First published in Ancient American magazine and later in Nexus magazine.
by Ross Hamilton
Noted Native American author and professor of law emeritus, Vine Deloria, writes in a personal communication:
It’s probably better that so few of the ruins and remains were tied in with the Smithsonian because they give good reason to believe the ending of the Indiana Jones movie—a great warehouse where the real secrets of earth history are buried.
Modern day archaeology and anthropology have nearly sealed the door on our imaginations, broadly interpreting the North American past as devoid of anything unusual in the way of great cultures characterized by a people of unusual demeanor. The great interloper of ancient burial grounds, the nineteenth century Smithsonian Institution, created a one-way portal, through which uncounted bones have been spirited. This door and the contents of its vault are virtually sealed off to any but government officials. Among these bones may lay answers not even sought by these officials concerning the deep past.
The first hint we had about the possible existence of an actual race of tall, strong, and intellectually sophisticated people, was in researching old township and county records. Many of these were quoting from old diaries and letters that were combined, for posterity, in the 1800s from diaries going back to the 1700s. Says Vine in this understanding:
Some of these old county and regional history books contain real gems because the people were not subjected to a rigid indoctrination about evolution and were astonished about what they found and honestly reported it.
Some time before archaeology came to subscribe the general public to its view of prehistory—generations prior to Darwin’s troublesome theory—the pioneers thought that some of the earthworks were as ancient as could be concurrent with human habitation in America. Some among the early settlers exercised their pens assured that the earthworks were not built by the direct ancestry of the native people living in the historical period, but rather were constructed in a more remote era encompassing a different social order. They compared the “Mound Builders,” with the “Indians,” clearly discerning the former as belonging to an earlier time—possessing a different fate or destiny from the latter.
Another of many examples, this one, collected by James Mooney (1861-1921), tells of the visit of very tall people from the west:
This kind of recorded tradition did not start with Mooney, rather beginning early in American history. During the Colonial and post-Colonial era, the information seekers were keen on gathering as much knowledge of the forgotten past as feasible through native sources. Some of it was woven into romantic tales including verse, but the main of it went into records, which, like the accumulation of earth and debris over ancient village sites, became buried in the musty stacks of old libraries—considered to have no real “substance” in the emerging field of the white man’s science.
From the outset of North American archaeology, no federally sponsored concern has researched and collected evidence specifically emphasizing the existence of unusually tall Native Americans in prehistoric, and even in historic times. There are reasons for this oversight, though in hindsight it has placed limits on our overview of prehistory. Because there were only occasional people of large stature born among the light-skinned, European races, numbers of giants were far from anticipated in America. Scientists in Europe, in case-by-case studies, declared their giants to have been victims of pituitary disorder. Another reason was that when the private citizenry in the U.S. unearthed the bones of very tall and strongly constructed people, and when these disinterments were recorded, rarely was any comparison made with sites of similar contents. It was still a sort of wilderness in many rural areas right until the middle 1800s. In this, each discovery was sort of “unique”—only to end up in the stacks of old township libraries to be complied later as curiosities—if they survived at all. The following account originated around the year 1800:
Although not regarded by the government as reliable, the oral traditions of the native people in the eastern U.S. aver of the existence of possibly two races of giants, one supplanting the other by violent means. Here we have the first inkling of some very remote prehistory preserved, through the tradition of the Chippewa, Sandusky, and Tawa tribes, (members of the Algonquin language group), the existence of giant, bearded men.
Offsetting the carefully recorded diaries of the rural folk, there were popular writers who creatively developed the more contemporary histories and folk legends, leaving to cursory treatment the deeper accounts of North American antiquities. These authors, while having captured the essence of the public perception of the noble native tradition, were not reconciled to the antique body of legend. The pens of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) relate virtually nothing of the tall ones. Native Americans, as we know, were discouraged from writing, although some, such as David Cusick, circumvented the bias using Christian names. Fortunately, early missionary concerns gathered oral tradition from the tribal elders concerning men of giant stature.
But even the most informative or entertaining accounts could not instill enough respect for the native people to put an end to the further destruction of the sacred sites. The attitude of the white race in general toward the red race was an abomination, totally lacking in mercy and compassion. Many of the Native American skulls were compared with European skulls, but selectively so as to depict the current native populace as being of inferior intelligence. Almost without resistance, the black seeds of racial bias were forming in the uncorrupted soil of prehistoric interpretation. Take for example the words of an important government official and popular writer, Henry Schoolcraft (1793-1864):
Schoolcraft, who himself married a half-Indian woman, was apparently predisposed to labeling the native people in general as inferior. This kind of ridiculous prejudice underscored the tone for the unbridled continuation of the earthwork debacle. The result of this is accurately reflected in how archaeology was organized more than one hundred years ago, and may be summed up in the policy of Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Says Henry in 1846: “The collection of data should precede theorizing…” Unfortunately, the collection of data seemed to have no end, and any subsequent theorizing was (and is) in a state of transience. The Smithsonian, playing a sort of leading role in the massive undertaking attempting to cast light on the inscrutable prehistory of the United States, inadvertently collected far too many relics to ever analyze in a comprehensive sense. Estimates of the number of moundworks in Ohio alone—at the end of the Colonial period—topped ten thousand. Today, less than one-twentieth of these exist, and, moreover, they exist in a reconstructed form. No quarter of special status was given to any earthwork, no matter how sacred or strategic to tribal lands. It was a holocaust of an unprecedented nature, for it undermined the very morale of the native people who understood the peace of their ancestors to be ruined.
Differing only in the professionalism somewhat absent from the previous seventy years of ghoulish quests, Henry’s mandate dictated emphasis on the creation of an inclusive system of excavation, recording, and description. Any analysis that followed had to be based upon this criterion. But competent analysis of anomalies rarely (if ever) came from the Smithsonian and other institutions formally engaged in the practice of exhumation. Given this understanding, it is no wonder that the Smithsonian is believed by knowledgeable people to be actively stymieing research that would produce a more enlightened view of American prehistory.
There is, however, some compensation for this oversight in that the Smithsonian, like the Peabody, and the Carnegie shortly thereafter, faithfully upheld Henry’s mandate to detail, as was feasible, their mound “explorations.” However, the present-day inaccessibility of the bones and objects these people removed for future study is a reflection and symptom of the proposed “oversight.” One thing that pleased us in this research effort was the fact that there were many skeletons of gigantic frame discovered and reported by the Smithsonian, boosting the validity and value of the old township diaries, as well as the native legends. Some of these are presented below.
A Brief History of the Museum
The Smithsonian Institution, easily the world’s largest museum complex, began from the generous gift of James Smithson, an English scientist, in 1829. Believed born a bastard (especially in the eyes of his later detractors), Smithson was a “diligent young student,” receiving a Master of Arts from Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1786. He became a distinguished scientist. The gentle man passed away in 1829, bequeathing his fortune to nephew James Henry Hungerford with the stipulation that if this man died without an heir, the remainder of the fortune would go to the United States. It seems he felt that the United States was the future of Britain. Perhaps Smithson saw the “New World” as fertile, worthy, intellectual territory.
Hungerford died in 1835. Although there was some controversy in the interim, the finding of the Smithsonian, based upon the more than a half million-dollar gift, took place officially in 1846. His legacy to the American people was, in his own words, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Since that time, the museum’s collections have increased considerably, with problems in the cataloging and location of stored finds developing due to changing standards of administrations over the last 150 years. Analogous to the Vatican with its antique cache of confiscated, problematic treasures, the booty of the Holy See may pale in comparison to the Smithsonian’s boatload of diffuse evidence. Pity of it is that Smithson’s request has gone into a different mode of interpretation. Instead of diffusing knowledge, it has unwittingly become confused with the problem of sprawling storage.
Powell and Thomas
In 1882, after some thirty-six years of growth and sound management, Smithsonian executive John Wesley Powell (of Grand Canyon exploration fame 1869-1872), hired Cyrus Thomas. Powell wanted this man to head up the fieldwork for the Smithsonian’s newly created Bureau of Ethnology, specifically the Eastern Mound Division. Thomas was a minister and an entomologist whose broadened interests included archaeology. He was, inotherwords, a bible-advocating, insect-adept archaeologist who believed in the mystery of a lost race at the time of his being recruited. Powell, who was much in sympathy with the plight of Native Americans, having lived among them for a length of time, believed that there was no lost or mysterious race of mound builders. He desired to credit the downtrodden native people with the worthy and gentle arts associated with the ancient mound building societies. Subsequently, and in light of other politic considerations marking the era, Powell sought to enact these personal convictions through the instrumentality of Thomas. In spite of his personal beliefs, Thomas was not outspokenly resistant to accepting the position. Besides, Congress was allocating solid funding for this proposed ramble through the ancient landscape.
There was apparently an important decision made at this time concerning the facilitation of an enveloping theory—so necessary to create order where chaos loomed. Before discharging a book, one logically creates an outline to guide one’s thoughts. This was to become a hierarchical arrangement that would decide the angle of vision for the categorizing of the finds that would be made. On one hand, the belief that others discovered North America before Columbus (such as Phoenician, Egyptian, Hebraic, Greek, Roman, Celt, Scandinavian, or even Asian mariners) was explored. On the other hand, the idea of the continent having been isolated from outside influences was put on the table. It was perhaps because of Powell’s deference to the native kinship that the latter idea—i.e., screening out any extra-continental visitors—was adopted. Needless to say, this was an extraordinary assumption, and one that has affected decision-making right until the present day. On the positive side it viably linked the living factions of the Native American people with the more ancient mound building folk, and shortly thereafter was responsible for the faintly successful preservation of what remained of the mound builder’s legacy. From this it may be understood how aspects of Powell’s work, such as analysis of the social order of the mound builders, was not a priority.
Powell’s decision regarding isolation was in reality a two-edged sword. While it was a meaningful step that fostered a meager though important harmonic between the federal government and the native people, it was regrettably based upon a false notion. An example of its contradiction is found right in the 12th Annual Report itself. Again and again Thomas and his operatives came up with anomalous evidence directly questioning Powell’s sweeping suppositions.
Armed with a self-created doctrine powered by ample funding, and with a little help later from the one-way door to the Smithsonian’s inaccessible catacombs, the years that followed saw Powell and his underling nearly succeed in the obliteration of the last notions of the legendary, mysterious, and antique class of mound building people, and for that matter, any people that didn’t fit into the mold of his theory. Did Powell intentionally overlook some of the archaeology so as to focus on his own special agenda?
Powell and his associates at the Bureau were quite certain that people had arrived in the Americas only sometime after the first Egyptian dynasty—less than 4500 years ago! They also believed that the Mississippi Valley was sufficiently isolated from the Ohio Valley to warrant the simultaneous flourishing of quite distinct cultures over a long period. Since carbon dating was not yet discovered, Thomas used stratigraphic (after Lyell) analysis and, following the rest of the mandate, included detailed record keeping and documentation whenever appropriate. His findings were broadly accepted, and are still referenced.
But Thomas’ time was limited because of the large territory he was to explore. Under such working conditions, anomalies were put aside for future research—to be, as it has turned out, forgotten. Thomas was forced to rely on the accounts of operatives in many cases. Evidently, some of these people discerned between “Indian” burials and the burials of the Mound Builders, perhaps challenging the patience of Powell.
Regarding the problem of “intrusive” Indian burials, what kind of a time gap were these men looking at between the original burials and the later ones? As his agents uncovered the physical evidence for powerful men of towering stature, Thomas held the position that any and all skeletal remains represented the direct ancestry of the present day people. Was it not plausible to consider an extended “family” or hierarchical group of very tall folk who served with the people? Were they selective enough in their sexual associations to appear, overall, as a race with its own peculiarities and even physical characteristics? The findings that didn’t fit in to the guideline established by his superior were summarily recorded and forgotten by Thomas—a legacy we have inherited today.
What has become of all the evidence? Again and again, only a single long skeleton or two was found among those of normal size. The understanding of tall, ruling chiefs and their wives was not developed at all, as is evident in these examples.
Largest in the collective series of mounds, the Great Smith Mound yielded at least two large skeletons, but at different levels of its deconstruction by Thomas’ agents. It was 35 feet in height and 175 feet in diameter, and was constructed in at least two stages, according to the report. The larger of the two skeletons represented a man conceivably approaching eight feet in height when living.
The pressure of the time schedule doubtless made it inconvenient to seriously consider the possibility of an ancient lineage of leaders taking the form of very tall people. The fact of gigantic stature never settled in as a clue to a greater mystery, and the evidences of very tall, ruggedly built men vanished—and often enough into the Smithsonian’s temporary charnel house of pre-Columbian miscellany.
A femur (thigh bone) exceeding eighteen inches would indicate a man of very great height-easily over seven feet. Femurs exceeding twenty inches have been found however.
Though hindsight is said to be 20/20, Thomas’ methodology was little better than a government-sanctioned dissolution of the sacred burial places. He dismantled the sanctuaries and charnel houses with the fervor of a man whose first priority was to impress his employer. From Florida to Nebraska—including twenty-three states and Canada’s Manitoba region—over the next seven years he and his agents worked like men possessed of a deadline.
Could this special burial have been another kingly individual? In these increasingly hasty intrusions into the native burial grounds’ inherent sanctity, the holocaust delivered its zenith under the officialdom action of former Union Major Powell. This man who in his youth had lived among the “Indians,” somehow was insensitive to the sanctuary of their graveyards. But others came later to do a fair share of damage as well, all in the name of information gathering. The prehistory of eastern North America is not what we have been asked to accept from the efforts Cyrus Thomas, nor from the subsequent authorities who based so much of their work upon his, and the reason is worth repeating—many or most of the oldest mounds and subterranean burial acreages were promptly destroyed long before any focused “scientific” effort came on the scene.
Apart from the disregard of the settlers’ records, the other part of the problem is the labyrinthine mausoleum that is the Smithsonian bone and artifact collection. In sum, we today are deprived of the real knowledge of the more ancient lineage. The early settlers observed that the giants of old may have passed on their grand stature to the later native people, for there were individuals among their later progression who were of a size and build that goes beyond our current notions of Native American physicality.
The Telling of the Bones
It is difficult not to understand the probability of an elite lineage of tall men and women who propagated their own genetic inheritance. These people lived, worked, and bred together. Were their marriages arranged to ensure the continuance of the grand stature in roles of leadership and protection? In his classic Red Earth, White Lies, Vine says:
The question has been raised asking whether there was giant stature among the Native American people in earlier historic times. FromHardesty’s History of Monroe County, Ohio, we discovered this:
And again this:
Some of the settlers and their descendents may have seen clearly, but the representatives of the Smithsonian and other sanctioned institutions, in spite of good intentions, lacked the kind of thoroughness in their analyses that included a broadened field of vision. We have felt heartily from the beginning of this research that the Smithsonian is the recipient of mandates put into place well over 100 years ago. It is virtually exempt from NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), for the reason (say they) of there being too much data to finish analyzing to prepare for repatriation.
Why distressing? Because no true Neanderthal remains have ever been recognized by any Federal authorities as originating on the North American continent, what to say of the Americas in general. Is there yet today a conflict between established theory and what has been physically discovered? Is the “ghost” of Powell yet haunting the halls of the Museum?
So what is the policy of the Smithsonian? Does the institution intentionally withhold information? Is the fact of a race of giant warriors and chieftains threatening to the closed, internal doctrine of American archaeology? That there was a race of men and women possessing an unusually tall and strong physicality living over an extensive area North America has become a forgotten fact.
There are other examples, and names like the Gungywamp Society of Connecticut, Ed Conrad, and others have bizarre stories to relate about the ineptitude or simple prejudice of the Smithsonian when dealing with their materials. In these examples, there is growing appreciation for an actual cover-up.
Another grotesque twist is the Army Medical Museum’s collection. According to the ABC News special “Skeletons in the Closet,” the United States government acquired a real interest in Indian corpses. The Surgeon General, in post-Civil War 1868, requested that the army collect the skulls, utensils, and weaponry of Native Americans “as far as you are able to procure them.” According to the report, these were to be sent to Washington, D.C. as part of a program that studied the effects of modern bullets and other weaponry on human bodies. The collection of such remains, estimated at 4,000, was taken mostly from grave and battle sites. What was left over became part of the Smithsonian collection estimated at 18,000 individuals, and this by way of the Army Medical Museum.
Today however, bones are no longer as good a source of information as they once were thought to be, and for several good reasons. Bone, while composed dominantly of the metallic calcium, yet is made up of organic molecules. Depending on moisture and temperature, it will decay, break down with time, and return to the condition of the soil after a certain number of centuries. Bone evidence has created over-emphasis on certain periods of prehistory, in this region the so-called “Hopewell” and “Fort Ancient” (Mississippian) people. Thus, a great proportion of the Archaic and early Adena bones discovered were decomposed beyond preservation. Due to a lack of skeletons other more antique periods have not received the same kind of recognition save from the better scholars affecting the interested public’s view of the ancient world. Ironically, the holocaust of giants, while deadening our sense of the past, may well serve as a lesson for the future.
Red Earth, White Lies : Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact by Vine Deloria, Jr. (Fulcrum Pub; ISBN: 1555913881; 1997)
The mysterious Serpent Mound in the Ohio Valley is a masterpiece of prehistoric architecture. Its enormous size alone inspires awe and reverence. Even deeper meanings may be hidden in the dimensions and lost functions of this ancient religious structure. Researcher Ross Hamilton has uncovered multiple layers of secrets hidden within the earthworks of the Serpent Mound, and his discoveries contribute to a new understanding of prehistoric spiritual science and engineering.