Blake Smith: “There were giants in the Earth in those days” – Genesis 6:1. “Fee-Fie-Fo- Fum. I smell blood of an Englishman. Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.” – the giant called Thunderdell from Jack the Giant Killer. Giants appear in cultures around the world: Biblical tales of giants for than ten feet tall; Roman and Greek stories of Titans and giant heroes; European stories of giants of mountain and hill. These tales all have one thing in common: enormous monsters. On this episode of MonsterTalk we chat with an archaeologist, Dr. Ken Feder, about giants, Biblical archeology, and one of the greatest hoaxes in American history.
Blake: Welcome to another episode of MonsterTalk. I’m your host, Blake Smith, and together with Dr. Karen Stollznow, linguist, skeptic, and blogger, and Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, skeptical investigator and blogger, we bring you information about the science behind monstrous myths and legends. Today we’re going to talk with Dr. Ken Feder about giants. Dr. Ken Feder is a professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University and has authored several books on archaeology most notably, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. You’ll hear Ben and me and Dr. Feder amusingly repeating the title of the book, but really it is really a fantastic book. If you’re at all interested in archaeology, I recommend you get a copy of it. As I like to say, there’s more skeptical content in the cover of this book, than in many entire televisions series on History Channel these days. He’s got fantastic information cover-to-cover. One more thing, Dr. Feder: he’s bright, he’s erudite, he’s passionate, and he cusses like a sailor.
Blake: Why are you here? What are your credentials and what do you know about giants?
Ken Feder: I am one badass mother*%$#^& when it comes to giants, man. That’s what I’m about!
Ben Radford: Why should we believe any of the *%$# you say?
Ken: There’s no *%$#^&# way you should believe anything I say. That’s what I tell my students when I walk into class the first day. Don’t believe me because I’m the guy at the front of the class because I’m giving you your grade. It’s all about the things I’m saying; are they researched, is there evidence to back it up? Question authority. Question me just like you question the crap you see on the Internet or stuff that you read in a magazine or any of that stuff. The reason I’m here, I guess, is because I’m sort of passionate about the study of the human past and it drives me *%$#^&# crazy when people take that past and they misrepresent it, misinterpret it, and they just flat out lie about it. The reason I got into this thing at all is that when I was a kid I believed all this crap. I actually went out and bought a copy of the book called, The Morning of the Magicians, which is essentially Erich von Däninken before there was Erich von Däninken. These guys were a couple of French authors who essentially said, yup, it’s extraterrestrial aliens, it’s all about that. I read the book and, at the time, I was a teenager, I was already interested in archaeology and I knew some of the stuff these guys were talking about. They knew it was complete crap and it got me really pissed off. It was the equivalent, you know, when you were a kid in the old days, you used to pass around pornography and the line is, “turn to any page” and there’s great stuff on every page. This The Morning of the Magicians, it was archaeological pornography. “Turn to any page!” and it was this crazy crap about, well, the Inca couldn’t have done this, and the Egyptians, they couldn’t have done this, and Aztecs couldn’t have done this and this was stuff that I knew something about and it was all total crap. It got me angry and, as a teenager, I was sort of looking into this stuff and ultimately became a professor, started teaching a course, Search in Archaeology, which you were supposed to just sort of make something up. Just let freshmen, who don’t know anything about anything, just let the class sort of flow. I told them the first day, we’ve got to have a syllabus, let’s make a syllabus now. The things that people put on the syllabus were ancient astronauts and psychic archaeology and all this other stuff. I thought, wow, this is weird; this is what the kids are interested in. Well, I’ll teach the course. Then I realized this is a lot of fun, but there’s not a decent book for it. And that’s when (paid commercial announcement) I started putting together the manuscript for Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, available in a bookstore near you.
Ben: I’m sorry I didn’t hear that. What was that?
Ken: That was Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, McGraw-Hill, available in bookstores near you.
Blake: I want to plug this, too, because I want to say that I tell people how great this book is.
Ken: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Blake: Seriously, there is more skepticism in the book cover than an entire season of MysteryQuest or anything on the History Channel. It is true, your reality check questions that people should be asking they’re when advancing claims about archaeology, that’s what you have on the inside cover. It’s fantastic. There’s nothing in there that’s not useful.
Ken: That’s really great to hear. The book actually is used by a lot of my colleagues in archaeology, but some of the nicest stuff I get comes from people who are teaching engineering, and they say, “You know what, it’s a relatively inexpensive book, it’s a short book; I have my students read it the first week. It has nothing to with my course, but it is so dead-on in terms of the scientific method and this is a topic that kids are already interested in. They see that and they say, ok, now let’s apply this to everything else we learn in this class.” That’s really nice when I get folks who aren’t archaeologists or not an anthropologist using it in completely different contexts just because it’s a really nice series of case studies on how the scientific method works and how the scientific method can sort of disabuse people of some of the crap they’ve been fed on cable TV and on the Internet and stuff like that.
Ben: Let me ask you about that. You mention a couple of the infamous authors…von Däninken, only being one of the worst ones; in your opinion, do they believe this stuff? Are they just selling books? Are they just stupid? What’s the motivation there?
Ken: Dude, it’s a really interesting question. It’s different for each one them. We actually, not more than a week and a half ago, had this very conversation in my class on the ancient mysteries. We watched old episodes of Horizon and Nova, “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts” where von Däninken really is interviewed about this stuff. He speaks in his own voice. Most of my students, maybe they are a lot sharper than I am, they come away saying, “He doesn’t believe a word of this crap; this has all been a scam from the very beginning.” I’m not so sure. I think that maybe it was at the beginning and maybe he sort of lost touch with what he knows is true and what he knows isn’t true. I really am not sure. I think it’s different for all these guys. Some of these guys really and truly believe it and some of them have found what has turned out for them to be a pretty nifty way of traveling around the world and making a ton of money. I’m not above that. If anybody wants to send me a lot of money and make me travel, I’m there. I actually had a couple of students coming to me at the end of the semester a couple of years back and they sat me down and said, “Look, Dr. Feder, we loved your book, but you’re never going to get rich debunking stuff. People want to believe and you’ll be able to sell books a lot better if you come out with a book that says all this stuff is true.” And I said, “Well, guys, I have a certain professional reputation, I’m committed to the scientific method. I’m not interested in doing that.” They said, “No, but the deal is if (me) Kenny Feder, were to write and pull off an archaeological fraud, it would do really well because it wouldn’t have (me) Kenny Feder to debunk it.” Yeah, that’s pretty good, I guess. I turned them down. I said, “No, I’m not going to do that, even though, probably, if anyone could pull one off successfully, it would be me and a handful of other people.” They came up with the next best offer which is they would let me write the book, pull off the fraud, but I could put their names on the cover and we could split the royalties 50/50. I was totally insulted by that because I wouldn’t accept anything less than 80%. I think I was making a pretty damn good offer. I was going to do all the work; they were just going to go around on TV shows and be interviewed about it.
Ben: A man with integrity. That’s what we need.
Ken: That’s exactly so. You’re looking for that one honest guy; I’m your man, right here. I think I mentioned it briefly in the fraud book the whole Atlantis thing how essentially this production company approached me and they were dangling all kinds of stuff in front of me because they wanted me to go on their show and say that Atlantis was, in fact, real; that I had rethought this whole thing. This was a production company doing a show for ABC and it turned it out was at the behest of Disney because Disney was putting out that cartoon [Atlantis: The Lost Empire] and they wanted archaeologists on this, what turned out to be an hour and a half long infomercial for the cartoon, although it was being presented as a documentary that, oh, my God, Atlantis really could have existed, these scientists really say it was real, so therefore the cartoon is based in reality; there’s some logical connection to the real deal thing. I turned them down flat even after they said to me, “Well, look Dr. Feder, we understand you don’t want to ruin your reputation. We know you don’t say anything you don’t believe, but I tell you what, we’ll interview you and you answer the questions anyway you want …” They actually said to me, “We’ll edit it in such a way that it sounds like you’re a supporter and you can bitch about it later.” Oh, my God! These guys were being honest. They told me exactly what they were going to do. I told them to go *%$# themselves. Actually a couple of colleagues of mine went along with it not thinking that would really happen and it happened and I think they filed some sort of complaint with the FCC about it.
Blake: Good luck.
Ken: Yeah, good luck with that, exactly.
Blake: Unless you show your naked breast, I don’t think they’d do anything, right?
Ken: I will only do nudity on a documentary if it’s called for in the script. Let’s talk about giants, shall we?
Blake: Giants appear all through history, the Bible has stories of giants…
Ken: Well then it must be true.
Ben: There you go; end of story.
Blake: Is there any reason to think that people who lived in ancient times were any larger than modern man? Have you got any archaeological evidence? Ken: When say larger, you’re referring to their height now, right?
Blake: Exactly. My understanding is that the shriveled remains of Egyptian mummies would not really be good indicator. We don’t really know how big an Egyptian penis is.
Ken: Well, no, in fact, that’s one of the really sad things. They don’t talk about this a lot; this is absolutely true. Howard Carter, or one of his guides, broke off Tut’s dick and nobody knows where it is. Honest to God, I’m not making that up; apparently it was broken off…gone.
Ben: It’s in your attic, isn’t it?
Ken: It’s one of those things we’ve been trying to hide from people…
Ben: eBay, eBay…
Ken: Freaking huge!
Ben: Maybe Mrs. Carter knows what happened to it.
Ken: [laughter] There ya go. She smiles a lot in those photographs doesn’t she?
Blake: My, gosh!
Ken: Moving right along…actually there is absolutely no evidence that people were any bigger and taller in the past. That’s absolutely crazy. However, you’re right, you run into a lot of people who claim, I think mostly based on the Biblical allusions to giants…at one point I actually did a word search of the Old Testament and found something like twenty specific references to whole races of giants; the Kingdom of Og in Syria, completely populated by twelve foot tall giants, and there’s Goliath and those dudes, the Philistines, Goliath of eleven or twelve feet tall. So there are a lot of references in the Bible to it and I think people grab that and run with that and say, “Oh, there must have been giants.” Let me give you a little bit of background. A few years ago I was in some chat group and people usually getting really pissed at me because I’d tell them the Shroud of Turin is a medieval artifact – get over it; ancient astronauts, there’s nothing to that – get over it; Atlantis, it’s made up by Plato – get over it. I understand it because, for a lot of people, those are effectively the equivalent of religious beliefs. I’m not saying, oh, my God, my science is better than your science. I’m saying, you have no science at all and they don’t care because they believe based on faith and that includes ancient astronauts and Atlantis and a bunch of other stuff. In those contexts, I used to think, I can always talk about the Cardiff Giant and the belief in giants because everybody knows that’s bull*%$#. Nobody really believes that. And I was shocked to find out that there are actually people out there that believe as fervently in the ancient existence of giants as anybody’s belief in the Shroud of Turin or ancient astronauts or Atlantis or psychic archaeology or any of this other stuff. I got into a conversation with a guy who told me essentially that I was full of crap, didn’t know what I was talking about because there’s definite proof and, that in fact, archaeologists today are attempting to hide it. In other words, he wasn’t even disagreeing with me, he figured I knew the truth, but I was obliged by my profession, apparently, to hide that truth, to keep that truth from the public. Because you guys couldn’t handle it could you; the end of civilization. If I were to tell you, you know what, dude, there were ten foot tall people in the past, civilization would collapse, the stock market would crash, we’d all be running around naked outside waiting for the end of time. Anyway, the guy actually sent me some citations. “What about this!” in the Smithsonian Bulletin and so on and so forth. In fact, he’s right, there are some citations mostly from the 19th century in the American Midwest, in the mounds, these burial mounds that we now know were built beginning a couple of thousand years ago; there are several of these mounds in which reports were that very, very large human beings were found buried in those mounds. Now, in one case, he actually has a specific citation to a site that I knew the remains were at the Smithsonian and I have contacted one of the forensic scientists there saying, “Hey, look, what’s the deal with this? This guy says that when this was excavated back in the middle 19th century that the report was the guy was ginormous, nine or ten feet tall.” I said, “I know that that’s probably not the case, but what do you know about it?” And what these guys told me, these guys deal with this all the time, is that when human bodies are put in the ground and when the soft parts decay and the connective tissue decays away that the bones actually do migrate. I’m five foot six. You put me in the ground by the time all those tissues connecting all of my long bones decay away, there’s “stretchage.” By the time I’m done, if you measure from the top of head to the bottom of my toes, it’s probably going to be probably a foot longer than that. I already gained a foot by dying, which sounds pretty damned impressive, right? The other thing is that you get this incredible exaggeration of what people are finding. They’re not excavated professionally; they’re not recorded professionally; they’re not photographed, but the individual bones were measured and that’s all you need. In fact, forensic scientists do this all the time. If you’ve got ten missing people and you find skeletalized remains of a human being in the general vicinity, you want to figure out which one, if any, is represented in this skeleton. You do simple stuff. The first thing you do is, is it a male or female, because you have five missing males, five missing females. If we identify it as a male, we know it’s none of the women. That’s very easy to do – 96–97% accuracy, if you have a whole skeleton it’s 98–99% accuracy distinguishing male from female. Then you’ll figure out how old was the person when that person died. That again, depending on the age range, we can either get within six months, a year, or certainly within the right decade when we get up to the forty, fifty, sixty, seventy. So if you know the person who disappeared was a teenager, you know that if the skeleton you got there shows this was someone who was a fully adult: all the effusion has taken place, long bones, all of the teeth are in, the cranial sutures have started to fuse over, well you know that’s not a teenager. And there’s ethnicity, as well. There’s certain markers that are fairly good, fairly diagnostic in distinguishing, say, Asians from Europeans from Africans, we do that all the time.
Blake: This is exactly what our listeners like to hear, so this is awesome…like teeth wear and joint wear and that kind of stuff.
Ken: If you want to identify a skeleton in terms of its sex, you look at the pelvis. If all you have are the innominate bones, both sides of the pelvis, 95% of the time you can identify it’s male or female because of the sciatic notch. The sciatic notch in females is bigger, which allows for a larger birth canal. There’s a little bit of overlap, so there are women with very, very small sciatic notches and men with very large ones. If you have the skull, the cranium, and the pelvis, you’re up to 97% because of the bone right behind the ear, the mastoid process. In men it’s large and lumpy and in women it’s small and pointy. I did this in class all the time, I asked all the people in class to feel right above your eyes. If you’re a male, you should feel a little bit of a ridge up there. If you’re a female it’s absolutely smooth. Then you get all these guys panicking because they don’t feel the ridge. Well, you know, maybe you need some help there. That one is not really a good indicator of male and female. Age determination, until you hit the age of about twenty-one, it’s really easy to determine how old a person is on the basis of tooth eruptions. You got the baby teeth, the deciduous dentition, I love that, right; it’s deciduous dentition because like leaves that fall off trees these are teeth that fall out. That’s pretty cool. And then the permanent dentition comes in at a fairly regular rate. When you’re born, all the long bones in your body: your humerus, your tibia, your radius and ulna, your femur; they’re all in three pieces. The two end caps, the epiphysis and the diaphysis, which is the shaft, and they’re connected by cartilage, and your bones actually grow out from the ends of the shafts so your body doesn’t have to redesign the end caps, which are very, very complicated, every time you grow a little bit. They sort grow from the center out. Those all fuse at a very regular rate so you can literally x-ray a person, and as long as the person has had a reasonable diet, and look at which of the fusions have taken place and which haven’t, you can tell what the age of that person was usually to within six months. That’s pretty damn cool. Once you hit twenty-one or twenty-two there’s a lot else going on except for three things. One is you start wearing out. The problem with that, though, is that if you look at skeletons of slaves, of African captives in America, their bodies are wearing out a whole lot faster than my fat ass sitting in front of the computer, so you have to factor that in. Obviously, somebody who looks eighty, they might be thirty because they were out in the field sixteen hours a day literally worked to death. But things that happen fairly regularly and that are not contingent on the amount of work you do in life, one is the sutures, the little squiggly marks on your cranium where the various cranial plates when you’re born those are all pure cartilage, real lose and allows your head to go all kinds of funky on the way out of the birth canal. Also, human beings, our brains are only a quarter of the size they are when you reach adulthood. A baby chimp’s brain is pretty close to 40–50% of its adult size. Our brains are half that. We’re about a quarter that size, which means a lot of growth, which means those cranial plates need to be able expand out and what allows for that are the soft cartilage between the individual plates. Eventually, though, you reach full adulthood, those sutures continue to disappear through life. Right now, if you’re like thirty, if you were to look at your skull, peel back all the skin, you would see all those squiggly lines. If you’re eighty, it looks totally smooth. The sutures are gone. It happens at a fairly regular rate, so that forensic scientists will look at those sutures and go, well, this guy was probably between forty-five and fifty-five. It’s a decade, I got that, but you know he’s not eighty and you know he’s not twenty. Now the other thing to think about the giants is, when a forensic scientist will then do is say, look, we know that there are ten people missing. We know one of the guys was six foot four and one of the guys was five foot five. Let’s look at the long bone, especially the femur, the thighbone, measure it, put that measurement in a regression formula and out spits the probable overall height of that person. The femur is the best bone for doing that. The tibia is pretty good. Once you start getting into arms, there are people with really long arms or short arms. That doesn’t work so well. It’s a little bit different for different ethnic groups because of different body proportions, but we’re talking about a few inches difference. To get back to my story, the skeleton that this individual was saying was absolute proof positive of the existence of giants, I tracked down the metrics for that skeleton, the exact one he was talking about, and when you plug the femur into the formula, the person who left behind that skeleton was not eight feet tall or twelve feet tall or seven feet tall, wasn’t even six feet tall. He was like five ten or five eleven. Two possibilities: one is the guy was so peculiarly proportioned he would have been in a sideshow at the circus. You would not recognize this guy as having a human form if he was ten feet tall and his femur said he was five foot ten, it’s just bizarre, or, what this guy’s response was is, I’m lying, I’m making this up just to hide the fact. I want to make an announce right here and right now, everybody listening to this podcast, me, Kenny Feder, boy archaeologist, if I ever find the skeleton of somebody who is twelve feet tall, I here do solemnly swear and promise that I will announce it to the world and I will go try to get National Geographic to give me a whole bunch of money to excavate it some more. How’s that? I mean, there’s no reason for me to hide that fact! I’d become rich and famous if I found something like that!
Ben: You can’t handle the truth!
Ken: You know what, baby; maybe no one can handle the truth or something like that.
Blake: Let’s talk about this. If giants existed, what kind of archaeology would we expect to find if a race of giants existed? How would we determine that versus just really big buildings people built?
Ken: You gotta find some big ass skeletons and that’s the bottom line. You gotta find human skeletons who are proportioned in such a way that, yup, these guys had a base of eight, nine, ten, twelve feet tall or whatever. Looking at artifacts that are really honking big, well, so what? People make big stuff, you know? I teach a class in experimental archaeology where, literally, for an entire semester, I have kids banging the hell out of rocks trying to replicate tools made by people a long time ago. I show them artifacts…
Blake: People sign up because they think they’re going to be napping.
Ken: [laughter] There’s a line from an old Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers, where it’s all at a college and the Groucho Marx character who’s like the head of the college, the chairman of the college, or whatever, says he’s decided the way he’s going to save money is by tearing down all the dormitories, and somebody asks him, “Well, where will the students sleep?” and somebody responds, “In the classrooms, where they always sleep.” The thing is, though, I bring into that class artifacts that we have found that are, in fact, reflections of people in the past just trying to be really stinking impressive. We have a site here in Connecticut where most of the spear points that we find are maybe a couple or three inches long so all they have to be are aerodynamic, they’re hafted onto a wooden shaft; that’s what you need to kill the animals that are around here, basically deer, ok? I’ve had sites where people were making things that are eight, nine, or ten inches long, but don’t let anybody ever tell you that size is not impressive and size doesn’t matter. At least when it comes to spear points, it matters, it’s really impressive. These things are found in caches, in places where people hid them away, they were never intended for use, they were merely intended to be really stinking impressive and they are! People do that. We build huge buildings today. We make large, oversized automobiles. Those stretch Hummers, is that because really tall guys are driving them? Or is it just, you know, a bunch of kids going to prom and they want to impress their friends. I argue about this in class with…I had a Bigfoot fan in one of my classes. He’s sure that Bigfoot’s real. Every class I say, “Bring me one. Walk him in here. Show me the bones.” Don’t just be telling me, well, there’s this out-of-focus photograph and there’s this really blurry video. You know, I’m not impressed. The fact that there are people who made huge buildings in the past or enormous thrones or whatever. Whatever. Bring me a skeleton that’s clearly proportioned in such a way the femur’s the right length, the tibia’s the right length, that these guys are eight, nine, ten, twelve feet tall, then I’m convinced. Until that, it’s a really nice story, but I’m not going to be submitting a grant proposal to Geographic or the National Science Foundation on that basis.
Ben: Are there any benefits to gigantism? I know that in many cases giants such as Robert Wadlow and other people, they often have really bad health problems due to the weight and…the human body isn’t meant to be seven feet tall. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Ken: Look, we live on a planet with a certain degree of gravity and we’re bipeds, you know, we’re not quadrupeds. You have some pretty big quadrupeds and their weight is distributed over four limbs, we have everything sitting on those feet, those two little feet with little ankles that we’ve got. Bipedalism is real a pain in the ass, I mean, literally a pain in the ass, all these people with bad backs and sciatica and everything else. Whenever I argue with the Intelligent Design people, I say, hey, dude, look at the shape of the sacrum, the triangle-shaped bone at the bottom of your back, it’s almost designed to rip your pelvis apart. That’s bad design; that’s not good design. No designer would ever design a human being as a biped. As a result, once we get above a certain weight and certain height, unless you fundamentally change how our spinal column is put together and fundamentally change how it articulates with our pelvis and fundamentally change how we get around, it’s really going to be a tough call. You’re right, we see people who are substantially taller than the modern human range, and that range includes people who are seven feet tall, but we start getting to eight, nine feet tall or certainly up in the eights, they’re having a lot of health issues. I would be greatly surprised if you could take the human body, not redesign the human body, but just take the human body and multiply it out and get it that tall and have it work properly. That is an interesting argument, but even that argument I walk away from because, you know what, I don’t care. The bottom line is, there ain’t any evidence for this. We’ll talk about whether or not these people had health issues; first you got to show me they existed. We can’t even get that far.
Ben: If you were going to expand that to Bigfoot, depending on which eyewitness you believe or which ill-informed writer you talk to, some of them say that Bigfoot is twelve feet tall or so. Of course, other ones say that it’s just about human-sized oddly enough.
Ken: The issue there is that gorillas and even Gigantopithecus, which is supposed to be about not quite twice the size of a gorilla, which is a pretty substantial animal, these guys are quadrupeds; they walk around on all-fours almost all of the time. You’re distributing all that extra body weight across four limbs. When you think about gorillas and chimps and stuff like that, don’t think about I saw them at the circus once and they taught them to walk upright. That’s not the way their bodies…their bodies are not good at that. That’s really different from talking about something like Sasquatch, who is walking bipedally, a whole hell of a lot like us, who is literally eleven or twelve feet tall. The biomechanics of that would, I think, be a real challenge for me to accept. But there again, ok, prove me wrong, but the only way you can prove me wrong is by bringing the goddam Bigfoot into the room and saying, well, here’s Chewbacca, right? Deal with it.
Blake: Why do you think so many ancient cultures postulated giants? Why?
Ken: Just as many ancient cultures postulate little elves and fairies and little gnomes and creatures, the little people, and stuff like that. If you’re going make up something, if you’re going to put something in the sacred realm, you’ve got to take it out of the mundane. You can make it really big, you can make it really small. You can put them way the hell up in the air or you can them under the ground. You don’t have a whole lot of choices. If you make them look just like people, not really impressive; it’s just like, oh, well, he’s a guy. No, no, no, I’m a very, very short giant, well, ok, or a really, really tall elf. They look just like us; it’s not impressive. If you’re going to make this stuff up, man, you’ve got to make up these creatures and make them, in such a way, that they are extraordinary. And for human beings, really tall is extraordinary, as is really small. I’m not surprised when you get all these folks say, “Why does everybody put the gods up in the air?” Well, because they’re more impressive up there looking down on us than they would be just walking around, or if you put them under the ground. My favorite story, this happened in New Guinea back in the 1930s, when about a million people living up in the highlands, who had not been contacted by anybody of European descent, who are encountered for the first time by these three Australian brothers. They were sheep farmers in Australia and they were looking for gold. They came into these areas and they ran into these folks with no contact with the outside world. The folks in New Guinea assumed that these three brothers and their helpers were gods because they had white, white skin that they had never seen before and they had all this interesting technology. My favorite story there was when this guy, who was being interviewed in the 1980s, he was a little kid when this happened, this is a guy from New Guinea said, “Yes, we saw these gods and we followed them around and one time we followed one of them and this god went into the bush and he pulled down his pants and he squatted and he took a dump. After he was gone, we wanted to know everything about the gods, we went up and it was at that moment we knew they were not gods because their *%$# smells just like ours.”
Ben: That’s awesome.
Ken: That’s sort of perfect. So the deal is, when that happens, suddenly they lose their appeal. If the gods are at five eight, just like us, that’s not so impressive. That’s not scary, that’s not powerful. So the fact that cultures all over the world have giants and have tiny little gnomes and elves and fairies; that’s exactly what you would expect.
Ben: I’m sorry, could you give the name of your book again, please?
Ken: Oh, yes, the name of the book. A lot of people make this mistake when I say Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, they ask, “Why are you writing about frogs?” No, it’s not about frogs; it’s Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, McGraw-Hill; they make lovely Christmas presents; it’s the perfect time of year to get a copy.
Blake: You got a copy nearby?
Ken: I certainly do.
Ben: I’ve got a copy on my shelf.
Blake: On the cover, it’s a got a picture, is that like a Neolithic pi, the symbol pi?
Ken: What the hell are you looking at, dude? Which version you got?
Blake: 4th edition paperback.
Ken: 4th edition, for goodness sake! We’re in the 6th edition and I’m working on the 7th. You’ve got to catch up, dude.
Blake: The 4th edition has a rock; we call it a table rock around here in the South. It looks like the pi symbol.
Ken: Oh, yeah, yeah. It does a little bit. This is a megalithic tomb and not my photograph. It’s a megalithic tomb; it’s probably Cornwall or something like that (I’m just making that up). It’s cool. There were dead people in there.
Blake: It’s gone from megalithic to Neolithic to lithium so…
Ken: Whatever works. That’s ok.
Blake: About the archaeological method, in Chesterton (sic) you talk about this interesting site, called the Paine (sic) Site, for Steve Paine (sic); this little bitty location for just a little bit of time some people stayed overnight sharpened their tools, had a campfire, ate, and broke a pot and left.
Ken: There you go. The funny thing is that whenever I talk about archaeology to people their expectation is that I’m out there digging up pyramids here in Connecticut or something like that. When I tell them that 99% of the stuff we dig up is stuff that people thought so little about they throw on the ground and walked away from it. We often joke in archaeology that if the people who left this crap behind a thousand years ago, if they would have known, if they had had any idea that a thousand years from now some jerk like me is going to be painstakingly, with dental tools and brushes, removing all this junk that was just to them garbage, crap, junk, throw it away. I think they would be pretty amused by that. That’s what it is. 99% of archaeology is digging up people’s garbage; stuff that they thought so little about, used up, broken, that they tossed it. The metaphor I always give is that, look, it’s like forensic science where detectives investigate the scene of a crime; we’re investigating the scene of a life. The dead body and the perp is gone and what you have is the physical evidence of what happened in this place at this time. It’s exactly what we do. Everything, every little piece of trash, every little discarded item, everything broken, everything lost helps us to tell the story of what happened in that place at that time and that’s what makes it pretty exciting. You realize, oh, that little piece of stone, which doesn’t look particularly impressive, but you know the last time somebody touched it and had it in their hands, is a thousand years ago and you’re making that direct connection, that physical connection with somebody who has been gone a thousand years. That’s pretty cool.
Blake: You made two fantastic points with that little piece of information. One was that the things archaeology can tell us about what people have done in a location is directly tied to what they leave behind. And, two, that even a tiny little bit of material left behind can tell you a lot of information about what the people were doing and so that if we were looking for lost civilizations or postulated civilizations or giants or any kind of record like that, that there would be evidence left behind; you can’t clean up everything.
Ken: That is absolutely the heart of archaeology and I tell this to people who I have arguments with me all the time. I say, look, if tomorrow you proved to me, had good evidence that Atlantis really was out there in the Atlantic Ocean, I would need to reassess a lot of the stuff that I think about what happened in the past and how it happened. But if you were to prove to me that Atlantis really existed but there’s no physical evidence of it anymore, so I don’t even expect that to happen, that rocks my world. The bottom line in archaeology, I use George Carlin all the time, you know, George Carlin had the routine about your house is a place for your stuff and that’s what archaeologists dig up; we dig up people’s stuff. And their stuff is just like your stuff and that was a great Carlin line, that, you know, my stuff is stuff, your stuff is *%$#, right? That’s because your stuff looks different from mine. You come into my house and you look at the crap in my office, nobody has this stuff. It’s a direct reflection of who I am. And that’s true at a cultural level, as well. I’ll say this categorically, it’s impossible for any civilization to have existed and not leave diagnostic, diagnostic is a word archaeologists use a lot, diagnostic, physical evidence, that is something that reflects them and only them. Folks who will tell me that Phoenicians were living in Connecticut four thousand years ago; there’s no damn physical evidence of that. Well, maybe you wouldn’t expect it. I say, you know how I know that Europeans came into Connecticut; that I know categorically, not because of books, that Europeans were in Connecticut in the 1600s, because I dig and find their crap, I find their garbage. It doesn’t look like the garbage left behind by Native Americans. It’s glazed ceramics; it’s pewter pieces; it’s glass; it’s stuff you never see before. Now we’ve got it. That’s what it’s all about. If the Atlanteans were in Connecticut, man, they were the neatest bastards on the planet, which I just don’t think that’s possible. Or, you know what, they weren’t here. I use that argument all the time with the Roswell crash. Actually, they tried this. The Sci-Fi Channel did this a couple years ago and did it really badly, but I would tell all my students for years, you give me a few thousand bucks send me out to the Roswell area with ten experienced diggers and, if anything crashed there, I don’t care that the army says they cleaned it up, we would find evidence of it. Because that’s the bottom line, that nobody’s so good that they clean all that crap up. That’s why the prisons are filled with people who thought they cleaned up the crime scene, but we found their DNA, we found their footprints, we found their pubic hairs, whatever the hell it is, goddammit, they leave it behind and that’s our job is to find it. In any of these cases, whether we’re talking about Atlantis or ancient astronauts, the notion that those people could have been here but they didn’t leave anything behind…I’ll give you a great example of the insanity of this. There are a number of sites in New England, which I know pretty damn well are colonial sites. There are these stone structures, beehive structures, and stonewalls that were used by the colonists, many of whom came, in fact, from the British Isles. There are people who go to these things and say, oh, no, absolutely not, these are four thousand years old and that the people who built Stonehenge came to Connecticut and Massachusetts and Vermont and New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and they built these things. And then I say to them, ok, that’s easy to test. When we dig these, we find colonial artifacts; we find stuff from the 1700s and 1800s, we don’t find anything from four thousand years ago. You know what the argument they give me is? Oh, but these are sacred sites and people don’t mess up sacred sites so these were used as holy places so they didn’t leave anything behind. You gotta laugh at the naiveté of that. There’s an entire branch of archaeology called church archaeology where people dig up medieval churches and what do they find? They find all the crap that people left behind, lost, discarded. It’s just crazy to think that we actually have sites where there are no artifacts and no physical evidence because people didn’t want to soil it because it was sacred. That’s just crazy talk and it’s reflective of the complete lack of understanding that a lot of these people have about what constitutes the archaeological record, how it comes into existence, and what the hell it is that we find. If they were here, we would find it. Period.
Blake: You know you make me want to see a TV show like CSI, but with archaeologists.
Ken: Dude, I’m there. Wouldn’t that be cool? There’s so many good stories all over the world of people finding incredible details about ancient civilizations by finding these little bits and pieces of stuff. Our technologies get better all the time so we’re finding more and more stuff that we didn’t think…actually finding blood residue on two thousand, three thousand, five, ten thousand year old stone tools and then being able to identify, if not the species, the genus of the critter that was killed with the tool. That’s just crazy *%$#. It just gives me sort of chills thinking we can figure that out from such a long time ago.
Blake: A lot of the techniques have changed since you got involved.
Ken: Oh, yeah, I’m really old so…see the thing is, a lot of the sites I dig I actually remember being there when they were behind…
Blake: Let’s bring up your book again.
Ken: Oh, yeah, the title is Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. It’s a great book and it is suitable for presents. You should buy multiple copies, seal them up, shrink-wrap them, put them on your shelf; someday they will be shrunk-wrapped on your shelf.
Blake: I think they’re suitable right there with the Gideon Bible. Ken: Here’s what’s really cool, though, literally within the past couple of weeks I got the Japanese edition. It’s just been published and I got five copies in Japanese. It looks like my book, I assume it’s my book; I can’t read a word of it. Now it’s in English, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.
Ben: Congratulations. Konnichiwa.
Ken: So now I’ll be getting threatening hate mail from all over the globe including the Pacific Rim. I’m really thrilled with that.
Ben: They’ll send Ninja assassins after you…
Ken: Oh, Jesus, no, please…
Blake: Don’t worry about it. You won’t know until it’s too late.
Ken: There you go. That’s right. I’ll never see it coming.
Blake: Do you have any data about the Okinawan pyramids off the coast of Okinawa?
Ken: You know, I don’t. The funny thing about the Japanese edition, from what I could make out, anything related to Japan was excised. They removed all that stuff. I guess they don’t want me to offend anybody in Japan. There’s all this stuff about Atlantis and ancient astronauts; they’re jiggy with that, but about this guy, Shinichi Fujimura, who was this big fraud who planted all of these artifacts in Japan; totally gone from the book. I guess we’re not talking about that in Japan anyway.
Blake: But there are the techniques you teach in the book, they should be able to figure that stuff themselves.
Ken: Absolutely. I tell my students these days that every time I teach them something, I steal from them the opportunity for them to discover it for themselves. I tell them I just going to sit in front of the classroom and I’m going to read a magazine and I’m doing them a favor by not stealing from them that opportunity. I don’t how that’s going to go over with the dean, but we’ll see what happens.
Ben: You were just mentioning the hoax in Japan; can you talk a little bit about the whole Cardiff Giant hoax?
Ken: The Cardiff Giant is my absolute favorite archaeological fraud because it’s hilarious. It’s got so many different elements in it and it was so short lived; it lasted just for a couple of months really. The deal is it’s October in 1869 and there’s a farmer living in upstate New York in the little town of Cardiff and his name, you can’t make this stuff up, I couldn’t have made up a better name for a farmer in upstate New York: Stub Newell. I mean, is that great or what? Stub Newell. And, according to what I’ve read, Stub got that first name as the result, in fact, of an anatomical anomaly. Good to know, right? He lost his big toe to frostbite. According to what I’ve read, too, when he had the toe cut off, he had it pickled and wore it suspended from a chain around his neck. So you always see Stub with his big toe hanging from his neck. That gives you an idea of Stub’s personality to begin with. But anyway, Stub hires a couple of guys to dig a well on his farm, they get about three feet down they hit something… it’s good clean agricultural soil, there are no rocks in it, but at three feet they hit something kind of weird and they clear it around and it looks like two huge human feet. They open it up, they stop digging the well, they open it up and by the time they’re done, they have what effectively is a ten, eleven-foot tall stone giant, a giant naked guy, as I call him, lying there in this pit. Hey, Stub, that’s weird. What the hell is it? And they decided that wasn’t a statue, but a giant, petrified man, you know, like petrified wood That afternoon, this is like a Saturday, people from all over the community are coming to take a look at the giant, the Goliath of Cardiff; they literally called him that. Sunday at church sermons, preachers talked the discovery of a giant like the stories in the Bible talk about. There’s a giant right here in Cardiff. By Monday, this is the weird part, by Monday, Stub Newell, who apparently had just like a circus tent lying around in a barn, had it erected over the giant who was, as we archaeologists like to say, in situ, left in place, and hired a carnival barker and started charging people fifty cents a pop to come and see the giant.
Ben: This was Stub’s erection.
Ken: Oh, yes, absolutely, this was Stub’s Erection. That’s interesting. Thank God the Cardiff Giant was, in fact, a giant naked guy and thank God that he was not excited when he died because otherwise they wouldn’t have to have put a pole in the middle of the tent. This guy was a big dude. Twenty or twenty-five people would be brought into the tent at one time and they put a sheet over the giant naked guy and the barker would pull the sheet from the Cardiff Giant and, according to newspaper accounts, grown men would cry out and women would faint when they saw this giant naked guy and, ah, he’s pretty giant. [Unintelligible]…walking around Cardiff, scientists don’t believe it, but here we have evidence of the Biblical story of giants. Stub was making tons of money charging people fifty cents a pop. In fact, the economic fallout was such that…Syracuse is the biggest town nearby to Cardiff and they’re the ones that have got hotels and restaurants and all the kinds of amenities that tourists are going to need and as people are hearing about this, newspapers are picking it up, and you’ve got people from New York City, from Albany, from Hartford, from New Haven, from Boston, from Philadelphia, even Washington, D.C. This has become a must-see thing; they’re taking the train up to Cardiff doing a daytrip or an overnighter and seeing the giant from before Noah’s Flood. As a result, though, a lot of these folks are staying in Syracuse; they’re spending money in Syracuse and a consortium of business men got sort of panicked that their hotels are full, their restaurants are full, what if this guy Stub decides to sell the giant? They actually had a pretty good reason to be concerned about it because P.T. Barnum, circus impresario, Connecticut native, actually offered Stub $30,000 to buy it from him so he could put it in the circus. Stub turned him down and then a consortium of Syracuse businessmen offered him $30,000 for a three-quarter interest in the giant and he sold it to them, which meant that for every buck they made on it, Stub, along with pocketing thirty grand, he was also getting twenty-five cents out of every dollar. I gave this lecture at Yale a few years back and an economist came up to me and said that, his back of the envelop calculation, $30,000 in 1869 is the equivalent of about three-quarters of a million bucks today. You’re a farmer in upstate New York today and somebody offered you threequarters of a mill for a big statue on your property, man, you’re taking that money. The consortium of businessmen, in order to sort of boost sales, had thing excavated, brought it to Syracuse where they put it in an exhibition hall just across the street from the train station. Literally, if you were traveling through Syracuse and if you had a little bit of a layover or the train stopped for twenty minutes, you could get off the train, you could go across the street, pay your fifty cents, see the Cardiff Giant, one of the Wonders of the World, and get back on the train and not miss your appointments. They were making tons of money, but, unfortunately, Stub had a big mouth and it’s like any other conspiracy, there was more than one person involved and Stub was the guy who started running his mouth. Conspiracies don’t work. Stub started telling people about this great hoax that he had pulled off, there were all these investigations were initiated and then a guy confessed. Stub Newell’s cousin, his name was George Hull, confessed to the whole thing, gave details of it. The funny thing was that Hull was an atheist and cigar manufacturer had sent a consignment of cigars out to his daughter and son-in-law in Iowa told them sell ‘em, give me back my cost and keep the profits. They were screwing this up, he went out there and while he was there, he ran into a minister and he got into a big argument with the guy about the Bible and, in fact, ask him do you believe in the literal truth of the Bible. The minister said, yes, I do. George Hull said, let’s turn to any page of the Bible and turned to the section on David and Goliath. Do you really believe that there were ten, eleven, twelve-foot tall giants in those days? And the minister said, yes, I do. And George Hull, ever the entrepreneur, ever the businessman, said, would you pay money if somebody had an artifact that proved that story? Ka-ching. The minister apparently said to George Hull, I don’t need that to prove the Bible, but there would be no harm in paying a little fee to prove those scientists wrong. And Hull said that night he couldn’t sleep and that’s where the idea was hatched. He bought himself a big ass piece of gypsum, shipped it to Chicago, where he hired a couple of stonecutters to carve a giant naked guy. He told these guys, it’s a secret, don’t tell anybody, only work in your shop on Sundays, put wool blankets over the windows and doors to muffle the sound. These guys did the statue and, according to Hull, when he got there, he was mortified, horrified by what he saw, because they had carved a giant naked statue. What do you do? How do you explain that to the sculptors? I want a giant naked statue. Well, why do you want that? It’s a surprise for my wife. What? When Hull got there, he looked down on it and he was horrified because Hull has a beard; they made the giant with a beard. He knew nobody’s gonna…it’s going to be hard enough for anybody to believe a human body could petrify. Nobody’s gone believe that the hair on a beard could petrify. But even when they removed the beard, the face looked a lot like George Hull, which would have been very inconvenient. People are looking at the giant and look up at Stub Newell’s cousin George Hull and say, “George, you know that’s amazing. It looks a lot like you.” So they had to change the face and then Hull went out and actually bought a vat of acid to pour over it because it looked too fresh. And then actually went at it with series of knitting needles that he had pounded through blocks of wood to make it look old and it gave it almost like pores and he loved that effect. He said when he poured the acid over it, like a mushroom cloud appeared over the statue. These two sculptors, who must have thought this guy was totally sick, but what the hell, he paid them the money. He then had it boxed up, shipped to his cousin’s farm where they put it in the ground and it lay there for one full year; they let it season so that nobody would remember the shipment and that it would look more in place in the ground. And then a year later, he gives Stub the high sign, Stub hires the guys to dig the well and they find the statue and start charging people money. Once George Hull confesses, nobody wants to see the giant anymore. They’re really pissed off at him and they’re really pissed off at Stub Newell and the giant basically…it’s brought around to county fairs and it’s just at this point a curiosity and is it making anybody a whole lot of money? Here’s the funny part, you remember P.T. Barnum wanted to buy the thing and he was turned down? P.T. Barnum came up with the perfect P.T. Barnum solution. You know what he did? He went and had a copy made and started showing the copy as the real deal. I always ask my students, this hurts my head. The Cardiff Giant is a fake, right? P.T. Barnum’s is a fake of the fake. Is that like a double negative? Does that make it real? I don’t know. But now here’s the deal, he brought it on the road, told people it was the real deal, he threatened to sue the people in Syracuse if they called theirs the real one.
Ben: Is there no integrity?
Ken: No. But now, by sheer coincidence the circus was in Manhattan as was the real Cardiff Giant. The real one was there and the fake one was there. Which one out drew the other? P.T. Barnum’s out drew the real one; he was making the money on the fake of the fake, the real fake was sitting there all by itself. Mark Twain thought this was so hilarious there’s a short story by Mark Twain called, The Ghost Story, that’s all about the fact that the real Cardiff Giant, nobody’s looking at the real one; everybody is focused on the fake of the fake. What the deal is, it’s the hotel across the street from where the giant is being displayed and the ghost of the Cardiff Giant is haunting the halls. Finally somebody deals with the ghost and says, what’s wrong? And the ghost says, hey, listen I’m haunting the halls over here because the exhibit hall across the street is empty at night, but my spirit cannot be at rest until my body is put back in the ground. And the guy is laughing hilariously. “That’s not funny! I’m talking about my agony here!” The guy says, “You know what’s funny is that you’re haunting the wrong one. That’s P.T. Barnum’s fake.” The Cardiff Giant has fooled everybody and now he’s fooled himself. And then what happens is that the giant is languishing in some barn someplace in New York in the first half of the 20th century. A newspaper guy in Iowa, an editor, decides that he wants it because that’s where the stone came from; it was bought in Iowa. He buys it from who’s left of the businessmen and their heirs, brings it back to Iowa…and here’s the funny part, I did a show for the History Channel, they did a whole thing on archaeological frauds and I was the big talking head in it. After the show is on, I get a phone call from one of the deans at my university saying, “Kenny, you’re not going the believe this, but when I was five years old I lived in Iowa and my friend, his dad was a newspaper guy and I used to play in his house all the time and in his basement was this giant statue of a naked guy.” Oh, my God! That’s the Cardiff Giant right there! So he played with the Cardiff Giant when he was a kid. 1939, August issue of National Geographic, they do a whole story about Iowa; lot’s of pictures of corn, lot’s of pictures of pigs and a photograph of the teenage daughter of this newspaper guy sitting on the lap of the naked Cardiff Giant. I have no idea what they were thinking, but there she is sort of holding the giant’s hand in National Geographic. In the late 30s-early 40s, a new head director of the New York State Historical Association is installed, he decides, we got to get the giant back here. He buys it from the newspaper guy and installs it at the Farmer’s Museum, which is up in Cooperstown, where today, yes, you see the actual, real Cardiff Giant. He’s got a big circus tent over him and he’s there for all the world to see. The most unfortunate thing of all, the last time I was there, beautiful exhibit, it talks all about archaeological frauds and how all those scientists knew immediately it was a fake, nobody listened to the scientists, they wanted to believe it…last time I’m there, all this great signage, I’m waiting for a couple and their two kids to leave so I can get good pictures, as they’re leaving, the wife turns to the husband and says, “Wow, so are giants real then?” And the husband turns to the wife and says, “Yup, I guess, there’s one them,” and they walked out of tent.
Ken: The sad thing is they already had kids, so I couldn’t beat them to death so they wouldn’t pass that down to the next generation; it already had happened. You hear stuff like that you just never want to go to a museums again.
Blake: In your book you actually cover where, not only were scientists not fooled, but they were able to, even back then, give remarkable accurate predictions about when the thing was put in place.
Ken: The deal is, if George Hull really wanted to prove this was a petrified man, he wouldn’t have bought a piece of gypsum. Gypsum is a sedimentary rock; it’s a soft rock. It bears no relationship whatsoever to mineralized, petrified wood that the giant was supposed to represent. Gypsum is really soft. When a geologist looked at the giant when he was on the farm and looked underneath and could see the level of deterioration already in the gypsum, he, in fact, said, this thing can’t have been in the ground for more than a year, which was exactly right, exactly right. When they looked underneath they saw, as did a paleontologist, they saw decayed vegetable, plant material that obviously got in the pit when they dug the thing up. Well, that can’t last for more than a year in the acidic soil of New York. It was abundantly clear. A sculptor looked at the giant, he was supposed to look at it and say, no, this is not the result of a sculptor’s art and he looked at he said, these are chisel marks, these are the kind of marks a not very good sculptor leaves behind. You can clearly see today when you look at the giant, you can see every mark where the beard was removed from the face; you can see even one of them. O.C. Marsh, who was a very well known paleontologist, if you go to the Yale Peabody Museum or the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you will see a lot of the dinosaur skeletons, things that were discovered, excavated and brought back from the American West to the east, were brought back by O.C. Marsh. When the giant was in New York City, he actually went and saw it and he told people immediately that this was a transparent and ignorant hoax; this is a stupid hoax. It didn’t make any difference. Until there was a confession, people simply…if scientists said it, they were hiding something; they just couldn’t accept the fact this was proof of a Bible story. They were saying this about the Cardiff Giant in 1869, they’re saying this about giants found in the 19th century today; it’s all part of this conspiracy. It’s actually nice. I like the fact I’m just in this lineage of scientists who have tried to keep the truth from the American public.
Ben: Keep it up, Ken.
Ken: Thanks, dude.
Blake: Why do you think so many people want to treat the Bible giant tales as literal truth?
Ken: When people talk about the Bible and, for example, when some of the cities mentioned in the Bible turn out to be actual Mesopotamian city-states, I think folks embrace that, the reasoning being, if one fact in the Bible is true, maybe every fact in the Bible is true. If something as ridiculous as twelve-foot tall giants that science scoffs at, people like me who laugh at that and say, oh, my God, that’s naïve, that’s silly, that’s stupid, there’s no evidence of that, but if you can prove that one little factoid that I’m wrong about that, how do you know I’m not wrong about everything. If there can be giants, there can be Noah’s Ark, there can be Ezekiel’s Wheel, there can be the Shroud of Turin, there can be miraculous bursts of energy from dead bodies, there can be all of this stuff. So if I’m wrong once, maybe I’m wrong about everything and I do see that. When I talk to people about the Bible and taking it as metaphor and allegory, they’ll go, yes, but what about those city-states? They’re talked about in the Old Testament. That turns out to be real, doesn’t it? Well, yes, there is a historical context to the Bible, but then, if they got one little fact, then they run with it. So I think that’s the deal. If, in fact, that whole giant thing works out well for these folks who want to believe in it, well maybe everything, that all of my skepticism is completely and totally unwarranted.
Blake: Well, you know, there really is a Bangor, Maine, so I’m thinking some of Stephen King’s stories may be true.
Ken: Well, there you go; they very well could be true.
The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.
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