For whatever reason, a number of ethnic groups take it as a point of pride that, in their view, a member of their group discovered America or, at least, was the first non-northeast Asian to arrive on our shores. At noted above, individuals of Irish and Scandinavian descent have claimed bragging rights to the “discovery” of America. I have met and read a number of articles by an extraordinarily sincere American Jewish woman who has spent much of her adult life trying to support the long-ago disproved claim that American Indians were members of one or more of the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel. The Daughters of the American Revolution, many of whom are of British descent, erected a plaque in Mobile Bay, in Alabama, wherein the supposed discovery of America by the Welsh Prince Madoc in ad 1170 is memorialized. The late Ivan Van Sertima, a professor of African Studies at Rutgers University, was a promulgator and supporter of the claim that West African travelers visited the New World and, essentially, brought civilization to the Indians, igniting the Olmec culture’s rise to dominance in lowland Central America (see, e.g., Van Sertima 1976).
Ethnic pride can be a powerful motivation for belief and has been the source of archaeological mischief for decades. Much of the British support for the fraudulent Piltdown Man fossil resulted from the fact that it appeared to give the people of Great Britain something both scientists and the general public there desperately craved—an ancient evolutionary ancestor to rival those found in France and Germany.
The most egregious example of the use of ethnic pride in the support of historical claims that are not supported by archaeological data can be traced to the Nazis (Arnold 1992). Ancient archaeological sites were interpreted by the Nazis as proving the more widespread presence of Aryans in the distant past. In discussing archaeologists and historians, Hitler’s Minister of the Interior Heinrich Himmler (who also oversaw the concentration camps) wrote:
The one and only thing that matters to us, and the thing these people are paid for by the State, is to have ideas of history that strengthen our people in their necessary national pride. In all this troublesome business we are only interested in one thing—to project into the dim past the picture of our nation as we envisage it for the future…Our teaching of German origins has depended for centuries on falsification. We are entitled to impose one of our own at any time. (Quoted in Arnold 1992:33)
Himmler is chillingly forthcoming in his admission that the truth matters not at all and that archaeology exists to serve the state. The Nazi example shows, in the most extreme case, what can happen when the motivations of ethnicity supersede science.