How do we know what we know? Is what we think is knowledge
actually so? The historian, like the scientist, depends on evidence.
All the writers mentioned on this page have claimed to know things
that are different to the prevailing body of knowledge, or wish
to add to that knowledge by new interpretations of already known
evidence, or are presenting what they claim to be new evidence,
hitherto unknown or overlooked. In each case their thinking and
evidence is subject to assessment and criticism by the general
scholarly community. It is often the case that new ideas take
a while to be accepted by the community of scholars. The example
often given is of Plate Tectonics which was proposed by Alfred Wegener as far back as 1912. He
was ridiculed in his lifetime but the core of his idea - that
continents move on the Earth's surface - has since been proved
by new evidence to have been correct, and a mechanism proposed
for how they do it.
That does not mean that the ideas of the people mentioned
on this page will be proved correct. Just because a new idea
meets opposition doesn't mean it will be shown to be correct
eventually. Almost all new ideas are shown not to be supported
by the evidence. Some or most of these will certainly never be
proved correct. There is, unfortunately, a market for fake history.
Below are some of the things to think about before being tempted
to believe some of these ideas.
What kind of evidence about the past do historians look
Written material can be used for all past societies that have
had writing. The earliest readable written material comes from Sumeria
and Egypt. There is earlier material from Mohenjo Daro
in Pakistan but the script cannot be read, and may never be.
Even the language is unknown. Other material from Dilmun in the
Bahrain area cannot be read.
Ancient documents have the same problems as modern ones. Was
the writer reporting accurately? For instance, there are many
chronicle entries about the Black Death.
The historian's problem is that the writers did not observe accurately,
or did not have modern knowledge about what they were reporting.
Thus it is not even certain what the infectious agent was, nor how many people died.
Another problem is that documents from the past consist only
of those that have survived. Thus, we know that many famous literary
texts from the past have been lost because no-one copied them,
or later times decided to suppress them. This means that the
picture we learn of a past time is limited to what we can gain
from the existing documents. See this article about preservation
Modern documents can be maliciously false; so can ancient
documents - intended to deceive. Both modern and ancient documents
can have other purposes than reporting on events, such as maintaining
a religious myth. The historian has to assess the veracity of
Where documents are absent the only evidence of the past may
be artefacts found in digging ancient sites. These may confirm
written documents, or indeed may sometimes contradict them.
Archaeology may extend to many physical signs such as tree
ring analysis, ice cores, sophisticated methods of dating objects,
including carbon 14 and other atomic isotopes.
There are similar problems, as with documents. We can only examine
what has survived. Thus most ancient cities are buried under
later cities, including modern ones. Present day urbanisation
is rapidly covering many ancient sites.
3. Oral history
In cultures without writing, history may be preserved by word
of mouth. Probably, before writing, all human history was preserved
in this way. Some of the written records of ancient times seem
likely to have originated as oral tales. The problem of oral
history is that while the bones of the story might be preserved,
the details are often changed. In west Africa history was preserved
by the Griots, a profession of poets and memorisers. However,
it is known that they "adjusted" the songs they sang
to suit their current patron, making his family out to be important
in the past, even if they weren't.
A good example of both the fallibility of oral history, and
its ability to transmit genuine information, comes from the worldwide
stories of flood or sea level rise. In the eastern Mediterranean
area there are the stories of the Flood of Deucalion in the Greek
tradition, Babylonian and Sumerian accounts of flooding, included in the Bible. In Australia
there are Aborigine tales of land that was flooded in ancient
Historians can now interpret these stories as possible memories
of the rise in sea level that occurred when the ice melted about
10,000 years ago. In many parts of the world there are human
artefacts to be found on the seabed from former settlements.
An example is the North Sea off the coast of Britain where there
was once a country - Doggerland - bigger than Britain itself. Another is the
Black Sea, probably the source of the Greek and Middle Eastern
stories. For those who escaped the inundation these events were
memorable and disastrous and the stories were passed on from
generation to generation. Other flooded artefacts can be found
in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Malta, and in the Indian
Ocean off India and Sri Lanka. A useful survey of this period
can be found in Stephen
Mithen - After the Ice.
But we can see that as the generations passed details were
elaborated and the stories became stylised. Thus the rapid rise
of the Black Sea (when water from the Mediterranean poured through
the Bosporus) may have caused some people to escape on improvised
rafts with some of their cattle and sheep. Eventually the account
mutated into "the Ark" and the "two by two"
myth. Many of the details of the story as written in the biblical
and Quranic texts can be shown to be unconnected with real events
- such as the Ararat story. (An appearance seen on Mount Ararat
is not the remains of an Ark, but a geological formation, millions
of years old).
Then, about 5600 BC, as sea levels rose,
Ryan and Pitman suggest, the rising Mediterranean finally spilled
over a rocky sill at the Bosporus. The event flooded 60,000 miles
(155,000 km) of land and significantly expanded the Black Sea
shoreline to the north and west. Ryan and Pitman wrote: Wikipedia
A related problem with stories of this kind is that, while
oral teahouse stories can sometimes be shown to be similar to
written versions of stories known from ancient sources, oral
stories can be various kinds of fiction rather than accounts
of past events. It is often difficult to distinguish between
stories told for entertainment, moral improvement or other non-historical
reasons from accounts of the past.
4. Linguistics - the study of languages
Linguistics is a very specialised study. Many writers of this
kind make up their own connections between languages and fail
to make use of the professionals' work. Some of the biggest errors
in these writers comes from amateur linguistics - Menzies is
criticised for his inaccurate inferences from imaginary connections,
and Barry Fell has also been criticised for unjustified inferences.
But professional work on languages can provide information on
the past. The study of the surviving languages of the Indo-European
group can provide some information on the mode of life of the
earliest speakers, and on the migrations of people - while always
remembering that languages can travel when peoples don't.
Should the serious student of history read any or all of
Yes. Why? To get practice in evaluating the quality of evidence.
People who are going to teach history in schools need to realise
that at least a part of the population gains its inaccurate notions
about history from books like these. Ordinary people often have
no idea of how dodgy the basis of some of these, often highly
entertaining, books is, or the cynical indifference to actuality
of many writers of popular books (and even more, of Hollywood