Virtual Skeptics #19 revealed that the end of the world comes alongside a bad hair day. I linked to the video of the show at the bottom in case you missed it. But this was an interesting topic this week for me. Here is a write up…
I follow a lot of sources for news stories for Doubtful News including some more paranormally-minded or, should I say, unskeptical sources. I’m always interested to see what kinds of stories are circulating in that community and they are often the first to spot the bizarre ones.
I use information from those stories to promote critical thinking about them. I think it’s harmful to spread inaccuracies so I wish to provide the skeptical, rational view.
Earlier this week, I saw a story on a news blog site about a mass grave found in Mexico that contained skulls that had deliberate cranial deformation. That is an interesting story in itself but the hook was that these skulls looked like your pop cultural stereotypical alien head. The “alternative news” sites Beforeitsnews.com and abovetopsecret.com, hubs for UFO and conspiracy tales, had latched onto that idea calling it a “mass alien grave” (that’s the way BIN said it, and I advise not visiting that site even for a laugh because it’s a piece of shit. However, they have since altered the title to delete the alien reference.) Then it appeared on the Daily Mail and the story went huge.
But when I first saw it on what appeared to be an actual archaeology site, I sent the original story to one of my regular correspondents, Dr. Jeb Card, visiting assistant professor in anthropology at Miami University who specializes in Mesoamerican archaeology. He said it was a reputable story – interesting because it was an unusual find so far north, something which has not been recorded before in the Sonora area. There was a different culture there. Common in central America, this practice of cranial deformation was a unique find for this area.
The article describes the discovery of an 1000 year old Mexican burial site consisting of 25 individuals – 13 of which have intentional cranial deformation and five also have dental mutilation. These cultural practices are similar to those of pre-Hispanic groups.
“[T]his unique find shows a mix of traditions from different groups of northern Mexico. The use of ornaments made from sea shells from the Gulf of California had never been found before in Sonoran territory and this discovery extends the limit of influence of Mesoamerican peoples farther north than has been previously recorded,” said the director of the research project.
She describes that cranial deformation in Mesoamerican cultures was used to differentiate one social group from another and for ritual purposes. The dental mutilation was seen as a rite of passage into adolescence.
Cranial deformation was achieved by molding children’s heads by attaching boards, pads, bandages, or stones to an infant skull.
Weird as it looks to us now, it was an aesthetic process. We have MANY examples of skulls like this and the practice can be seen in many pieces of Maya art. It’s no weirder than the body modifications we see today. In fact, I was surprised to find out that of the forms of human self-mutilation that have been recorded, few have been so widespread and long lasting as intentional cranial deformation.
This was once commonly practiced in a number of cultures widely separated geographically and chronologically,and so was probably independently invented more than once.
Once I started looking, I found it was all over.
In the study “Head Shaping and Dental Decoration Among the Ancient Maya: Archeological and Cultural Aspects”, a paper presented at Society of American Archaeology, Chicago 1999 by Dr. Vera Tiesler, a sample of 1,515 Maya individuals from 94 sites in the present day Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as Guatemala and Honduras showed that 88.65% of crania evaluated were artificially shaped.
To effect these deformations, the Maya used cradleboards, cephalic apparatuses and related implements.
This is not a new discovery. The earliest recorded evidence of artificial cranial modification dates to 45,000 BC in Neandertal skulls.
Not alien skulls
I found myself very annoyed with the idea that ignorant and mystery mongering sites were exploiting the story by framing it as the ridiculous notion of ancient aliens. One minute of googling will lead you to scads of references about this topic. But, this alien head thing was COOL, let’s go with that instead… No.
I had a brief twitter exchange with two representatives of such sites and they were quick to call me a debunker and no fun. Sure… alien heads, all in good fun. As shown by our silly antics on Virtual Skeptics, skeptics are not a bunk of grumpy old white academic males. And I make a point of calling people out on that stereotype as often as I can. They usually concede, perhaps because I’m not a grumpy old academic male. Whatever.
Back to the topic of pseudoarchaeology. It’s a big one that Jeb and I have discussed before – a growing issue, note the long success of the Ancient Aliens show. He has attempted to address it in professional meetings but I get the impression that the serious scientists aren’t really interesting in standing up to the nonsense because, well, it’s absurd, too absurd to even address. Maybe they feel it is beneath them just like evolutionary biologists scoff at creationism.
But when sites push the ridiculous idea that these strange skulls are alien heads, it does damage.
There is this nasty glitch in our brains that results in the Backfire effect. Even if we are saying X claim isn’t true and here’s why, people tend to remember X claim. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about the Bermuda triangle. Hmm, there must be something to it.”
“They are looking for WMDs in Iraq? Didn’t find them? Oh but they were looking for them, must be something to it.”
“Alien-shaped skulls? Yeah that’s weird.” [Two months later] “Alien skulls? Yeah, I heard about that. Weird.”
Familiarity increases the chances of accepting information as true. Therefore the more you talk about something even in a negative context, people will only remember the keywords, not necessarily the nuance. That’s dangerous. It’s how misinformation becomes ingrained in a culture.
A second point is about goals and values. Trained archaeologists are out in the field doing real work to find the best answers about past cultures. What is their goal? To learn what really happened. What is the purpose of making this into science fiction about aliens? Entertainment. That has its place but not right here. Not when we have an actual strange and bizarre (to us) cultural practice we wish to understand by exhuming graves, places some people consider sacred. As Jeb said, its an example of how easy it is to turn archaeological remains into something weird. But that’s disrespectful.
I don’t find anti-intellectualism or mystery mongering to be admirable things to promote. It’s frustrating to be made fun of by pointing that out. I am a proud member of the reality-based community and will continue to point out faulty communication.