immune to ignoring the obvious because it contradicts a predetermined “fact”, and scientists of the time did that sort of thing all the time.


#17

Those Charles Mann books are great, so much food for thought there.

Also, there are some other things at work here:

White people who have thought/believed they ran everything, including history, have rolled up to almost every place on the planet that has interesting ruins, and asked the locals where the ruins came from. Very often, due to the usually distorting/destructive effects of generational oral memory, these residents either said they didn’t know, or that it was some god-like people, etc. These white people have thought, A, these people I’m talking to could never have done this, look at how they live!; and B, could some of the mysteries from the obsessions of my culture solve this “mystery”? Could I be the person who solves this mystery and becomes famous back home? And becomes part of history?!

And it’s not just Native Americans, this has happened all over the world, even in Europe: I just finished a book on the history of Delphi; the memory of this place was so thoroughly wiped off the map after the changeover from paganism to Christianity that when some of these “history” people came to the town (with a completely different name) the people living on the exact site of the most famous oracle of classical Western history had no idea what they were asking about.

Lots of Europeans doing the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries made the casually bigoted observations that they thought the current Greeks could not have been the same people who built the Parthenon or the current Egyptians were no relation to those who built the pyramids and other monumental architecture of Egypt (now it’s aliens).


#18

Related: I get tired of the archaeological assumption that 90% of human activity is related to “rituals.” Instead of saying, “I don’t know what this was for,” archaeologists default to, “probably ritual purposes.”


#19

Came here to say the same thing about Great Zimbabwe.


#20

I guess once you believe that our ancestors were dummies and anything major was built by aliens, it’s not a big leap to believing that all current day important people are space alien lizards.