Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. And, of course, there are the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply is, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean comes to tell Indy that he has been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hasn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (Indy chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas & Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus next. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…

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To read more about these issues in North America try The Mound Builders, by Robert Silverberg, 1986. Or even Cynthia L. Van Gilder and Douglas K. Charles, 2003. “Archaeology as Cultural Encounter: The Legacy of Hopewell,” in Method, Theory, and Practice in Contemporary Archaeology.

5 Responses to “Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)”

  1. Jeremy says:

    I thought it was funny that he learned Quechua in Mexico with Pancho Villa’s crew and was speaking Mayan and crawling around in Mayan pyramids in the Amazon.

  2. Agreed on the racism. Did you note the classic racist parallel of incests and despised people, too? (Ants and locals scared by skull in same way)

    I was wondering about the poor locals who took the time to immure themselves in traps. :P

    US schools did fire some faculty in the 1950s, to our shame. Ellen Schrecker did great work on this score.

  3. Gina says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for posting this! My daughter (anthro grad -with a film minor- as of last week) and I both were floored at the racist overtones of the plot. I kept hoping the end would show that Russian lady that there was indeed another answer – and that they would show some amazing native technology that would prove her wrong.

  4. Ingrid says:

    I was wondering, and pardon my ignorance…

    I have been reading about crystal skulls and they seemed to be related to the Mayan history. It seemed odd to me that the skulls appear in the Amazon’s as supposed to Guatemala/Mexico jungle.

    Is there some kind of relationship?

  5. JCG says:

    I had read that the idea of aliens in the film was Lucas’s, and that both Spielberg and Ford were opposed. The inclusion of the aliens was apparently part of a compromise that allowed the film to be made at all.

    To be fair, some films suggest lots of Western accomplishments came from outside, too; I recall, for instance, in Independence Day that Will Smith was told that many modern innovations such as the microchip came from reverse-engineering a crashed flying saucer, which must make the TI engineers so proud!

    But I wish they’d left the aliens out.

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