NEARA Discusses Yates’ Old World Roots: A Review of a Review

Submitted by Administrator on

In volume 46, number 2, the NEARA Journal of the New England Antiquities Research Association ran a lengthy review of Donald N. Yates’ book, Old World Roots of the Cherokee:  How DNA, Ancient Alphabets and Religion Explain the Origins of American’s Largest Indian Nation (McFarland Publishers, 2012). The review was written by James L. Guthrie, who also publishes articles in the journal Pre-Columbiana. Guthrie, a chemist, is perhaps best known for a nine-page article in 1990 re-analyzing a population genetics study of Melungeons by Pollitzer & Brown from 1969.*

“Yates’ research interests me because it deals with ‘foreign’ genes in American Indians, the Cherokee syllabary, Melungeons, and American ‘inscriptions’—all topics I have studied myself,” begins Guthrie, betraying something of an inferior complex with his use of apologetic quotation marks. Must journals like NEARA always accept the estimation of others, most of whom do not even read their content? Should I be describing Guthrie as a “chemist” rather than chemist?

Guthrie goes on to accurately summarize the book’s thesis that the Cherokee people in the Appalachian mountains originated in a multi-ethnic colony sponsored by the Ptolemys of 3rd century BCE Egypt. He places the book’s findings in the context of current debates over the importance of the Bat Creek Stone and Newark Stones in the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum (both popularly dismissed as “bad archeology”) and the genetic evidence for Mediterranean DNA in pre-Columbian  America. But he does not always mention the underlying evidence and discrete sources of the book’s novel proposals, for instance, the tiny, neglected Cherokee text known as Vision of Elohi or the “secret traditions” cited from Rolling Thunder, the Keetoowah Society and others, such as Cherokee language teacher Brian Wilkes.

rafinesque2We discover little of the true boldness of this new history of the Cherokee. Not singled out either for approval or disapproval, for example, is the suggestion that the tribal name Tsalagi, pronounced approximately CHAH-la-key, which stumps all anthropologists, etymologically derives from the Greek etheloikeoi, meaning “willing settlers”  (p. 23). No opinion is registered on the proposition that modern Oklahoma Cherokee derives from Mohawk, not vice versa, that it resulted from an awkward relexification and accommodation to Iroquoian speakers by the original Cherokee, who spoke a “non-Indian language” (p. 25). Left:  Constantine Rafinesque.

Among many favorable superficial remarks, however, Guthrie writes:  “Yates demonstrates with considerable scholarship, using genealogy, genetics, and historical records, that southeastern Indians blended to an astonishing degree with early European colonists, including significant numbers of Jews, Gypsies, and others, who had been imported to help in controlling the frontier” (p. 46). Thank you for that, for everything except the snooty sleight “considerable.”

Without going into detail about a single one of the numerous pieces of evidence, or speaking with definitive authority from one privileged discipline or position of knowledge, say genetics, or chemistry, or epigraphy, regarding individual arguments in the large chain of discursive elements in the monograph, Guthrie leaves us with the impression that the book was cobbled together from accidentally encountered and sometimes unrelated materials to support a preconceived notion of Cherokee history and culture, that the research was not always professionally conducted or properly documented, and that much was either ignored, glossed over or handled in a less than thorough-going and scholarly manner.

For instance, the reviewer remarks on the author’s use of “eighteenth-century scholars such as Jefferson, Rafinesque, and Adair,” and compliments Yates on his “treatment of the eccentric [sic] polymath, Constantine Rafinesque,” as well as stating that “he has turned up new information about James Adair that is worth knowing” (46). But Guthrie doesn’t say why Rafinesque is worth redeeming (he was an enormously learned Old World Jew and had authentic sources to indigenous oral traditions among the Shawnee and other tribes that perished in the generation during which he tapped them), or what is worth knowing about the new Adair (he was himself of Jewish ancestry and thus deserves our credence in reporting Hebrew traits he observed among the Indians).

Instead, Guthrie resorts to more damning generalities, writing:  “An unfortunate weakness is his occasional use of dubious references as well as some that he seems not to have seen or understood. He also uncritically incorporates shaky material such as the Monhegan Island marks, which are natural, and Fell’s story of Maui. This opens him up to ridicule from skeptics.” This is like whimsically keeping score with negative numbers, or cheering the other side. There is nothing  searching and valuable in such list making, only the appearance of objectivity and specificity.

While appreciative of the study’s new evidence for unusual types of American Indian DNA (termed “provocative”), Guthrie says, “It’s a shame it wasn’t presented more professionally . . . certain uninformed remarks about genetics are disturbing and raise questions about his level of understanding . . . Yates garbles the history of molecular genetics in an amateurish way” (46-47). Unprofessional . . . amateurish . . . uninformed . . . these loaded terms seem to be taking us to a verdict, and that comes at the end.

“Yates probably will be seen as more of an advocate for revisionist interpretations than as an objective scholar,” he concludes, “and his book is unlikely to be noticed by academic anthropologists. But for those of us who want more than canned history, it offers food for thought and concrete new data about the people of the Southeast.”

We are not aware that Guthrie has ever written a book of his own, at least not one published in any of the fields reviewed here, or that he held or holds any academic position, much less one in an anthropology department. That is not intended to be a snarky comment, only a statement of fact. We have written books and we have held academic positions—none to be sure in anthropology, but several that were considered and counted as interdisciplinary. Old World Roots of the Cherokee is a trade book, not an academic publication. It is addressed to the general public, not experts.

We’ve all heard of “damning with faint praise.” But the present case is somewhat different. We are disappointed that a journal with an existing reputation for being amateurish and not objective (“The membership of NEARA consists for the most part of amateurs, and the organization was in 2003 described as a ‘hotbed of “Diffusionist” thought, the belief that the Americas were widely visited by European and Asiatic cultures before Columbus'”—Wikipedia) should brand the work of a professional who wrote an objective, investigative work complete with footnotes bidding its readers to make up their own minds as amateurish and unprofessional.

Amateurs should not try to play professional parts. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur, for the meaning of the word is “one who is in love with a subject.” We think every opinion deserves a chance to compete in the marketplace of ideas, especially an impassioned and justified opinion. But defensiveness, hypocrisy and carelessness do not consort well with intellectual honesty. Such attitudes have no place in any publishing. David ceases to be cute and appealing when he adopts the tone and taunts of a Goliath.

* James L. Guthrie, “Melungeons:  Comparison of Gene Frequency Distributions to Those of Worldwide Populations,” Tennessee Anthropologist 15/1 (1990) 13-22. Cf. William S. Pollitzer and William H. Brown, “Survey of Demography, Anthropometry, and Genetics in the Melungeons of Tennessee:  An Isolate of Hybrid Origin in Process of Dissolution,” Human Biology 41/3 (1969) 388-400.

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