New Age archaeology tours rooted in racism

Last week’s discovery of some tombs of the pyramid builders in Egypt left me a bit confused. The archaeologists triumphantly claimed the tombs prove the builders were hired workmen, not slaves. Slaves wouldn’t have been buried in proper tombs right next to the Pyramids, the resting place of the pharaohs.

I used to be an archaeologist and couldn’t understand what they were crowing about. Archaeologists have long known that hired labor built Egypt’s temples and monuments. During the annual flooding of the Nile the farmers didn’t have much to do because their fields were underwater, so the pharaoh hired them to keep them out of trouble and glorify himself. In fact, a similar set of tombs was discovered in 1990. So what’s the big deal?

Then I remembered. If archaeologists don’t keep repeating the facts, the BS will bury the truth.

I’ve been to a lot of ancient sites, and even more annoying than the touts trying to sell me cheap trinkets are the “spiritual travelers” spouting gibberish about ancient astronauts and Atlantis. You’ve heard the theories. The local people couldn’t possibly have built these impressive remains so they got a helping hand from aliens. Another spin is that all the great archaeological sites are survivals of an ancient civilization. It doesn’t matter that there’s not a shred of real evidence to back these claims; these First World fantasies are much more alluring than the simple truth–dark people speaking strange languages built the most impressive monuments in human history.

These ideas aren’t new. Fingerprints of the Gods, Chariots of the Gods, America B.C., The Lost Continent of Mu, all recycle the same old half-truths, out-of-context “facts”, and outright inventions in their quest to peddle nonsense to a public that should have been given a better education in the first place. New Age archaeology tours have become big business. There’s nothing more annoying than having to elbow your way through one of these wide-eyed herds when in the presence of something truly great like Machu Picchu or Giza.

What many New Agers would be shocked to realize is that their ideas are rooted in colonial racism. Early European explorers and scholars couldn’t believe that “natives” were capable of building the great monuments in places like Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Peru and explained them away by thinking up lost white civilizations or wandering tribes of Europeans. Some modern writers have replaced Aryans with aliens, but the Great White Civilization idea still persists. Do a Google image search on “Atlanteans” and you’ll see what I mean.

So please, throw away the crystals and read some real archaeology books. The archaeologists don’t have all the answers, but at least they’re trying. And I can tell you from ten years in the business that despite what New Agers say, archaeologists aren’t conspiring to hide the truth. Repeat: there is no grand conspiracy.

But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Got to go, Venus is calling.

South by Southeast: The hill tribes of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Southeast Asia is modernizing rapidly. These days, malls line the streets of Thailand and WiFi signals and cell phones blanket the cafes of Vietnam. But that doesn’t mean the ways of the “Asia of old” have vanished – in fact, in the mountainous northern regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, a patchwork of hill tribe minorities survive by largely traditional means, subsisting on farming in remote villages. Southeast Asian visitors have a unique chance to learn and help these people through numerous activities, ranging from multi-day hikes to volunteering their time or simply acquiring locally-produced one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Whether you’re trekking through the pastoral landscapes of Myanmar, helping school kids with their daily English lesson in Laos or shopping for handmade textiles in Thailand, getting in touch with Southeast Asia’s ethnic minority tribes has never been easier or more enjoyable. And though the exploitation of indigenous groups remains a problem, there are increasing signs that tourism offers a great way to help these groups survive and prosper in the years ahead.

Ever wanted to sleep in a traditional village under a blanket of shooting stars? Help a child learn to read English? Drink moonshine with a tribal chief? Keep reading below for our South by Southeast guide to the hill tribes of Southeast Asia.

%Gallery-82697%
What is a “Hill Tribe?”
Southeast Asia is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including tribes like the Hmong, Pa-O, Akha and Montagnards among many others. Though each of these groups encompasses a unique set of customs, beliefs and habits, typically the groups inhabit high-altitude mountain regions too difficult for traditional agriculture. The history of relations between the governments of Southeast Asia and these tribes has not always been pleasant, ranging from outright conflict to racism and deportation. There is, however, a silver lining, as a thriving tourism industry has provided these groups with a new means of economic improvement and sustainability.

Top Hill Tribe Experiences

  • Trekking – the range and quality of trekking opportunities in Southeast Asia is exploding. Typically a “trek” will provide visitors with a multi-day hike through wilderness, a stop at a traditional village and sometimes a homestay. Though there are hundreds of trekking hotspots across the region, some of our favorites are Kalaw in Myanmar, Luang Nam Tha in Laos and Sapa in Vietnam.
  • Volunteering offering your time and talents in a hill tribe village can be a particularly rewarding experience and a great way to move beyond “just visiting.” Check out organizations like Big Brother Mouse in Laos and Starfish Ventures in Thailand.
  • Night Markets – another great way to explore the hill tribe cultures of Southeast Asia is by buying their affordable handmade products. From wildly colorful textiles to elaborate carvings, hill tribe crafts are unparalleled in their quality and detail. Check out the night markets in cities like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, where sellers offer all manner of fantastic finds.

Doing It Right
Everywhere you look in Southeast Asia, someone is trying to offer you a tour to visit authentic local cultures. But not all visits are created equal. In some cases, the tours are organized without the tribes’ permission. Even worse, in more popular areas literally hundreds of visitors pass through a village in a given day. The tours feel less like an authentic cultural experience and more like an opportunity to stare at “those strange tribe people.” It’s important if you’re going to experience a hill tribe you do so in a sustainable way and with an organization that ensures the tribes benefit from your visit. Check out companies like Green Discovery in Laos and Akha Hill House in Thailand for good examples.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

The Netherlands’ worst holiday tradition, Black Peet

Black Peet - Zwarte PietThe history of Black Peet, or Zwarte Piet, is a subject of much disagreement. The explanation that makes the most sense to us (and seems the most likely) is that just as wealthy Dutch families once had black servants, so did Santa Claus. Rather than the elves we’re used to seeing in America, Santa’s helper in Holland and all over the Netherlands is a smiling, minstrel show-meets-Shakespeare-style, black-faced man, such as the chocolate rendition at right. That’s a traditional holiday gift.

Another story, apparently made up to quell the cries of “racism,” is that Black Peet is actually a white Dutch guy; he’s just covered in chimney soot. We think it’s safe to say that 1. That’s not supposed to be a white Dutch guy and 2. That’s pretty much equally as offensive and ignorant.

According to one of the guides we had in Holland, in recent years, the shops have tried coming out with Red Peets and Yellow Peets as well, to make the whole thing a little more “it’s just different colored guys” (could they have picked more offensive colors? WTF, Netherlands?), but the children didn’t care for it. Black Peet is their tradition, and when handed a Yellow Peet, they’d look at the adults with (perhaps appropriate) disapproval.

To this day, The Netherlands’ candy and toy shops are full of Black Peet merchandise around the holidays. The photos in our gallery were taken in early November in Amsterdam and The Hague (Den Haag). Black Peets are actually spotted all over Europe, though in fewer numbers. This certainly isn’t news; the tradition is ages old, but we were so struck by the variety of Black Peets available, we couldn’t help but photograph them.
%Gallery-79319%
For further study, here’s a video by some people who encountered Black Peet in a grocery store in Berlin, saying, “In America we have that too, but we call it ‘racism.'” Warning: none of the Peets you see there are actually black people (they’re wearing makeup), and also, after the grocery store portion, the audio becomes NSFW.

This trip was paid for by the Netherlands Board of Tourism, but the ideas and opinions expressed in the article above are 100% my own.

Hotel owner makes Latino employees change their names

Taos, New Mexico, is home to a large Spanish-speaking population. There are a lot of Latino people living and working in the town. So it follows that many people there have traditionally Latino names. You would think a guy from Texas (another state close to Mexico and home to many Hispanic people) would understand that. But not Larry Whitten.

When Whitten came into town to take over as the manager of a run-down hotel, he told his Latino staff that they needed to change their names to more Anglicized versions. As CBS News puts it, “No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain old Martin. No more Marcos, now it would be Mark.” Of course, the staff and many of the town’s residents were not happy. Nor were they pleased when Whitten fired several Hispanic employees and forbade those remaining from speaking any language but English around him, because he feared they were talking about him in Spanish.

After referring to the locals as “mountain folk” in an interview and then being picketed by fired employees and their families, Whitten later apologized for the “misunderstanding” and said he was not against any culture.

Whitten denied that his actions were racist and said that he asked the staff to change their names for the “satisfaction” of guests who may not be familiar with Spanish names. One fired employee disagreed. “I don’t have to change my name and language or heritage,” he said. “I am professional the way I am.”

Gadlinks for Friday 9.4.09


It’s Aloha Friday, and I’m back home in the great USA! It feels awfully good to be home for the Labor Day weekend. I hope you all enjoy the long weekend. Here are a few Gadlinks to get it started.

´Til Monday, have a great weekend!

More Gadlinks here.