History

Unexplained Mysteries: Why Didn't the Indians Build Their Pyramids Upside-Down?

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The new Indiana Jones flick prompts an anthropologist to debunk—yet again!—a resilient strain of crank theories:

Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

[Via Infocult.]

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  1. I read a great article called “1491”. The point to the article was that the America’s may very well have had a larger population than Europe before Columbus.

  2. Thanks for providing an Indy thread, Jesse.

    OK, for those who haven’t seen it: Indy IV is awful. Just terrible. It tries to keep your attention by being a 2-hour chase scene. Everything is clearly being shot on a sound stage–it’s so obvious I almost wonder if Spielberg was being ironic. Indy performs physical feats that are leaps and bounds (literally) beyond his feats in all three previous movies, and apparently he is also Jackie Chan now. There is no character development, the story is moronic, the villains are boring, and the conclusion is trite, uninteresting, and dumb.

    I can go on if you want.

  3. The point to the article was that the America’s may very well have had a larger population than Europe before Columbus.

    Then why are the communal diseases of Europe far more deadly then American ones?

    If they had higher pop densities then why didn’t the Europeans get repelled from the new world by microbes and viruses?

  4. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

    Ha! I choose to believe the alien theory because I’m batsh!t crazy.

  5. Epi, the kiddies went to a $6 drive in last nite. Double feature: Indy 4 and Ironman. They both said Indy is just too old now and it was predictable. They both liked Ironman much more.

  6. Josh Corning,

    No idea. Just thought it was interesting when I read it a few months ago. Google the title “1491” if you wanna read it.

  7. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

    Lucas and Spielberg are full blown racists?!?!

    Say it ain’t so!!

    I wonder how those two would react if someone made a movie about how aliens invented the Hebrew alphabet?

  8. Pyramid and mound layouts in the Americas were very effective fractal antennaes for interstellar communication. The technology came from the Orient, if I’m not mistaken.

  9. Josh:

    Larger population does not direclty imply greater density. The Americas are pretty big place.

  10. I wonder how those two would react if someone made a movie about how aliens invented the Hebrew alphabet?

    Winner of Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2010 Oscars.

  11. Geez. Since I was a child, I’ve pointed out that the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Incas et al were PEOPLE JUST AS INTELLIGENT AS PEOPLE TODAY! How arrogant to think that ancient peoples would be unable to develop things on their own.

    A passing thought –
    Maybe we can get the truthers on the ancient astronauts/Atlantis shtick. Then they could bother archeological blogs instead of Reason OnLine.

  12. Joshua Corning,

    Jared Diamond, in “Guns Germs and Steel” posits that the reason Euro diseases were more deadly was that they originated in the animals that European cultures domesticated. The Americas didn’t have as many domesticate-able species, therefore the humans were exposed to fewer diseases.

  13. I’ve pointed out that the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Incas et al were PEOPLE JUST AS INTELLIGENT AS PEOPLE TODAY!

    Oh, bullshit. They didn’t even have iPods!

  14. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200203/mann

    Is this the article?

    I would agree with what i read that estimates of native americans pre-columbus have been low, my objection would be that the populations were near European scale.

    But then again i may be over estimating Europe’s population at the time….plus North and South America are considerably larger then Europe.

  15. It’s nice to see someone else poking holes in the idea that pyramid architecture suggests mysterious connections.

    Is there any artificial structure simpler than a “pile”???

  16. YEAAA!!!! Finally, the Von Daniken post that I have been jonesing for all month! Thank you Jesse!!

    How long beofre the Yetti and Global Warming folks arrive?

  17. A passing thought –
    Maybe we can get the truthers on the ancient astronauts/Atlantis shtick. Then they could bother archeological blogs instead of Reason OnLine.

    George Norry (the heir of Art Bell) comes on every day as I am driving home from work. It does not serve as a successful sacrificial anode.

  18. Final Jeopardy Answer:
    There is no character development, the story is moronic, the villains are boring, and the conclusion is trite, uninteresting, and dumb

    What is American Cinema?

  19. But they had beer!

    And so can you:

    Kirin recreates an ancient beer recipe

  20. My ma in law’s maiden name is yeti.

  21. Guy,

    For your enjoyment, read Graham Hancock. Lol

  22. What is American Cinema?

    I thought “Lars and the Real Girl”, “There Will Be Blood”, and “The Fountain” were pretty sweet.

  23. ed, I blame the state of american cinema on computer generated special effects.

    I’ll take Carl Childers and Doyle Hargraves over jar jar binks anyday.

  24. How long beofre the Yetti and Global Warming folks arrive?

    Do. Not. Talk. Shit. About. Sasquatch.

    He’s psychic.

    Pic source (extra-crazy)

  25. I’ve pointed out that the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Incas et al were PEOPLE JUST AS INTELLIGENT AS PEOPLE TODAY!

    Very true. The first humans hadd all of the same reasoning ability as us. However, their available set of tools/inventions was smaller. Simple activities like “drilling” were discoveries that helped build greater things.

    Is it correct or incorrect that the wheel was not in use in the Americas until the Europeans arrived?

    NS,

    I read a great article called “1491”. The point to the article was that the America’s may very well have had a larger population than Europe before Columbus.

    In college, late 80s/early 90s, the leading estimate was 100 Million people in North/South America combined before Columbus arrived. But the diseases they had swept through the continents ahead of the advances of European exploration.

    Also, that the earlier thought that syphillis was brought by the Europeans was incorrect, it was brough back to Europe by them after catching it here.

  26. The Yeti are just an Atlantean genetic experiment gone wrong. Duh.

  27. Is it correct or incorrect that the wheel was not in use in the Americas until the Europeans arrived?

    They had the wheel, but not large beasts of burden to pull carts, and so only used them for toys.

  28. Didn’t Egyption mummies have evidence of chewing cocoa leaves (faint traces of cocoa in the gums or something)…I think I saw this on the Discovery channel a few years ago and since cocoa is only known to grow in South America clearly there was trade from South America that reached the Middle East…so they could have just seen or heard about the pyramids of another culture.

  29. They had the wheel, but not large beasts of burden to pull carts, and so only used them for toys.

    Ah, okay. I figured that invention was simple enough to have been created before the Asians/Africans/Europeans all bumbled upon the Americas from different directions.

  30. Sasquatch is basically our only hope for defeating the C’thulu when he finally awakens.

  31. Sasquatch isn’t real. Even that footage of sasquatch isn’t real. That footage was Joe’s mom tramping through the wilderness in search of a razor.

  32. Also, that the earlier thought that syphillis was brought by the Europeans was incorrect, it was brough back to Europe by them after catching it here.

    Syphillis is no small pox.

    Hey anyone know what the population estimates of europe was in 1441?

  33. Norbert Sykes,

    There is also a bunch of similar trinkets from tribes around the Arctic Circle dating well before the Vikings and Columbus.

    American arrowheads seem to have their tech development on the West Coast of Germany (some call it ‘france’) even though those heads have some Western American name (from where they were first discovered, not where most have been found, East Coast).

  34. Sasquatch also holds over 2,108 separate patents.

  35. What discussion of ancient pyramids and aliens would be complete without the mention of the epitome of batshittery … you guessed it folks … DAVID ICKES. The man who asserts in the same breath that intergalactic reptiles founded our civilizations, and shape-shifting Rothschilds drink baby blood with the Bushes at the Bohemian Grove.

  36. Art-P.O.G.,

    Silence you fool!!! Do you wish to bring down the wrath of Nyarlathotep upon us all!!!

  37. Guy,

    Clovis?

  38. Sasquatch is basically our only hope for defeating the C’thulu when he finally awakens.

    All lies…Chupacabra killed C’thulu and Sasquatch is what keeps us safe from Chupacabra.

    Case in point no sighting of Chupacabra has ever been reported where a Sasquatch has been sighted.

  39. Josh Corning,

    Do you actually expect me to believe C’thulu was killed? You need to brush up on your Lovecraft.

  40. Case in point no sighting of Chupacabra has ever been reported where a Sasquatch has been sighted.

    QFT

  41. Sasquatch has a small carbon footprint. If we could only get government funding for Sasquatch studies we could find the cure for the earth’s feaver.

  42. Guy Montag,

    Well, as a number of scholars have pointed out for most of human history the wheel was not in use. Furthermore, it is rather difficult to actually make a wheel (try it some time) and since beasts of burden didn’t exist in the Americas (there apparently were no domesticates that could fill that niche) it may not have been worth investing time in such a device. Finally, topography would have in many of the civilizations made the wheel either less useful (think of the canal system of the Aztecs) or difficult to use (think of all the mountainous regions of the Incan empire).

    Also, that the earlier thought that syphillis was brought by the Europeans was incorrect, it was brough back to Europe by them after catching it here.

    There are a couple of leading theories on the origin of syphillis; one is that the Americas contained a particularly virulent strain, but that the disease existed in a far milder form in the Old World.

  43. Silence you fool!!! Do you wish to bring down the wrath of Nyarlathotep upon us all!!!

    I must admit, the idea doesn’t sound too appealing. On a side note, Hillary messed up by not running Obama=Nyarlathotep stealth ads.

  44. If we could only get government funding for Sasquatch studies we could find the cure for the earth’s feaver.

    You’re right. Fluid Karma is a dead end.
    NOTE: No one has ever seen the Abominable Snowman and Sasquatch in the same picture either.

  45. BTW, there is almost a universal concensus among UFOlogists is that exterresterials are visiting us. If the global warming people were not taking all the research money we could have some ET answers by now.

  46. NOTE: No one has ever seen the Abominable Snowman and Sasquatch in the same picture either.

    They could all be Yassir Arafat and/or Ringo Starr (who have never been seen together either) or Tim Curry and Tony Blair.

    This suggests more government for nature-born terrorist studies.

  47. WWCD?

    He’d eat you.

  48. Silence you fool!!! Do you wish to bring down the wrath of Nyarlathotep upon us all!!!

    Step 1. Point out in that in Soviet Russia, the Nyarlathotepian overlords welcome you.

    Step 2. ???

    Step 3. Profit!

  49. Nyarlathotep full text, in case anyone wants to brush up.

  50. Some of you guys are missing lessons in Socialized housing over here.

  51. Where both J sub D and the original author are correct is the underlying assumptions. It’s all a bunch of “these damn dumb wogs couldn’t possibly have done this”. A heaping helping of cultural superiority mixed with a whole bunch of racism and voila: Erich Von Daniken and all of his ilk.

    For some unknown reason, it pisses a certain kind of narrow-minded peerson off that the indigenous populations managed to do something they can’t figure out.

  52. Norbert Sykes,

    If the Egyptians visited the americas, I would have to suggest it was during the time of the black pharaohs. American pyramids resemble the earlier step pyramids and to me, many of the faces carved in early americas buildings have definate african features. I’m thinkin toltec or olmec. (not sure)

  53. You guys are dipshits. Sasquatch is retired and living in Boca Raton with Xenu.

  54. T,

    It seems to me that nearly all of the earths great civilisations were superior to the europeans in many ways including math, astronomy, construction, sanitation and others.
    Between greed and religion, europeans fucked over everyone in their path and the U.S. carries that torch to this day.

  55. Sasquatch is retired and living in Boca Raton with Xenu

    Well, that explains why he likes his privacy so much. You seem to be implying that Big S. is some kind of closet case, though. NTTAWWT.

  56. brotherben,

    Just to note that as a general rule that pyramids in Mesoamerica were not used as burial sites. They were not generally used for burial in Mesoamerica (there are some exceptions). Furthermore, by the time that the first Mesoamerican pyramids were going up the step pyramid at Sakkara was already ~2,000 years old.

  57. Is our dipshittery a result of you being our spiritual leader? Or do we follow you as a result of our dipshittery?

  58. Racist? Maybe in a “we didn’t really think of it that, but you’re probably right” sort of way. I think (I haven’t seen the movie) that it was more along the lines of “wouldn’t it be really cool if aliens helped early civilizations to advance?” I can see their argument that it dehumanizes a culture, but I always get a little wary when someone cries, “racism!”

  59. All the pyramids in the world were constructed at the instruction of the Predator aliens as giant cages to hold the Alien beasts so they could hunt them for fun.

  60. All the pyramids in the world were constructed at the instruction of the Predator aliens as giant cages to hold the Alien beasts so they could hunt them for fun.

    We really can’t confirm that theory without a Manhattan Project level of effort. Maybe more, depending on what John Lithgow and that Sex in the City chick are charging these days.

  61. Sasquatch is retired and living in Boca Raton with Xenu.

    Nah. I’m from Montana, met him in the woods last week. Had him for dinner last night. He tasted great with rubarb dressing. His feet are now bookends.

  62. Brotherben, you have clearly not studied my scriptures. We overcome our dipshittery by embracing it.

  63. His feet are now bookends.

    Did you inherit the Paul Bunion library?

  64. Epi, I got no time for studyin, hows about i send ya a couple ben franklins and you pray for me?

  65. Send away, I will pray harder the more you send. The address is:

    1308 L. Ron Hubbard Way, Los Angeles, CA, 90027

  66. Indy IV wasn’t that bad, I guess it depends on what you wanted from it. I didn’t think it was as good as the original 3, but it was fun. It had some really silly scenes and the bad guys lacked a certain fear factor, I’d say it was essentially an Indy-lite movie aimed more at a very general audience whereas the older ones didn’t seem as aimed at children as much.

  67. No wait, the pyramids were actually built by the “Stargate” aliens – or was it the “5th Element” aliens?

    Damn, there’s just too many aliens to keep up with.

    Maybe they all set up an alien Real Estate Investment Trust to keep it straight.

  68. It seems to me that nearly all of the earths great civilisations were superior to the europeans in many ways including math, astronomy, construction, sanitation and others.
    Between greed and religion, europeans fucked over everyone in their path and the U.S. carries that torch to this day.

    Where they all failed was sheer exuberant excess violence. All us white boys from Europe figured that game out and refined it until the rest of the world didn’t have a chance.

  69. It seems to me that nearly all of the earths great civilisations were superior to the europeans in many ways including math, astronomy, construction, sanitation and others.
    Between greed and religion, europeans fucked over everyone in their path and the U.S. carries that torch to this day.

    If they’d been truly “superior,” the Europeans wouldn’t have been able to fuck them over, don’t you think?

    Anyway, most knowledge spread almost as quickly in the ancient world as it does today. What’s interesting about studying Mesoamerican cultures is their isolation from the Eastern Hemisphere.

  70. The new Indiana Jones movie is certainly better than that stinker with Sean Connery as his dad.

    The idea that someone taught native Americans how to build pyramids is called diffusionism.

    There were definitely pre-Columbian contacts (the Vikings presence has been proven and those Polynesian chicken bones in Chile from before 1400 AD suggest Polynesian islanders came) but their impact was not so great.

    The pyramids on the Canary Islands are interesting too. Some clowns try to say they date from the 19th century (heaps of stones collected by farmers plowing the fields), but if you look at them you may have a different opinion.

    The Solutrean hypothesis is very interesting. It is far from proven but the proponents make a good case. There are also genetics showing some Native Americans mostly in the northeast had another maternal DNA type found in Central Asia and Europe (X).

  71. Indy IV wasn’t that bad, I guess it depends on what you wanted from it. I didn’t think it was as good as the original 3, but it was fun. It had some really silly scenes and the bad guys lacked a certain fear factor, I’d say it was essentially an Indy-lite movie aimed more at a very general audience whereas the older ones didn’t seem as aimed at children as much.

    This description sounds exactly like what Lucas did with the new Star Wars trilogy.

    I, therefore, will not be seeing Indy IV.

  72. “It seems to me that nearly all of the earths great civilisations were superior to the europeans in many ways including math, astronomy, construction, sanitation and others.”

    What about Rome? That was both a great civilization and european.

  73. Racist? Maybe in a “we didn’t really think of it that, but you’re probably right” sort of way. I think (I haven’t seen the movie) that it was more along the lines of “wouldn’t it be really cool if aliens helped early civilizations to advance?” I can see their argument that it dehumanizes a culture, but I always get a little wary when someone cries, “racism!”

    well, specifically in this case, there’s a long history in the west of explaining this stuff by almost any other means than “they must have developed it themselves!” – a lot of mesoamerican artifacts were initally labeled “atlantean” because obviously some superior force from outside told them how to do this stuff.

  74. Indy IV wasn’t that bad

    Yes it was. It was terrible. Spielberg and Lucas continue their rampage of destroying everything great they created in their youth.

    Taktix has made the correct decision to not go see it. I’m pissed I gave them my money.

  75. The cocaine/coca compounds in mummies probably comes from the 16th and 17th century tradition of turning dead prostitutes into mummies and selling them in the antiquities trade.

    Ancient MesoAmericans were likely as intelligent as their descendants. Which is to say human average. I’m glad someone mentioned syphilis the disease exchange was two way. They also had a number of domestic animals just no draft animals besides some dogs that were strong enough to pull things or llamas that can’t carry much more than a strong person.. They actually had at least in Central America bred different breeds for different purposes, guard dogs, food animals, and pest control.
    For the most part they formed superstitious, violent and totalitarian states based on pillage and slavery. At least as bad as the Sumerians, Roman, Mongols, or English. We should consider ourselves better off for their destruction.

  76. well, specifically in this case, there’s a long history in the west of explaining this stuff by almost any other means than “they must have developed it themselves!” – a lot of mesoamerican artifacts were initally labeled “atlantean” because obviously some superior force from outside told them how to do this stuff.

    Right, and I understand that, I just think that they thought, for the movie, it’s a lot cooler to talk about aliens than the historical development of mud piles into pyramids. I don’t think it is necessarily because they are inherently “racist”. If you want to say that it is because that we, as the western culture, are inherently racist because of this, fine. I can accept that.

  77. This description sounds exactly like what Lucas did with the new Star Wars trilogy.
    I, therefore, will not be seeing Indy IV.

    Me neither. In fact, the description reads like a check-list of everything I hate about American cinema. Aimed at the kiddies? Check! Cartoon villains? Check!

  78. Sugar free, you are wrong. WWCD? He would appear slowly from mists of your own despair, creating within you a feeling of complete and utter oblivion. This feeling would pass slowly, to be replaced by a complete, soul-wrenching terror, from which the destruction that would come as a result of you being digested would seem as blissful paradise. Then he would leave you to contemplate whether you had been saved, because he did not consume you, or cursed forever by the knowledge that, in not being consumed, you must now live with the knowledge of what may yet cme to pass.

    THAT, is HE would do.

  79. I just think that they thought, for the movie, it’s a lot cooler to talk about aliens than the historical development of mud piles into pyramids.

    yeah, i mean it’s why i don’t get to make movies (i think the development of mud piles is fuckin’ awesome) but it’s definitely not the coolest decision they could have made.

    it also seems lame as hell. aliens in an indian jones movie? all the magic powers in those movies are from religions (judaism, hinduism, christianity), not from martians.

  80. No need to revert to theories of aliens or egyptians in the new world, but why do archaeologists hate the idea of cultural diffusion so much?

  81. “The Solutrean hypothesis is very interesting.’

    Pyramids, Spaceports, …. and SOUL!

  82. So, what I’m gathering from all of this is that some whack-job in Congress wants to make the Jaguarundi our national cat?

  83. “They had the wheel, but not large beasts of burden to pull carts, and so only used them for toys.”

    Ever used a pull cart or wheelborrow? They rock compared to a sled. My guess would be that colectiveism keeped the meso-americans from using the wheel. If you are union/tribelized they is no reason to rock the boat and come up with a better mousetrap.

  84. Jesus, it’s astonishing how so many of you can turn any discussion into evidence for the success of capitalism over collectivism.

    You’re pulling the same tricks as you’re avowed enemies (anyone who’s not an Orthodox Libertarian).

    As someone once said: “Capitalism is a great economic model, but it makes a shitty religion.”

  85. Nyarlathotep was on Soul Train? Pandeism is a great religion, but it makes a shitty economic model.

  86. SIV,

    No need to revert to theories of aliens or egyptians in the new world, but why do archaeologists hate the idea of cultural diffusion so much?

    That’s why we need government programs and grants to study exteraterrestrials. It would be a much more popular field and theory, like it was in the days of Project Bluebook, if our precious natural resources were directed at this puzzle and not being wasted on other things.

    The truth is out there.

  87. We could learn more from ancient cultures that practiced human sacrefice. They did not have an AGW problem and they were much more collectivist than us.

    Yes, another candidate for government funded research. Desperatly needed research!

  88. “Famous” Mortimer, do you have anything to add to the discussion? Or do you just want to paint all libertarians with the same brush because of one comment on one thread on one site?

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