Scientists in many disciplines have had the wool pulled over their eyes by such scams, at least for a time; and anthropology has been a particularly fertile field for the opportunists who perpetrate them. A notorious example is Piltdown Man, a conglomeration of human skull, orangutan jawbone and chimpanzee teeth that were planted for “discovery” in 1912 in an English field by a person or persons unknown (among the popular suspects are such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle and Teilhard de Chardin). The forgery was not fully exposed until 1953.
Closer to home, in 1868 an enterprising New Yorker named George Hull got a moneymaking brainwave after attending a revival meeting in which the preacher quoted the passage in the Book of Genesis claiming that “There were giants in the Earth in those days.” He had a slab of gypsum carved into a ten-foot likeness of a “petrified man,” buried it on his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, near Syracuse, then had the cousin hire a well-driller to dig up the site and “discover” the effigy.
Hull managed to sell the so-called Cardiff Giant for quite a tidy sum to some speculators who wanted to exhibit it. No less an entrepreneur than P. T. Barnum tried to buy out the hoax, then created and exhibited a plaster replica when he was rebuffed. Mark Twain was inspired by the episode to write a tall tale called “A Ghost Story,” in which the Giant’s ghost returns to demand reburial. The original Cardiff Giant can still be visited today at the Farmers’ Museum in nearby Cooperstown, lying in repose with his stone arm demurely draped to conceal his groin.
Artifacts besides humanoid “remains” are not immune to scientific hoaxes. Probably the most infamous example is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a circa-1903 Russian forged manuscript that Hitler used to rationalize his genocidal policies and that is still cited by anti-Semites as “evidence” of a Jewish plot to take over the world. But there are also many examples of phony “discoveries” made by failed academicians with no particular political axe to grind – just limp careers that needed a boost. One such desperate wannabe naturalist was Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a French/German scholar and specimen-collector of the 19th century who made some mild contributions to species taxonomy but whose body of work is generally described as “erratic.”
Nobody is 100 percent sure whether he did it on purpose or was duped by another collector, but in 1836 Rafinesque published the Walam Olum or “Red Record,” a purported collection of ancient Lenape creation and migration narratives that included an account of a flood of biblical proportions. He claimed that the stories had been inscribed on a bundle of red wooden tablets, which he (or his informant) had conveniently misplaced permanently by the time Rafinesque’s “translation” saw print.
In spite of doubts as to the Walam Olum’s authenticity that arose right from the get-go, many authorities treated it as a genuine collection of Native American lore for over 150 years. It was not until 1995 that the forgery was definitively refuted through the work of Dr. David M. Oestreicher, who will be speaking at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz this Saturday. An ethnographer and linguist, the Rutgers-trained Oestreicher is regarded as one of the world’s foremost scholars on the prehistory, history and culture of the Lenape people, the indigenous inhabitants of our own mid-Hudson region whose surviving descendants, now called Delawares, were resettled in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario. Following the publication of Oestreicher’s research on the Walam Olum hoax, the Delaware tribe of northeastern Oklahoma officially withdrew its former endorsement of the alleged ancient epic. Widely known for his collaboration with the late Herbert C. Kraft, Oestreicher completed the final portion of Kraft’s seminal scholarly work on the Lenape, The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 BC – 2,000 AD. Oestreicher was also the curator of the award-winning traveling exhibition “In Search of the Lenape: The Delaware Indians, Past and Present.”
Dr. Oestreicher’s Huguenot Street lecture and slideshow, titled “The Lenape: New York’s First Inhabitants,” will combine archaeological and historical evidence with decades of firsthand ethnographic and linguistic research among the last Lenape traditionalists. Oestreicher will give a brief overview of the prehistory of the Mid-Atlantic region, describe how the Lenape and their neighbors subsisted at the time of European contact, why they ultimately left their homeland and where they are living today.
The presentation will touch upon major historic events involving the Lenape, including the arrival of Henry Hudson – contrasting Hudson’s own words with Lenape oral traditions collected by Oestreicher and others over the centuries. He will relate how the Lenape language, ceremonies, religious beliefs and lifeways were impacted by removal from their traditional homeland. The slide program will feature Native artifacts, maps, illustrations and photographs of various life activities, and images of some of the most important tribal traditionalists – the last repositories of their culture. The talk will conclude with an account of efforts today by the Lenape to reclaim their ancient heritage and revive long-abandoned traditions.
This lecture is the real deal, based on a lifetime of serious research – no airy-fairy New Age romanticism or Doomsday prediction scenarios. It will be presented from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, November 13 at the DuBois Fort Visitor Center, located at 81 Huguenot Street in New Paltz. Tickets cost $8 general admission, $7 for HHS members. Come and learn what really happened to the people who were here first.