“BLIND LEADERS OF THE BLIND”

In 1872 one such seeker—Charles Abbott, a New Jersey physician—found stone arrowheads, scrapers, and axheads on his farm in the Delaware Valley. Because the artifacts were crudely made, Abbott believed that they must have been fashioned not by historical Indians but by some earlier, “ruder” group, modern Indians’ long-ago ancestors. He consulted a Harvard geologist, who told him that the gravel around the finds was ten thousand years old, which Abbott regarded as proof that Pleistocene Man had lived in New Jersey at least that far in the past. Indeed, he argued, Pleistocene Man had lived in New Jersey for so many millennia that he had probably evolved there. If modern Indians had migrated from Asia, Abbott said, they must have “driven away” these original inhabitants. Egged on by his proselytizing, other weekend bone hunters soon found similar sites with similar crude artifacts. By 1890 amateur scientists claimed to have found traces of Pleistocene Americans in New Jersey, Indiana, Ohio, and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Unsurprisingly, Christian leaders rejected Abbott’s claims, which (to repeat) contradicted both Ussher’s chronology and the theologically convenient Lost Tribes theory. More puzzling, at least to contemporary eyes, was the equally vehement objections voiced by professional archaeologists and anthropologists, especially those at the Smithsonian Institution, which had established a Bureau of American Ethnology in 1879. According to David J. Meltzer, a Southern Methodist University archaeologist who has written extensively about the history of his field, the bureau’s founders were determined to set the new disciplines on a proper scientific footing. Among other things, this meant rooting out pseudoscience. The bureau dispatched William Henry Holmes to scrutinize the case for Pleistocene proto-Indians.

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C. C. Abbott

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William Henry Holmes

Holmes was a rigorous, orderly man with, Meltzer told me, “no sense of humor whatsoever.” Although Holmes in no way believed that Indians were descended from the Lost Tribes, he was also unwilling to believe that Indians or anyone else had inhabited the Americas as far back as the Ice Ages. His determined skepticism on this issue is hard to fathom. True, many of the ancient skeletons in Europe were strikingly different from those of contemporary humans—in fact, they were Neanderthals, a different subspecies or species from modern humans—whereas all the Indian skeletons that archaeologists had seen thus far looked anatomically modern. But why did this lead Holmes to assume that Indians must have migrated to the Americas in the recent past, a view springing from biblical chronology? Underlying his actions may have been bureau researchers’ distaste for “relic hunters” like Abbott, whom they viewed as publicity-seeking quacks.

Holmes methodically inspected half a dozen purported Ice Age sites, including Abbott’s farm. In each case, he dismissed the “ancient artifacts” as much more recent—the broken pieces and cast-asides of Indian workshops from the colonial era. In Holmes’s sardonic summary, “Two hundred years of aboriginal misfortune and Quaker inattention and neglect”—this was a shot at Abbott, a Quaker—had transformed ordinary refuse that was at most a few centuries old into a “scheme of cultural evolution that spans ten thousand years.”

The Bureau of American Ethnology worked closely with the United States Geological Survey, an independent federal agency founded at the same time. Like Holmes, Geological Survey geologist W. J. McGee believed it was his duty to protect the temple of Science from profanation by incompetent and overimaginative amateurs. Anthropology, he lamented, “is particularly attractive to humankind, and for this reason the untrained are constantly venturing upon its purlieus; and since each heedless adventurer leads a rabble of followers, it behooves those who have at heart the good of the science…to bell the blind leaders of the blind.”

To McGee, one of the worst of these “heedless adventurers” was Abbott, whose devotion to his purported Pleistocene Indians seemed to McGee to exemplify the worst kind of fanaticism. Abbott’s medical practice collapsed because patients disliked his touchy disposition and crackpot sermons about ancient spear points. Forced to work as a clerk in Trenton, New Jersey, a town he loathed, he hunted for evidence of Pleistocene Indians during weekends on his farmstead. (In truth, the Abbott farm had a lot of artifacts; it is now an official National Historic Landmark.) Bitterly resenting his marginal position in the research world, he besieged scientific journals with angry denunciations of Holmes and McGee, explanations of his own theories, and investigations into the intelligence of fish (“that this class of animals is more ‘knowing’ than is generally believed is, I hold, unquestionable”), birds (“a high degree of intelligence”), and snakes (“neither among the scanty early references to the serpents found in New Jersey, nor in more recent herpetological literature, are there to be found statements that bear directly upon the subject of the intelligence of snakes”).

Unsurprisingly, Abbott detested William Henry Holmes, W. J. McGee, and the “scientific men of Washington” who were conspiring against the truth. “The stones are inspected,” he wrote in one of the few doggerel poems ever published in Science,

And Holmes cries, “rejected,

They’re nothing but Indian chips.”

He glanced at the ground,

Truth, fancied he found,

And homeward to Washington skips….

So dear W.J.,

There is no more to say,

Because you’ll never agree

That anything’s truth,

But what issues, forsooth,

From Holmes or the brain of McGee.

Abbott was thrilled when his associate Ernest Volk dug up a human femur deep in the gravel of the farm. Volk had spent a decade searching for Ice Age humans in New Jersey. Gloating that his new discovery was “the key to it all,” Volk sent the bone for examination to a physical anthropologist named Aleš Hrdliimageka. (The name, approximately pronounced A-lesh Herd-lish-ka, was a legacy of his birth in Bohemia.) Hrdliimageka had seen the Neanderthal skeletons, which did not resemble those of modern humans. Similarly, he believed, ancient Indian skeletons should also differ from those of their descendants. Volk’s femur looked anatomically contemporary. But even if it had looked different, Hrdliimageka said, that wouldn’t be enough to prove that the ancestors of Indians walked New Jersey thousands of years ago. Volk and Abbott would also have to prove that the bone was old. Even if a bone looked just like a Neanderthal bone, it couldn’t be classified as one if it had been found in modern construction debris. Only if the archaeological context—the dirt and rock around the find—was established as ancient could the bone be classified as ancient too.

In the next quarter century amateur bone hunters discovered dozens of what they believed to be ancient skeletons in what they believed to be ancient sediments. One by one Hrdliimageka, who had moved to the Smithsonian and become the most eminent physical anthropologist of his time, shot them down. The skeletons are completely modern, he would say. And the sediments around them were too disturbed to ascertain their age. People dig graves, he reminded the buffs. You should assume from the outset that if you find a skeleton six feet deep in the earth that the bones are a lot newer than the dirt around them.

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Aleš Hrdliimageka

With his stern gaze, scowling moustache, and long, thick hair that swept straight back from the forehead, Hrdliimageka was the very image of celluloid-collar Authority. He was an indefatigably industrious man who wrote some four hundred articles and books; founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology; forcefully edited it for twenty-four years; and collected, inspected, and cataloged more than 32,000 skeletons from around the world, stuffing them into boxes at the Smithsonian. By temperament, he was suspicious of anything that smacked of novelty and modishness. Alas, the list of things that he dismissed as intellectual fads included female scientists, genetic analysis, and the entire discipline of statistics—even such simple statistical measures as standard deviations were notably absent from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Hrdliimageka regarded himself as the conscience of physical anthropology and made it his business to set boundaries. So thoroughly did he discredit all purported findings of ancient Indians that a later director of the Bureau of American Ethnology admitted that for decades it was a career-killer for an archaeologist to claim to have “discovered indications of a respectable antiquity for the Indian.”

In Europe, every “favorable cave” showed evidence “of some ancient man,” Hrdliimageka proclaimed in March 1928. And the evidence they found in those caves was “not a single implement or whatnot,” but of artifacts in “such large numbers that already they clog some of the museums in Europe.” Not in the Americas, though. “Where are any such things in America?” he taunted the amateurs. “Where are Aleš the implements, the bones of animals upon which these old men have fed?…Where is the explanation of all this? What is the matter?”

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