Genetic mythologies: “Nephilim DNA” from the Paracas skulls

As longtime readers here know, I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which people attempt to misuse genetics to legitimize pseudoscientific ideas.

Today I’m going to write about one example which I’ve been meaning to address for some time: pseudoscientific claims about the genetic distinctiveness of the Paracas peoples. (Please note that I don’t usually show images of Native American remains on this blog, but there was no other way to illustrate the details of this issue. Under the cut is an embedded video of the unwrapping of a Paracas mummy, as well as a photo with the mummy under its wrappings.)

Many ancient societies in North and South America practiced cultural modification to the crania of their infants, resulting in distinctive skull shapes in the adult population. This practice took several different forms, as anatomist Dr. Valerie Dean O’Loughlin notes in her 2003 paper Effects of Different Kinds of Cranial Deformation on the Incidence of Wormian Bones. (p147)

            Cultural cranial deformation could be intentionally induced in a variety of ways (Dingwall, 1931; Dean, 1995a). The vault could be tightly encircled by bandages, producing a cylindrical or conical head shape (e.g., in South America). Securing the skull between two boards flattened those portions of the head in direct contact with the boards (e.g., on the Northwest Coast of North America). In some cultures, the deformation may have been unintentional, as when an infant was secured on a cradleboard for a long period of time, consequently flattening the back of the head (e.g., the Southwest US)

Reasons for modifying cranium shape were varied and sometimes culture-specific (Dingwall, 1931; Topinard, 1879; Dean, 1995a). Northwest Coast, Columbian, and Peruvian cultures viewed males who had deformed skulls as more brave and powerful. Most cultures that practiced intentional molding viewed a “molded” head as a sign of high status. Often, slaves were not allowed to practice cultural cranial deformation, and so their head shape was a physical sign of their social status (e.g., Northwest Coast). In addition, culturally modified skulls were viewed as a sign of beauty, and the more marked the deformation, the more beautiful the person was regarded as being.

The Paracas peoples, who occupied the southern coast of Peru between 800-100 BCE, are among the best-known practitioners of this custom. Makers of sophisticated textiles, and the forebearers of the Nasca culture, they have long attracted the attention of fringe theorists, who attribute their cranial modifications to a different ancestry from other Native American peoples. Their elongated crania have been variously explained as aliens, a separate human species, a “hybrid race” of super-human Nephilim , and all sorts of other nonsense.

Some number of the Paracas crania, excavated by Julio Cesar Tello in the 1920s have been on display in a private museum, owned by Juan Navarro Hierro. Several years ago, tour guide Brien Foerster sent skeletal samples from some of these crania to an anonymous geneticist and received a report that they “had mtDNA with mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal known so far.” Foerster made much of these results in books and interviews, which—along with the procedures used to obtain them and the identity of the geneticist–remain unpublished. This is a classic case of science-by-press release, and Ken Fitzpatrick-Matthews has an excellent rundown of this debacle on his blog Bad Archaeology, as does Doubtful News.

Recently I’ve been hearing claims about new DNA tests on the Paracas skulls put out by L.A. Marzulli in podcast interviews promoting his book Nephilim Hybrids: Hybrids, Chimeras, & Strange Demonic Creatures. In one interview he insisted that the newest DNA tests were conducted completely legitimately and under strict anti-contamination protocols, and yet the results showed that they were Nephilim/European hybrids. I was interested, so I read his book to see exactly what they did. Their approach serves as an excellent teaching opportunity in evaluating ancient DNA research.

Evidently there were two sets of DNA tests. The first round, which is what the bloggers above discuss, was conducted some time ago by an anonymous geneticist, who Marzulli says was fired for continuing to work on the Paracas skulls after his supervisors told him to stop. The new tests, results of which Marzulli published in his new book, were performed on a culturally modified cranium from a ‘private collection in Oregon’ that someone inherited from his grandfather, who had allegedly obtained it in Peru. (This work on privately “owned” human remains, presumably without consultation and for the explicit purpose of promoting pseudoscience, is insanely unethical).

Marzulli insists that the aDNA tests were conducted by a legitimate laboratory, and included their reports in the appendix of the book. I looked up who did it, and he’s right: they’re a legit commercial ancient DNA service. Out of professional courtesy I’m not going to post their name here, because if I were in their position I would hate to be associated with this nonsense. (It’s easy enough to find out who they are, if you really want to know.) Based on their reports to him, they cautioned him extensively about their concerns regarding contamination of the sample, and he ignored those cautions to promote his own ideas.

I’m going to take you through what Marzulli claims they did to obtain the bone and hair samples in both sets of tests, and show you where they failed to take some crucial measures to prevent contamination. First, let’s take a look at his and Foerster’s original attempt to sample DNA from an individual in the private Peruvian museum. Marzulli describes it this way in his book: “The lab told us the sample may have been contaminated. However, I was there and watched the proceedings, and the hair that came off of the skull while Joe Taylor was unwrapping it was put immediately into a collection bag.”  He reports that the anonymous technician who did this work recovered mt haplogroup U2e1 from the remains, and that this DNA was absolutely not contamination.

There is no discussion of the laboratory methods, so I’m unable to evaluate them (always a red flag with ancient DNA work).  However, the sampling procedure is documented in this video (Warning: watching this completely unnecessary destruction of a child’s remains is difficult.) .

It’s very clear where the contamination took place. I’m going to annotate a screen capture of one frame to illustrate. (Note:  This image does show part of a child’s mummy. The wrappings are intact in this frame).

Screen Shot 2016-09-20 at 6.37.56 AM.png

 

As you can see from the image, the individuals attempting to sample DNA from this mummy made some attempt to cover themselves, but it’s entirely inadequate for ancient DNA work. There is exposed skin on every individual in the room, the gentleman’s beard and hair are uncovered, and at one point they start squirting water all over the mummy, claiming that because it’s distilled, it won’t introduce contamination. Wrong. All water used in ancient DNA work has to be purchased from vendors who guarantee that it’s certified DNA free. Distilled water has lots of DNA present in it. Any one of these things could have (and probably did) introduced contamination to the sample they tested.

By contrast, here is what I wear when sampling for ancient DNA analysis in the field (no human remains are visible in this image):

Fieldwork

Some exposure of the face is unavoidable, but is kept to a minimum with a head covering that also hides the ears, forehead, and hair. I don’t stick my face directly over the tissue I’m sampling, I don’t allow any portion of my hands, wrists, or arms to go uncovered, and I certainly don’t squirt water on the sample. Once collected, the sample (bone) is immediately put into a sealed, sterile bag, and not opened again until it’s inside the sterile ancient DNA isolation laboratory. Then it’s thoroughly bleached and UV irradiated to remove surface contamination. (Also, please note that this sampling and analysis was done with the permission of the descendant community).

In their second attempt to retrieve Nephilim DNA from individuals from culturally modified crania—this time, from the skull in someone’s private collection– Marzulli claims that they sampled the remains wearing a full body suit, face mask, sleeves, gloves, and shoe coverings, and that “enabled us to reduce contamination, however, this artifact had been handled by numerous people over the years, and we have come to understand that just breathing on it can contaminate it.” Note that although he claims they have come to understand this, he never admits that contamination was likely responsible for the results of the first test of the child’s mummy.

There are ways to mitigate surface contamination, but based on his description of how they sampled the cranium, he doesn’t employ them. Using a Dremmel tool, he says they drilled into the skull, “cleaned the area” with compressed air, changed drill bits and then drilled out powdered bone from the skull. Blowing compressed air into the hole will do exactly the same thing that squirting water does: introduce DNA. No bleach or UV were used to decontaminate either the tools used to collect the bone sample, nor the sample itself. Also, photographs of the cranium (which I’m not going to show, as per my policy of minimizing the use of images of indigenous human remains) show it to be extremely shiny, as if it has some kind of varnish on them. If that’s the case, there are likely layers of contaminating DNA deposited on the surface of that bone, effectively sealed in by that varnish.

The technician who did the DNA extraction and work on the samples notes the same thing in his or her report (included in Marzulli’s book)

Without physically seeing the item itself, I can only guess that the skull was heavily handled over the years. Therefore any surface of the skull that is exposed to the environment could be contaminated. If the powder from the interior of the skull was just scraped off the interior surface, we could just be looking at surface contamination even though it was from inside the skull cavity. There is also no way of knowing how much contaminant DNA can leech into a sample from the surface. It is also possible that the tools used to remove the powder were not sterile and contained exogenous (outside the sample) DNA.

 

Finally—and very importantly—it is standard for ancient DNA researchers to sequence their own DNA, and that of the archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and anyone else who may have handled the remains, in order to rule out that any results might be inadvertent contamination from them. Marzulli, Foerster, and others involved have never done that. This is important because the laboratory detected two different mitochondrial haplogroups in the samples Marzulli sent: T2b, and B4. It’s impossible to know whether either haplogroup was introduced by the persons involved in sampling.  As a reviewer I wouldn’t accept either result as endogenous DNA: it would need to be redone under proper conditions, verified by at least two independent extractions, and include comparative sequences from the individuals sampling the DNA to ensure that the sequences recovered weren’t from them.

That being said, Marzulli’s response to the results provided to him was fascinating. He notes that “The bottom line is that mitochondrial DNA was found from the powder and it was haplogroup T2b,” which is not an autochthonous Native American maternal lineage. This result fits with his mythology that the Paracas people “arrived roughly 3,500 years ago, which fits the timeline of the diaspora from the Levant of Promised Land perfectly.”

Marzulli completely ignored the finding of haplogroup B, which is quite common in South America, presumably because it would fit with the archaeological interpretation that these individuals are indigenous to the region.He wants to believe that the Paracas individuals are genetically different, because that is required by his worldview:

I believe the Nephilim tribes fled, and some went north into Europe while others traveled the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic; and then, as Thor Heyerdahl proved in his bestselling book Ra, all one needed to do was set sail, and the trade winds would push you to the island of Barbados in the ‘New World’

 

He concludes by saying: “People will complain that the sample was contaminated. They’ll tell us the results were skewed. They’ll come up with every excuse imaginable in order to keep the evidence from the public.”

Yes, that’s exactly what we’re saying. All the samples taken were almost certainly contaminated, as I’ve shown you in some detail. There are tried and true ways of preventing and detecting contamination, but they were not employed here.

It’s perhaps also noteworthy that a very large section of his new book is devoted to discussing the “demon fairy” discovered in Mexico*….which he has just admitted was a fraud. This collapse of his evidence doesn’t seem to have deterred him from his belief in the reality of Nephilim. Nor do I expect that my discussion here will deter him.

I took a long time to write this post, because I kept wondering if it would do more harm than good to bring attention to Marzulli and Foerster’s outrageous claims. But ultimately I decided that this was a good example to use in teaching some basic concepts in ancient DNA research. I hope that interested readers will be better equipped to think critically about ancient DNA claims in the future. Ancient DNA is a useful tool, but only when it’s employed under the most stringent conditions. You simply can’t be sloppy with these methods, or you’ll end up with meaningless results.

 

*I swear I’m not making this up. He really talks about it as if it’s important evidence of his Nephilim idea. Demon. Fairy.

 

For further reading:

How to tell if an ancient DNA study is legitimate: https://violentmetaphors.com/2014/02/07/how-to-tell-if-an-ancient-dna-study-is-legit/

Jason Colavito’s blog discusses Marzulli’s claims in several posts: http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog

Andy White also has several good discussions of Nephilim hybrid claims: http://www.andywhiteanthropology.com/blog/category/nephilim

Robert Martin has a great piece on cranial modifications here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-we-do-it/201606/honey-i-squished-the-kids-heads

Finally, I’m actually giving a talk about genetic mythologies, including Nephilim claims, at this year’s Skepticon on November 12th in case you’re interested in hearing more.

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31 thoughts on “Genetic mythologies: “Nephilim DNA” from the Paracas skulls

  1. lfehren September 20, 2016 / 7:35 pm

    Wonderful post…thank you for that! Also kind of amazing that Foerster & Co completely ignore actual ancient DNA studies of Paracas remains all showing that those individuals all have Native American ancestry…as to be expected…

  2. fireminer September 20, 2016 / 9:30 pm

    An informational post, as always.

    On the sideline: You said that “…(This work on privately “owned” human remains, presumably without consultation and for the explicit purpose of promoting pseudoscience, is insanely unethical)…” So what would be the right way for collectors who want to contribute something in their collection for scientific purpose?

  3. minnavanderpfaltz September 21, 2016 / 2:24 am

    Couldn’t read it. Whoever put that horrible trashy video at the bottom with the loud, loud noise that kept changing ruined the article for me–even with my hearing aids off! (My aids kills the white noise and these intrusive little things blew past that.) jimsecor

    20.09.2016, 09:08, “Violent metaphors” : > Jennifer Raff posted: “As longtime readers here know, I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which people attempt to misuse genetics to legitimize pseudoscientific ideas. Today I’m going to write about one example which I’ve been meaning to address for some time: pseudoscient” > >

    • Jennifer Raff September 21, 2016 / 1:39 pm

      I’m sorry about that. I think it’s probably the ads that WordPress runs, and I don’t have any control over those. You might try using an adblocker…don’t know if that would help.

    • Mike Morgan September 21, 2016 / 2:21 pm

      Unfortunately, many sites have this same problem of distracting/annoying video ads. If using a Windows OS, look for the “open book” icon on the right side of the address bar and click on it. This opens a “reader view” of only the article itself eliminating all the annoyances.

  4. Andre September 21, 2016 / 9:07 am

    Dear writer dude,
    Your expertise in the matter at hand seems evident however my ignorance forces me to point two observations most likely irrelevant.
    First, I don’t get how a sample of anything in the remnants can have contamination at the DNA level or how NO contamination can be ensured after the “ancient” sample it is ANCIENT.
    Second, how a contaminant sample yield at the molecular level a totally different set or a specific unknown gene or sequence? Please advise. Thank you.

    • Jennifer Raff September 21, 2016 / 9:57 am

      Hi Andre,

      Ancient DNA is fragmented, damaged, and scarce because once an organism dies, the mechanisms for protecting and repairing its DNA stop. The extent to which ancient DNA may be damaged depends on a number of factors: the deposition conditions, the temperatures it has experienced, how long it’s been buried, and whether it was exposed to sunlight or water.

      Working with ancient DNA involves several steps: extraction of the DNA from the tissue source, amplification of the DNA (using PCR) in order to have enough to work with, and then sequencing of the amplified DNA.

      Contamination can be introduced at any step in the process. Humans are constantly shedding hair, spit, and skin cells, and those cells contain DNA, and the same processes for extracting and amplifying ancient DNA will also extract and amplify any modern DNA. If extremely stringent anti-contamination methods are not followed, modern DNA WILL be introduced into the process, often by getting into the bone or hair tissue itself (for example, if the Dremmel tool isn’t cleaned of modern DNA, or if you squirt DNA containing water or blow air onto the sample, or even if you brush your bare arm against the sample). Then it will be extracted in the same sample as the ancient DNA, and the contaminating DNA will usually overwhelm the signal of the endogenous (ancient) DNA because there’s so much more of it preserved. However, sometimes you’ll be able to detect both ancient and modern DNA from the same contaminated extract: that usually manifests as double peaks in the sequence, or inconsistent results from different amplifications of the same DNA extract.

      To answer your second question, you can often find completely spurious, weird sequences coming from an ancient sample if there’s not much (or even any) endogenous DNA present in an extract, OR if there’s a PCR inhibitor (like some chemicals from soil or preservatives applied to bone, like shellac.) What’s going on there is that the polymerase (the enzyme that carries out PCR) is very powerful and going to amplify a whole bunch of random stuff if it can’t “find” genuine sequence to amplify. Often it’s trace amounts of soil bacteria that were co-extracted with the human DNA, primer-dimers or primer-trimers, or sometimes severely damaged human DNA molecules that end up being concatenated. Inexperienced students often mistake this for genuine results, until they closely examine the sequences and figure out that they’re (for example) primer trimers. You can’t really know what it is until you look very hard at the actual sequences.

      I hope that answers your questions.

      • Andre September 21, 2016 / 10:54 am

        very informative thank you!!!

  5. Randy Wright September 22, 2016 / 12:52 pm

    Thor Heyerdahl is a “favorite go-to guy” within the “hyper-diffusionist” crowd. Here in Utah, his book, “Kon Tiki,” was used to “prove” a claim made by Mormons, that Polynesians were a “Book of Mormon” people. An ancient “seafarer” named Hagoth is part of their story line. A bit of background: when Heyerdahl crashed his raft on an uninhabited atoll in French Polynesia, his vessel wasn’t going anywhere further, and he was rescued by a villager from a nearby island. By coincidence, he met with another hyper-diffusionist, John L. Sorenson (who later taught at Brigham Young University and co-authored a book with Carl Johannessen that claimed “biological evidence” for ancient Old World/New World contacts). Sorenson was serving an LDS mission at the time.

    Heyerdahl fans “claim success” with his Ra II expedition nearly a quarter of a century later; on his second attempt with a papyrus boat, he managed to reach the harbor of Barbados, but it was thoroughly waterlogged, and again, wasn’t going any further. Moreover, the reeds used in its construction came from South America, and he relied on South American natives for his vessel’s final construction.

    My take is that history will record Heyerdahl as a Norwegian who was deeply disturbed that an Italian, Christopher Columbus, was celebrated as the “discoverer” of the New World (my apologies to Native Americans who take offense; I’m just a historian and science reporter, seriously). He doubtless felt the honor should’ve gone to Leif Erickson and the Vikings.

    In the interest of “fairness,” here’s a sample of a bit of writing from a Heyerdahl acolyte:

    http://www.bajanthings.com/the-ra-expeditions-thor-heyerdahl

    ” The Olmecs, Aztecs and Incas used a similar calendar to the one used by the Egyptians. ”

    (I’m guessing the common element is a representation of the sun and probably some human figures as well)

    “It is still debated if the Ancient Egyptians influenced the pre-Columbian civilisations of Central America. Thor Heyerdahl has proved that they had the sailing craft to reach the area.”

    Actually, the papyrus vessels of the Egyptians were used on the Nile, and navigating the open sea during the Pharaonic Era was almost certainly a technological impossibility.

    (my thanks to my friend, Simon Southerton, for much of this information)

    • jeffollerton September 23, 2016 / 8:01 am

      Whilst I agree that Heyerdahl’s claims have been over-interpreted by others, it’s unfair to dismiss him completely by using quotes from others. Indeed some of Heyerdahl’s ideas have certainly been supported by more recent genetic evidence, for example:

      http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/10/epic-pre-columbian-voyage-suggested-genes

      There’s also no evidence to support the claim that “Heyerdahl as a Norwegian ….was deeply disturbed that an Italian…..was celebrated as the “discoverer” of the New World….He doubtless felt the honor should’ve gone to Leif Erickson and the Vikings”.

      If that’s the case, why did Heyerdahl not conduct research on Viking ship technology?

      Heyerdahl was very much an internationalist, one of his most repeated quotes being: “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.” The idea that he was some kind of viking nationalist is nonsense.

      Finally, on a point of accuracy, what makes you think that “the reeds used in [the construction of Ra II] came from South America”? As far as I’m aware that’s not the case, they were African papyrus, the same as for Ra I.

      • Randy Wright September 23, 2016 / 2:58 pm

        This article supports “some of Heyerdahl’s ideas”? From the disclaimer at the end:

        *Clarification, 27 October, 11:50 a.m.: Erik Thorsby is described as supporting the hypothesis that Native Americans voyaged on their own to Easter Island. Thorsby, like most scientists, believes it much more likely that Polynesians brought Native Americans to the island.

        (BTW, I’m going to continue to use “quotes from others” to “dismiss” certain hypotheses. I do try to give credit where appropriate, but I’m also capable of one-liners myself, even wicked ones. See Alinsky, Saul)

        The suggestion Polynesians made landfall in South America–or North America–is consistent with discussions I’ve been having with Simon Southern; he tells me there’s evidence in the form of a change in several technologies in California as well. But it was the Polynesians who had the history of maritime exploration and building sea-worthy ocean-going vessels. Heyerdahl’s idea that South Americans reached Polynesia is contradicted by all of the evidence, which was what he claimed to prove was possible with the Kon Tiki voyage.

        The reeds used in the construction of Ra II were “totora reeds,” and the craft was built in Bolivia, at least according to the sources I read.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_boat

        The following year, Heyerdahl organised the building of another similar boat, the Ra II. Boat builders from Lake Titicaca built this in Bolivia. Again, the vessel set sail from Morocco, succeeding this time and reaching Barbados.

        The footnoted reference in Wiki has disappeared (and of course I don’t consider Wiki generally reliable in the least). A Google search–I’d seen the information before, obviously–turned up a comment (the link is too long to reproduce the relevant part, but I’ll type it) from this volume:

        https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Dubious-Archaeology-Atlantis-Walam/dp/0313379181

        “With the Ra boats, Heyerdahl’s goal was more general that it was for the Kon Tiki. Primarily he wanted to show that ancient watercraft were seaworthy, not necessarily that Egyptians and visited the New World in antiquity. The first Ra ended up sinking like a stone. The second was not based on an Egyptian design but was built by Bolivian Indians based on their native boats at Lake Titicaca. The Ra II was much more seaworthy and survived the Atlantic crossing. But it is unclear exactly what it proved to sail a Bolivian style of boat from Africa to the New World.”

        (I used “Heyerdahl ra II construction” for my search parameters)

        Here we go: From Heyerdahl’s “own site”:

        http://www.heyerdahl-institute.no/en/Company/Thor-Heyerdahl/Expeditions/

        “The ship [Ra I] was abandoned and the following year, another similar vessel, Ra II, was built of totora by Demetrio, Juan and Jose Limachi from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and likewise set sail across the Atlantic from Morocco, this time with great success.

        Totora reeds are grown in Lake Titicaca in Bolivia:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totora_(plant)

        Ah, I see Heyedahl was arguing that Totora plants were brought to Easter Island from South America, but the entry notes they’d existed on the island for 30,000 years.

        • jeffollerton September 24, 2016 / 5:11 am

          Thanks for your response Randy. I think it’s important to look directly at what Heyerdahl wrote and did rather than relying on second or third hand accounts. So, to clarify:

          When I talk about “Heyerdahl’s ideas” I’m referring to his broad hypothesis that there was Pre-Columbian contact between South America and Polynesia. He may have been wrong about the direction but he seems to have been right about the contact, which at the time was dismissed as wholly implausible. No scholar is right about everything, but credit where credit is due.
          Ra II was built in Morocco from papyrus collected on the Nile. Heyerdahl recruited Bolivians to build it because conflict in Chad meant that he could not use his African boat builders. The boat design created by the Bolivians was actually closer to the ancient Egyptian design than was Ra I. See pp 280-281 of Heyerdahl’s book “The Ra Expeditions”.

          Heyerdahl gets a lot of bad press, and some of it is deserved, but a lot of that is based on hearsay that does not reflect Heyerdahl’s views or actions. Also we need to consider that Heyerdahl was of his time and doing his work when there was much less evidence available and we lacked tools such as genetic analyses, satellite data, etc. etc. It’s only with hindsight that we can see where he was wrong and where he may have been right.

          • Randy Wright September 24, 2016 / 12:43 pm

            I think you’re confusing the construction of the Ra II with the Ra I. The Heyerdahl source I cited clearly stated Ra II was built with totora reeds, which are native to South America. This is consistent with what I recall from that era; I was in my late teens at the time.

            I also find your attempt to “lecture me”–I’m a credentialed writing teacher–moderately amusing, to borrow from that Alinsky playbook I warned you about. The facts are that Heyerdahl championed the hypothesis Polynesia was settled from the Americas, and it wasn’t. The Polynesians–and their Austronesian ancestors who probably originated in Taiwan and even reached Madagascar in the other directions–were a capable sea-faring people, and Heyerdahl’s actions amounted to discrediting those achievements.

            That makes him a “hyper-diffusionist” in my book, and I invite you read some of my past comments on Jennifer’s blogs on that subject. The reams of pseudo-science and pseudo-history are inflated with claims of that genre, and too, Heyerdahl’s attempts at Atlantic crossings are reduced to myth making and drama and not science.

            • jeffollerton September 24, 2016 / 2:49 pm

              With respect, Randy, I am not confusing Ra I and Ra II. As a historian and science reporter I’m sure you understand the importance of going to the primary source to fact check and I invite you to look at the primary source that I cited.

              The secondary source that you cited is incorrect and actually contradicts itself in the same paragraph; this is what it says under the paragraph about Ra I and Ra II:

              “In 1969 and 1970, Heyerdahl built two boats from papyrus and attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco in Africa……….[Ra I sank]…. the following year, another similar vessel, Ra II, was built of totora by Demetrio, Juan and Jose Limachi from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and likewise set sail across the Atlantic from Morocco”

              We’ll have to agree to differ, but it’s similarly incorrect to dismiss everything that Heyerdahl did and all of his ideas as “hyperdiffusion”. His Atlantic and Pacific crossings were done to show that they could be done, at a time when everyone else was saying that it couldn’t.

              Finally it’s unclear to me what your credentials as a writing teacher have to do with any of this. I could cite some of my credentials as a full professor in a British university, and as someone who has published primary, peer-reviewed research on the history of science, which includes careful fact checking. But I won’t.

  6. Randy Wright October 3, 2016 / 5:58 pm

    I’m going to start a “new post” on the subject of Thor Heyerdahl and “hyper-diffusionism.” I’m finding the formatting troubling, and even “symbolic” in the way it “narrows” in a “manipulative manner” I conclude is restricting and not conducive to authentic exploration and dialogue. I’ve given the topic a “couple of weeks to cook,” and I’ve concluded Ollerton’s reply illustrates a couple of “naughty practices” that are best addressed as metaphors because I find the “ability to abstract” useful.

    Item: I congratulate Jeff on his facility with a technique my friends helped me identify as “straw man slaying” (actually, I first heard the term in college when I pointed up a logical fallacy and the lecturer supplied it; here in Utah it’s de rigeur in certain apologetic circles that enjoy support from places that should know better).

    Defending Heyerdahl–rather than hyper-diffusionist nonsense–is a straw man tactic.

    Item: I stand on my statement that “Thor Heyerdahl is a favorite ‘go to guy’ among the ‘hyper-diffusionist crowd.'”

    Question: Jeff, would you count yourself as a ‘hyper-diffusionist”? Otherwise I’m going to suggest your apologetic claim “His Atlantic and Pacific crossings were done to show that they could be done, at a time when everyone else was saying that it couldn’t” is unwarranted and unscientific. Science–and history–needs to evaluate whether trans-oceanic hyper-diffusion actually took place. BTW, here in Utah, many academics weren’t saying it couldn’t be done; it forms the basis of a number of the “religious discussions” I’ve encountered in over fifty years.

    The action is reminiscent of “wedge theory” tactics involved in supporting “Intelligent Design,” i.e. insisting there’s a “controversy” when there is none. And I don’t consider it “a bad thing” that actual scientific consensus–as opposed to fringe sorts–dismissed such suggestions. The essentially “insignificant” contact between Easter Islanders and Polynesians reduces to “exceptions that prove the rule” analysis. Hyper-diffusionists have always relied on the grandiose and the sensational to attract attention to their nonsense.

    Finally, as a historian, I have no trouble conceding Thor Heyerdahl was a “great man.” P.T. Barnum was as well, but he was a showman and not a scientist. I also give high praise to Heyerdahl’s drawing attention to human-caused pollution in the open ocean. I do, however, find it interesting he actually accomplished some “authentic science” incidental to his swashbuckling theatrics. He noted the open sea was essentially safe using “ancient seafaring technology,” but that navigating close to the coasts was treacherous.

    That, to me, is a strong argument against the “coastal migration hypothesis” whenever the use of watercraft is postulated.

    • jeffollerton October 4, 2016 / 8:21 am

      Randy – I was responding to factual inaccuracies raised directly by you. In what sense can that be described as a straw man argument? You might not like the fact that you were incorrect in your assertions about both Heyerdahl’s motives and the building of Ra II, but deflecting the discussion with further spurious assertions about how I construct my arguments is not going to make you any more correct.

      The substantive item you believe I didn’t address (that Heyerdahl is the “go to guy” for hyper-diffusionists) hardly needed addressing because it’s beside the point: as I alluded to in my replies, we should judge the man on his own merits, not what later crackpots claim he said or believed. Darwin was the “go-to guy” for a generation of eugenicists and believers in racial superiority. Should we blame Darwin for that? Of course not!

      However I’m not even wholly convinced that Heyerdahl is the “go to guy” that you perceive him to be; there’s no mention of him in the Wikipedia entry on the topic, for example, and there are plenty of others with a better claim to being the “go to guy”:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperdiffusionism_in_archaeology

      The definition of hyper-diffusionism in Wikipedia is interesting in itself: “hyperdiffusionists claim that all major cultural innovations and societies derive from one (usually lost) ancient civilization (Williams 1991, 224-232).”

      Heyerdahl was wrong about a lot and no doubt made some spurious claims, but he never once mentions “lost civilisations” in his writing as far as I am aware.

      To answer your question: no, I’m not a hyper-diffusionist.

      • Randy Wright November 28, 2016 / 2:03 am

        Sigh… I suppose it’s time to engage in a bit of altruism and offer up some “illustrative advice” to the young knowledge seekers out there who may have graduate school ambitions. Jeff Follerton here gave us an interesting demonstration of some of the “perils” one may encounter along the way.

        I see that “deflections” and “strawmanese” arguments apparently exist among British academics as well as here in this country, and I’m honestly scratching my head at the Wiki extract that utterly misrepresents “hyper-diffusion” (by the claim its adherents essentially believe its “manifestations” derive from a “usually lost” ancient civilization).

        Here’s the M.O. folks: Take a suitable set of old clothes, fill with straw, and attach a head, also stuffed similarly. Douse liberally with gasoline or other inflammable. Apply a flame source and use the light from the resulting conflagration with accompanying claims of enlightenment and illumination.

        I had no trouble finding the following in “Rational Wiki,” a source infinitely preferable to ordinary Wiki–which essentially anyone can edit at any time–with a simple Google search

        http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Hyperdiffusionism

        Perhaps the most famous proponent of hyperdifussionism was the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl.[1] Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Easter Island on an Inca-style raft to prove Polynesia was settled from South America and crossed the Atlantic on an Egyptian-style raft to prove the Egyptian origins of various pre-Columbian civilizations. Other notable hyperdiffusionists were Grafton Elliot Smith and William James Perry.

        Hyperdiffusionism has the nasty trait of being an easy way to justify belittling non-Western cultures or rob them of their history. A notorious example is Greater Zimbabwe, an urban center built by an indigenous Bantu kingdom around the eleventh century but which for centuries had been considered a Roman or Phoenician colony by European archeologists. Also, many pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact theories tend to be of the ‘Mayans were too stupid to have built that, so it must have been Egyptians/Chinese/extraterrestrials’ kind.

        The historical reality is Heyerdahl used “circular reasoning” in his adventures. I’ve been searching in vain for an article I once read that featured a statement by Heyerdahl’s son, Thor Heyerdahl, Jr. who is a retired marine scientist. He noted he was trained to let the evidence lead him to conclusions whereas his father formed his conclusions and then set about to “prove them.” Thor Jr. wasn’t disparaging his father’s accomplishments (he still has connections with the Kon Tiki museum folks); he was merely offering some understandable analyses.

        Thor Heyerdahl doubtless found an excellent way to achieve publicity, but it wasn’t good science. Unfortunately, it’s influence still contaminates some individuals’ thinking today, as the following illustrates.

        http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8582150/Kon-Tiki-explorer-was-partly-right-Polynesians-had-South-American-roots.html

        The headline was misleading–and of course, the scientist in question was Norwegian–in suggesting Polynesians had South American ancestors. What the evidence shows is Easter Islanders had a bit of South American DNA, and the question then becomes “How did it get to Easter Island?” Did South Americans sail westward or did Polynesians make landfall in South America and bring back Chilean natives on their return voyage.

        Given the centuries of Polynesian colonization of the Pacific versus the lack of a maritime technology along the coast of Chile, the likely answer to that one strikes me as a no-brainer.

        • jeffollerton November 28, 2016 / 3:31 am

          Not sure why you focused on Chile, Randy, but there’s lots of evidence of Pre-Columbian sea-going craft along the west coast of South America – see:

          https://www.researchgate.net/publication/38006016_An_analysis_of_Pre-Columbian_balsa_raft_design_to_determine_the_suitability_of_such_rafts_for_ancient_maritime_trade_between_Ecuador_and_Mexico

          Now you may well be right about the direction of genetic exchange, I agree it’s the most plausible explanation, but it’s not the only explanation. These should be hypotheses to be tested with data, not entrenched views to be defended no matter what.

          One other point – while it’s true that anyone can write and edit Wikipedia, it’s not true that that all are accepted, there are gatekeepers for pages. Note that the RationalWiki provides no evidence to support Heyerdahl as a hyper-diffusionist other than someone’s opinion in a blog post (which anyone can write….).

          Jeff Ollerton (not “Follerton”)

          • Randy Wright December 5, 2016 / 2:37 am

            And now in the “rhetorical shell game” that Jeff Ollerton is subjecting us to, we see even more misdirection, unless he is truly unfamiliar with actual geography and the issue of South American DNA being found among Easter Islanders. As a bit of a digression–since I’m older than young Jeff–the patronizing tone of his writing is particularly onerous, and his subterfuges warrant comment. Consider above, where he noted “he could cite some of [his] credentials” but “won’t,” when in fact, he does, albeit it somewhat obtuse fashion.

            Moving on, the reason I picked Chile is because the distance from that coastal nation to Easter Island is the closest among possible “candidates” on mainland South America. That distance, however, is still 3,686 km (2,340 miles), and it’s absurd to suggest the “maritime” abilities of the coastal Indians could’ve could’ve yielded such an open ocean east-to-west journey. Voyages from Ecuador or Columbia would be even longer. The cross-cultural exchanges from South American to coastal Mexico–assuming they occurred, a still-hypothetical question where the Aztecs in Mexico City are concerned–involved sailing south-to-north–or vice-versa, a far simpler proposition since such voyages could be made while still keeping sight of land (the fact that the Polynesians made their voyages east-to-west is what makes their seafaring abilities so remarkable). Easter Island is a tiny “speck on the ocean,” and its size renders the probability that contact originated with South American Indians non-existent.

            To even suggest that option needs to be considered is absurd.

            But it makes for good drama and controversy, which is what Thor Heyerdahl was promoting in the first place.

            Finally, it may be okay in British Universities to adopt a “because I said so” tone with those claims that Heyerdahl should be believed about the source of the reeds used in the Ra II construction, but those of us of a more cynical nature are going to voice our doubts. Having lived in Utah, I’ve been subjected to publicity involving Heyerdahl since I was in high school in the 1960’s. Latter-day Saint “scholars” used Heyerdahl to “validate” the “Book of Mormon” voyages as a counter to claims their sacred scripture is a wholly improbable myth. I recall hearing at the time–in news reports that, alas, don’t generally appear on the Internet these days–that South American totora reeds were used in the Ra II construction, and all reports back then have him relying on Bolivian Indians to effect the vessel’s construction.

            • jeffollerton December 5, 2016 / 3:16 am

              Please reflect on my comment about hypothesis testing and then consider what you wrote and my responses below:

              “The reason I picked Chile is because the distance from that coastal nation to Easter Island is the closest among possible “candidates” on mainland South America.”

              Yes, that’s correct if one takes the nearest single point-to-point distance. But most of Peru is closer to Easter Island than most of Chile, and in any case there’s only a small percentage difference (<10%) in any of those distances, so probabilistically Chile is no more likely to be the source of the DNA than Peru. Of course it’s going to depend on how the South Pacific Gyre was used by any early navigators (still subject to discussion).

              “Easter Island is…tiny…To even suggest that option needs to be considered is absurd”

              No, it’s not absurd, it’s the alternative hypothesis. Yes, it’s much less likely, but it’s not impossible until it’s been thoroughly tested as a hypothesis.

              Regarding Heyerdahl, please re-read my earlier comments carefully. I didn’t at any point say that my opinion of the source of the reeds was because “I told you so”, I said it was because Heyerdahl said so. In his book. Which is a primary source for the voyage, unlike the secondary or tertiary news reports that you are citing. Yes, he used native Bolivian boat builders, but he did not use South American reeds.

              Finally, my point about my credentials needs to be read as an ironic response to you citing your own credentials as a writing teacher.

    • kfunk937 November 5, 2016 / 3:46 am

      Nuts. Borked the tags again. Plus, misspelling. Oh, well.

  7. Moline Skeptics December 23, 2016 / 11:01 am

    Bypassing peer review and taking one’s claims straight to the public, then claiming persecution when someone questions that approach and the findings, is classic pseudoscience. Despite his claim that doubters use “every excuse imaginable in order to keep the evidence from the public,” blogs such as this are trying to make sure that evidence is understood and exposed as either accurate or mistaken.

  8. Garry March 14, 2017 / 4:29 pm

    You did not address the issue that most of these skulls do not have 3 plates as found in human beings. Or rather not addressed on purpose. Good luck at debunking!

      • Anthony April 26, 2017 / 4:08 pm

        Hi Jennifer,

        I’m curious to know what your opinion is on the supposed abnormal “volume” of the skulls. I understand that cradle boarding etc. can alter the shape of a skull, but can it increase its volume as well?

        • Jennifer Raff April 27, 2017 / 11:14 am

          Great question. So first of all, we don’t know what the actual volumes of these skulls are, because they haven’t been measured. They get held up to a camera and proclaimed to be “too big” but without actual numbers we have no idea whether they fit within the normal range of human variation (which is quite a bit larger than people realize) or not. I was going to do a whole post on this topic, but Carl Feagans beat me to it, so I’ll just link to his excellent piece here: http://ahotcupofjoe.net/2017/04/elongated-skulls-mystery-really-isnt-mystery/

          Hope that answers your questions.

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