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The Great American Excursion

Second in a Two-Part Series

By Peter Frawley

Part I of this article, which appeared yesterday, discussed the validity of Professor Barry Fell's theory that America was settled centuries before Columbus by various seafaring peoples, including Basques, Celts, Phoenicians, Libyans and Egyptians.

Certain themes recur in almost every conversation about Fell's work with professional archeologists and linguists at Harvard. Some say Fell's theories about Old World civilizations influencing American Indian cultures are nothing more than new variations of the discredited claims made by 19th century speculators; others point to racist implications in Fell's theories; and others say Fell's work is a classic example of pseudo-science. These serious criticisms are worth examining in some detail.

In his 1962 book Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents: Myth and Method in the Study of American Indians, Robert Wauchope presents an interesting historical perspective on the sort of conjectures Barry Fell champions. Wauchope discusses theory after discredited theory, each one arguing that American Indians were originally either Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, early Irish, Basques, Portuguese, Carthaginians, Hebrews, Trojans, Huns, or any of a dozen other early peoples. And Wauchope shows that many of Fell's predecessors also used the same sort of evidence that Fell relies on--similarities in artistic motifs and linguistic parallels--to justify their views.

In a chapter on the use of linguistic evidence, Wauchope lists several examples of scholars who compiled lists of similar words from two languages in an attempt to prove an historical relationship between the languages. Curiously, Barry Fell is not the first Harvard professor to play this game. Wauchope writes:

In 1926 Professor Leo Wiener of Harvard published a magnificent volume...devoted to the thesis that Maya and Nahuatl languages were derived from the Mandingo of Negro Africa. Some three thousand Maya-Mexican and African words were presented as evidence.

As far back as 1899 scholars were doubting the validity of such words lists. In that year Edward John Payne constructed long lists of similar words comparing Mexican Nahuatl with both Greek and Latin, showing how easy it is to manipulate this type of linguistic evidence. "Nothing short of a continuous miracle would prevent such coincidences," Payne wrote.

And Wauchope might have been thinking of Fell's theories linking the Algonquin tribes to the Celts when he wrote that in 1836 "J. MacKintosh, in The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and the Origin of the North American Indian... showed that radical resemblances between Celtic and Algonquin did not mean that the Indians were related to the Irish."

The most serious charge leveled against Fell's theories is that of racism. Clifford Lamberg-Karlovsky, professor of Anthropology, in a letter printed in response to an article by Fell in the Saturday Review, writes that "...there is a curious nineteenth century racism in an approach that must derive the accomplishment of native cultures and civilizations from the civilizations of the Old World, most particularly those of Western Europe, the Celts, and Egypt..."

Fell responds to Lamberg-Karlovsky's letter by saying that the American Indians themselves are very supportive of his work: "[they] are the friends of epigraphy [the deciphering of ancient inscriptions] and are proud to trace their lineage back to the bold mariners of the Bronze Age."

But, Fell's reply begs the question: Why should pride in one's lineage depend on having Old World ancestors? And in any case, why are persons who crossed the Atlantic more "bold" than those who crossed the Arctic wastes of the Bering Straits, the route to America postulated by most anthropologists?

Wauchope thoroughly documents the curious blend of mysticism and racism that animates so many of his theories that claim a European origin for American Indian culture. If he were writing his book today, no doubt he would include the following passage from America B.C., in which Fell describes the growing interest in his work: meet the many requests for visits to campuses I have had to call upon my field colleagues and other associates to undertake more of this work, which is assuming something of a ministry; for it is plain that the word we bring is something that many young people have longed to hear, namely that America is a part of the great Western World whose roots lie in the Mediterranean and whose branches lie on far-flung continents.

This mystical, non-scientific attitude pervades Fell's book. Like many of the discredited theories which Wauchope describes, Fell's theories exhibit a preoccupation with strange religions, mysterious inscriptions, and even large phallic monuments.

His chapter headings provide a good example of his emphasis on the sensational: "The Celtic Revivial," "Alphabets Galore," "Mystery Hill," "Ships of Tarshish," "The Druids of New England," "The Ritual Phallic Monuments," "Mother-of-Heroes, Lady Goddess Byanu," etc.

Fell even defends other discredited writers. He praises the work of Harold Gladwin, who speculated that wayward members of Alexander the Great's fleet populated various parts of the Pacific. Fell points out that Gladwin's book, Men Out of Asia, is even required reading in some Harvard courses. However, Stephen Williams, Peabody Professor of American Archeology and Ethnology, says that hardly means Gladwin's work is endorsed by archeologists at Harvard. The situation is roughly analogous to a Marxist economics professor including readings from Milton Friedman in his course to offer a contrast in methodology.

Wauchope says one interesting feature of the purveyors of "wild" theories for the origins of American Indians is that they rarely attack each other. Instead, they are joined in common opposition to the Establishment. Indeed, Fell said yesterday that although he is not familiar with a new book called They Came Before Columbus, which claims that Africans visited America in ancient times, he is sure that it is "complementary" to his own.

Once Fell heard about a theory that ancient Japanese fishermen of the Jomon culture had settled on the coast of Ecuador, but that most archeologists had rejected the evidence since it was only based on similarities in pottery styles. Without a moment's hesitation Fell commented that he believed the theory was correct, but then he added that he actually was not familiar with the literature. He said he thought it was probably the Chinese who actually had settled there, and he went on to speculate about the presence in South America of Libyans and Tartessians (a people from a city in southwest Spain).

Fell seems to support what archeologists term "ultra-diffusionist" theories. Such theories maintain that most of civilization can be traced to the genius of a few peoples who spread culture throughout the world.

If Fell is respresentative of a particular tradition of writers who make wild claims about American Indians, he is also part of an even larger tradition of purveyors of pseudo-science. In his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner, a columnist for Scientific American, describes the conditions in which theories such as Fell's tend to develop.

Gardner says that such theories usually develop in almost total isolation from the legitimate scientific community. Archaeologists and linguists at Harvard have frequently asserted that Fell has never consulted them. The result, they say, is Fell's profound lack of familiarity with the current literature on the topics he deals with in America B.C. They say he uses outdated sources, and that he is ignorant of conflicting evidence.

Gardner points out that another result of such isolation is that other scientists are usually not aware of the outsider's theories until they reach the popular press. In fact, Marshall McKusick, who wrote a book in 1970 detailing how the Davenport tablets (one of which Fell relies on for evidence) are most likely frauds, was not even aware of Fell's claims until he was informed of them after Fell wrote his book. It seems reasonable to expect that a responsible scientist would have communicated with McKusick before making such claims as Fell advances for the Davenport tablet, his "American Rosetta Stone".

Gardner says the isolation of a theorist like Fell may be either self-imposed or the result of the rejection of his theories by the established authorities. In Fell's case, his isolation seems to be the result of both. Gardner says the rejected psuedo-scientist usually "speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit." True enough: Fell publishes his epigraphic work in a journal which he founded and which he edits. Fell says the Occasional Publications of the Epigraphic Society began four years ago after his work had been consistently rejected by the established linguistics and archeology journals.

According to Wauchope, many of the "wild" theories of American Indian origins are developed by "men who seem otherwise quite sound and respected in some other profession." Barry Fell was once a quite competent Marine biologist. A native New Zealander, Fell received tenure at Harvard in 1964 as a result of his work with marine fossils that led to the reclassification of the Echinoderms. While working with these fossils, Fell encountered the strange inscriptions he claims he is able to decipher.

While most of Fell's theories are improbable, it is certainly possible that some of his theories are correct. He claims that his work on American inscriptions has led to the deciphering of "Catalan Greek", a language he says is written in a Phoenician-type alphabet and was used by Greek colonists living on the coast of Spain. Fell claims many European scholars have confirmed his decipherings.

And recently, pottery that Fell thinks may be of Phoenician origin was found off the coast of Maine in a place Fell says was used as a ship anchorage in ancient times by traders from Phoenicia. The pottery was actually found before Fell suggested that such objects might lie submerged in the area. But he says the pottery was of no interest to anyone, and therefore ignored, until someone heard him give a lecture in which he predicted such finds. Fell says the U.S. Navy has suggested that ancient sunken hulls may also be in the area. If Fell's deciphering of ancient inscriptions is confirmed by authenticated finds of Old World artifacts, then some of his theories may be vindicated.

Most archeologists, in fact, admit the possibility that ancient voyagers did come to America before the Vikings; some even say it is quite possible. But all agree that it is extremely unlikely that they came in the numbers and varieties, or had the impact, that Fell asserts.

Historically, any claim that ancient voyagers came to America is likely to attract attention. Barry Fell has been on radio talk shows all over the country; articles have appeared in Saturday Review, Reader's Digest, and other publications, and the first edition of American B.C. has already sold out.

Evidently people take enormous pride in sensational tales about the exploits of their ancestors. Certainly, the aura of mystery about the ancients fascinates people. And in the case of theories like Fell's the traditional American sympathy for the underdog is aroused by the drama of an outsider challenging the orthodoxy of the Establishment.

As for the latter point, a reporter for a midwest newspaper contacted The Crimson when he heard that this article was being written. The reporter insisted that Fell's case was a typical instance of the brilliant outsider challenging a conservative establishment. Professionals dismissed Fell, the reporter said, because they were embarrassed by discoveries of things they had overlooked.

If the historical pattern is valid, Fell's supporters will attack the professionals as conservative, closed-minded and arrogant. And the professional's reluctance to comment on Fell's theories will be interpreted as an inability to counter them.

In his book, Gardner notes that pseudo-scientific theories are sometimes the work of brilliant men who can construct quite intricate puzzles for others to undo. Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution makes the same point about Fell's work: "Fell spends years putting together his information...He's constructed an elaborate puzzle for us to solve...Recently I spent a couple of hours with a reporter and we looked up several of these words [from Fell's lists comparing ancient European languages and modern Indian tongues]...they can all be refuted, but in the end it's a waste of effort that doesn't advance knowledge."

But no matter what the experts' opinions are, Fell's theories will undoubtedly be embraced by a great many people. And the amiable professor is already at work on a sequel to America B.C. tentatively to be called The Treasure of Tartessus.

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