Friday fun — run-ins with anthropological hoaxes.

There aren’t many things as Upstate-y as the blue and yellow historical markers ornamenting the two-lane roads of the Empire State. One of my favorites is found on the Cherry Valley Turnpike near the Onondaga Reservation. While I knew about the Cardiff Giant through teaching about the scam during my first-ever go-round TAing,1 running across the marker put the hoax squarely on my mental map and made it a lot realer to me.

marker – Cardiff Giant

Ever have a run-in of your own with a famous or not-so-famous anthropological hoax?

Matthew Timothy Bradley

1. A note to the committee members who knew I had zero experience in archaeology prior to assigning me to that one: I can not speak for the students, my fellow TA, or the course instructor of record, but I for one do not forgive you.

One thought on “Friday fun — run-ins with anthropological hoaxes.

  1. I think you are onto something, Mateo. Around 1840 the great divide between fact and fiction began to take root in what we can now see was the rise of positive science as the dominant form of knowledge, at first in the Anglophone world. A key player was William Whewell of Cambridge who invented the word scientist and published influential books such as The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840) which laid out a new method for scientific induction. This caught the attention of Edgar Allan Poe who was firmly opposed to such an idea of scientific knowledge. Fiction was a higher method since God after all “makes things up”. In 1844 he perpetrated his great balloon hoax, a newspaper report on a fictional transatlantic crossing, to show u[p the limitations of sacred facts (shades of the Sokal afffair). Baudelaire ensured that Poe became a pivotal intellectual figure in France of the sort that he never achieved among his native Anglophones.

    Why dig up all this in the context of your story? Because the Cardiff Giant is also a parable of the attempt to make intellectual property the dominant legal concept it is today, even within the universities where anthropology lecturers get tenure on the basis of their individual ownership of “original” publications. At least in the 1860s, there were judges prepared to make a distinction between “real” and “fake”, whereas we wait for the US Supreme Court to decide on whether corporations are persons with religious rights as well as all their other legal immunities.

    I would suggest that we may be coming to an end of the cycle inaugurated by Whewell and Poe, where the distinction between fact and fiction is increasingly blurred. This has significance for cultural anthropology and for what I like to call “late academia”. Drawing attention to anthropological hoaxes is an excellent way of opening up such questions.

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