January 10, 2010

Chief Joseph's cuneiform tablet

Another article claims a Eurasian (Hindu, Turkish, etc.) origin for Native peoples and cultures. But this one appears to be based on a fact:

A Common History of Assyrians and Native Americans

By Benjamin DanialiMary Gindling of History Mysteries writes:
"The chief said that the tablet had been passed down in his family for many generations, and that they had inherited it from their white ancestors. Chief Joseph said that white men had come among his ancestors long ago, and had taught his people many things. His story echoes those told by Native Americans in both North and South America about white culture bringers. But in this case, Joseph had a souvenir to demonstrate the truth of his story."The ancient tablet inscribed in cuneiform and made of baked clay is one inch square in size. The translation by Professor Robert Blggs of Chicago revealed it to be a receipt for a lamb, dated in the year that Enmahgalanna was installed as high priestess of Nanna, or about 2042 B.C. The tablet was presumed to have been made in southern Iraq.
I hadn't heard about Chief Joseph's tablet before. I wondered if it was another von Däniken-style hoax. But other sources confirm the tablet's existence:

Where did Chief Joseph get a cuniform tablet?Among the effects of Chief Joseph, the famed leader of the Nez Perce Indians, was a clay tablet bearing a cuneiform inscription. The tablet transmits no startling message, being merely a receipt for one lamb changing hands. But where did a Northwest Indian chief get a 3,000year-old tablet? The tablet first came to light around 1878, long before cuneiform tablets became common on the artifacts market. Still, it could have been a gift from some missionary or tourist--or even planted as a hoax.

(Park, Edwards; "Where Did Chief Joseph Get a Cuneiform Tablet?" Smithsonian Magazine, 9:36, February 1979)
Chief Joseph and a Mesopotamian tabletA note of passing interest in this respect concerns Chief Joseph. After his surrender in 1877, he gave a pendant to General Miles, and this object eventually found its way to West Point. A few years ago it was examined and turned out to be a Mesopotamian tablet recording the sale of livestock, a disturbing anomaly and an undeniable fact that should have been grasped at once by Christian fundamentalists and Mormons. How this tablet got into Joseph's family and became an heirloom is a matter of some speculation, telling us that our view of Western Hemisphere prehistory is not as complete as we might think.

(Red Earth, White Lies by Vine Delora Jr., page 48)
Another posting argues that the tablet is difficult to explain, so it proves that "white strangers" visited the Indians in prehistoric times:

History mystery:  Chief Joseph's cuneiform tablet

By Mary GindlingThe chief said that the tablet had been passed down in his family for many generations, and that they had inherited it from their white ancestors. Chief Joseph said that white men had come among his ancestors long ago, and had taught his people many things. His story echoes those told by Native Americans in both North and South America about white culture bringers. But in this case, Joseph had a souvenir to demonstrate the truth of his story.

There are several puzzling things about Chief Joseph's tablet. Cuneiform tablets were still relatively rare in 1877, especially in the American West. It is highly unlikely that some acquaintance of the Nez Perce chief would have had such an object to begin with and, if so, Joseph certainly would have said so. Chief Joseph was a man of honor. He would have had little to gain by saying that his family had possessed the tablet for many generations if, in fact, he had gotten it from some missionary or trader.

The mundane nature of the contents of the tablet argues against forgery. Cuneiform had only been deciphered in 1846 and the process was far from complete even in 1877, so a would-be forger would have had to be an extremely well educated individual familiar not only with the ancient language itself, but with the shape of the tablets created by the ancient scribes.
Comment:  We can dismiss the Assyrian claim out of hand:

1) I don't think the Assyrians in northern Iraq had ocean-going vessels. The Phoenicians did, but I'm not sure their ships were sturdy enough to cross the Atlantic. And Phoenicians would've used Phoenician writing, not Assyrian writing.

2) An Assyrian could've passed the tablet to anyone in Europe, Asia, or Africa. It's ridiculous to claim a single Assyrian tablet proves the presence of Assyrians.

3) The tablet's nature (an inch-square receipt for a lamb) suggests it was a souvenir, not a working document. If you're crossing the ocean for some reason, do you carry a receipt for a lamb you bought several years ago? It sounds exactly like something you'd buy in a curio shop: a mysterious talisman from the exotic "Orient."

The tablet explained

So where did the tablet come from? Chief Joseph supposedly said that "white men had come among his ancestors long ago." Even if that were true, consider a few early visits by white men:

Awesome America--OregonThe first white explorers came to Oregon by sea. Spain sent Juan Cabrillo, in 1542. Bartolomé Ferrelo, reached the southwestern coast in 1543 looking for a passageway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Northwest Passage. In 1776, the British sent James Cook to the Northwest to search for the Northwest Passage and to claim the land for Great Britain.It's not hard to imagine that one of these visitors had a cuneiform souvenir and traded or lost it when he visited the Northwest. That would account for the white men among Chief Joseph's ancestors.

Even the Lewis and Clark expedition, supposedly the first white men to visit the Northwest over land, happened a couple of generations before Chief Joseph's birth. One of them, or one of the fur trappers who followed, could've given the tablet to, say, Chief Joseph's grandparents. It's easy to imagine their telling young Joseph about the white men who came among his ancestors long ago. They could've exaggerated the story, or he could've misheard or misremembered it.

Even if Chief Joseph sincerely believed the tablet came from the distant past, that doesn't mean it did. You see stories like this unraveled all the time on antiques shows. Someone brings in a "priceless heirloom" and says it's been in the family since Colonial days. No, says the appraiser, it's a knockoff made by a souvenir manufacturer 40 years ago.

Either explanation seems far more plausible than what these articles are suggesting. Namely, that a group of Assyrians crossed the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the North America continent 3,000 years, reached the Oregon/Idaho region, and left no trace except a lamb receipt they just happened to be carrying. I'd believe Chief Joseph pulled a prank on the white man before I'd believe that.

For more on a related subject, see New Films on Prince Madoc and Welsh Society Wants Madoc Plaque.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd choose the "Chief Joseph pulled a prank on the white man" explanation. LOL. This sounds like a pretty funny stage play idea for Arigon Starr.


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