America before Columbus -- a theory full of holes; Saga America, by Barry Fell. New York: Times Books. $15.
In this sequel to "America, B.C.," Barry Fell expands upon his claim to have discovered linguistic and archaeological proof that the Americas were colonized by a vast range of Europeans, Africans, and Asians a thousand years before Columbus.Skip to next paragraph
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This is contrary to established evidence, but Fell more or less ignores all of the counterevidence and even suggests that most of the establishment has come around to his side since his first book was published.
In fact, scholars in linguistics, archaeology, and history have scorned his conclusions and methods -- reinforcing a tinge of martyrdom which Fell and his friends wear like a badge of honor. After all, they laughed at Galileo and Pasteur, too. But of course, they also laughed at Laurel and Hardy.
Like Tolkien, Fell has invented a self-contained fantasy world, but Fell represents his scientific reality. On the whole, I find Fell's fantasy less consistent and believable.
IT is certainly possible that there is an ancient site or inscription or remote colony of Old World origin to be found in America, but Fell portrays pre-Columbian America as a hotbed of trade, settlement, and semi-urbanization, which simply could not have escaped the archaeologists' notice were there any evidence for it. A partial Fell chronology for America: 325-250 B.C.: Carthaginian and Phoenician trade 264-241 B.C.: Libyan Greeks integrate; Carthage trade ends 250-100 B.C.: European trade interrupted, North America mapped, token coins issued because of coin shortage 400 B.C.-A.D.400: Iberian-Roman traders; Roman currency adopted A.D. 69 and 132: Two waves of Jewish refugees A.D.450: North African Christians arrive A.D.500: Libyan science and math flourish in Western US A.D.700 onward: Islamic inscriptions and Christian Celts in West A.D.1000: Vikings explore much of the US 1341: Vinland Norse revert to "paganism" and "barbarism" 1398: Last Norse-Celtic voyage to America 1524: Verrazano finds blonds in Rhode Island
But except for ephemeral Viking settlement in Canada, this all seems to be poppycock.
Fell's evidence consists of stone structures, ancient coins, and "inscriptions" on tablets, boulders, cliffs, etc., found in America. Jeremiah Epstein of the University of Texas recently traced virtually all american coin reports in January's "Current Anthropology." He showed them to be explainable as recently lost collectors items, mistaken identities, or hoaxes. Fell's "megalithic stone structures" were investigated in 1978 by Vermont State Archaeologist Giovanna Neudorfer and in 1979 by my Univeristy of Massachusetts crew, and we found nom evidence for ancient-voyager origins and considerable evidence for historic construction as chimney supports, spring houses, and root cellars.
Inscriptions such as the Kensington Stone, Spirit Pond Stones, and Iowa Tablets have long been exposed as hoaxes, but Fell cites them as if they had never been challenged.
Fell traces a hodgepodge of supposedly "borrowed" European words in "Algonquian" (actually a family of different languages) and other Native American tongues, but linguists have shown him wrong. On Page 187 he notes a Smithsonian publication by "Goddard and Fitzhugh 1978" but does not include it in his bibliography, thus keeping more or less intact his record of ignoring critics. It is available from Ives Goddard, curator of linguistics at the Smithsonian in Washiington, and interested readers should request a copy.
Matter-of-factly writing of the "Wyoming Iberian Bank" and its branches, Fell claims evidence for Gaelic settlers in Oklahoma, Jews in Arkansas, and Greeks in Colorado. That ancient Christians settled America is "unimpeachable," he says, devoting a chapter to America's Christianization long before Columbus. He then writes on the fall back into "paganism," implying that once-Christian America was simply reclaimed by later European conquerors.
His "Wyoming bank" consists of some round petroglyphs quite in the local Native American tradition. He claims to match them up with Old World coins.Like most of his comparisons, they do not even look similar except for the simplest, easily-reinvented designs -- except to true believers.
Fell is a prophet in an archaeological cult. In the name of science he tells people they should believe in him and share in the secrets of civilization. Disdainful of the experts, he gives easy answers to complex questions. His evidence is illusory, erroneous, and unsubstantiated, but he raises a powerful call to belief.
"Saga America" is either a delusion or a cynical exploitation of people's honest enthusiasm for the romance of archaeology. To the considerable extent the book camouflages or denigrates the accomplishments of Native Americans (and serious scholars), it is regrettable indeed. If it sparks interest in America's past sufficient to inspire readers to seek out better accounts, suspicions aroused, the book may have some value, at least as a counterexample.
Read "The Mound-Builders" by Robert Silverberg, "Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents" by Robert Wauchope, "exploring the Unknown" by Charles Cazeau and Stuart Scott, and Martin Gardner's "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science" as antidotes.
"Saga America" belongs in library collections next to Bermuda Triangle, Bridey Murphy, and fad and cult items. It is a serious, if anadvertent, sociological document of a peculiar genre of wishful thinking, and it is worth reading only in that extent. Thoughtful will come to Barry Fell not to praise him.