I have been discussing fringe or marginal theories that run contrary to the scholarly consensus in a given field, and why we need to be very careful about rejecting that mainstream opinion. Just because an idea seems bold or iconoclastic does not make it right. You may at this point be thinking that I am advocating unquestioning obedience to academic orthodoxies, but of course I am not. Rather, I will describe how orthodoxies are challenged over time, and how they change to accommodate new insights.
I enjoy the magazine Ancient American, although I do not necessarily agree with a word printed in any given copy. The magazine is dedicated to presenting “alternative” theories of pre-Columbian history, often emphasizing supposed evidence of early American settlement by Celts, Vikings, Hebrews, and many other peoples (“Phoenicians Sailed Lake Michigan,” “Egyptians in the Grand Canyon”). Few of those claims would stand for a moment in an academic journal.
The masthead proclaims that “The purpose of Ancient American Magazine is to describe the prehistory of the American Continent, regardless of presently fashionable beliefs— to provide a public forum for certified experts and nonprofessionals alike to freely express their views without fear nor favor.” Note the suggestion here. We tell the truth, which might not be recognized right now, but history will vindicate us. If other people don’t recognize what we say, it is because of fear (of ruining professional reputations?) or favor (vested interest in supporting an academic status quo). Such words neatly represent the credo of many others who espouse alternative theories in other fields, including the study of the Bible and alternative gospels. The suggestion is that the authors are courageous iconoclasts who stand outside the ivory tower, proclaiming truth to the cowards and time servers within.
There is a huge amount wrong with this belief. If a real archaeologist ever found a genuine, confirmed, medieval Norse inscription on the North American mainland, you would see sixty-year old professors turning cartwheels in college corridors. The fact that they don’t believe, for instance, in the Kensington runestone is not that they are afraid to admit the inconvenient truth, but that the stone shrieks “nineteenth century forgery” from every angle.
Over time, though, outlying ideas do arise, and some progress to the center, and actually become mainstream in their time: stones that were rejected become the cornerstone. In the language of Thomas Kuhn, science creates paradigms, or orthodoxies, and over time, enough rival evidence accumulates to challenge and eventually overthrow the old paradigm, becoming a new paradigm in its place. We are in fact in the midst of such a paradigm revolution right now, and one that indicates how and why scholars come to accept ideas that once upon a time seemed ludicrous and fanciful.
When and how did human beings reach the Americas? Over the past century, the standard view was the Clovis theory, named for a discovery site in New Mexico. The theory imagined big game hunters crossing the Bering Strait land-bridge around 13,000 years ago, carrying with them their distinctive stone tools. They then spread gradually across both North and South America. This theory seemed credible, but like all good scientific hypotheses, it was falsifiable. By that, I mean it could be subjected to testing and verification, so that if conflicting evidence arose, the theory would have to be amended to accommodate the new findings. If evidence proved to challenge the theory overwhelmingly, it would have to be replaced.
In the case of Clovis First, the main challenges were chronological, in the sense that any evidence of human occupation dating significantly before 13,000 years ago could not be fitted into the theory. And such evidence did increasingly come to light, first at one or two sites, then at dozens, or hundreds. Initially, Clovis First believers could fight back, saying that the various alleged finds had been wrongly dated, or improperly excavated, but by the 1990s, such counterclaims were wearing thin indeed. Significantly, the insurgent scholars presented their evidence in the appropriate journals and scholarly conferences, where their ideas were debated, often fiercely. Throughout, both sides used the most precise and rigorous methodologies, knowing that they would be skewered ruthlessly if they were ever caught out in a slip.And then there was Monte Verde. In 1975, archaeologists found a site in Southern Chile that was wrong in every respect. Not only was it far too early for the Clovis First model – around 15,000 years old – but it was way to the south of the supposed point of human entry. And instead of nomadic big game hunters, the settlement actually looked more like a village.
So what did archaeologists do? According to the standard mythology, they should have struggled ruthlessly to suppress the dangerous findings. They didn’t. Some Clovis true-believers protested heartily, causing unpleasant confrontations, and a few people indeed tried to silence colleagues. But how could you achieve anything like that when the academic world is so diverse? A series of detailed scientific examinations and re-investigations proved that Monte Verde really was what it claimed to be. That is only part of the story, but these days, most scholars accept that human occupation of the Americas dates back more like 18 or 20,000 years, and claims about pre-Clovis sites are being treated very seriously indeed.
If the Clovis First orthodoxy is not actually dead, it is about as weakened as an ice age hunter who has just been trampled by a singularly ill-tempered mammoth.
Our rapidly changing knowledge of this whole topic can easily be followed online. Texas A&M is home to the Center for the Study of the First Americans, with some valuable resources. The Center also publishes the journal PaleoAmerica, and the first issue is currently online full text, no charge.
Put another way, scientists certainly did accept a paradigm, but when competing evidence arose, it was tested and verified, and the old model was effectively falsified. Such a change happens by focusing intensely on one clear exception to the rule, and then expanding to other contentious areas. And as everyone agrees, any such alleged exception has to be treated with the most rigorous and hyper-critical care.
That is what separates real science and archaeology from pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology. Challenging consensus wisdom is done by recognized scientific methods, and not by producing an endless swarm of obviously spurious junk examples.
You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.
And exactly the same principles apply to attempted challenges to “mainstream” thought in the scholarly study of the Bible, or of religious matters generally. So where is your Monte Verde?
Stop Press! The latest New Republic has a great piece on pseudo-archaeology in modern India, splendidly titled “Those Mythological Men and Their Sacred, Supersonic Flying Temples: What tales of ancient Vedic aircraft tell us about India’s place in the modern world.”