Thursday, December 17, 2009

Diffusionistic Fantasies IIa
Thor Heyerdahl’s List Part 1

Thor Heyerdahl

The Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl was among other things an extreme Diffusionist, who believed that a group of blond / red headed, blue eyed “white” people from the Atlas region of Africa brought civilization to the Americas c. 1200 B.C.E. Further Thor Heyerdahl believed that their descendants eventually explored the Pacific ocean creating the Moai of Easter Island, and that the Polynesian’s originated in the region of coastal British Columbia and first settled Hawaii and then the rest of Polynesia intermingling with Melanesians to produce the Polynesians .1

Of course this hypothesis already unlikely in 1952, when Thor Heyerdahl published American Indians in the Pacific was even more unlikely in 1978 when he wrote Early Man and the Ocean, is now even more unlikely given the genetic and skeletal studies now done. In fact it is virtually impossible.2

Given that Thor Heyerdahl resisted until the day he died the idea that the Polynesians ultimate origin was South East Asia and that the undeniable fact that he Polynesians speak an Austro-Asiatic language. (This group includes Aboriginal languages on Taiwan, Malay, Indonesian, languages of Micronesia and the languages of coastal New Guinea)3 No Polynesian dialect or language shows any influence or vocabulary from any of the Aboriginal languages of the Americas.4 That would in itself be a powerful indication of where the Polynesians came from but Thor Heyerdahl just waved it away as of little importance.

Later in life Thor Heyerdahl convinced himself that he had found the tomb of Odin and the “real” Asgard to cap off his life of promoting far out ideas.5

But then as it was said in a review of the book by Thor Heyerdahl about Odin:
The conversation between Thor and Per, however, frequently takes on the character of an involuntary parody, since the “master” often demonstrates as much ignorance as the disciple.6
In this case “Master” Thor Heyerdahl displays a great deal of ignorance and an unbending, dogmatic adherence to his opinions and an unwillingness to learn. This is not however confined to Thor’s ideas about Odin.

In the book Thor Heyerdahl wrote called Early Man and the Ocean, Thor Heyerdahl lists 53 cultural traits that indicate contact between the Middle Eastern civilizations and the civilizations of the New World uniting them in a common cultural area with those civilizations.7 Here I will deal with the first 20 listed.

Before I start on Thor Heyerdahl’s list I would just like to mention that it is passing strange that Thor Heyerdahl in compiling this list assumes that the civilizational influence came from the Middle East. He does not consider either India or China must less Africa outside of Egypt, even though his culture bearers came from the Atlas region of North Africa. This is interesting given the very interesting and quite arresting similarities between certain cultural features of the Americas and East Asia.8 The Euro-centric bias, considering that the Middle Eastern Civilizations are generally assimilated as part of the European heritage, of Thor Heyerdahl is blatantly obvious.
1. A Hierarchy based on sun worship and complex state administration under the leadership of an absolutist priest-king whose dynasty claimed descent of the sun.
2. Brother-sister marriages in royal families to preserve the solar blood line.9
Thor Heyerdahl at once shows us that he will engage in deception by omission. He fails to tell us what those societies are. Why? The answer is obvious. The comparison is between The Inca Empire and Ancient Egypt. This faces the rather serious problem that the Inca established their Empire traditionally c. 1200 C.E., and by then Egyptian civilization had been dead for a long time. There is no evidence for the idea being transmitted to the Incas and the time difference makes it very unlikely. There is no evidence of those practices in the intervening time in Peru. In fact Thor Heyerdahl’s comparison shows deep ignorance of Egyptian practice. His comparison is with common practice during the 18th dynasty in Egypt which was c. 1530-1310 B.C.E; well over 2000 years before the Incas. At other times in Egyptian history royal incest was a lot less common.10

The rest of it is mere puffery or is he really claiming that bureaucracy and absolute rule had to diffuse from Egypt?
3. A fully developed system of script in a period when writing was still unknown among European nations.
4. Paper manufacture by soaking and beating intersecting layers of vegetable fibers, and the production of books filled with polychrome hieroglyphic inscriptions and formed as long wide bands that were folded or rolled up.11
Thor Heyerdahl carefully elides mentioning that the script developed by which I think he means Epi-olmec, Mayan and Aztec is quite distinct from any Old World system and shows no evidence of being derived from such systems. Further Thor Heyerdahl is simply wrong the earliest evidence for a writing system in Mexico is c. 600 B.C.E., and by then Europe had had several writing systems like Linear A and B, (c. 1800 B.C.E.-1200 B.C.E., and the Greek Alphabet by 750 B.C.E.) None of which have any similarity to the Mexican systems.12

Again Egypt rears it head. Thor Heyerdahl is describing the manufacture of Papyrus. Well in the Americas there is no papyrus and the techniques of manufacturing paper in the Americas, because of the different materials, (they used bark generally), have a lot of differences from making papyrus into paper. And again Thor Heyerdahl weasels out using terms like polychrome in an attempt to compare Mayan and Mexican hieroglyphic books with Egyptian papyrus scrolls. Well no one would mistake Egyptian hieroglyphs for Mayan or Aztec hieroglyphs. If the Mayans and Aztecs were making paper than it makes sense that they would write on said paper. No bearded cultural bearers needed.

Further in Egypt “books” were rolled into scrolls and in Mexico books were folded into codices with virtually no exceptions. It appears that in Peru record keeping was done with knotted string or Khipu which may have been a complete writing system and as such as no parallel in the Old World.13

Thor Heyerdahl seems to have realized that detailed comparisons tended to break down so he settled on obscurity and obfuscation.
5. The organization of spectacular masses of people for the erection of colossal structures with no practical function.
6. A technique unknown today which permitted mathematically perfect cutting of colossal blocks of stone which quite independent of either shape or size, were fitted together without cement but with joints so exact that a knife’s edge could not be inserted between them.
7. Technical knowledge which permitted the long-range transportation of such gigantic blocks, weighing upwards of 100 tons, across many miles of rugged terrain, swamps, rivers, and lakes; and the ability to maneuver them on edge as towering monoliths or to lift them onto each other in perfect megalithic walls.
8. The raising of colossal stone statutes carved in human form and serving as religious outdoor monuments.14
Numbers 5 and 8 can be dismissed as telling us nothing of value. Is Thor Heyerdahl seriously proposing that the idea to build impressive structures to the God(s) needs to be taught and that it would not occur to anyone independently? Oh and since when does Thor Heyerdahl get to decide what is practical. After all to the men of those times building temples to the Gods was very practical. Of course building outdoor statutes to the Gods seems an obvious idea or does Thor Heyerdahl seriously think that indoor statutes to the Gods are obvious but outdoor ones need to be taught? Of course with this level of analysis I am surprised Thor Heyerdahl is not suggesting that the very idea of carving statutes of the God(s) is proof of diffusion.

As for 6 and 7. Thor could have used with some intense research which would indicate that the techniques of cutting, fitting and transporting huge stone blocks were not that mysterious to Archaeologists at the time he wrote the book. Of course Thor Heyerdahl once again does not give any specifics. The cultures he as in mind seem to be mainly Ancient Egypt and the Incas. Of course the vast time difference, (more than 2000 years) between the two is forgotten. Thor Heyerdahl also seems to be thinking of the cyclopean walls of Mycenaean fortresses, Hittite structures etc., (dated c. 1200 B.C.E.) Of course the vast amount of time between those structures and the Inca ones are ignored.

Thor Heyerdahl also ignores that the builders of Stonehenge were able to develop techniques of stone carving and moving without help from culture bearers.

The fact is the development of stone working techniques is clear from the archaeological record in Peru and shows no signs of appearing suddenly fully developed. In fact it seems to have reached its full form only with the Incas, and that includes the fitting together of irregular stones c. 1500 C.E. In other words the evidence shows slowly evolving and improving stone working and moving skills in both Mexico and Peru not a sudden interruption of a technology with no precursors.

Once again Thor Heyerdahl shows an embarrassing lack of familiarity with the Archaeological record.15
9. The erection of mnemonic stele with images of people carved in relief and surrounded by incised hieroglyphic inscriptions. The repetition in both areas of the same relief motif showing a bearded man fighting off a giant snake standing on its tail. (Hittite stele at Aleppo museum and Olmec Stele from La Venta now in Villahermosa.)
10 Stucco-covered rooms of religious edifices with walls and columns covered with polychrome fresco paintings of priest-kings and processions with people depicted in profile and with all limbs visible. The recurrence within both areas of such a special fresco motif as a man with bird head standing on the back of a plumed serpent. (Common on walls in the Valley of Kings, Egypt, and recently discovered on the excavated temple walls at Cacaxtla, Mexico).
11. The Constructions of pyramids of the Mesopotamian Ziggurat type of stupendous dimensions and geometric perfection, which on both sides of the Atlantic are sometimes built from squared stone blocks and sometimes from sun-dried adobe bricks, always with a ground plan carefully oriented astronomically. These pyramids do in some cases exhibit additional parallels on both sides of the Atlantic: a ceremonial staircase leading up one or more of the pyramid’s sides to a temple structure on the summit; a sealed and hidden doorway to a secret inner staircase leading to a burial chamber; a special hexagonal cross section of the steep passageway containing the long and narrow staircase to the door of the burial chamber; the presence in this burial chamber of a stone sarcophagus, a ventilation system, and burial gifts; the knowledge of a technical-architectural solution which, in spite of the ignorance of the principle of the arch among those pre-European constructors, nevertheless enabled the wide ceilings of the burial chamber as well as the narrower one of the inner staircase to support the enormous weight of the entire pyramid.
12. A large walled temple yard adjacent to one side of the pyramid with tall stone columns of both round and square cross sections set in long parallel rows.
13. Megalithic sarcophagus covered by a stone lid which itself weighed several tons and was sometimes sculptured to show a human image.
14. The ability and practice of mummifying deceased persons of high rank by evisceration through the anus and use of certain resins, cotton padding, and wrappings.
15 A special mummy mask perforated at the edges so as to be tied on in front of the face outside the mummy cloth.16
Regarding No. 9 it is basically a comparison between stele in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Mayan stele. Aside from the fact no one could possibly mistake Mayan for Egyptian etc., there is the obvious and rather large difference in time between say Egyptian, Mesopotamian stele and Mayan. Further the development of stele in the Mayan region shows a clear progression of development over time from simple beginnings to the elaborately carved versions. Thor Heyerdahl than for the first time gives an “exact” similarity. The problem is he provides no details of exactly what the two items are, neither does he provide illustrations. I have attempted to find pictures of the figure Thor Heyerdahl describes but have been unable to do so. The nearest one is a stand alone stele with a snake on it. As for the Olmec figure. I think Thor Heyerdahl is referring to this one.

Olmec Stele

I note that the snake is NOT fighting the man and unlike most Neo-Hittite, (Thor Heyerdahl gets it wrong the stele in the Aleppo museum are not Hittite but Neo-Hittite), this sculpture has no inscriptions, further is not artistically similar in terms of design. The similarity is vague and not very convincing with Neo-Hittite stele.

Neo Hittite Stele

Number 10 is a collection of bromides and not very convincing ones. Frescoes are common world wide and not require diffusion. Similarly stucco was made and used differently in the Americas as compared to the Old World, aside from archaeology showing the gradual development of the use and technique of stucco in the New World. The rest of the comparison is generally between the frescoes in Egyptian tombs and the frescoes of Bonampak Mexico done by the Maya c. 795 C.E. The comparisons are meaningless in that doing people in profile is easier than face on and further Thor Heyerdahl once again forgets the time difference after all the Egyptian paintings he is comparing them with date from c. 1500-1000 B.C.E., more than 1500 years earlier. The comparison of a motif in a painting from Cacaxtla Mexico (c. 800 C.E.) to paintings in the Valley of the Kings, (c. 1500-1100 B.C.E.) falls for the same reason. Of course given that Thor Heyerdahl does not supply any details about said paintings so checking is virtually impossible. (I tried).

Regarding pyramids. I dealt with that in an earlier posting but to repeat in the Americas pyramids were built with a variety of techniques including using earth and rubble. Pyramids built entirely or largely of stone do not exist in the Americas. Of course we now know that pyramids existed in the Americas before pyramids in the Old World. So much for the natives copying people from the Middle East. Note that the pictures that Thor Heyerdahl uses on p. 87 to illustrate how American and Egyptian pyramids look alike are old 19th century drawings and not pictures that make them look more alike than they are.

Once again obfuscating the issue by not providing details Thor Heyerdahl compares Egyptian pyramid burials with the tomb of Pacal (c. 680 C.E.) in Palenque Mexico; thus Ignoring the vast amount time that past between them of over 2000 years. Thor does not seem to note that in many respects the tomb of Pacal shows many one off features, and is in many respects a unique not typical Mayan royal burial. Further of course the development of Mayan royal burials was a gradual process as indicated by the archaeology and Pacal’s tomb shows clear signs of being a development of previous Royal burials. Thor Heyerdahl thus compares one Mayan Royal burial with Egyptian royal burials of the pyramid age and ignores the other Mayan royal burials probably because they are not so similar to Egyptian pyramid burials.

The final bit is about the corbelled vault, which for some reason Thor Heyerdahl does not name. I suspect because it is abundantly clear that this solution to the problem of building walls and roofs over spaces was invented multiple times all over the world, including megalithic Europe. But by dressing it up in this fashion Thor Heyerdahl can dress it up as some sort of secret arcane knowledge that could only have diffused to the Americas instead of being a common solution to a problem. I note that arches existed in the Old World by 1200 B.C.E., supposedly when these culture bearers arrive in the New World. I wonder why they failed to bring the true arch?

Number 12 is trivial a walled temple yard next to a temple is obvious and no great shakes secondly the columned hall Thor is referring to, but once again failing to name, is the columned yard next to the Temple of Warriors in Chichen-Itza, and also next to a Temple at Tula Mexico, both of which date to c. 1000 C.E., so comparing them to Egyptian mortuary temples next to Egyptian pyramids, (which were tombs and not platforms for temples, which Mexican pyramids were), which date to more than 2000 years earlier is a bit much.

Number 13 refers yet again to the tomb of Pacal at Palenque Mexico. Again the dates do not correspond and Pacal’s massive stone sarcophagus dates more than 2000 years after the pyramid age in Egypt, further as stated above in many respects Pacal’s tomb is a one off. Thor Heyerdahl once again cherry picks a particular construction that fits his ideas and ignores the others which do not.

Number 14. Well let’s just say mummification as been dated to before 4000 B.C.E., in South America. That the usual way Egyptian’s eviscerated the dead for mummification was through a slit made in the belly not through the anus. And again Thor Heyerdahl is comparing later Peruvian practice, which is not very similar to Egyptian practice and besides is much later than Egyptian practice. Once again archaeology shows a slow development of Peruvian mummification practices and no evidence of a technique fully developed suddenly appearing.

Number 15. Since masks are a near universal in human cultures tying a mask to a face by this method is obvious. So it should be a matter of little importance that people might tie masks to the deceased in the same manner. This is an example of Thor Heyerdahl making much of the trivial and obvious.17
16. Great skill in the difficult magio-surgical trepanning of the skull bone of living persons, with a high percentage of survival among the patients.
17. Circumcision performed on young boys as a religious ritual.18
Is Thor Heyerdahl serious? Trepanning is an exceptionally common practice all over the world dating from well before civilization and practiced by many so-called primitive peoples. There is no reason to assume diffusion at all.

As for circumcision again it is practiced all over the world by all sorts of people including Australian Aborigines who entered Australia before 50,000 B.C.E. It is a common practice and again there is no need to assume diffusion at all.19
19. The use of false beards as ceremonial attire of high priests.
20. The making of adobe bricks from a paste of selected soil mixed with straw and water and formed into rectangular blocks in a wooden mold, subsequently sun dried and used for the building of pyramids, temples, and houses with one or more floors.20
Number 19 is basically pretty trivial. It seems rather obvious that if you can grow a real beard a false beard would follow and from that would follow using it in ceremonies. Thor Heyerdahl is thinking I believe of the use of false beards by Egyptian Pharaohs and Priests. I merely note that the again the chronological lack of comparisons between the use of false beards in ancient Egypt and false beards in Mexico c. 1000-1500 C.E. False beards seem to have been less used in Peru and the chronological problem is the same.

Number 20 is simply adobe is used the world over. The use of clay / mud for building is universal. Further in Peru and Mexico a variety of methods and types of technologies were used to create adobe bricks. To say nothing of adobe techniques that did not use molds or adobe at all. Oh and the Peruvians were using adobe c. 3000 B.C.E. Thor Heyerdahl is once again cherry picking a trait that is similar, although not that similar, to a technique also used in the Old World to prove diffusion. Also once again Thor Heyerdahl ignores issues of chronology or the indications of the slow development of the technique in the New World.21

Over and over again Thor Heyerdahl cherry picks particular traits, regardless of the time those traits existed. He for example picks traits from the New World that date from 1500 C.E. and compares them to traits that existed in the Old World c. 1200 B.C.E., and earlier. Thor Heyerdahl assumes surface similarity is evidence of contact and ignores specifics. He picks as evidence of diffusion traits which are commonplaces and evidence of nothing but Thor Heyerdahl’s lack of knowledge, like circumcision and trepanning.

He waves away the problems with the idea of contact like the almost total lack of even arguable Old World artefacts in the New World during this so called contact period. He neglects to tell us why invaders from North Africa would bring such a cacophony of traits from a smorgasbord of Old World cultures. Thor Heyerdahl does not try to match it up with cultural traits from North Africa c. 1200 B.C.E. The fact that he matches traits from all sorts of different time periods in the Old World to time periods in the New World from Olmec times to the conquest doesn’t help.

Thor Heyerdahl’s cherry picking is just that he goes through the enormous variety of Old and New World traits and declares that the similarities he picks are evidence of contact. The mere piling up of similarities proves nothing, a bunch of vague similarities does not get added weight by piling them up on top of each other. Bad evidence remains bad evidence regardless of the amount; it does not become good evidence by simply accumulating examples.

Thor Heyerdahl seems to assume that similarities are evidence of contact when what a lot of them prove is that humans tend sometimes to find similar solutions by virtue of the fact that we are all human. It should not be the slightest surprise that human cultures show similarities, it would be more astounding if they did not.

Thor Heyerdahl glides over the problem of the total lack, (with some dubious exceptions) of ancient Old World artefacts in the New World. The time period he gives for his Conquistador like conquest of the New World is c. 1200 B.C.E., would indicate that we should find such Old World remains at such a time. We do not. The Archaeological record does not record such an event. Instead it see the steady development of village cultures into Olmec civilization with no massive intrusion of outsiders.

Thor Heyerdahl neglects to explain how bronze weapon welding invaders managed not to bring bronze weapons with them to Mexico or how bronze weapons didn’t appear in Mexico until c. 800 C.E. To say nothing of various Old World crops. In fact what they left behind is amazing; say pigs and rats for example. Yet they came in such numbers as to conquer Mexico and Peru!

Finally if similarities are evidence of contact than logically differences are evidence of lack of contact. And such differences are not minor. For example the quite different agricultures of the Old World and New World in terms of plants.

In the end the obvious solution is that the civilizations of the New World arose largely independently of Old World civilizations, and any contact had little or no influence on the development of New World civilizations.

Thor Heyerdahl used a variety of polemical techniques, such as not giving details that could be checked, ignoring crucial data in evaluating claims etc., and he does not forget the ultimate technique of portraying himself as a moderate against two extremes; when of course his idea of bearded, blue eyed, blond and white culture bearers conquering Mexico and Peru, bringing civilization, c. 1200 B.C.E., is in fact nothing but extreme hyper-diffussionistic fantasy.

Of course the recent the discoveries in Peru, pushing back high culture if not civilization to c. 3000 B.C.E., to say nothing of Olmec culture or at least it precursors being pushed back to c. 2000 B.C.E. have made Thor Heyerdahl’s fantasy of 1200 B.C.E. very unlikely indeed.

1. See Heyerdahl, Thor, American Indians in the Pacific, 1952, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., New York, 1952, and Early Man and the Ocean, Vintage Books, New York, 1978, pp. 151-184, 273-281.

2. Flenley, John & Bahn, Paul, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, pp. 50-60.

3. Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1998, pp. 334-339.

4. I am excluding coincidental similarities and recent additions.

5. See Heyerdahl, Thor, & Lilliestrom, Per, Jakten på Odin—På sporet av vår fortid, J.M. Stenersens forlag, Oslo, 2001. For a devastating review of the above book see Hovdhaugen, Even, et al, at Google Cache, Here. (Note: the document does not seem to be available anymore at Google Cache. I'll send a copy to anyone who requests it)

6. Hovdhaugen, pp. 1-2.

7. Heyerdahl, 1978, pp. 84-91.

8. Heyerdahl, 1978, p. 84. For the similarities between East Asia and the Americas see, Davies, Nigel, Voyageurs to the New World, William morrow and Co. Inc., New York, 1979, pp. 103-124.

9. Heyerdahl, 1978, p. 84.

10. Tyldesley, Joyce, Daughters of Isis, Penguin Books, London, 1994, pp. 198-199, Mason, J. Alden, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1968, pp. 155, 186.

11. Heyerdahl, 1978, pp. 84-85.

12. Diehl, Richard A, The Olmecs, Thames and Hudson, London, 2004, pp. 96-97, Pool, Christopher A., Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007, pp. 260-263, . Finley, M.I., Early Greece, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 1970, pp. 34-38, 145.

13. Hawkes, Jacquetta, The First Great Civilizations, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1973, pp. 436-442, Longhena, Maria, Maya Script, Abbeville Press, Publishers, New York, 2000, p. 20, Townsend, Richard F., The Aztecs, 3rd Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, pp. 206-212, Urton, Gary, Signs of the Inka Khipu, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003, pp. 1-36.

14. Heyerdahl. 1978, p. 85.

15. Mason, pp. 160-165, Moseley, Michael E., The Incas and their Ancestors, Thames and Hudson, London, 1992, pp. 74-75, 153, 165, 205, 212.

16. Heyerdahl, 1978, pp. 85-86.

17. See Sharer, Robert J., et al, The Ancient Maya, 6th Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2006, check out items in Index marked Stelae, also pp. 215-216, 449-450, 568-575, Schele, Linda, et Al, A Forest of Kings, William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York 1990, pp. 96-129, Gurnay, O.R., The Hittites, Penguin Books, London, 1952, pp. 39-46, Miller, Mary Ellen, The Art of Mesoamerica, 3rd Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2001, pp. 165-167, Schele, Linda, et al, The Code of Kings, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, pp. 95-132, Mason, 187-188, Moseley, pp. 54, 93-94, 151-152.

18. Heyerdahl, 1978, p. 86.

19. See Wikipedia article Circumcision Here. See also Majno, Guido, The Healing Hand, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1975. pp. 24-29.

20, Heyerdahl, 1978, p. 86.

21. See Wikipedia article Notre Chico Civilization Here. See Davies, pp. 125-126, for an example of use of a false beard in a mythological context in Mesoamerica.

22. IBID, Notre Chico Civilization, Heyerdahl, 1978, pp, 273-281, Pool, pp. 92-144.

Pierre Cloutier

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