LAWRENCE — Two University of Kansas researchers who study ancient American indigenous cultures and human DNA are available to discuss a controversial popular online documentary that purports to depict the investigation of a pre-Columbian "humanoid" mummy in Peru.
The web series "Unearthing Nazca" has received criticism from Peruvian scientists and anthropologists, who reject what the documentary presents as scientifically valid or credible. It examines mummies with elongated heads, asserting that these are evidence for extraterrestrial life even though it was not uncommon for pre-Columbian peoples to shape the crania of infants.
Two KU anthropologists say this narrative ignores research conducted under acceptable scientific standards and is unfair to Peruvian and other indigenous peoples.
John Hoopes, professor of anthropology, specializes in the archaeology of Central and South America. He also has an interest in the role of archaeology in popular culture and contemporary mythology with a special focus on pseudoscience, pseudo-archaeology and counterculture narratives. He has written a Psychology Today blog post about the search for ancient extraterrestrial life. Other topics on which he has provided media comment include the stone spheres of Costa Rica, crystal skulls, the Maya calendar and 2012, and the “Lost City of the Monkey God” in Honduras.
"The principal issue with 'Unearthing Nazca' is that it exploits ignorance about indigenous people of Peru and about archaeology. Known hoaxers have modified human remains of indigenous people to make them appear as if they are not human," Hoopes said. "This program revives 1970s pseudoscience and spurious claims about the ancient Nazca culture, including its 'mysterious' lines and geoglyphs. In fact, scientific research has revealed a great deal about the Nazca culture, including its many mummies as well as geoglyphs and settlements."
What's probably most important for the general public to know, he said, is that ignorance results in vulnerability to hoaxes.
"For example, in 1869, it was an archaeological hoax based on another spurious body — the fake Cardiff Giant — that resulted in the phrase, 'There's a sucker born every minute,'" Hoopes said. "These topics in Peruvian archaeology are not 'unexplained mysteries' but rather ones with which archaeologists have been long familiar. The practice of intentional cranial deformation was widespread among various non-Western cultures, especially indigenous peoples of the Americas. Archaeological hoaxes such as this are a form of actual 'fake news.'"
Jennifer Raff, assistant professor of anthropology and associate director of the KU Laboratory of Biological Anthropology, is a biological anthropologist who researches anthropological genetics with a special focus on ancient DNA, human evolution and scientific literacy, among other topics in the field. She blogs regularly on the intersection of science, pseudoscience and conflict and has given a lecture on the topic.
Raff said that pseudoscience is increasingly misusing genetics to promote racist narratives, including the idea that people with cranial modifications are "not human." According to news reports, the documentary uses purported DNA tests. Raff said it's a common tactic in pseudoscience to use DNA to justify claims, though often the tests don't follow any of the accepted scientific standards for conducting research. In this case their conclusions about possible extraterrestrial life are not only erroneous but erase the histories, cultural achievements and even existence of indigenous peoples, she said.
"Some viewers might believe them, not seeing the underlying racist narratives, and applaud them for the perception that they’re speaking truth to power — in this case, researchers like myself, who criticize them for not following ethical and scientific standards." Raff said "Their motivation is to profit from book sales and other ventures associated with this nonsense. In doing so, they are causing harm to these indigenous communities by spreading falsehoods about their origins and the accomplishments of their ancestors."