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Cite as: Saunders-Hastings, Katherine. 2007. Lost Races, Found Histories: Politics and Power in Colonial (Pseudo)Archaeology. PARA Research Paper A-04.

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Lost Races, Found Histories:

Politics and Power in Colonial (Pseudo)Archaeology

Katherine Saunders-Hastings

May 14, 2007













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            Archaeological interpretation, like that of all social and human sciences, draws on its contemporary social and political context to formulate knowledge of its subject, namely people, their behaviour, and their past.  In turn, archaeological statements about the world, humanity, and history, whether implicitly or explicitly, feed back into the social projects and political contests of the day.  Adopting archaeological discourse and idiom and co-opting its claims to epistemological legitimacy, pseudoarchaeologies tend to magnify this refractory process as they shake off the intellectual burdens of scientific rigour, actively engaging with and participating in trends and controversies in the public sphere.


In recent decades, such fringe theories, from the feminist advocacy of “Goddess cults” in ancient Europe to Afro-centric interpretations of the prehistory of the Americas, have tended to stake out anti-establishment positions and politics.  But pseudoarchaeological theories have at times also contributed to and been complicit with the dominant side of the power equation.  Two such instances are the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the archaeological remains at Great Zimbabwe in Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) and “Mound Builder” sites in the mid-western United States.  In each case, racist archaeological interpretations of the material record in these regions played a role in the formation of the colonial state, feeding into the ideological construction and justification of the domination and displacement of native populations by white colonists.  Denying the historical agency and creativity of native peoples and supporting the invention of a legacy of white occupations and civilization, the archaeological fallacies that sprang up around Great Zimbabwe and the Mound Builders were woven into the imperial powers’ rationalization and naturalization of their power.  In a multi-faceted reflection process, these myths at once drew on the prevailing assumptions and prejudices of the academic and popular imagination and bolstered the bases of these mindsets.  This paper will examine the social and political climate that gave rise to these discourses and the means by which they were promoted and disseminated into popular conceptions of the past.  The processes by which these racist myths were engendered and perpetuated provide a fascinating and sobering view of a dark chapter in the relationship between archaeology and political power.


Races and Ruins: Imperial Encounters with the Indigenous Past


            From the earliest explorations, excavations, and explanations of the archaeological remains of the continental interiors of the United States and southern Africa, European and American adventurers and the settlers who would follow later began to generate for themselves pseudoscientific and mythological accounts to explain what they encountered.  As Gordon Sayre has noted, archaeology fundamentally consists of the “construction of narratives portraying the lives of people in the distant past” (1998: 225), and the pioneers of American and Rhodesian colonial states spun themselves some rather spectacular yarns out of the materials they came across.  The questions they asked themselves recurred repeatedly in imperial contexts.  Edward Said has characterized the puzzlement of the French traveler Chateaubriand, who also wrote on the Mound Builders, during his stay in Egypt: “‘how can this degenerate stupid mob of ‘Musulmans’ have come to inhabit the same land whose vastly different owners so impressed Herodotus and Diodorus?’” (quoted in Sayre 1998: 244).  Wherever the brutal oppression of colonialism was forced to confront tangible, even monumental, testaments to universal human impulses towards achievement and ambition, settlers struggled to reconcile the same contradictions as Americans and Rhodesians.


In the late eighteenth century, following the American Revolutionary War, the thirteen colonies began to expand westward, pushing over the Appalachian Mountains into the fertile plains of the Ohio River Valley.  They entered a landscape in some places veritably littered with a variety of constructed earthworks and mounds which stretched from western New York to Nebraska to Florida to Oklahoma, concentrated for the most part in the heart of the Midwest in what are now the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri, with ten thousand of them in the Ohio basin alone, according to Robert Silverberg (1968: 3).  Arriving bearing the entrenched Euro-American assumption that Indians were essentially “biologically incapable of significant cultural achievement” (Trigger 1980: 663), the extensive and impressive mound complexes at sites such as Cahokia represented a disjuncture with this colonial frame of mind that called for some sort of resolution.  The solution the settlers found was the group of myths of which the general import, though they varied somewhat in the particulars of their content and their specific assertions, was that at some time in the distant past, the American interior had been inhabited by a civilized race, superior to and apart from the contemporary Native Americans the colonists encountered.  These were held to be the builders of the earthworks throughout the Midwest, a race that had later been conquered, massacred, or assimilated by the ancestors of modern day Indians, savage barbarians who utterly failed to replicate the cultural achievements of their predecessors (Silverberg 1968).  By the turn of the nineteenth century, this myth had gained a great deal of currency in the American imagination: it neatly solved the conundrum of how to account for undeniable evidence of cultural achievement where there ought to be none, and with its growing popularity, the “builders of the mounds were transformed into the Mound Builders” (Silverberg 1968: 3).  The quest to uncover the origins, nature, and fate of this Mound Builder race became the dominant, almost hegemonic pursuit of early American archaeology, consuming the bulk of the endeavors in the field for the better part of the following century (Blakeslee 1987: 790).


Through a very similar process of confrontation with and potential crisis for deeply embedded colonial assumptions, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and other stone building throughout Mashonaland (the region of southern Africa that would make of the bulk of Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe), came to utterly monopolize archaeological attention and debate in the region from the time of the first British settlements under Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1890 virtually up to the attainment of majority rule in a newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980.  Desmond Clark granted the Great Zimbabwe ruins the dubious honour of having “‘probably produced more misinformed interpretations than any other monument in the continent’” (cited in Chanaiwa 1973:1).  Much as was the case in the United States several decades earlier, the Rhodesian settlers were unprepared to amalgamate into their worldview any irrefutable evidence of black African cultural achievement, a quandary which Chanaiwa asserts must have “tortured their colonial mentality” (1973: 9) and shaken the foundations of the self-assigned civilizing mission that justified their imperial project.  After all, if the White Man’s Burden has a proven historical ability to stand on its own two feet, said white man may have a harder time explaining what he’s doing trudging about the continent offering lifts.  The colonists once again resolved their dilemma by means of invoking a vanished race, in this case generally from the environs of the Mediterranean.  Swanson has outlined the core features of the “Semitic myth” of Great Zimbabwe as follows: 

The Semites (Sabeans or Phoenicians) settled in Rhodesia between 2000 to 1000 B.C., mining and building in stone.  They developed and controlled an empire there to the end of the first millennium A.D.  Then the Bantu Africans moved in, swamping and absorbing the Semitic race and smothering their culture through ‘kafirization’…the civilization degenerated into oblivion with the race who built it. (2001: 297)

This historical fallacy, legitimized by numerous archaeological “excavations” beginning under the aegis of Rhodes’ administration, became a seminal theme of imperial rhetoric in Rhodesia, “applied continuously to strip the Africans of their cultural heritage in order to glorify western colonialism” (Chanaiwa 1973: 8).  Great Zimbabwe is in fact a site of the African Late Iron Age which rose to and fell from power between 1100 and 1500 C.E., the work of cultural forbears of the Shona linguistic group who still populate the region; but if David Beach is correct in asserting that “for decades no competent scholar has doubted that it was their work,” (1998: 47), then Rhodesia was for decades graced by a goodly number of incompetent or politically compromised ones to carry the doubter’s torch.


The Academy and the Adventurer


The adherents of post-colonialism, post-modernism, post-processualism and the multitudinous theoretical schools that have proudly assigned themselves the badges of their radical afterness in relation to the staid, unexamined assumptions and conscience of the Western academy have for a generation been engaged in a veritable tizzy of intellectual production surrounding and the social and political roots and implications of the West’s characteristic epistemological endeavours.  In studies such as Hall’s examination of the social context of Iron Age archaeology in southern Africa (1984) or Sayre’s discussion of the political milieu of archaeology in the early American republic (1998), such concerns have worked to shed light on the elements of social thought that allowed, and indeed encouraged, the rise of the archaeological fantasies surrounding Great Zimbabwe and the Mound Builders.  Until recently, there was a worrying tendency, at least in the case of the Zimbabwe debate, to frame the controversy as “an intellectual error caused by poor research methods and uncompromising attitudes” (Chanaiwa 1973: 6-7).  This type of approach personalizes conflicts over interpretation of the archaeological record, characterizing such disputes as ivory tower quibbles between stubborn esoteric figures, or in the case of many pseudoarchaeologies, as quests for vindication on the part of a rugged individualist against the hegemonic cabal of the Academy.  The risk of such an attitude is that it will tend to elide the systemic nature of archaeological discourse and the extent to which disagreements over the past are deeply embedded in contemporary social matrices of power relations.  As Chainawa notes, in an assertion as true for the Ohio valley as for the Mashonaland plateau, it is “impossible to ignore the colonial situation and then expect to achieve a real understanding of the Zimbabwe controversy” (1973: 8).  The question is not whether but “which of the currents of thought and cultural assumptions are influencing research at any given point in time” (Arnold on Härke 1998: 27).


Both Trigger and Bourdillon have noted that because of the lack of contact between archaeologists and the populations they study, popular stereotypes and biases have had more room for influence than in social sciences where researchers form intimate relationships or must identify on some level with the subject of study (1984: 662; in Beach 1998: 61).  In the colonial context of the United States and Rhodesia, this led to a situation in which the racist assumptions current in nineteenth century intellectual circles could be imposed on the archaeological record.  The fundamental tenets underpinning the misrepresentations of Mound Builder sites and Great Zimbabwe were in keeping with prevailing theories of unilineal cultural/racial evolution and the “Social Darwinist mode of the day” (Swanson 2001: 295).  In the United States, the uniform classification of all Indians as culturally stagnant savages gave rise to a belief that the continent’s prehistory would be characterized by “undifferentiated unprogressiveness” (Trigger 1980: 663).  The Rhodesian view of the indigenous African past was essentially identical, assuming a static history; social change or progress would not occur as racial characteristics were “thought to set a limit on the level that each race could reach” (Tangri 1990:293).  Given that autochtonous advancement was held to be an impossibility, it was a logical leap from there to the view that “any stimulus for development must have come from outside” (Hall 1984: 456).  Settlers attempting to disparage evidence of indigenous social evolution thus often invoked the theory of Migrationism, a school whose popularity flourished in the nineteenth century and which held that much of human history and cultural change could be explained by population movements (Härke 1998: 21).  By this means, indigenous populations could remain consigned to their subordinate, static rung of the evolutionary ladder, while the inconveniently “conspicuous cultural achievements” of the regions they inhabited could be attributed to vanished groups of racially superior civilizers (Härke 1998: 22). 


Past Politic: The Ideological Usages of Archaeological Mythologies


The aforementioned intellectual trends were widespread in the Anglophone world throughout the nineteenth century, and though they varied in their formulations and currency over time, it seems certain that in a general way they would have informed the popular colonial view of indigenous people, and that they would have been likely to have a strong impact in interpretations of archaeological sites encountered in the colonies.  But the American and European adventurers who first explored these sites and brought them to public attention were also acting within more parochial contexts.  Sayre has identified the Early Republic period of the United States, which includes the trans-Appalachian expansion, as one of “profound self-questioning over the cultural and political identity of the new nation” (1998: 228), and Hinsley too sees this as an era in which the national identity and legitimacy were still “shallowly rooted and ambivalently committed to permanence” (1996: 281).  A national heritage was called for to establish the prestige of the still-young country on the world stage, but it had to be one that the Euro-American elite could claim as their own.  In Notes on the State of Virginia, his extended reply to the French government’s questions on his home region, Thomas Jefferson asserted plainly, “I know of no such thing existing as an Indian monument” (quoted in Sayre 1998, 225), discounting the mounds and barrows he had observed as haphazard burials rather than intensively planned cultural works.  The importance of the mounds either had to be deflated and dismissed if they were to remain Indian, or they could be inflated to national glories so long as they were stripped of any cultural associations with Native Americans.  Cornelius Mathews, in his preface to his 1839 novel Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound Builders, implicitly addressed an elite cultural sensitivity to “accusations that the continent lacked any of the classical history on which Europeans founded their common Culture” (Sayre 1998: 226).  He remarked that he found the earthworks “as beautiful as any thing he can read of Athens, of cloudless Italy, or the sunny France” (Mathews 1970 [1839]: v).  In a similar move, the first European visitors to Great Zimbabwe had labeled it the “‘Acropolis’, with all the classical connotations that implies” (Swanson 2001: 292).  Matthews later expresses his belief that these archaeological remains will increasingly call for attention and patriotic admiration as “our own history assumes a prouder and loftier crest in the noonday concourse and throng of nations” (Mathews 1970 [1839]: 131).  He also clearly gave the Mound Builder race he portrayed in his novel a non-Indian identity.  The archaeologists who dug into the mounds, potentially as early as the decade before the Revolutionary War (Blakeslee 1987; though Yelton 1989 argues this early story is an apocryphal nineteenth century addition to the tradition), joined him in the typical archaeological task of constructing for their nation a “respectable pedigree extending back into the remote past” (Kohl 1998: 239).


Perhaps even more than the existential angst for roots to claim in the New World, the Mound Builder myth served to assuage potential crises of conscience over the United States’ engagement in what Silverberg terms an “undeclared war against the Indians who blocked their path to expansion, transporting, imprisoning, or simply massacring them” (1968: 57).  But if the Indians themselves were immigrants, and what’s more recent immigrants who had themselves tried their hand at a genocidal campaign on their way into the interior, and in addition to this if the Mound Builders they had displaced had been white men (whether they were Israelites, Danes, proto-Toltecs or even giants was never firmly established, but they most definitely had been white), then surely any pangs of conscience that might occur to a settler could be assuaged by the knowledge that this American crusade westward was in fact “a war vengeance on behalf of the great and martyred ancient culture” (Silverberg 1968 57-58).


            The racist discourse that informed the Great Zimbabwe myths was in many ways very similar to that behind those surrounding the Mound Builders.   Taking possession of Mashonaland in 1890 and rechristening it after himself, Cecil Rhodes encouraged the settlers he brought to the area to interpret the history of Rhodesia, centred around the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, as one of expansion and exploitation that paralleled their own role in subduing and civilizing the region’s African inhabitants (Swanson 2001: 295).  The myth of a former white habitation, as in the United States, served to root the settlers in the land and its most impressive cultural features, becoming “part and parcel of the colonial philosophy, morality, religion, and politics” (Chanaiwa 1973: 8).  An oral tradition originating with either Arab-Swahili or Portuguese merchants in the region sometime in the sixteenth century had long fuelled rumours that the fabled and once enormously treasure-laden biblical city of Ophir lay somewhere in the interior of southern Africa, and Rhodes eagerly leapt at the notion; with its biblical pedigree established, Rhodes would be able to make of Great Zimbabwe “a symbol of the essential rightness and justice of colonization and [give] the subservience of the Shona an age-old precedent if not Biblical sanction” (Garlake 1973: 65).  Arriving to survey Great Zimbabwe for the first time, Rhodes had the local Karanga chiefs informed that the “Great Master” had come “to see the ancient temple which once upon a time belonged to white men” (Garlake 1973: 65).  The race held to have inhabited the ruins was specified for Great Zimbabwe much more often than was the case for the Mound Builders: almost invariably they were from Phoenicia, an ancient country of unsurpassable mariners who from a tiny land base went on to establish colonies at every corner of the known world, a national image which dovetailed nicely with British self-conception and self-presentation at the turn of the twentieth century (Garlake 1973: 66).


Where There’s a Will, There’s a Record


At this point it bears examining a case of the types of investigations and arguments that went into the Mound Builder and Great Zimbabwe archaeological myth-making projects.  The sort of spurious reasoning that characterized these pseudoarchaeological schools is perfectly embodied in Carl Mauch, the German geologist who in 1871 became the first European known to have seen the Great Zimbabwe ruins, a sort Garlake has described as “a young man of courage and great tenacity but certainly no thinker” (1973: 62).  Already well under the sway of the rumours that had been circulated by Arab-Swahili traders and Portuguese merchants since the sixteenth century that told of stores of wealth in the interior linked to the biblical King Solomon and his mines, Mauch set off not to disinterestedly investigate, but with a mission to seek “‘the most valuable and hitherto mysterious part of Africa…the old Monomotapa of Ophir!’” (quoted in Garlake 1973: 62).  Long before he ever reached the site, Mauch was determined to encounter the fabled city Solomon had built for the Queen of Sheba in Mashonaland.  From his first contact with the Great Zimbabwe ruins, Mauch discounted the possibility that they might be of indigenous African origin, for as far as he was concerned, the “Kaffirs” had no knowledge whatsoever of stonemasonry, and so his journals refer from the first to the “whites who built these walls” (Mauch 1996[1871]: 254, 255).  An iron object he encountered was enough for him to prove “most clearly that a civilized [read not black] nation must once have lived here” (255).  The pièce de résistance of Mauch’s logic comes with his determination on the basis of comparison with his cedar pencil that a splinter he removed from a cross-beam at the site resembled cedar in its grain and scent.  On these grounds, he concludes that it

can be taken as a fact that the wood which we obtained actually is cedar-wood and from this that it cannot come from anywhere else but from Libanon [sic.].  Furthermore, only the Phoenecians [sic.] could have brought it here; further Salomo [Solomon] used a lot of cedar-wood for the building of the temple and of his palaces; further: including here the visit of the Quen of Sheba and, considering Zambabye or Zimbaoë or Simbaoë written in Arabic (of Hebrew I understand nothing), one gets as a result that the great woman who built the rondeau could have been none other than the Queen of Sheba.  (Mauch 1996[1871]: 256).

Mauch’s chain of reasoning is nearly as tangled as his syntax.  The evidence culled from his nose and pencil aside, the wood used at Great Zimbabwe is not cedar, but rather from the tree Spirostachys Africana, a hardwood endemic to the area (Garlake 1973: 64).  And quite apart from whatever its transliteration into Arabic yields, considering that with Zimbabwe written in Shona one gets as a result none other than a compound word meaning “house of stone” as the name applied to the stone buildings (Swanson 2001: 291), Mauch seems to be unnecessarily multiplying his entities, though admittedly with imaginative aplomb. 


In an era when biblical narratives and traditions provided the core of popular learning, Mauch’s fixation on the Bible was at once not terribly surprising and especially fruitful in terms of its mass appeal and political reach (Swanson 2001: 294).  Less than two decades later, Rhodes would seek to capitalize on the potential propaganda value for his imperialist expansion of the myth, and hired amateur excavators already committed to the Semitic myth such as Bent and Hall to excavate at Great Zimbabwe in the last decade of the nineteenth century and to deliver to him confirmation of Phoenician habitation.  They largely reiterated the facile superficialities and agile contortions that had characterized Mauch’s logical leaps and bounds.  Hall, appointed curator of the site in 1900, distinguished himself as particularly infamous for having taken it upon himself to shovel out and dispose of between six and twelve feet of occupation layers out of the Great Enclosure portion of the site in an effort to “‘remove the filth and decadence of the Kaffir occupation’” (quoted in Garlake 1973: 72; Swanson 2001: 294-295).  When he later came to realize that all of the objects of major cultural interest (read looting value) had been found amidst the “Kaffir filth” he rearranged them schematically in a pattern that fit his racial and chronological typology, emerging triumphant from the excavation having ‘proved’ the myth of Semitic occupation against all scientific and evidentiary odds (Swanson 296).




Imperialist Culture and the Culture of Imperialism


            Serving powerful ideological purposes and bridging gaps in national heritage and self-image, the pseudoarchaeologies that grew up around the Mound Builder sites and Great Zimbabwe “filled a need of the colonial imagination” (Silverberg 1968: 3) and became important points of reference in popular conceptions of the past and of colonized populations.  Even Major J.W. Powell, whose work for the Bureau of Ethnology in the early 1890s was extremely influential in finally laying to rest the Mound Builder myth, sounded a note of nostalgia for its appeal:

‘It is difficult to exaggerate the prevalence of this romantic fallacy, or the force with which the hypothetic ‘lost races’ had taken possession of the imaginations of men…It was an alluring conjecture that a powerful people, superior to the Indians, once occupied the valley of the Ohio and the Appalachian ranges…all swept away by an invasion of copper-hued Huns.’ (quoted in Silverberg 1968: 7)

The appeal of lost races in both America and Africa very quickly gained cultural currency, and a crop of authors and popularizers sprang up who both drew on existing traditions of interpretation for their imaginative material and provided a major impetus in the dissemination of the pseudoarchaeological theories and the colonial ideologies they supported.  Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century and peaking in the middle decades of the nineteenth, there was a boom in the United States for both fiction and non-fiction works (though these labels are nothing if not relative when those of both categories advocated the Mound Builder myth) depicting sweeping battles between good and evil (white and red) on the American plains.  Titles such as John Ranking’s 1827 publication Historical Researches on the Conquest of Peru, Mexico, Bogota, Natchez, and Talomeco in the Thirteenth Century, by the Mongols, Accompanied by Elephants sold at a brisk pace.  Subject matter tended to vary relatively little, as many of these books drew on the same epic imagery of blood, gore, and barbarism that Jacob Bailey set down in 1795 in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, IV, though he regrettably omitted mention what large land animals had served his savages in their conquest (Silverberg 1968: 82).


Novelists had even more success, and even fewer commitments to external reality to constrain them, in disseminating pseudoarchaeological fancies to a broad reading public.  Cornelius Mathews explicitly incorporated the racial doctrines associated with the Mound Builder myths into his 1839 novel Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders, invoking in reverent tones the “great race that preceded the red men as the possessors of our continent” (Mathews 1970 [1839]: iii).   In 1885, drawing on the debates and stories that had been circulating linking Ophir and King Solomon to Great Zimbabwe, the English novelist H. Rider Haggard published King Solomon’s Mines, an enormously popular blockbuster that sold over 650 000 copies in the author’s lifetime that would be followed by two further novels on the same theme (Tangri 1990: 295).  The book follows the adventures of the narrator Allan Quartermain and his companions on a quest for King Solomon’s treasure hoard in a fictionalized version of the African region that would become Rhodesia a scant five years later.  The role of biblical lore in the story is made clear, including when the adventurers at one point find themselves contemplating statues of the “Silent Ones” on the road to King Solomon’s mines, and Quartermain remarks that “an intense curiosity seized us to know whose were the hands which had shaped them…Whilst I was gazing and wondering, suddenly it occurred to me, being familiar with the Old Testament, that Solomon went astray after strange gods…and I suggested to my companions that the figures before us might represent these false and discredited divinities” (Haggard 1998 [1885]: 181).  Having established the biblical connection, Haggard then also invokes the myth of Semitic occupation, having Quartermain’s companion Sir Henry suggest to his musings that perhaps “these colossi were designed by some Phoenician official who managed the mines” (Haggard 1998 [1885]: 182).  An ardent supporter of British expansion in southern Africa, Haggard’s widely consumed works shaped white lay opinion regarding the imperial project in South Africa and Rhodesia, and what is more, “the basic ideas he perpetuated can be found in all early reports on Great Zimbabwe which advocate an exotic origin for the site” (Tangri 1990: 295).  Thus the well from which archaeological theories are drawn includes more than the academic or intellectual trends of the day: the archaeological fictions growing up to legitimize colonial states also derived inspiration from the contemporary landscape of literary fictions.


Secularizing the Sacred Myths


The work of scientific archaeology to undo the fallacies perpetrated on popular understandings of the past by colonial-era mythologies such as those of the Mound Builders or Great Zimbabwe has been long, and in some senses, is still ongoing.  Blakeslee has pointed out that, partly due to the large number of books and other cultural products dealing with the theme, an oral tradition grew up surrounding the Midwestern mounds parallel to published archaeological materials on the sites (1987: 791).  The popular or political ramifications of archaeological misinterpretations and misrepresentations may continue long after the matters have been effectively resolved in academic debate, or they may be strong enough to stifle intellectual dissent, allowing the pseudoarchaeologies to continue unchecked.  In his editor’s notes to Mauch’s journal entry from his 1871 voyage, Fagan notes that the claims of Phoenecian settlement “never stood up to serious scientific scrutiny” (in Mauch 1996 [1871]: 252).  Swanson likewise remarks that by the turn of the twentieth century, a scant decade after settlement had begun in earnest, criticism from scholarly and humanitarian circles was already mounting against the Rhodesian administrators and their archaeological apologists (2001: 297).  The first methodologically rigourous excavations at Great Zimbabwe were conducted in 1905 by David Randall-MacIver, also the first trained archaeologist to work with the material record at the site.  He concluded that there was not only no need, but no evidence, to explain Zimbabwe by a Semitic origin (Swanson 2001: 297).  Though his opinions were widely accepted by the international academic community and this basic conclusion has not been substantially altered by subsequent findings, the British-trained scholar was scorned and largely ignored within Rhodesian colonial circles (Swanson 2001: 298).  After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of 1965, numerous pseudoarchaeologists came out with publications reiterating “the old canard that a Mediterranean race once colonized southern Africa,” seeking to legitimate white minority rule with archaeological date, just as Rhodes and his cronies had before them (Tangri 1990: 298).  Their efforts were backed by government policies lasting into the 1970s that saw archaeological data supporting black African origins for Great Zimbabwe censored and colonial-era misrepresentations incorporated into the school curriculum (Swanson 2001: 304).  Garlake argues that scientific archaeology, introduced after the settler population had already adopted the imperialist interpretation as their own, remained esoteric in the Rhodesian context, seen for the most part as “incapable of deciding fundamental questions” (1973: 11-12).


At the highly visible level of formal political discourse, the Mound Builder mythological cannon subsided relatively sooner and with less rancorous debate.  There had been dissent from the beginning over the racial identity of the Mound Builders, but these minority voices such as James H. McCulloh were largely overwhelmed by popular enthusiasm for the story until the exhaustive work of James Powell and Cyrus Thomas on behalf of the American Bureau of Ethnology in the 1880s and early 1890s.  These archaeological findings were accepted unproblematically by the American intellectual community and Thomas’ final report to the Bureau on his investigations definitively “marked the end of an era” in American archaeology (Silverberg 1968: 221).  This does not, however, necessarily indicate some inherent moral superiority of the American academy.  By the turn of the 20th century, the colonial status quo had more or less been consolidated in the U.S., with the Native American peoples who had blocked the expansion westward safely pacified, exterminated, displaced from the land, or otherwise removed as an impediment to Euro-American society.  In Rhodesia, on the other hand, the white settlers were always a small minority compared to the African populations they were displacing and oppressing, and as a result, the frontier mentality lingered on until independence and majority rule in 1980 and the Great Zimbabwe myth continued to have an active role in promoting a sense of solidarity and identity among the Rhodesian ruling class (Chanaiwa 1973: 9).  Had circumstances evolved differently in either case, it is impossible to predict how state-sanctioned mythologies might have developed in response.  Furthermore, the American pseudoarchaeological industry has kept the Mound Builder myth alive into the twenty-first century.   William McNeil’s recent publication arguing for pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact dismisses out of hand the ‘Conventional Thinking’ that the “so-called Mound Builders were actually ancestors of the American Indian,” that their “cultural development was an independent accomplishment, free of outside influence” (2005: 246).  The type of discourse that was so prevalent in 19th century archaeology in colonial states has not been extirpated just because it has been purged from the mainstream of the discipline and consigned to the epistemological rubbish heap of pseudoscience.  The stereotype of the unimaginative, culturally infertile Native American, African – insert indigenous population at will – is continuously exploited by pseudoarchaeologists from Barry Fell to Erich von Däniken to Ivan van Sertima, and its effects can be just as pernicious to popular understandings of past peoples and their contemporary descendents as they were a century ago.  And its use demands just as much vigilance from all archaeologists committed to advocating for and defending the value of the past.




While many contemporary pseudoarchaeologies tend to stake out positions at the margins of power, this has not always been the case.  In the construction and legitimation of colonial regimes in the United States and Rhodesia, racist assumptions about the capacity for cultural creativity of indigenous peoples gave rise to gross misrepresentations of the archaeological record in these regions.  Politically and culturally appealing to settler populations, the pseudoarchaeological traditions surrounding Mound Builder sites and Great Zimbabwe became popular cultural tropes, and in this form often outpaced and outlasted refutations of their claims by scientific archaeology.  Archaeologists must remain cognizant of the role they have played in shaping and perpetuating oppressive colonial discourses in the past, and certainly have a professional obligation to seek to discredit archaeological and pseudoarchaeological theories that play this part in contemporary society.



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