Post-Christian Spirituality

Bernice Martin has written: “The so-called New Atheists [Dawkins, Hitchens and Co] may be the current darlings of the media, but even the burnt-over ground of the secular West sports a surprisingly vigorous growth of ‘post-Christian spirituality’; the ‘religion question’ has returned to discourses that seemed to have finished with it. Philosophers detect limits to the empire of Kantian reason, Julia Kristeva claims that without ‘this incredible need to believe’ we could not acquire language. Also [ some authors argue that] the arts, long thought to be heirs to religion’s vacant throne, turn out to be pervaded by God even through his supposed absence. Popular culture, too, is full of invocations of the transcendent”.

Modernist Novels and “the wistful search for sacred ground”

As Berenice Martin observed in a review of a Pericles Lewis book, modernist novels had abandoned religious narratives but yet had “nostalgia for communal ritual and the wistful search for sacred ground”. They depicted the uncertain boundaries between sacred and profane “and experiences of sacred power or existential significance”, or ultimate meaning: “The novelists, unconstrained by positivist canons of ‘scientific’ methodology, groped for non-religious language in which to describe often equivocal experiences evoking the transcendental or ‘unseen’…”.

[from a TLS review of Lewis’s Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel].

Transoceanic Voyages to ancient America

Alice Kehoe has been an ardent apostle of the view that people crossed the oceans to America before Columbus. She writes: “Common sense points to the indisputable fact that men and women crossed open ocean to get to Australia fifty thousand years ago in the Pleistocene. There is no other way that continent could have been populated. Polynesians sailed to hundreds of islands in the Pacific many centuries before Europe’s Age of Exploration began in the fifteenth century”. Again: “if for centuries, Polynesians deliberately explored the entire Pacific Ocean and had the technology to navigate precisely and transport settlers with their tools and foodstuffs, does it seem likely that in all those centuries, not one Polynesian ever discovered America” [Controversies in Archaeology, pp.140-141].

Compare this to what Grafton Elliot Smith wrote in 1927: “[it was] an altogether incredible supposition that the Polynesian sailors who searched many thousands of miles in the Pacific with such thoroughness as not to miss even the minutest islets were not repeatedly landing on the shores of America for ten centuries or more. How could such people who found Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand have failed to discover the vast continent stretching from pole to pole?”[quoted in my book Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture, p.89 and see index under ‘transoceanic travel”].  To be continued.

Alice Kehoe and early trans-Pacific Migrations

Anyone interested in early sea-voyaging, especially across the Pacific, needs to consult the distinguished anthropologist/historian Alice Beck Kehoe (professor emerita at Marquette University and adjunct prof at Wisconsin-Milwaukee). She has written widely about the history of American archaeology and worked widely with Native American communities. In this post I will first give some details about her, before we look at her findings in a later post.

Despite her formidable scholarship, she met with sustained opposition, even ridicule, from mainstream academe, when posing ideas about early oceanic voyaging. Why? (1) she was a woman in what was then (1960s and 70s) a largely male domain, and (2) her views on trans-Pacific migrations were outside the ruling paradigm. She writes: “Experiencing unjust bias firsthand heightened my thinking critically about the status quo, whether about the people acclaimed as leaders (like the professor who would not accept women) or about core ideas”.  When in the American Museum of Natural History she observed her mentor and fine scholar Gordon Ekholm “rebuffed when he put forward evidence for pre-Columbian trans-Pacific voyages”. His colleagues and students also suffered in terms of promotion and recognition. Those familiar with Kuhnian paradigm theory will know that defenders of a ruling paradigm in science (also the social sciences and history) tend fiercely to  defend it when it is first under attack. Eventually it is displaced by another paradigm, and the cycle continues!

I recommend her readable little book Controversies in Archaeology (2008) for an eye-opening account of her experiences (and also for her controversial theories, backed up by evidence).

Early Ocean Voyagers to the Americas: New Evidence

Researchers have over recent decades been using inter-disciplinary approaches to assess the evidence that early voyagers had come to the Americas, leaving a legacy of cultural traits. That evidence has been mounting. To give a few examples: the Harvard scholar David Kelley has shown irrefutable similarities between Eurasian and Mesoamerican calendar astronomy systems. It defies belief that these  systems could have been independently invented, given the intricacies involved. Kelley also argues that linkages can be traced between northern India and the area around Guatemala about 2000 years ago.

Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar have presented linguistic and archaeological evidence for early Polynesian contacts with Southern California. Then there is the ground-breaking work on trans-oceanic voyaging in prehistoric America by that distinguished anthropology professor Alice Kehoe, about which more in my next post.

Zelia Nuttall on Old and New World Civilisations

Zelia Nuttall (1857-1933), a distinguished American archaeologist and ethnologist and expert on early Mexican culture, was a pioneer in suggesting that European contacts had helped shape Mesoamerican civilisation. She was a fascinating character, part Mexican on her mother’s side, who ended up with jobs at the Peabody Museum and in Mexico. She specialised in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts, making her name by publicising the Mixtec Codex (Codex Zouche-Nuttall). D. H. Lawrence modelled the character Mrs Norris upon her in The Plumed Serpent.

In books such as The Fundamental Principles of Old and New World Civilisations (1901) she showed remarkable parallels between Eastern Mediterranean culture in Phoenician times and that of pre-Columbian America. She thought that those great voyagers the Phoenicians were the most likely carriers of European traits to the Americas. She cited parallel features: the purple dye industry and weaving skills; the use of pearls and conch-shell trumpets; copper, silver and gold working and trading; the tetrarchial form of government; the concept of “Four Elements”; and the cyclical form of calendar. She pointed to American traditions that “strangers” of superior culture had brought such knowledge from distant parts. Predictably, Zelia tended to be dismissed as a woman with dotty ideas. But Grafton Elliot Smith took her seriously. W. H. R. Rivers also (later) emphasised the migrations of culture -bearers who exerted profound influence upon “uncultured” populations. However the diffusionist ideas of people like Nuttall, Rivers, Elliot Smith and W. J. Perry were to be overtaken in the 1930s by Malinowski and his functionalist paradigm ( which neglected history).

Pre-Columbus Contacts beween Old and New Worlds

As early as the 1960s scholars were suggesting significant contacts between the Old and New Worlds well before Columbus “discovered” America. A symposium at Santa Fe in 1968 canvassed possible trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic contacts, using evidence such as plant dispersal around the world. John L. Sorenson, anthropologist, presented his findings after fifteen years examining the literature about such connections. He found a large number of important parallels between cultural features of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica. They included: temple and temple platforms; swastika; astronomy, calendar and writing; astrological almanacs; burial tombs; incense use in rituals;  paradise and underworld concepts; serpent and snake symbolism; dragon motif; double-headed eagle; winged sun disk; stele as cult objects; human and animal figurines; sacrifice complex ( including blood offering, human and child sacrifice); libation vessels; dualism; kingship complex; purple dye; turban; weapons, armour and trepanation.

While some of these may have been independent inventions, Sorenson thought it beyond belief that all were. He said that, even if the style of Mesoamerica was distinctive, “some rather basic ideas seem to have been shared in the two areas [Old and New World”], Scholars should look more closely for cultural diffusion by trans-oceanic voyaging.

Although Sorenson was blissfully unaware of it, many of the features he discussed had been previously raised by Grafton Elliot Smith [see my book on ES, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture].

Trans-0ceanic Travel and the Americas before Columbus

Over the last six or seven decades evidence has been building up about trans-oceanic travels to and from pre-Columbian America. Just a few examples today. Thor Heyerdahl spectacularly showed it could be done with his voyage from Peru to Raroia in eastern Polynesia on the balsa-raft Kon-Tiki in 1947, as did his following trip in the Egyptian-style reed-bundle raft Ra II in 1970. Trans-Atlantic crossings were shown to be possible when a scientific team led by Tim Severin crossed from Ireland to Newfoundland in a hide-covered wooden boat in 1977. Genetic researchers have found recently that a woman from the Americas probably arrived in Iceland 1,000 years ago, leaving genes that have been detected in about 80 Icelanders today.

In the 1950s Gordon Ekholm documented close resemblances between the wheeled toys of Central America and some Asian toys. He also suggested a possible Chinese origin of Teotihuacan cylindrical tripod pottery. The German scholar Robert Heine-Geldern did the same for the pottery of Mexico, Central America and Columbia. He and Ekholm found significant parallels in the symbolic arts of southern Asia and Middle America. Meggers, Evans and Estrada found exact parallels between pottery unearthed on the coast of Ecuador and some Neolithic pottery in Japan. All  of this strongly suggested trans-oceanic voyaging. Predictably this was dismissed contemptuously by the majority of isolationist-minded American scholars of the time.

To be Continued….

Our Ancestors Were Great Oceanic Travellers: Elliot Smith

Did you watch the recent episode of the TV documentary The Human Odyssey that showed how massively important to human evolution was the sea-faring ability of early humans? Grafton Elliot Smith was among the first to embrace, and publicise, this ability – something that had been ridiculed as impossible for “primitives”. He stressed the way in which early peoples overcame “barriers” such as rivers, lakes, seas and, finally, oceans in their adventurous spread “out of Africa” to populate the globe. This was part of his general theory of cultural diffusion. He played up the sea-worthiness of early craft and the navigational skills of people like the Polynesians, who rapidly voyaged across the Pacific. ES even argued that they had reached the Americas. As he said in 1927: “it is an altogether incredible supposition that the Polynesian sailors who searched many thousands of miles in the Pacific with such thoroughness as not to miss even the minutest islets were not repeatedly landing on the shores of America for ten centuries or more. How could such people who found Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand have failed to discover the vast continent stretching from pole to pole?”.

More on this anon.