Harassment, violence, and mud
Something that's become more and more common on the web is the use of harassment tactics. Skeptics and archaeologists have not been spared from being on the receiving end of these campaigns, so let's have a serious discussion about this. I will look into the attempted harassment campaigns by Graham Hancock and Jimmy Corsetti and previous attacks concerning the Bosnian Pyramids and Gungun Padang. I will examine the relationship between the manosphere and pseudo-history and their draw into the alt-right speaking points.
Parts of the section are based on a talk by the president of ESCO, Claire Klingenberg. In addition with the newly released book "The Routledge Companion to Gender, Media and Violence" and Lucy Cookes "Bitch: A revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal."
Then, we will also look into the Asaro Mudmen and see how quickly a tradition can evolve. Especially when it plays into the Western romanticization of tribal culture. Can a tradition be copyrighted, and can some practices be considered a commodity? These are all valid questions when Asaro is trying to defend a practice that originated in 1950.
In this episode:
Harassment, manosphere, and new media 3:25
Asaro Mudmen 21:30
Sources, resources and further reading suggestions
Hi, hello, and välkommen to Digging Up Ancient Aliens. This is the podcast where we examine strange claims about alternative history and ancient aliens in popular media. Do their claims hold water to an archeologist, or are there better explanations out there?
We are now on episode 46. I am Fredrik, and this is recorded in a hotel room in Manchester. The QED conference arranged by the Merseyside Skeptics has come to an end. It has been an excellent conference filled with fantastic talks and exciting people. Some presentations have, of course, triggered some thought and given some things to reflect on. Hence, in this episode, it is time to reflect and talk about some more serious things that need to be addressed sooner than later.
So it will not be our usual dive into psuedoscience even if it kind of will be. It will also not be a repetition of the talks I heard throughout the weekend since I don't think it would be that interesting to listen to. So, we will first talk about literal threats toward the skepticism and archaeological communities. This part will be based in part on Claire Klingenberg's talk during Skepticamp titled "The Safety of Skeptical Activism." Claire's talk, and mine is still avalible on Skeptics in the Pub's Twitch if you'd like to see it.
After this rather important talk, we will move on to something closer to what we usually do. Based on a video I saw on TikTok while waiting for my plane to Manchester. In this video, some sort of ceremony was taking place by people in weird ceramic helmets; the video referred to these as "The Mudmen." I thought this was not what the video claimed, and I was correct. So, in the other half of the episode, we will look into the creation of the Mudmen myth and whether a legend can be copyrighted.
Now that we have finished our preparations, let's dig into the episode.
Harassment, manosphere, and new media
As a warm-up for QED, the organization "Skeptics in the Pub" hosted an event called Skepticamp. During this event, several speakers did lightning talks on various subjects, from the history of electricity to prison escapes. If you have time and want to see them, it's still avalible on Twitch for a few more days; it will then be released on YouTube later. It was one talk that, maybe a bit ironically, touched on a topic again taking place towards our community. Claire Klingenberg is, among other things, the European Council of Skeptical Organisations president. Claire's talk on safety within skepticism happened to more or less coincide with another attack from the psuedoscience movement toward archaeologists and skeptics.
This new set of threats started on the 22nd of September when Jimmy Corsetti tweeted, X'ed, or what it's called now, a short message asking, "WHY were Hitler and the Nazis so obsessed with Lost Ancient History?" The tweet was accompanied by a couple of swastica-like depictions found in what I believe is at the Acropolis in Athens. Suppose you wonder why this is a problematic question. In that case, I highly recommend returning to episode 19, "Aliens in the Third Reich," where I go into more detail on the connection between neo-nazis and these pseudoscientific claims. Corsetti has since gone on tweeting, "Were you aware that so many Ancient Egyptian mummies were blonde-haired gingers?"
Both statements, while at the surface, seem harmless, carry a legacy of white supremacy ideas and scientific racism that was common in the early 1900s. We see the connections to Jan Udo Holey or "Jan Van Helsing," to Norbert Jürgen-Ratthofer and Ralf Ettl, all three neo-nazis and writers of "alternative history" that influenced several "mainstream psuedoscientists." But we also see the legacy of our friend Posnansky, Ignatius Donnelly, and all the other rather racist theorists trying to take the credit away from people of color.
Among those who were maybe the most vocal about calling out Jimmy was Flint Dibble. A British archaeologist who has a large following on Twitter and the one who has wanted the most to debate Graham Hancock on Joe Rogan. I will get off the Twitter drama shortly; bear with me here. Dr. Dibble wrote, "Wow, pseudoarchaeology YouTuber, Jimmy Corsetti, is fully embracing the dark side and openly spouting Nazi shit.... disgusting."
Nothing is inherently wrong; while a more extended explanation of why it is problematic would be great, it's hard to get in a tweet. I've spent thousands and thousands on words to convey this connection for a reason. But this was hurtful for Corsetti, and what do people do when hurt? Well, they retaliate in this new media landscape. So Jimmy continued the discussion by putting out the contact info to Dibble's University, hoping that people would flood the University with complaints.
It is not the first time the pseudoscientific crowd has instigated their followers to harass or attack people or organizations working against them. Jimmy Corsetti has in the past utilized sites like ratemyproffessor.com when he was annoyed by Dr. Bill Farley's criticism of Graham Hancock. Bill is a friend of this show and has been a returning guest; we talk a bit deeper about his experience around this in episode 31.
Graham Hancock has also been guilty of this. After his series aired, he tried to get more attention by doxing the person working at Ohio History Connection who denied his crew filming permit. We only saw their response email with his crew's contact details blacked out, while the representative of Ohio History's was not. We also did not get to see the original request from ITN Productions, who never has gotten back to me when requesting a comment, but it was left out that they had requested a multiday filming permit. The site could not accommodate this, and due to Hancock's past problematic statements, they decided to decline the permit. Hancock has never been barred from entering the site.
What we have discussed until now is relatively tame in comparison to other things that are going on. However, These things add to the escalation of threats and violence we see today. Just a few months ago, on Mykonos, an archaeologist received threatening texts just shortly after another archaeologist was beaten unconscious in the street. Surveying archaeologists in America are met with loaded guns. If archaeologists risk this in our day-to-day work, imagine what a group radicalized online could be capable of doing.
We have already seen examples of this. Back in 2006, 21 historians criticized Osmanagich's Bosnian Pyramids. The nationalistic Bosniak group quickly retaliated by harassing the corrupt archaeologists by email, phone, and in person. One of the more vocal critics and the curator of the National Museum, Zilka Kujundzic-Vejzagic, reported receiving many threats on the phone and was at one point painted as an enemy of Bosnia. Kujundzic-Vejzagic reported one instance where she was forced off a tram by nationalists.
We see the same pattern around Gunung Padang. Archaeologists and other scholars who criticized Dr. Hillman's project were silenced. It, of course, did not help that the most prominent financier of the project was the government. This led to a culture of silence that only benefits the psuedoscience crowd, and this is the goal they strive towards.
But what should you do then if you face threats or learn that someone you know receives them? Claire Klingenberg, I think, put this in a concrete and reasonable step-by-step manner.
“Get a buddy, right. Get a friend, get someone you trust to go and or even a threat of bodily harm to report it to the police because this process is really difficult. You have to explain what it is that you do, which, you know, as skeptics, that's never going to be easy to start off with.The next thing is to explain why you've become a victim of a threat and to make sure that it's being taken seriously. And some threats are more imminent. Some are just kind of random. We know we have many personalities within our community that had to move addresses because of how badly they were addressed. We know, for example, Urns had to have his mail checked by the police because there were anthrax threat threats to him and everything.”
We can't forget that men, women, and non-binary don't face the same type of harassment or the same levels. We men tend to have it easier in a way compared to many women and non-binary people.
“As female activists, we do face a different type of type of threats online, and it's usually, well, just name calling is different because they're much it's much more focused on how we look. And then of course, the threats are of sexual violence, which is something our male counterparts don't really face as much.”
In a 2017 survey, 21% of women 19-29 reported having been sexually harassed. 53% in the same group have received illicit sexual pictures. I'm not sure why these are not included in the sexual harassment, but anyway. A UNESCO survey among female journalists reports that 70% of this group have experienced online violence. 20% also say that this has led to real-world altercations where they have been approached by people threatening them online.
Something worth noting is that there is a crossover between the alternative history crowd and the manosphere. Young, conservative, and predominantly white men are getting radicalized online, and often, they seek out these people who promote the idea of the existence of a white being a culture-bearer race. But it's not only these talking points they often take, but also trying to use history and archaeology to promote manosphere ideas such as gender. We often see this in the discussion regarding skeletons and gender. The alt-right manosphere often touts that archeologists or osteologists cannot provide the identified gender. That gender is only binary, a view not representative of modern science. Using the Victorian model as a base for gender will lead science to be held back, as Lucy Cooke shows in "Bitch: A revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal." This idea of woke archaeologists is then reported in conservative media and pseudoscientific sources like Ancient Origins.
The alt-right has a highly well-coordinated online presence. These ideologies are also great in using people with interests in conspiratorial ideas and alternative science for their own agenda. But as Debbie Ging, Professor of Digital Media and Gender, points out, social media platforms are currently radicalizing white men through their algorithms. Also, they have a vested interest in promoting these topics since "Hate online triggers interaction and traffic, which translates into economic revenue for platforms." Something that become increasingly clear with Twitters/X new revenue sharing models.
I've noted all of these while reaching out to potential guests: people who are not white males often decline due to fearing harassment or more harassment. This is corroborated in an article from Sciencescience where they interviewed Stephanie Mulder, Sarah Head, and others. All women reported being harassed; Stephanie Mulder, as an example, describes how she got knife emojis sent to her. I will let Claire in again to see what to do after receiving threats or harassment.
“Do you share this on social media, what you've been going through? There's a if you feel strong enough, then please do. Because these people love to live in the darkness and once you bring them out to the light, they stop being so brave. So if you unless there is a direct and unless you get a direct command from the police not to do so, please do share these kinds of experiences. And these kinds of threats on social media and share, if you can, with journalists to show, number one, you have to show that being a science communicator, science popularizer, a skeptic is not something that can go without any kind of. That it does come off as a reaction that people are afraid of facts sometimes, so much so that it does get to this point. And the more you share your story, the safer you make. People around you, because then their their stories are taken more seriously when you go out and speak about yours. Definitly seek out a mental health professional.”
I wish I had a solution to this issue, but we can support each other, and if you happen to be a public skeptic or archaeologist, please report your threats. While it might be cumbersome, it might help someone else that you took the time and made the police understand what you are going through. We can also help by discussing these issues and bringing them out in the light. These people love to operate in the shadows. They will lose some power if their methods come out in the light. But the most crucial part is to make sure you are safe. If you don't feel safe, step back and return when you feel ready again. What should we do next? Well, we need to start talking about these subjects and bring it forward; the more open we are, the more supportive we can be and figure out ways to combat this together.
The Asaro Mudmen
So, let's leave this subject and go on to something a bit closer to what we usually do. So, this all started with a short film I watched while lazily scrolling, waiting for the other passengers to fight their way onto the plane. The film claims to show a tribe from New Guinea who wears strange-looking masks while smeared in mud and wearing loincloths. The masks look evil and seem to be made out of ceramic with almost demonlike faces carved into them. The story that accompanied the video went something like this.
"During one of the many tribal fights, the inhabitants of Asaro came off worst. The survivors saved themselves on the muddy banks of the river, where they hid until nightfall. When they, completely covered with light mud, tried to sneak away quietly, they were observed by the enemy, who thought they were the avenging ghosts of the killed. The enemy panicked and fled. The Asaro, surprised by the effect of their unintentional make-up, developed it as a war strategy, a kind of psychological warfare, and created mudmasks."
The video also states that this tribe is almost unknown and has baffled anthropologists who can't explain it. So, with all this, my skeptic senses started to tingle and lead me down a rabbit hole on how a modern myth is birthed from convenience and pure luck. It also created the legal question: can a tradition be copyrighted?
To start with, the tribe in question is doing the "unkown" part entirely wrong since they have been featured in commercials for Toyota, Orange Soda, and airlines. But they have also been portrayed on album covers such as Pink Floyds, "Obscured by Clouds," and "House Techno 2."
The tribe from Papua, New Guinea, was known before that. We see in the 1970s Western writers expanding on the myth and adding more elements to the lore. Some came to connect the masks with a demon that helped the tribe, giving them eyes to kill. Others will claim that they wear the masks and dance to eliminate demons. In a relatively poor BBC article, it's claimed that the masks originate from a wedding attendee who could not find suitable clothes. So he created the mask for some reason, and everyone thought he was a ghost and fled. So, all the classical colonial ideas can be found as the tradition's origin.
Is it possible to know the origin of the tradition then? Ton Otto and Robert J. Verloop, two anthropologists, did in 1996 go and look for the true source of the practice. They did find something rather interesting while doing so.
They went to the small village of Komunive, located in Asaro Valley, with the closest larger city being Goroka. There they met the "big-man" of the Asaro Mudmen, Ruipo Okoroho. Ruipo was kind enough to tell the real story behind their tradition.
It all started at the end of the 1800s when Ruipo Okoroho's grandfather, Bukiro Pote, decided to leave the village of Kabiufa to live in the Watabung area for some time. During his time in the Watabung area, Bukiro learned some new costumes from his neighbors. One happened to be a practice the people called bakime. You see when you are very upset with a neighbor or rival village, you might want to extract some good old street justice. But while doing so, you don't want to be recognized, so you try to conceal your identity. In a time when Nixon or pig masks, not sure why I made a distinction there, were pretty rare, the people in Watabung covered their identity with the help of a white sap from the "Meniha" tree.
Bukiro Pote returned to his village with these new practices. Bukiro, when returning, changed the practice's name to girituwai, and instead of using tree sap, he constructed masks out of a bamboo frame, a sack, with mud smeared on top of this. One could only speculate about these changes; maybe the tree was not widely avalible in the area, or Bukiro felt this method was better.
It was not only these people who used colors to change their appearance; other people in the High Lands, for example, used charcoal to paint their bodies to look more fierce during combat. This practice is connected to the belief that ancestral spirits accompany the warrior into battle and a need to conceal your identity from the opposing warriors. So, we have a connection with some of the modern retelling; remember this as we go forward.
Smearing mud on you is an act associated with grief and mourning within the Highlands. But other tribes also used mud to honor fallen fighters when they returned to battle, and white mud has been associated with spirits. So, we find a lot of bits and pieces that have been woven into the modern Western retellings.
But the ceramic masks we see today have not yet been invented; remember, the girituwai masks were simple frames with a sak and mud. But this would change in 1957 when Ruipo Okoroho was invited to bring his people to dance in the Eastern Highlands Agricultural Show. During the event, there would be a singsing competition. Singsing is a form of dance performance, and the Asaro people were asked to compete. While the Asaro do have a fine dance pedigree, Ruipo Okoroho suggested that they should resurrect his grandfather's idea of girituwai. Some changes were made, and the masks got more elaborate and closer to what we see today. When the group entered the fairgrounds, they performed quite a spectacle and won the competition. During the event, more of the Mudmen legend started to grow. Another tribe called Ifi Yufa provided the Asaro with a song to accompany their dance and a name for the figure "holosa." This word translates to ghosts.
So, the tradition is, in reality, something very new. Between 1957 and 1964, the Holosa dance was only performed once a year, and that was at the Eastern Highlands Agricultural Show. But after 1964, the Asaro tribe also started to put on a show in Komunive village. Ruipo Okoroho acted as a sort of middleman between the village and tour organizers, arranging mudmen sightseeing tours. To sell the tours, the story about the Asaro Mudmen expanded and grew yet again. We see a waving of stories based on tribal warfare, supernatural spirits, and ancestral beliefs being added and adoring themselves with clay and mud. All things that fit well into the Western idea of the primitive savage. Then, the tour guides continued to expand on the concepts and quote each other without acknowledging it until we had the story presented today.
So the invitation to a dance competition has turned into quite a lucrative tourist attraction that, of course, has generated a bit of competition. While we know that many tribal societies have an idea of ownership regarding nonmaterial or intellectual goods. This includes weaving patterns, designs, rituals, and concepts of spirits. Often, the different tribes will leave these concepts and immaterial rights alone. But in a world where tourism has become a large business and a way to make a good income for many of these people, these rituals have become a somewhat commodity. This has led to Ruipo Okoroho, who claims to have the copyright to the practice, appearing in court to defend his claim to the copyright. We see this quite clearly in the BBC article I mentioned previously. The journalist talked with three Mudmen performers at Sydneys Australian Museum back in 2016, and one of the performers, named Kori, said.
"The government does not recognize or protect our ownership rights and everyone in the highlands is now claiming to be a mud man." "But it's our story, and the others have copied it from us. It is a big worry for us because we don't have any copyright protection."
Ruipo Okoroho was in court several times during 1980, successfully arguing his right to the origin of the rite. Even the Watabung people claimed to own the source due to the inspiration from Bakime. But it was established that girituwai is its own rite. It has since led to infighting between Ruipo and others within the village. A man named Atairo claims to have been the one who changed the masks from banana root masks to clay masks. This seems to split the village into different camps where younger inhabitants prefer Atairo's narrative over Ruipo's.
While the story is new, it does offer us a chance to see how a ritual and myth can form. With it first appearing in 1957, we can follow how it changes and how the performers are turned into something older and grander. While most of the legends seem to be fueled by tourist money, it does not invalidate the ritual and how it's formed. It is a fascinating journey into the birth of a practice. Even if the original story does not fit as well into our Western idea of how tribal culture is formed, we can learn a lot from this case study.
Until then, please spread the word by leaving a positive review on platforms like iTunes, Spotify, or even among your fellow trench dwellers. For more information about me and my podcast, check out diggingupancientaliens.com.
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Sandra Marteleur created the intro music, and our outro is by the band called Trallskruv, who sings their song "tin foil hat." Links to both these artists will be found in the show notes.
Until next time, keep shoveling that science!
Sources, resources, and further reading suggestions
Bachelard, M. (2013). Digging for the truth at controversial megalithic site. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: https://www.smh.com.au/world/digging-for-the-truth-at-controversial-megalithic-site-20130726-2qphb.html.
Behind the masks of Papua New Guinea’s Asaro mud men. (2016). BBC News. [online] 1 Oct. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-37481253.
Cooke, L. (2023). Bitch: a Revolutionary Guide to sex, Evolution and the Female Animal. Doubleday.
Duggan, M. (2017). Online Harassment 2017. [online] Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/.
Ging, D. (2023a). Tactics of Hate: Toxic ‘creativity’ in anti-feminist men’s Rights Politics. In: K. Boyle and S. Berridge, eds., The Routledge Companion to Gender, Media and Violence. London: Routledge.
Ging, D. (2023b). Tactics of Toxicity: the rhetorical and algorithmic reach of male supremacism online.
Ging, D., Siapera, E. and Chemaly, S.L. (2019). Gender Hate Online: Understanding the New anti-feminism. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Klingenberg, C. (2023). The Safety of Skeptical Activism.
Newsroom (2023a). Greek Archaeologists Protest Holiday Island Assault. [online] Ekathimerini. Available at: https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/1206683/greek-archaeologists-protest-holiday-island-assault/
Newsroom (2023b). Mykonos: Archaeologist threatened in abusive text message | eKathimerini.com. [online] Ekathimerini. Available at: https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/1207144/mykonos-archaeologist-threatened-in-abusive-text-message/
Otto, T. and Verloop, R.J. (1996). The Asaro Mudmen: Local Property, Public Culture? The Contemporary Pacific, [online] 8(2), pp.349–386. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/5102342.pdf.
Posetti, J., Aboulez, N., Bontcheva, K., Harrison, J. and Waisbord, S. (2020). Online violence against women journalists: a global snapshot of incidence and impacts. In: UNESCO. [online] Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000375136.
Strauss, M. (2015). Archaeologist’s Execution Highlights Risks to History’s Guardians. [online] National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/150820-syria-archaeologist-isis-protecting-artifacts.
Wade, L. (2019). Believe in Atlantis? These archaeologists want to win you back to science. [online] Science.org. Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/believe-atlantis-these-archaeologists-want-win-you-back-science.
Woodard, C. (2009). The Mystery of Bosnia’s Ancient Pyramids. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-mystery-of-bosnias-ancient-pyramids-148990462/.
“Folie hatt” by Trallskruv
Lily of the woods by Sandra Marteleur