The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the Hunt for a “Lost White Race” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) is the latest from critic of pseudo-archaeology Jason Colavito, who has steadily made a name for himself since the 2005 publication of his debut book The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestrial Pop Culture, which convincingly argued that the Ancient Aliens hypothesis was pilfered from the horror fiction of writer H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe unsurprisingly then, Lovecraft returns in the concluding chapter of Colavito’s latest book, via his ghost-written novella The Mound.
In The Mound Builder Myth, Colavito tackles the racist, pseudo-archaeological hypotheses from the 19th century which questioned if elevated earthworks (“mounds”) scattered across the eastern United States were actually built by Native Americans about 4,000 years ago.
As Colavito relates the story, European settlers found the mounds to be impressive architectural feats. In the late 1700s, with founding father Thomas Jefferson’s own proto-archeological excavation of a mound in Virginia, the consensus among educated members of European-American society was that the mounds were the products of the ancestors of the country’s indigenous tribes.
The conclusion was complicated, however, by the fact that they didn’t know where the Native Americans had come from. The two most popular conjectures were that they were either the degenerate descendants of previous European immigrants, or the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (an idea that would actually lead to the development of the Mormon religion).
Colavito spends much of Mound Builder discussing the Mormons, relying heavily on the disreputable Spalding-Rigdon hypothesis of the Book of Mormon’s authorship. This idea, which itself has its roots in the early 1800s, alleges that much of Joseph Smith’s divine revelation was actually plagiarized from an unpublished lost literary manuscript penned by Congregationalist minister Solomon Spalding.
As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, it became increasingly clear that both the European and Jewish hypotheses lacked evidence, and that the Native Americans were in fact of Asiatic descent, which gave everyone a bad case of cognitive dissonance. How could such a “primitive” people of neither Caucasian or Semitic ancestry possibly have constructed such impressive monuments? The answer, clearly, was that they hadn’t. Rather the mounds were the product of another “lost race” – presumably a white one – which had been wiped out by the present “savages.”
This kind of racist thinking would eventually lead to the dangerous and genocidal notion that North America had been a white country in antiquity. The Native Americans were not the original inhabitants, but squatters who had exterminated the true, white tenants. European-Americans living during the time of Andrew Jackson – including Jackson himself – came to believe that by driving Native Americans off their lands, or alternatively killing them in mass, they were simply taking back what was theirs by birthright.
Over time, this idea developed further and got progressively stranger. Who was the lost white race? Viking explorers – as proposed by frustrated writer Ephraim George Squier? Children of the biblical Nephilim – as suggested by none other than Abraham Lincoln? Refugees from Atlantis – as popularized by Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly?
In 1833 Josiah Priest, a leatherworker by trade, published a secular version of the Book of Mormon. Boasting a grandiose title too long to include here, the book not only claimed that the fabled mound builders had been white (and the true inventors of gun powder, not the Chinese!), but that dozens of ancient, old world peoples had visited America before the time of Columbus. This included, but was not limited to, Greco-Romans, Egyptians (who left mummies entombed in secret catacombs in Kentucky), and a Welsh Prince. Amazingly, by 1847, material from Priest’s fictitious pseudo-history had made its way into some American school textbooks.
European-Americans’ distaste of facts and expertise, both in the past and now, is a recurring theme throughout Mound Builder, best embodied in one of the book’s more tragic historical figures. A largely self-educated polymath, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque settled in Ohio in 1815 and made real strides in scientifically studying ancient Mesoamerican linguistics and the origins of the mounds. He also openly refuted the views of those who claimed the mounds were the constructions of lost Caucasian peoples, and/or that the Native Americans were of Semitic descent.
Rafinesque’s embracing of facts did little to win him friends or keep him employed. Instead he was perpetually poor, constantly overshadowed by hucksters like Josiah Priest and Caleb Atwater (a politician who claimed that the mounds in Ohio were built by seafaring Hindus). His pursuit of scientific inquiries deemed unfavorable in the conservative political climate of the time cost him his teaching job at Transylvania University in 1826.
Colavito astutely observes that this proclivity for pseudoscience is due to a combination of factors, one of which is the application of democracy as the operating system for nearly every facet of our society, allowing anyone to declare themselves “an expert merely by assertion.” The second is that lies are often more entertaining than the truth, which is to say nothing of the ways they may also help to assuage white guilt and push white nationalist agendas.
Ideas of an antediluvian America populated by giants, Atlanteans, rampaging mammoths, Welsh knights, Viking warriors, lost Israeli tribes, and angels distributing golden plates certainly are, indeed, pretty entertaining. Sadly, despite spending many happy hours reading Colavito’s blog and being an ardent admirer of The Cult of Alien Gods, I found The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the Hunt for a “Lost White Race” to be a bit dull.
Clocking in at 325 pages of text — plus another 61 pages of black and white images, endnotes, bibliography and index – the book felt far too long for its limited subject matter. A good editor could have easily reduced some of this by having Colavito trim the superfluous details which bog down the interesting and vital information being related.