In Berks County, Pennsylvania, the forces of pseudoscience are descending on Richland Township as a result of one man’s deep-seated belief that he has discovered a lost civilization in his backyard. Last month, Rick Zimmerman, 55, told the Morning Call newspaper that he made this momentous discovery while exploring a new property he had purchased in 2013. When he asked for help in analyzing what he uncovered, it opened a window into the popular understanding of the past.

While exploring his 74-acre property, Zimmerman, who has been permanently disabled since losing his leg in a horrific accident in 2005, says that he found earthen mounds, stone tools, and stone buildings that he attributes to a lost ancient Native American civilization. Photographs published in the Morning Call show what seem to be natural stones and colonial-era drystone constructions.

Zimmerman calls the stone structures “cairns,” which can refer to any manmade pile of stones. He also claimed one “cairn” was a “spirit portal” but did not provide a reason for doing so. Zimmerman identifies scratches, “unusual shapes,” and other features of rocks as evidence they were prehistoric stone tools. He said he had found fossilized deer bones with markings indicating they were used as handles for tools or weapons.

Zimmerman was at first interested in having his discoveries confirmed by archaeologists, which Morning Call reporter Bill White promised to help arrange; however, he was doubtful since his previous efforts ended with him being told his claims are false. A historian and an archaeologist contacted by the Morning Call agreed after viewing photographs of the site that the slate drystone constructions were not Native American and suggested that they were portions of a later wall.

(They may even be just stacks of stone left over from clearing old farmland.) The deer bones were not fossilized, the archaeologist said, and the markings on them were made by gnawing animals.

Zimmerman’s reaction is typical for amateur antiquarians who imagine they have made momentous discoveries: “These guys are 100 percent wrong, and I’m going to prove them wrong,” he said.

After the original article ran last month, readers tried to offer their own form of “help” so Zimmerman could prove he had discovered a lost Native American civilization. According to White, most people who responded were fringe history believers who have adopted some of the more extreme claims made for the Lenape (Delaware) Native Americans in the nineteenth century.

The story is too long to go into here, but the claims emerge from the Walam Olum hoax concocted in 1836 by Constantine Rafinesque, a sometime scientist and frequently impoverished professor who was in competition with other mound builder myth-makers to provide “scientific” proof of American prehistory.

Rafinesque opposed wild claims for a Viking or Hindu origin for the mounds but lacked evidence to refute them, so Rafinesque invented the Walam Olum, a set of alleged Lenape tablets that told the story of how the mound builders migrated to America from East Asia across the frozen Arctic.

(The full story is fascinating, and will be a chapter of a book I have been working on writing.)

Based on Rafinesque and other nineteenth-century sources, partisans of the Walam Olum hold that the former Delaware territory in what is now Pennsylvania and its surrounding states had mounds like those of the Mississippians.

White says that multiple readers recommended that Zimmerman contact Scott Wolter of America Unearthed in order to find the truth about his lost civilization, and White says Zimmerman is open to contacting America Unearthed for answers.

Zimmerman said he is most interested in having his site examined by Richard Thornton, the fringe believer who turned a brief appearance on America Unearthed in 2012 into a years-long public relations campaign in which he has variously claimed to have discovered that the Mayans colonized Georgia, that the U.S. government is trying to suppress this fact by smearing him as a sexual predator, and that Wikipedia and the Cherokee are conspiring against him.

Thornton told White that he agrees with Zimmerman’s claims, and he added that a widespread Native culture that built in stone existed in the Northeast during the Woodland period (200-600 CE), but that their remains were destroyed by “German farmers or the owners of coal mines and railroads.”

He then suggested that evidence from his own “investigation” of Track Rock in Georgia, which he believes to have been a Mayan colony, helps prove this to be true.

So, in short, Zimmerman came to some unusual conclusions, refused to accept experts’ opinions as better informed than his own speculation, and is casting about for people he can view as experts who will confirm the conclusions he already holds. Newspaper readers similarly are wary of expertise when it comes from people in universities but are quick to reach for the authority of television, even though, as White wrote, “there seems to be some controversy about whether the show is about serious science or just entertainment.” White, a journalist for more than four decades, couldn’t tell the difference, and that says about all you need to know about how the public perceives science on TV.

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