Romancing the Rio Wreck: Evidence for Ancient Transoceanic Contact in the Americas vs. a Romantic Notion of Peer Review

As a Ph.D. linguist providing his peer-review of Brian Stubbs’ work on linguistic evidence of ancient Old World contact with the Americas as evidence by the Uto-Aztecan language family, Dr. John S. Robertson explained why the academic community is likely to continue treating Stubbs’ work with the inadequate attention it seems to have received so far:

It is academic dogma that any prehistoric migration from the Middle East to the Americas never happened, nor could it ever have happened. Any scholar’s work would be anathema if it made such a claim. Some say Stubbs’s work is anathema — but only at the expense of ignoring the breadth and depth of the actual data. There is actually existing evidence that favors such a migration — not an archeological artifact, nor a recorded manuscript — but evidence in the form of factual, predictive, lawful linguistic data found in Stubbs 2015. Such evidence of borrowing exists in abundance, available for proper review and criticism.

In my recent post discussing Robertson’s evaluation of Stubbs’ work, certain critics of the Church took the stance that the work is meaningless — no need to consider the extensive data — until it gets formal peer review. Dr. Robertson kindly chimed in and explained that he, as a Ph.D. linguist familiar with the issues and the work, actually is a peer and is providing review. Ah, but that doesn’t count, we were told, because Robertson is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and thus has an interest in the outcome, making his review unreliable. Only non-LDS academics can be trusted on such matters because, of course, non-LDS people in general naturally won’t have any interest in the outcome and can be trusted to give us a fair evaluation of paradigm-busting, controversial evidence relevant to the Book of Mormon, no matter how much they may dislike the controversial book or the religion that relies on it.

Granted, bias is a perpetual problem in any debate. Latter-day Saints can unfairly see things in ways that favor us, and our critics can also be blind to other possibilities. Everyone is at risk of having some interest or some bias, perhaps completely unconsciously, in how they look at almost any issue. The key issue is whether their scholarship is sound and their approach reasonable. Is Chris Rogers’ review of Stubbs’ work inherently trustworthy or untrustworthy because he’s associated with BYU professor and is a member of the Church, like John S. Robertson? One dismisses Stubbs’ work, the other finds it impressive. If you examine the writings of both of these professors regarding Brian Stubbs’ 2015 book, I would suggest that both are sharing what they think based on their training, not based on their religious biases, and whether they are right or wrong depends on their logic and understanding of the data, not their affiliation (Robertson wins handily on that count while Rogers has completely misunderstood what he reviewed).

Peer review is vital for the progress of science, but often runs into snags when academic evidence challenges a major paradigm. It may be an unreasonable expectation to think that those doing the review, whether professors, funding officers, corporate scientists or whoever, will be objective and even-handed in dealing with controversial results that threaten “what everybody knows” or touch upon some highly sensitive issue, as is the issue of how New World civilizations arose.

There is a rather romantic notion of peer review at play here, a notion that many people have, rooted in a trust that academics and the organizations that fund and influence them (universities and governments, for example) will tend to embrace truth and knowledge, even when it defies conventional wisdom and preconceived notions. It does happen, but it takes courageous people and often a great deal of time before paradigms can be overthrown, as Ignacz Semmelweis found in trying to get the medical community to practice basic hygiene to reduce the transmission of disease from invisible agents (germs). Have any of you seen the play Semmelweis? Very touching production. Saw it at BYU when I was a student.

One critic guffawed at the idea that peer review might not give a fair shake to work that had any merit and claimed there was no evidence for such concerns and specifically criticized Robertson’s claim that a fair evaluation of Stubbs’ work might be impeded by academic dogma against ancient contact between the Middle East and the New World.

If there actually were any legitimate evidence for pre-Colombian Old World contact with New World peoples apart from a few Vikings making a hut or two in Canada, surely that evidence would be carefully considered by the powers that be and, after careful vetting by open-minded scholars in the academic community, would be openly published and shared with the world, let the facts declare what they may.  Right?

To shed some light on that romantic notion of disinterested, fair peer review of controversial reports that clash with reigning paradigms, let’s consider an event involving several nations speaking Romance languages, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. The story is told in a delightful and thorough book that I highly recommend, Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas by Stephen C. Jett (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Univ. of Alabama Press, 2017). It draws upon works of the colorful but sometimes controversial underwater explorer Robert F. Marx, widely known  for his daring treasure discoveries. The story could also begin with an Oct. 10, 1982 article in the New York Times, “RIO ARTIFACTS MAY INDICATE ROMAN VISIT” by Walter Sullivan.

Here is an excerpt from Stephen C. Jetts’ book in the section “Rio’s Roman Wreck” in Chapter 10, “The Mystery of the Missing Artifacts” (Kindle edition, footnotes deleted):

Politics not infrequently plays a role in distortion and suppression of evidence. Fuller discussion must await a future book, but the case of Robert Marx and a seeming Roman wreck in Brazil is worth detailing here.

Brazil is home to many undated rock inscriptions translatable as Phoenician, Greek, Latin, or even Norse. In 1975, a diver reported retrieving ship’s fragments as well as amphorae in the Rio Urumbo of Brazil’s São Paulo state. They were allegedly Phoenician.

In 1976, a local diver discovered Roman-style amphorae on the bottom of the Bay of Guanabara, that marvelous harbor on whose shore lies Rio de Janeiro. Over the years since the mid-1960s, fishermen had found more than fifty intact specimens of these liquid-storage jars. Beginning in 1979, Robert Marx, an American adventurer and underwater archaeological investigator, interviewed local divers and fishermen who had brought up such jars, and he examined two intact examples. He asked several oceanographers to independently examine the barnacles and other marine creatures on the containers, and the organisms were determined to be from Guanabara Bay and not from the Mediterranean and to have required centuries to develop; some of the encrustations carbon-dated to about AD 500.

In 1982, Marx dove on the site, where he found that most of the pottery fragments were cemented to the bottom rock by coral. He had experts investigate representative sherds. Radiocarbon dating put their age at around 2000 years ago, plus or minus 140 years, and thermoluminescence dating gave a nearly identical age. The leading expert on sourcing and dating amphorae, the University of Massachusetts classicist Elizabeth Lyding Will, concluded that the containers were of the second or third century AD, made at Roman Kouass, the ancient port of Zilis (present Dehar Jedid) on the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the southwest of Tangier.

Using sub-bottom-profiling sonar, the MIT electrical engineer and Jacques-Yves Cousteau collaborator Harold E. Edgerton identified two targets that were consistent with their being parts of a wreck. Later probing by Marx verified the presence of wood. “Shortly after Edgerton’s report [on the sonar findings] appeared, the Portuguese and Spanish governments expressed great concern to the Brazilian government about the possibility that this discovery could displace Cabral as the discoverer of Brazil and Columbus as the discoverer of the New World” and could—as claimed Italy’s ambassador—give unrestricted rights of citizenship to Italian immigrants to Brazil. Soon afterward, the Brazilian government, initially calling the wreck Phoenician, declared the site to be a restricted zone and had a dredge barge dump tons of earth atop it for “protection”—protection of the reputations of the Renaissance explorers, it would seem, and to squelch any claims to Brazil that Italy might make. Following this literal cover-up, all further underwater archaeology in Brazilian waters was banned. [emphasis added]

So painful. Ouch!

The Brazilian side of the story may be that Robert F. Marx had taken some gold or other artifacts from Brazilian sites and was a bad actor. Thus, there was a need to ban all underwater archaeology all along the coasts of Brazil. See another New York Times article on this, “UNDERWATER EXPLORING IS BANNED IN BRAZIL” by Marlise Simons, June 25, 1985. Maybe Marx did some things improperly. Maybe he was a rogue explorer. But the reaction to ban all exploration, and the apparent dumping of dirt over the key site, makes me suspect something else was involved besides concern over one famous explorer.

It seems that a reigning paradigm or two was threatened (once the significance of the find was recognized, a process that took a little time for the antibodies to be activated) and, as is sometimes the case with big reigning paradigms, there were peripheral implications (political ones here). The response was not just silence, but an active hostility that not only suppressed the evidence, but caused harm to the already stressed ecosystem in Guanabara Bay by those who were responsible to protect it. Protecting Brazil’s political interests may have came first. Welcome to the romantic version of peer review. OK, this wasn’t academic peer review per se, but the results of government review, the powers that fund and influence the academics.

Politics are only occasionally the problem. Jetts illustrates other painful examples of evidence for transoceanic contact being suppressed or ignored because of assuming that the evidence must be wrong given the paradigm that “everyone knows,” or because of fear that treating it seriously would result in trouble. Academics commonly won’t take the possibility of pre-Colombian transoceanic contact seriously until there is suitable evidence, but what may be part of the needed suitable evidence is rejected or suppressed because everyone knows there was no pre-Colombian transoceanic contact between the Old World and the New. A lovely Catch-22.

Old flawed paradigms do get broken and overturned eventually when enough data comes to light and enough voices dare to accept the new theories needed to explain the growing body of evidence. But at the moment, there is great risk that much of the evidence of Old World contact with the Americas has been ignored, rejected prematurely, or even covered up, as we apparently see in a dramatic and environmentally harmful form from Brazilian authorities. If Jetts’ account is correct, it’s quite discouraging.  But perhaps the broad linguistic evidence pointing to such contact may play a role in helping to shake off an old reigning paradigm that can allow more open consideration of other evidence as well. 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

22 thoughts on “Romancing the Rio Wreck: Evidence for Ancient Transoceanic Contact in the Americas vs. a Romantic Notion of Peer Review

  1. Grant – Thank you so much, it was awesome. Completely vindicates OK.

    Long story short, Stubs methodology lacks any sort falsifiability and at best can only be convincing or unconvincing, but not evidence. Unfortunately for Stubb's proponents here, for many reasons given by the peer, it is not even convincing.

    Somebody here is off in the deep end burying a wreck, but is not the Portuguese. Mormon apologist no longer pretend their only defense is contorted and excessively complex conspiracy theories.

  2. Shorter Jeff: Peer review is not perfect. Therefore it is of no use in this particular case.

    Also shorter Jeff: Academia dogmatically opposes the idea of ancient transoceanic contact. As evidence for this claim I will cite a book arguing for such contact published by an academic press.

    — OK

  3. I enjoyed the review of Stubb's work from a Nawatl scholar. I would not say that it completely vindicates OK other than it is another peer review which is what OK is after.


  4. OK, peer review is extremely valuable, as we both agree. But it does often run into trouble when something challenges what everybody thinks they know or hits sensitivities, which abound in some area. Robinson's statement is reasonable.

    I am glad that Jetts, a respected scholar, was able to get the University of Alabama to publish his meticulous, scholarly work. The academic world is not a monolith, but in spite of the willingness of some to publish scholarship on this controversial topic, for many to advocate transoceanic crossings can lead to the kind of trouble that the Rio wreck encountered.

    The bigger problem discussed by Jetts is the tendency of investigators to ignore what they find because "there must be some mistake" or "this must be a hoax someone stuck in this burial site" or even "a gopher must have brought these iron pieces down into this site" since "everyone knows" that there cannot be legitimate Old World artifacts in pre-Colombian New World sites. One can see this openly sometimes in publications, where, for example, finds of Finnish or other Old World DNA in pre-Columbian human remains are dismissed as being from modern contamination, even if nobody on the team had any Finnish ties, or DNA related to Old World lines when found in modern Native Americans is automatically assumed to be from modern European ancestry (in those cases, those concerns may be legitimate, but it's the automatic rejection of unexpected data that poses a genuine problem, if there actually was transoceanic contact — how can it be detected if the evidence is repeatedly rejected as anomalous?). Some artifacts that seem anomalous are reported, but few are willing to consider that they may deserve detailed attention. Imagine a Brazilian scholar looking at a Roman amphora form 500 A.D. out of Rio's bay and potentially stirring widespread ire by publishing its implications. What will he or she do?

    1. Per the rules of academic rigor, anomalies must be discarded unless they are consistently and reliably repeated or reasonably explained. Otherwise you’d be chasing dead ends and red herrings forever.

  5. I think part of the point OK is making is that peer review outside of the confines of the academy is just one man’s opinion. Submitting work to a scholarly journal, and receiving review pre-publication and post publication from experts in the field is academic peer review. Your work must undergo and withstand the strictest of analysis to be considered accepted. As much as they would like to appear so, Mormon apologetic websites are not the venue in which to discuss the real scholarly value of a work. John Robertson in your previous post claims to have made a review of the work as an expert, but until he puts his money where his mouth is and publishes a review in an academic journal, he will cannot be taken seriously.

    Yor example above Jeff is believable (the Brazilian government has done some pretty crazy things over the years), but doesn’t seem to have close parallel to the question at hand. It’s an extreme story of bad decisions based on cultural fears.

  6. Anonymous complains that Robertson won't publish in a peer review journal. Anonymous won't publish his/her name.

  7. I have seen many examples of strong bias in science keeping good scientific theories and evidence out of peer review, out of funding and out of textbooks.

    One example is intelligent design. When one of Michael Behe's books was criticized in the journal Nature, Behe asked if he could respond to the article criticizing him. The journal told him that they would not let him respond BECAUSE it had a commitment to evolution. Not because of the evidence or logic of his proposed response. In other words, it was the ideological commitment of the journal, not his facts or logic that were the problem.

    Another recent example is a team of sociologists who wanted to study whether or not gender transitioning leads to an INCREASE in suicide attempts. Their funding was pulled because the study was not politically correct.

    Entrenchment in science is rampant and science truly progresses one death at a time as the saying goes. I have more examples if people want to hear.

    1. You’re not likely to get a flat earth treatise published in a geology journal—is that a sign of bias or common sense?

    2. Collin, I remember reading about that – and Behe’s response wasn’t even directly about intelligent design. He was just going to point out flaws in the other piece.

  8. We're not talking about flat earth. We know that the phoenicians and romans had sturdy ships that could go fairly long distances. We also know that polynesians went very long distances in their ships. It's not crazy to believe that there was some contact and that that contact left linguistic fingerprints.

    And did you read Jeff's entire post? He was talking about how, for political reasons, Brazil had literally buried evidence of roman or phoenician archeaology.

    1. Buried possible evidence. Why would there be reason to believe linguistic evidence would be left? Were the Phoenicians and Romans known to travel with women and children? Wouldn’t it make more sense that if a boat or two became stranded in the new world, they would be subsumed into the local culture within a generation or two? Also, did Romans speak Hebrew and/or Egyptian?

  9. Another interesting quote from Elizabeth Lyding Will regarding the above story from Jeff:

    “The Rio jars look to be late versions of those jars, perhaps datable to the third century A.D. I have a large piece of one of the Rio jars, but no labs I have consulted have any clay similar in composition.”

    Sounds like similar design but not necessarily old world construction.

  10. One more note. Even if remains of water-tight roman jars were found on the ocean floor of Rio, that doesn't mean they were transported there by human explorers. Ocean currents can do interesting things. . .

  11. Anonymous,

    It's not relevant whether or not the jars were actually of Old World construction. Thanks to the Brazilian government, we'll never know. The point is that they posed a potential threat to the prevailing understanding and that threat was rather unscientifically swept under the carpet, almost literally.

  12. This sabotage was carried out by the Brazilian military government in response to what they perceived as a hegemonic threat—not by the scientific community nor the academy. Not really an apples-to-apples comparison.

  13. Hoosier – It is not relevant whether or not some group somewhere was opposed to further research. It does not follow that every-time further research fails to occur the reason was some group was afraid of the potential results.

  14. Dr. Lindsay

    An earlier review of the book of Dr. Stubbs by someone in the field, including the languages in question was much more measured in its critique than was found in other more general forums outside of the field such as here, and the journal the Mormon Interpreter.

    The most interesting point of this review by Dr. Dirk Elzinga from BYU is as follows:

    My greatest complaint is that this book did not go through the standard academic editorial and review process. On the first page, Stubbs states that Uto-Aztecanists, Semiticists, and Egyptologists probably will not be receptive to his proposal or take seriously the notion that Old and New World languages could have mixed in such a fashion. He may be right about his peers, which would make standard academic review more difficult. However, the editorial and review process have the benefit of helping authors explain themselves more effectively to those who disagree or do not understand. It is obvious that Stubbs understands perfectly well what he is saying; however, his book fails in many places to say it clearly and directly to others. I was always able to puzzle it out, but the data and the arguments are complicated, and peer review and skilled editorial assistance would have been helpful to readers.


    Maybe after peer review as suggested by Dr. Elzinga, the theories proposed by Dr. Stubbs can be taken more seriously, and examined better.

    Dr. VelhoBurrinho

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