The Great American Excursion

Second in a Two-Part Series

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.