“There is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right” ― Edward Abbey
I’ve come to the conclusion that the skeptic community as they relate to strange phenomena has trouble listening. Active listening, that is. Like when you’re girlfriend tells you she’s feeling unappreciated, or your boss suggests that you might have a time management problem. One is telling you she’s going to leave you for somebody who plays less videogames, and the other is suggesting you’re likely to fired, sooner rather than later. The modus operandi of the devoted skeptic is to tell you how what you’re pretty sure you just experienced or the theoretical connections you’ve drawn cannot possibly be so. I’m not suggesting that we should validate every experience. Plenty of people are stoned. Plenty of people are crazy. Plenty of people need to put food on the table. The mistake is to take the current paradigm and reconstitute it as the explanation for everything strange that has ever happened in this absurd universe, taking a page from (perish the thought) their favorite whipping boy of Ancient Aliens.
What we refer to monolithically as history is a misnomer. We engage in “historiography”, or more succinctly a method of viewing the past, and historiography is inseparable from the time and culture in which it looks backwards from, much as “science” is actually philosophical empiricism in the context of currently accepted truths. If you think I’m kidding, consider how many articles were published in the last few days that talk about “debunking” Einstein (trust me, do a Google search – it will make your skin crawl). That’s some brass balls if you ask me. In the context of classical physics, Einstein started a revolution, but with a century of development in physics, our perspective on the universe has been continuously refined, and our paradigms are shifting.
Yet the species seem to be enthralled by these “gotcha” moments that highlight the flavor of the month, and not simply empirically disprove, but fundamentally invalidate the knowledge of the past. It’s as if we could have gotten to our current accepted truth, without the accepted truths of the past. Both history and science are exercises in the present despite pretensions towards timelessness and universality, which is what every religion has done for time immemorial. Don’t get all bee’d up in your bonnet. I’m not suggesting science and history are religions, just that we socially construct, and then socially reconstruct our standards for “truth” from generation to generation, which allows us to smugly “debunk” the knowledge of the previous generation, when in fact what we are doing is an exercise in refinement under a new set of axioms. This is the reason we have nice clear divisions between science (what we can prove in a lab), history (what we can discern from documents), and folklore (the shit people say).
We like to create timelines. Timelines are a happy place. They allow for perspective. We can say definitively when humans arrived in North America from Siberia. We can definitively chart the migrations of people across the continent, and thus we can extrapolate into a robust understanding of the “true” history of humanity in the New World, and our understanding of how the Americas were populated and thus derive a “history” with a high degree of confidence. Of course, this requires one to ignore certain facts, emphasize others, and interpret what we currently understand to be immutable, which is just plain silly. Your wife might think you’re charming today, but give it a decade or so, and those cute peccadillos are going to get really annoying.
This is how information passed from generation to generation in the form of folktales has become equated with abject bullshit (except when it serves some other utilitarian purpose). Take the deluge. Clearly there was a nasty flood somewhere that countless folks across the world recorded at roughly the same time. In fact, there were probably lots of floods. This is neither here nor underwater there. The point is, in our current state of enlightenment, which is incidentally the same state of enlightenment that previous generations felt themselves inheritors of, we begin to understand climate change, and the fact that catastrophic changes to the earth do occasionally happen from super-volcano eruptions to ice ages to sea-level changes. Ah, but with science, we now understand these things better, you say? Don’t fall into the trap. Certainly we have expanded the boundaries of what is reproducible, but much of our knowledge is still educated guesses, particularly our historical knowledge, since after all you can’t really round up a few Classical Greeks and ask them what they were thinking about that jackass Socrates or poll the legions for how they felt about the Emperor.
Personally, I like to blend a little folklore with my science. Where would the cocktail industry be if nobody ever tried a little experimentation with the traditional mixes. For all you know, gin and whiskey make the perfect breakfast food when blended with cucumber. I feel inspired. Back in a few.
Well that experiment failed. Nonetheless, the method to this madness is to suggest perhaps we should consider that oral traditions (I figure if you throw “oral” in the text anywhere one might capture a little of the porn traffic that dominates the internet, and I have empirical evidence of this having written bizarrely evergreen content such as “Sex and the Single Fox Spirit” and “Sex, Violence, and Softcore Sasquatch Snuff Films” and watched years of hits that clearly were looking for a little something more risqué), passed down across the centuries occasionally encode tidbits of information that are relevant to history, a history that valorizes the written document, as if people don’t lie and obfuscate when they write. There was no doubt a point where citation proved you were familiar with the thinking of those who preceded you, but read any academic treatise and frankly it’s become a religion. The fact that I try to provide extensive citations for bizarre stuff should be considered my subtle effort at mocking erudition.
But sadly I digress. I blame the interaction of the gin and whiskey. Or maybe it was the damn cucumber. I never trusted those vegetables. At any rate, my English teachers have always insisted on examples, and I will honor their memory. They’re not dead. They’re just still English teachers. I’m pouring out a little of my ’40 for my homies in Introductory English 140. Let’s talk Sasquatch.
According to my sources, a common question is “Why are there no monkeys in North America?” My initial response to this is that perhaps our definition of “monkey” is a little narrow, but deep down there is a legitimate inquiry there somewhere.
As it turns out, there were once monkeys in North America. The lack of tropical forests would seem to be an obstacle, but heck, there are snow monkeys in Japan. Monkeys seem to thrive in a variety of environments. The answer is that North America wasn’t always a monkey-less landscape. In 2008, researchers found the fossilized skeleton of a 55-million-year-old Tarsier (tree-dwelling fur-covered tiny creature with a long slender tail) in Mississippi. So there were monkeys or monkey ancestors in North America. Then the Eocene Epoch (56 to 33.9 million years ago) ended. At the end of the Eocene is got substantially colder, kicking off the Grande Coupure (or “great break”) – one of our great mass extinctions of life on this nasty little dirtball. Mostly, or so the theory goes, the only monkeys that survived were around the equator. Our current model suggest that all the monkeys north of Panama died at this point, based on the relative absence of any fossilized remains in North America. Not that anybody is really looking.
So, let’s recap. What do we know? Primates existed in North America in reasonably large numbers until roughly 33 million years ago. Freaking weather gets screwy. Mass monkey deaths result. We have no idea whether extinction was the result. Of course, monkeys might be smart enough to avoid tar pits and other mucky places that lead to preservation and display in a natural history museum. There is certainly an absence of primate skeletal remains (as of yet) in North America after 33.9 million years ago.
Let’s consider the rest of the world 33 million years ago. There were rainforests in Egypt populated by lemurs-like creatures. Hippo-sized warthogs were wandering South Dakota, California’s northern Sierra rose by nearly 10,500 feet over this period, and archaic mammals were largely replaced by the ancestors of our modern mammals. In some sense, modernity starts 33 million years ago in that most of the animals you might see would be recognizable (although maybe a little bigger than you’re familiar with). In Africa, the earliest evidence of Australopiths (the hominid line from which the whole Homo species derived) is somewhere around 4 million years ago. And its not like we’re finding Australopithecine skeletons littering the landscape. This of course, suggests the remote possibility that, evolution willing, an analogous Australopith-like species could have emerged in North America.
So, we have no fossil record of primates in North America from 33 million years ago until the currently accepted notion that Homo sapiens first exploited the Bering Straits land bridge sometime between 40,000-20,000 years ago and exploded across North America. That’s about 33 million years of getting jiggy with geography and evolution. Scientific orthodoxy (as it currently stands) would have you believe that the North American continent was uninhabited by anything even vaguely resembling a primate. One of the endearing qualities of primates is our adaptability. We have a problem with predators? We hit them on the head with rock. Sabertooth tigers presenting a problem? Live in caves. Sharpen spears. Being a primate is awesome. Technology trumps claws.
Now, this is all pre-history. What happened in North America between 30 million B.C and 40,000 B.C.? I don’t have a clue. Neither do you. Neither do paleontologists or archaeologists. They can tell you what they do find. They don’t have a lot of theories about what they don’t find. That’s where oral history passed down through the centuries comes in handy, as it may provide clues as to the state of the world at times where nobody thought written language was as significant as not dying from starvation.
And as promised, let’s look at folklore. In particular, lets focus on Cheyenne origin myths, which if we assume they aren’t just a bunch of old geezers punking the “yougins’’, record something of significance. Cheyenne origin myths drop hints about the cohabitants of our world that have faded from memory. The skeptic must dismiss this as a fanciful creation, but what if, among many of our anecdotal histories, they captured an elusive reality? By elusive reality, I mean a history of our species that has been ignored (in the current orthodox paradigm), and dismissed for lack of evidence, where the criteria for evidence is a moving target, a physical object to behold or an extensible theory that advocates for the current wisdom. In short, what if monkeys survived the Eocene in North America? What if those same monkeys were witness to the invasion of North America by Siberian interlopers?
How about we ask the Cheyenne? The earliest written record we have of the Cheyenne is from the mid-17th Century, when a scouting party visited the French Fort Crevecoeur, near present-day Peoria, Illinois from their lands in Minnesota and North Dakota. Cheyenne tribal history is pretty clear that they originally resided in the northern Great Lakes region, but during the 17th Century were driven south by the Assiniboine tribe. By 1765, their northern neighbors the Ojibwe defeated the Dakota, pushing them south, which in turn forced the Cheyenne even further south and into the Great Plains. This is a fair approximation of the migration patterns of all humanity throughout history on every continent. The latest big bad on the block dislocates somebody, leading to a chain of movement in an effort to avoid further conflict, pillaging, or imminent death.
We have to trawl a little further back, though. The general consensus is that Paleo-Indians originated in Central Asia and crossed the Beringia land bridge between Siberia and Alaska sometime between 40,000-16,000 years ago, following herds of now-extinct Pleistocene megafauna, from there spreading across the Americas. The presumption is that they found no indigenous primates, fauna that weren’t yet wary of humans, and subsequently went hog wild, getting fruitful and multiplying. But what if North America was not exactly unpopulated? Our close relations the Neanderthals only went extinct in Europe around 40,000 years ago, and while we don’t have any evidence of Neanderthals in the Americas, does this preclude the possibility that small groups of other hominid lines persisted in some form? Even from Africa, we only really have a few complete skeletons of Australopithecus (e.g. the famous “Lucy”), otherwise we have the occasional skull, jawbone, or knee joint. There’s a lot of speculation involved given the fragmentary evidence we have pieced together for the history of hominids on this planet.
Let’s take a flight of fancy and for a moment presume that folklore and oral traditions passed down, while not necessarily a precise description of events obscured by the mists of time, perhaps encode tantalizing bits that were notable enough to share across the millennia. We’re fairly comfortable with the fact that the settlement of the Americas was an inexorable push from Siberia to Beringia to the south, a trend that continued into the written historical record. Cheyenne origin legends detail precisely this, in fact describing what paleobiologists believe Beringia and the northerly climes of North America would have looked like at the time proposed for human migration onto the continent. The Far North would have been a lot more accommodating. Animals, never having encountered humans would have little fear of them.
In the beginning the Great Medicine created the earth, and the waters upon the earth, and the sun, moon, and stars. Then he made a beautiful country to spring up in the far north. There were no winters, with ice and snow and bitter cold. It was always spring, and the wild fruits and berries were everywhere, and great trees shaded the streams of clear water that flowed all through the land. In this beautiful country the Great Medicine put animals, birds, insects, and fish of all kinds. Then he created human beings, and put them in the country to live with the other animals. Every animal, both big and small, every bird, both big and small, every fish, and every insect could talk to and understand the people whom the Great Medicine had sent to live among them, and they could understand each other, for they were all friends, and had a common language. The people went naked. They lived on honey and wild fruits, and were never hungry. They wandered everywhere among the animals, and when night came and they were weary, they lay down on the cooI grass and slept. During the days they talked with the other animals, for they were all friends, and one people (Dorsey, 1905, p34).
Especially fascinating is that the Cheyenne people’s origin myth further details interactions with a small group of primitive “hairy people” who ultimately fled south after contact with the ancestors of the Cheyenne. Eventually the proto-Cheyenne began moving south as well, encountering remnant populations of the cave-dwelling hairy people, who eventually disappeared. Ecological cataclysms, from what sound suspiciously like volcanically-induced winters to large-scale flooding seems to have briefly driven the forefathers of the Cheyenne back north (now also climatically unpleasant), and when they found it safe to return south, all traces of the hairy people had vanished.
There were three races of these men: a hairy race; a white race, with hair on their heads; and the Indians, with hair only on the top of the head. The hairy people went south, where the land was barren, and after a time the Indians followed them; the white, bearded men also departed, but none knew whither. Before the red men left this beautiful country, the Great Medicine blessed them and gave them that which seemed to awaken their dormant minds, for hitherto they had been without intelligence. They were taught to clothe their bodies with skins and to make tools and weapons of flint. The red men followed the hairy men to the south, where the latter had become cave-dwellers. These, however, were afraid of the Indians, were few in number, and eventually disappeared. Warned of a flood which was to cover the southland, the Indians returned to the north, to find that the bearded men and some of the animals were gone from there. Nor were they able, as before, to talk with the animals, but they tamed the panther and bear and other beasts, teaching them to catch game for the people. Afterward they went once more to the south, where the flood had subsided, and where the land was become beautiful and green. Another inundation came, however, and scattered them here and there in small bands, so that they never again were united as one people. This deluge laid the country waste, and to escape starvation they journeyed north once more, only to find the lands there also barren. After hundreds of years, the earth shook, and the high hills sent forth fire and smoke; with the winter came floods, so that all the red men had to dress in furs and live in caves, for the winter was long and cold, and it destroyed all the trees. The people were nearly starved when spring came; but the Great Medicine gave them maize to plant and buffalo for meat, and after that there were no more famines (MacCulloch, 1916, p124-125).
The point is, not necessarily that bands of Bigfoots were wandering about North America 40,000 years ago, and were encountered by the ancestors of the Cheyenne, rather that the details of the oral tradition are rather specific. The scientist “knows” that there were no primates in North America. Except there were, albeit 33 million years ago as far as we can tell. It’s not as if we are awash in fossilized remains from 33 million years past. Thus we base our assumptions on the very thin evidence we do have. The skeptic will argue that one cannot construct a theory based on the absence of evidence, only on the evidence we have, which of course brings us back to the whole listening problem. One need not accept the total veracity of every origin myth for every culture, but it takes a deliberate kind of willful ignorance to maintain that nothing beyond superstition is embedded in them. Some folks just feel an excruciating need to be right, particularly when by doing so they can elevate their own self-image. Should we believe in myths? Such a question misses the mark entirely. A myth is not a fabrication. It is a bending. A change in the curvature of culture has rendered what was once unassailable truth into tradition, and generation after generation, increasingly accustomed to the new warp and weave of knowledge, call it folklore. As Roland Barthes said, “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion”.
Dorsey, George A. 1868-1931. The Cheyenne. Chicago, 1905.
MacCulloch, J. A. 1868-1950, George Foot Moore, and Louis H. 1875-1955 Gray. The Mythology of All Races. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1916.