Pseudoarchaeology: ABC’s Nightline Demonstrates Journalistic Gullibility

On Friday night’s broadcast of Nightline (October 27, 2006), ABC once again demonstrated it’s lack of journalistic intelligence in its reporting of the Bosnian “pyramid” nonsense. In spite of many genuine archaeologists publicly denouncing Semir Osmanagic as a fraud who is putting genuine archaeological resources at risk.

The Nightline segment, reported by Nick Watt, called Osmanagic a “a businessman and part-time archaeologist” and romances him as a “raider of the lost ark.” Osmanagic was also recorded as saying, “If you’ve found stone blocks built by man, then it will be obvious for everyone that this is a huge man-made structure in the shape of the pyramid.”

Osmanagic’s main contention seems to be that the hill is pyramid shaped and the orthogonal jointing present in the bedrock are both evidence of man-made. There are a lot of reasons why it should be obvious to major media outlets like ABC’s Nightline that Osmanagic is decidedly not an archaeologist and not a scientist. Of them, failing to recognize orthogonal jointing in bedrock is one. This is a process that is fairly well understood in geology and can form a “ladder-like” feature in sedimentary strata with systematic joints that occurs at 90 degree angles and form during uplift and erosion. The very systematic, “ladder-like” pattern that I’ve seen depicted in some of the Osmanagic photos may be evidence of 90 degree rotation of tectonic stresses. The primary joints are created first by tectonic force, then the tectonic stresses over time are applied in a new vector creating a new set of joints at 90 degrees from the original. Imagine the force necessary to break a cracker in half, then half again in the other direction. For a more detailed explanation of the process, see Bai et al (2002).

The other main contention of Osmanagic as evidence of “man-made” is the pyramid shape of the hills. Honestly, the guy has to get out more. I’ve seen many pyramid-shaped hills in my life, some were even named “Pyramid Hill.” Moreover, the hill isn’t really all that pyramid-shaped when actually looked at. On Nightline, Osmanagic said, “the first thing I noticed was the peculiar shape of that hill. It had the perfect shape, the perfect geometry of the pyramid.” But when you look at the map overlay that Osmanagic’s own website provides for Google Map, you notice anything but a perfect pyramid shape.

In this image, the “perfection” of the pyramid is not readily apparent. Indeed, the corners don’t line up with the cardinal directions (see the Google Map compass in the lower left corner). From Visoko, the mountain does look like a pyramid. I know this not because I’ve been to Visoko, but the images shown to date are mostly taken from the town. Looking at the map above, the most pyramid-like side does face the town, and it would be easy to see how visitors could be lulled into the fairy tale told by Osmanagic. Perhaps Osmanagic even believes it himself. His credulity doesn’t, however, excuse his destruction of legitimate archaeological sites from Roman or other periods.

Finally, there are mountains that look far more like pyramids than the one in Visoko. The image below is example of such a mountain. Now, if we could only convince Osmanagic to move here and dig for ancient civilizations, all our worries would be solved. This mountain, you see, is on Mars.


Bai, Taixu; Maerten, L.; Gross, M.R.; Aydin, A. (2002). Orthogonal cross joints: do they imply a regional stress rotation ? Journal of Structural Geology, 24, 77-88.

Watt, Nick (2006). Ancient Pyramids of Bosnia? Many are Believers . Nightline, 10/27/06

See also: Afarensis: It’s Baaack! It figures afarensis would scoop me. I shouldn’t have spent so much time writing… <grin>

Stolen and Looted: The Getty and the Museum of Fine Arts Return Artifacts

Recently, some museums like the J. Paul Getty Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have tightened their policies on acquisition of artifacts and have even returned artifacts to their country of origin.

The Getty repatriated a 4th century BC inscribed tombstone and a 5th century BC marble relief (which I posted about here) to Greece. They also returned to Italy artifacts stolen from the Greek ruins of Selinunte.

Newsweek: the relics return

NPR: Getty Museum to return Greek Artifacts

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) also repatriated a set of illicitly gained artifacts to Italy after signing an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture. The artifacts included an amphora that depicts the murder of Atreus and dates to the 4th century BCE and a 5th century BCE lekythos. Rome to display ancient treasures returned by Boston museum

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: MFA 13 Antiquities to Italy

The agreement between the MFA and the Italian Ministry of Culture makes allowances for the loan of other significant works and the acquisitions, information, conservation and archaeological investigation. The Getty’s announcement that it has tightened acquisitions policies, however, doesn’t appear to have overly impressed upon the Italian government. The Getty hasn’t made the policy retroactive, which would require that they “relinquish scores of ancient items from its galleries and storerooms.” But another reason for Italy’s reluctance to sign an agreement with the Getty is there is a current legal case in Italian Court that involves former Getty curator Marion True, accused of being knowingly complicit in the acquisition of looted artifacts and Italian authorities are demanding the return of some 52 items in the Getty’s possession.

New York Times: Getty Adopts New Antiquities Standard

LA Getty toughens up its rules for acquisition

The Globe and Agreement with Getty still unacceptable, Italy says

There is still some apparent ground to cover with regard to antiquities acquisitions past, present and future, but these do appear to be steps in the right direction.

Anthropology Blog Carnival!

The first ever issue of The Four Stone Hearth hosted by Kambiz at

The Four Stone Hearth is a new Anthropology Blog Carnival that is named for the four disciplines of anthropology: archaeology, ethnography, physical/biological anthropology, and linguistics. This issue has articles by Afarensis, Salto sobrius,, and myself among others. My entry is the book review below this post. I won’t duplicate 4SH here by listing all the articles, you’ll have to click the link above and read Kambiz’s descriptions of each entry.

Four an anthropologist blogger, this is exciting news. Until now, the only carnival I could think of that would be relevant for archaeology was the History Carnival. It goes without saying that Alun’s Vidi will continue to be one of the best net round-ups for archaeology, but Four Stone Hearth is a true anthro carni. Kudos Kambiz!

The next 4SH will be at Afarensis on November 8, 2006. Fire up your keyboards, anthro bloggers, and get something ready! I’ll be hosting here in February.

Book Review: Dancing Skeletons, an ethnography

Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa
Author: Katherine A. Dettwyler
Waveland Press, Long Grove, IL
Year: 1994

On average, about 17 children out of 1000 under the age of 7 dies in the world each year (El-Ghannam 2003) because of malnutrition, homicide, wars, drowning, car accidents, what have you -a sobering statistic for any loving parent. In West Africa, however, that number becomes 172 children out of 1000! For a parent, this figure isn’t just sobering, it’s staggering to consider and it’s the highest child mortality rate in the world.

In the West African nation of Mali alone, the risks to children include not only the same risks as the rest of the world: accidents, cancers, homicides, etc., but also malaria, schistosomiasis, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and other infections diseases and conditions unique to the tropical and largely rural regions of the world.

Malaria occurs most among the youngest children (Dicko et al 2005) and is responsible for over 33% of all fever sympotoms during the rainy season in Bamako, Mali. Also in Bamako, in 1998, nearly half of all children were infected with schstosomiasis (Clerq et al) and in rural Mali, the rate was as over half of the children between 7-14 years of age in some areas (Traore et al 1998). Schistosomiasis is a tropical parasite, abundant in Africa, and transmitted to humans after being hosted in larval form by freshwater snails (Morgan et al 2001). The parasite leaves the snail and enters a human host wading in the water by burrowing into the skin of feet and legs. Schistosomes affect about 200 million people worldwide and the eggs produced by the worms that grow in the blood vessels of the host are passed to the bladder and intestines and can cause blood in urine and stool (CDC 2004).

In her book, Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa (1994), Katherine A. Dettwyler is faced with each of these health problems and more as she narrates her experiences in observing their cause and effect. Most of these experiences are from the perspective of an outside observer; some are of one who has an empathic interest in the people she considers friends; but at least one brings home a parent’s worst fear: the fear of losing a child.

As an ethnography, Dancing Skeletons was not what I expected. Dettwyler’s literary style was refreshing in light of other ethnographies I’ve had the pleasure or even misfortune to read. Her use of both humor and tragedy had the effect of motivating me to finish the book or certainly move on to the next page in order to discover what happened next. Occasionally, however, the expectation wasn’t fulfilled.

Especially engaging was Dettwyler’s use of dialog beginning on the very first page and continuing throughout the work. This had the effect of personalizing Dettwyler’s experiences and providing the reader with brief bubbles of real-time activity that placed the reader in Mali as a non-participant observer. Dettwyler’s narratives between dialogs gave necessary information for the reader to understand the contexts of the dialog sections and to get the data she was trying to pass on, but the dialogs themselves brought Dettwyler’s personal experiences to life with emotions of joy, amusement, tragedy, and frustration.

Dettwyler’s very first dialog section involved her evaluation of a severely malnourished child and it set the stage for what appeared to be a major theme of the book: that understanding cultural paradigms in Africa is essential when attempting to address its problems. This malnourished child and the mother’s inability to properly care for him posed the question: why is there a disparity in the diets and care of children versus adults. As a parent I found it easy to empathize with Dettwyler’s perspective in many of her contacts and interactions with children and her concerns for her own child, who accompanied her to Mali.

That Dettwyler chose to bring her daughter, Miranda, to Africa with her struck me initially as somewhat negligent, given the conditions Dettwyler described and the inherent risks that both would face with potential health problems alone. However, it was soon apparent that much of Dettwyler’s perspective depended upon her own parenthood and, perhaps, the proximity of Miranda as she conducted her research. And it was Miranda’s brush with death having contracted malaria (pp. 149-161) that punctuated the statement that Dettwyler was able to make with regard to both the tragedy and the joy that are simultaneously present in Western Africa.

The very title of the book refers to the children that Dettwyler watched dance in celebration for their village, which met the goals of a CARE project management team (pp. 141-142). The children were physical “skeletons” of malnourishment, dancing for the successes of their village in applying good health and hygiene practices, apparently oblivious to the problems they still faced with proper nutrition (pp. 143-144). This is where she drives home one of her themes by pointing out that it isn’t enough to simply address the medical and hygienic concerns of rural West Africa without actively working to resolve the problem of malnourishment among children. The latter endeavor could provide growing and developing children with the ability to avoid mortality from health problems like malaria and measles if their bodies were healthy and strong enough to fight the infections.

The tragedy and seriousness of nutrition and health in rural West Africa is made very clear in Dettwyler’s narrative and gives the reader insight into the true nature of the problems faced by the people there. Too often, statistics and headlines dominate Western knowledge of the plights of the developing world, but Dettwyler is able to objectify the problems and present them with a perspective that allows her readers to understand some of the associated cultural problems. For instance, Dettwyler offers an anecdote of a lunch she shares with a Malian coworker who criticizes her insistence that Miranda eat some chicken rather than less nutritious millet as the other Dogo children ate:

“In Dogo,” he explained, “people believe that good food is wasted on children. They don’t appreciate its good taste or the way it makes you feel. Also, they haven’t worked hard to produce the food. They have their whole lives to work for good food for themselves, when they get older. Old people deserve the best food, because they’re going to die soon.”

“Well, I applaud your respect and honor for the elderly, but health-wise, that’s completely wrong. How do you expect children to grow up to be functioning adults if they only get millet or rice to eat?” Of course, many children don’t grow up at all, on this diet. They die from malnutrition, or from diseases such as measles that wouldn’t kill a well-nourished child (pp. 94-95).

This argument largely appeared to fall on the deaf ears of her Malian hosts, but the reader is able to begin understanding a new perspective to the problem of malnutrition when this anecdote is compared with an earlier one in which Dettwyler tries to convince a Malian woman who has a child with kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency, to provide a appropriate food for her daughter to improve her health. The woman’s response is to ask for medicine in spite of Dettwyler’s insistence that food is the cure (p. 73).

Dettwyler rightly compares and contrasts Western nutritional expectations to that of developing West Africa, and notes that what is considered to be understood in Western cultures like America, that children need balanced meals, is something that we take for granted and something that needs to be taught in developing nations.

What I also found very appealing about Dancing Skeletons, was Dettwyler’s use of humor throughout the book. On several occasions, she noted that the Malians enjoyed laughter and Dettwyler’s ability to speak Bambara gave her opportunity to make jokes, sometimes at her own expense, in order to lighten the moment or just make others laugh. Each of her accounts of trips in the back of a bache, the pickup trucks that serve as public transportation, caused me to laugh aloud as she described the delight and surprise of the Malians that discovered her ability to speak the language, usually some time after they had been speaking about her (pp. 38-40). Dettwyler’s exchange of insults with a Malian colleague on their first meeting was another source of great amusement, and her observance of this cultural tradition, which included accusations of laziness and flatulent habits, gives the reader insight in her ability to seek that which is common to her and the people she came in contact with (p. 60).

Finally, I also noted that there were times in which Dettwyler described an event or situation in which I held an expectation that later in the book a connection would be made, as if part of a plot device in a novel. One such situation was the account Dettwyler gave of meeting the “noble hunter,” Bilo Bissan and the mystery that surrounded him (pp. 104-105). Her description of him as well his behavior gave me the distinct impression that the encounter would be significant at some later point. Not finding this later point, I initially felt a little let down –an expectation was unfulfilled. Perhaps it was simply that her characterization of him stirred my curiosity, but I realize that the expectation of more is probably an unfair one. Dancing Skeletons is, after all, a work of non-fiction and, as entertaining as it was and as pleasurable as it was to read, it was about real life –and death, and, therefore, did not have a plotline that could be fulfilled where all loose ends could be neatly tied at the end. As Dettwyler implies in her final paragraph of the book, Malian adults and their children continue to face life and death in a manner completely alien to me.


CDC (2004). Schistosomiasis Fact Sheet, Parasitic Disease Information. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Infectious Diseases Division of Parasitic Diseases . Found at: [last accessed on 11/21/05].

Dettwyler, Katherine A. (1994). Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

Dicko, A.; Mantel, C.; Kouriba, B.; Issaka S.; Thera., M.A.; Doumbia, S.; Diallo, M.; Poudiougou, B.; Diakite, M.; Doumbo, O.K. (2005). Season, fever prevalence and pyrogenic threshold for malaria disease definition in an endemic area of Mali. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 10 ( 6), 550-556.

El-Ghannam, Ashraf Ragab. (2003). The Global Problems of Child Malnutrition and Mortality in Different World Regions. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 16 (4), 1-26

Traoré, M.; Maude, G.H.; Bradley, D.J. (1998). Schistosomiasis haematobia in Mali: prevalence rate in school-age children as index of endemicity in the community. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 3 (3).

Who You Gonna Call? Skeptic’s Circle!

The 45th Skeptic’s Circle is up at The Inoculated Mind and Karl has the first ever Podcast version [.mp3] of Skeptic’s Circle. I recommend opening the .mp3 and clicking the individual links as the podcast plays, bookmarking the sites you want to go back and read more carefully.

Well done Karl!

… and don’t miss the out-take at the end!

Forbidden Archaeology? The Exaggeration of the Antiquity of Man -part 2-

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the Nabta Playa monuments that date back to the Neolithic and the attempts of certain significance-junkies to use this as a stepping stone for positing a greatly exaggerated antiquity of man. In that post, I reviewed an article that ran in a mystery-mongering magazine called Atlantis Rising as it made a good example of the sort of spurious connections significance-junkies make in their attempts to put forth the notion that modern humans (that is, Homo sapiens) have been on this planet for millions of years and that there existed civilizations, such as Atlantis and Lemuria, that had “high technologies”.

In the previous post, I also mentioned another article in the same issue of the same rag-azine (did I type that out loud?), which discusses the alleged footprints in Valsequello, Mexico. I’ll still not get to these footprints today, though we’re working up to them! First, I think it’s important to look deeper into the claims and inner workings of the significance-junkie and the mystery-monger, using Michael Cremo, author of the book Forbidden Archaeology, to illustrate their methods.

Cremo has an article in the current issue of Atlantis Rising (2006) in which he offers his opinion about the Sterkfontein archaeological site and the museum that resides there. Cremo was finishing a tour of South African universities, “lecturing” on “forbidden archaeology,” when he took the opportunity to visit the Sterkfontein caves and heritage museum.

The Sterkfontein Archaeological Site

One of the most striking things about the article is Cremo’s pejorative rhetoric with regard to the scientific establishment and evolution in particular, which was very reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Young Earth Creationists and ID proponents. He refers to a quote by Richard Dawkins as an “infamous” one and derides the lack of answers that evolutionary science provides for the development of complex life from mere “chemicals.” Cremo also oversimplifies the process of evolution with credulous ambivalence and nearly even says “irreducible” when he comments on the “complexity” of life, and he blames the museum for not providing a concise yet complete account of evolution:

[I]n the museum you look in vain for any account of what those genetic changes were. In fact, no scientist in the world can tell us what these genetic changes where. But we have to accept that it happened.

It’s difficult to tell if Cremo meant that last line as an acknowledgement or an admonishment, but the genetic changes he’s referring to are the ones that led to “changes in physical structure” that resulted in the diverse taxa of life today which began with a common ancestor. Cremo’s rhetoric, however, isn’t geared to promote a young-earth belief, but a very old one. Like YEC proponents, his contention is that science has it wrong with their explanations for the age of man, except Cremo believes that humans have been on the planet for millions of years rather than thousands: modern humans alongside australopithecines.

In the Caves

Midway through the article, Cremo describes his descent into the caves at Sterkfontein, deriding the exhibits and evolution itself:

Evolution is like the new religion. Not only does it have its priests (evolutionary biologists) and scriptures (The Origin of Species) and saints (Darwin). It also has its churches (museums) and sacred places (like Sterkfontein) and relics (fossils of our “ancestors”) and its inquisition that condemns heretics (like me). All very religious.

Cremo goes on to liken the experience of entering the cave to a “pilgrimage” to the alleged site of the birth of Jesus and it’s here that he seems affronted that the exhibit is missing the fossils of humans as erroneously described in his book.

The Poor Ape

I was suddenly overwhelmed with a strong sense of the utter falsity of this supposition. It was clear what happened. Three million years ago, some poor ape with some few (sic) humanlike features in its bones fell down into the cave and died. The bones were incorporated into the rock. And then later some human scientists found the bones and called them our “ancestor,” although that is not true at all! Three million years ago, and further back than that, there were humans, apes, and apemen, all coexisting.

Little Foot and Laetoli

Ron Clark recovered an australopithecine at Sterkfontein that was nearly a complete skeleton, including a very complete skull. Cremo’s big question (which he claims to have fielded to Ron Clark after a conference in South Africa) is: why don’t the footprints at Laetoli match the foot bones found at Sterkfontain?

Clark insisted that a creature like his Little Foot did in fact make the Laetoli prints. But, according to him, the creature must have been walking with his long first toe pressed tightly against the others. And also he must have been walking with his other four long toes curled under. And that’s why the footprints looked human! Otherwise, one would have to say, as I do, that humans like us were walking around in Africa over three million years ago.

Cremo finishes the article stating that the assumption that there existed “apemen” with feet “exactly like human feet, avoids the conclusion that these are human prints.”Possible,” Cremo says, but “no one has ever discovered from that time period the bones of any apemen with feet must like human feet. At the present moment, the only creature known to science that has a foot like a modern human is a modern human.”

One of the most serious problems with Cremo’s assertion, lack of any evidence aside, is that it isn’t parsimonious. It raises more concerns than provides any explanation since hominid evolution is tossed out like so much bath water. The physical evidence of hominid remains points to an overall gradual change in morphology over a span of 4 million years to the last 150,000 or so. Examples of individual species is chronometrically consistent in the fossil record: not a single example of human remains has been found in strata associated with Australopithecus afarensis or vice-versa. So the claim that humans existed alongside “apemen” (sic) 3.5 million years ago will need a bit more than the rants of a single mystery-monger.

There is a mystery, however. The mystery includes the advent of bipedalism and what, precisely, caused it among early hominids. Could it be that increased use of tools or gathering necessitated the use of hands to carry, hold, and use? Could it be that walking in the tall grasses of the savannah, early hominids needed to look over the tops of the grass to keep lookout for predators? Could it be that early hominids resided near rivers, lakes or the sea and wading in these was easier for those able to stand up?

And there is some debate about which species created the footprints at Laetoli. There is evidence of A. afarensis remains at Laetoli at around the same period the prints were dated to 3.6 million years ago, but recent suggestions have been made that the prints may have been made by A. anamensis or even an as yet unknown species of hominid. In my next post on this subject, I’ll review some of the literature involving the Laetoli prints, foot morphology of a couple australopithecines and then on to the claim that footprints found in volcanic ash in Mexico are evidence of the great antiquity of man.

My Blog:

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology 10/5/06

Aztec Ruins
In Mexico, archaeologists have uncovered a 15th century monolithic altar with a frieze of the raingod Tlaloc and an agricultural deity. This altar is an exciting find to Mesoamerican archaeologists and it wasn’t found in some remote jungle but in the very heart of Mexico City! Mexico City Major Alejandro Encinas said:

“It is a very important discovery, the biggest we have made in 28 years. It will allow us to find out much more.”

It’s believed that this may be the entrance to an underground chamber and efforts are undoubtedly underway to determine this.

Syrian Building from 8,800 BCE
On the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, near Ja’de, a French archaeological team discovered a building that dates back to 8,800 BCE and contains ” multi-colored geometrical paintings,” which may be the oldest of their kind in the Middle East. Tools for hunting and domestic living, mostly of flint and some obsidian, were found at the site’s level and the archaeologist working the site, Eric Coqueugniot, remarks that the building is larger than expected for residences:

“had a collective use, probably for all of the village or a group. A part of this community building takes the shape of the head of a bull and retains painted decorations, the oldest known in the Middle East.”

Taliban Terrorize Archaeologists
Okay… maybe not directly. Teams working to salvage the giant Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban regime in
Afghanistan work carefully as munitions experts on site help them clear unexploded munitions that are still present in the debris. The Taliban destroyed the 1,500 year old monuments in March 2001. As work to recover this nearly lost cultural heritage continues, they are periodically interrupted (“every half hour or so”) to look for unexploded ordinance. The pressure is on the International Council for Monuments and Sites to reconstruct the Buddha’s but as Omar Sultan, deputy culture minister, said:

“[A]s an archaeologist, I can’t imagine we could go reconstruct a Buddha from concrete or something. Those artists who did it 1,500 years ago had another feeling for it.”

And reconstruction of a single Buddha could cost $30 million in a nation that desparately needs additional funds to rebuild infrastructure.

Not archaeology, but Just Because It’s Cool:
Scientists in Copenhagen have teleported a chunk of matter nearly 18 inches! To do so, they used light, magnatism and “entanglement.” Professor Eugene Polzik said of the project:

“Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps — that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.