Wednesday 21 July 2021

The Grand Canyon's Lost Civilization

It began with a modest announcement in the March 12, 1909 edition of the Arizona Gazette announcing "G.E. KINCAID REACHES YUMA". The brief article stated that "G.E. Kincaid of Lewiston, Idaho, arrived in Yuma after a trip from Green River, Wyoming, down the entire course of the Colorado River. He is the second man to make this journey and came alone in a small skiff, stopping at his pleasure to investigate the surrounding country. He left Green River in October having a small covered boat with oars, and carrying a fine camera, with which he secured over 700 views of the river and canyons which were unsurpassed. Mr. Kincaid says one of the most interesting features of the trip was passing through the sluiceways at Laguna dam. He made this perilous passage with only the loss of an oar." It concluded with "Some interesting archaeological discoveries were unearthed and altogether the trip was of such interest that he will repeat it next winter in the company of friends."

A circa 1900 photo of the Grand Canyon's interior.

What  archaeological discoveries were these? The following month, April 5, the Arizona Gazette furnished a much more complete report of an absolutely astonishing discovery:


Mysteries of Immense High Cavern Being Brought to Light


Remarkable Finds Indicate Ancient People Migrated From Orient 
The latest news of the progress of the explorations of what is now regarded by scientists as not only the oldest archeological discovery in the United States, but one of the most valuable in the world, which was mentioned some time ago in the Gazette, was brought to the city yesterday by G.E. Kinkaid, the explorer who found the great underground citadel of the Grand Canyon during a trip from Green River, Wyoming, down the Colorado, in a wooden boat, to Yuma, several months ago.

According to the story related to the Gazette by Mr. Kinkaid, the archeologists of the Smithsonian Institute, which is financing the expeditions, have made discoveries which almost conclusively prove that the race which inhabited this mysterious cavern, hewn in solid rock by human hands, was of oriental origin, possibly from Egypt, tracing back to Ramses. If their theories are borne out by the translation of the tablets engraved with hieroglyphics, the mystery of the prehistoric peoples of North America, their ancient arts, who they were and whence they came, will be solved. Egypt and the Nile, and Arizona and the Colorado will be linked by a historical chain running back to ages which staggers the wildest fancy of the fictionist.

A Thorough Examination 
Under the direction of Prof. S. A. Jordan, the Smithsonian Institute is now prosecuting the most thorough explorations, which will be continued until the last link in the chain is forged. Nearly a mile underground, about 1480 feet below the surface, the long main passage has been delved into, to find another mammoth chamber from which radiates scores of passageways, like the spokes of a wheel.

Several hundred rooms have been discovered, reached by passageways running from the main passage, one of them having been explored for 854 feet and another 634 feet. The recent finds include articles which have never been known as native to this country, and doubtless they had their origin in the orient. War weapons, copper instruments, sharp-edged and hard as steel, indicate the high state of civilization reached by these strange people. So interested have the scientists become that preparations are being made to equip the camp for extensive studies, and the force will be increased to thirty or forty persons.

Mr. Kinkaid's Report 
Mr. Kinkaid was the first white child born in Idaho and has been an explorer and hunter all his life, thirty years having been in the service of the Smithsonian Institute. Even briefly recounted, his history sounds fabulous, almost grotesque.

"First, I would impress that the cavern is nearly inaccessible. The entrance is 1,486 feet down the sheer canyon wall. It is located on government land and no visitor will be allowed there under penalty of trespass. The scientists wish to work unmolested, without fear of archeological discoveries being disturbed by curio or relic hunters. A trip there would be fruitless, and the visitor would be sent on his way. The story of how I found the cavern has been related, but in a paragraph: I was journeying down the Colorado river in a boat, alone, looking for mineral. Some forty-two miles up the river from the El Tovar Crystal canyon, I saw on the east wall, stains in the sedimentary formation about 2,000 feet above the river bed. There was no trail to this point, but I finally reached it with great difficulty. Above a shelf which hid it from view from the river, was the mouth of the cave. There are steps leading from this entrance some thirty yards to what was, at the time the cavern was inhabited, the level of the river. When I saw the chisel marks on the wall inside the entrance, I became interested, securing my gun and went in. During that trip I went back several hundred feet along the main passage till I came to the crypt in which I discovered the mummies. One of these I stood up and photographed by flashlight. I gathered a number of relics, which I carried down the Colorado to Yuma, from whence I shipped them to Washington with details of the discovery. Following this, the explorations were undertaken.

The Passages 
"The main passageway is about 12 feet wide, narrowing to nine feet toward the farther end. About 57 feet from the entrance, the first side-passages branch off to the right and left, along which, on both sides, are a number of rooms about the size of ordinary living rooms of today, though some are 30 by 40 feet square. These are entered by oval-shaped doors and are ventilated by round air spaces through the walls into the passages. The walls are about three feet six inches in thickness. The passages are chiseled or hewn as straight as could be laid out by an engineer. The ceilings of many of the rooms converge to a center. The side-passages near the entrance run at a sharp angle from the main hall, but toward the rear they gradually reach a right angle in direction.

The Shrine 
"Over a hundred feet from the entrance is the cross-hall, several hundred feet long, in which are found the idol, or image, of the people's god, sitting cross-legged, with a lotus flower or lily in each hand. The cast of the face is oriental, and the carving this cavern. The idol almost resembles Buddha, though the scientists are not certain as to what religious worship it represents. Taking into consideration everything found thus far, it is possible that this worship most resembles the ancient people of Tibet. Surrounding this idol are smaller images, some very beautiful in form; others crooked-necked and distorted shapes, symbolical, probably, of good and evil. There are two large cactus with protruding arms, one on each side of the dais on which the god squats. All this is carved out of hard rock resembling marble. In the opposite corner of this cross-hall were found tools of all descriptions, made of copper. These people undoubtedly knew the lost art of hardening this metal, which has been sought by chemicals for centuries without result. On a bench running around the workroom was some charcoal and other material probably used in the process. There is also slag and stuff similar to matte, showing that these ancients smelted ores, but so far no trace of where or how this was done has been discovered, nor the origin of the ore.

"Among the other finds are vases or urns and cups of copper and gold, made very artistic in design. The pottery work includes enameled ware and glazed vessels. Another passageway leads to granaries such as are found in the oriental temples. They contain seeds of various kinds. One very large storehouse has not yet been entered, as it is twelve feet high and can be reached only from above. Two copper hooks extend on the edge, which indicates that some sort of ladder was attached. These granaries are rounded, as the materials of which they are constructed, I think, is a very hard cement. A gray metal is also found in this cavern, which puzzles the scientists, for its identity has not been established. It resembles platinum. Strewn promiscuously over the floor everywhere are what people call 'cats eyes,' a yellow stone of no great value. Each one is engraved with the head of the Malay type.

The Hieroglyphics 
"On all the urns, or walls over doorways , and tablets of stone which were found by the image are the mysterious hieroglyphics, the key to which the Smithsonian Institute hopes yet to discover. The engraving on the tables probably has something to do with the religion of the people. Similar hieroglyphics have been found in southern Arizona. Among the pictorial writings, only two animals are found. One is of prehistoric type.

The Crypt 
"The tomb or crypt in which the mummies were found is one of the largest of the chambers, the walls slanting back at an angle of about 35 degrees. On these are tiers of mummies, each one occupying a separate hewn shelf. At the head of each is a small bench, on which is found copper cups and pieces of broken swords. Some of the mummies are covered with clay, and all are wrapped in a bark fabric. The urns or cups on the lower tiers are crude, while as the higher shelves are reached, the urns are finer in design, showing a later stage of civilization. It is worthy of note that all the mummies examined so far have proved to be male, no children or females being buried here. This leads to the belief that this exterior section was the warriors' barracks.

"Among the discoveries no bones of animals have been found, no skins, no clothing, no bedding. Many of the rooms are bare but for water vessels. One room, about 40 by 700 feet, was probably the main dining hall, for cooking utensils are found here. What these people lived on is a problem, though it is presumed that they came south in the winter and farmed in the valleys, going back north in the summer. Upwards of 50,000 people could have lived in the caverns comfortably. One theory is that the present Indian tribes found in Arizona are descendants of the serfs or slaves of the people which inhabited the cave. Undoubtedly a good many thousands of years before the Christian era, a people lived here which reached a high stage of civilization. The chronology of human history is full of gaps. Professor Jordan is much enthused over the discoveries and believes that the find will prove of incalculable value in archeological work.

"One thing I have not spoken of, may be of interest. There is one chamber of the passageway to which is not ventilated, and when we approached it a deadly, snaky smell struck us. Our light would not penetrate the gloom, and until stronger ones are available we will not know what the chamber contains. Some say snakes, but others boo-hoo this idea and think it may contain a deadly gas or chemicals used by the ancients. No sounds are heard, but it smells snaky just the same. The whole underground installation gives one of shaky nerves the creeps. The gloom is like a weight on one's shoulders, and our flashlights and candles only make the darkness blacker. Imagination can revel in conjectures and ungodly daydreams back through the ages that have elapsed till the mind reels dizzily in space."

An Indian Legend 
In connection with this story, it is notable that among the Hopi Indians the tradition is told that their ancestors once lived in an underworld in the Grand Canyon till dissension arose between the good and the bad, the people of one heart and the people of two hearts. Machetto, who was their chief, counseled them to leave the underworld, but there was no way out. The chief then caused a tree to grow up and pierce the roof of the underworld, and then the people of one heart climbed out. They tarried by Paisisvai (Red River), which is the Colorado, and grew grain and corn.

They sent out a message to the Temple of the Sun, asking the blessing of peace, good will and rain for people of one heart. That messenger never returned, but today at the Hopi villages at sundown can be seen the old men of the tribe out on the housetops gazing toward the sun, looking for the messenger. When he returns, their lands and ancient dwelling place will be restored to them. That is the tradition.

Among the engravings of animals in the cave is seen the image of a heart over the spot where it is located. The legend was learned by W.E. Rollins, the artist, during a year spent with the Hopi Indians.

There are two theories of the origin of the Egyptians. One is that they came from Asia; another that the racial cradle was in the upper Nile region. Heeren, an Egyptologist, believed in the Indian origin of the Egyptians. The discoveries in the Grand Canyon may throw further light on human evolution and prehistoric ages. 


The incredible character of these discoveries is compounded by the fact that nothing has come of them since. The artifacts found by Kincaid have never surfaced, the cavern has never been rediscovered, and the Smithsonian disavows all knowledge of the expedition.  Everything related to the expedition seems to have disappeared from public record. Our only clue to this mystery is that the cave entrance was found on government land... Has the government of the United States restricted access to the site, and restricted the flow of information about what is contained therein? Was Kincaid's discovery so threatening to established ideas in archaeology in 1909 and since that they have been suppressed by the Smithsonian?

Or was the whole thing merely a newspaper hoax?

Hoaxes in American newspapers are a long and proud tradition. Edgar Allan Poe cut his teeth with The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall, a hoax about an expedition to the moon that was published in the June 1835 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe's hoax was upstaged by The Great Moon Hoax, published in six installments starting in the August 25, 1835 edition of the New York Sun. Both have been republished in Science Fiction of Antebellum America: An Anthology, edited by C.W. Gross.

Four Denver reporters - Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, and Hal Wilshire - sat around drinking one June afternoon when they dreamed up an idea for an article on how China was demolishing parts of the Great Wall for materials to build roads. The ensuing hoax was published in the Republican, Denver Times, Denver Post, and Rocky Mountain News on June 25, 1899, whereupon it was picked up by newspapers across the country.  

An April 1st article, circa 1845, in the Boston Post reported on the discovery of a cave filled with treasure. A string of articles in the St. Louis Evening Monitor starting on April 8, 1885, claimed that remnants of a lost civilization had been discovered beneath Moberly, Missouri. The April 1, 1888, edition of the San Diego Union reported on a pair of hunters who killed a half-human beast that had been responsible for a string of grisly murders. The astute observer will notice that these articles, and the 1909 Grand Canyon report, were all published towards the beginning of April, or on April 1st itself. 

The claims made by the article are themselves impossible to verify, which should give anyone pause... A cavern nobody can access, filled with artifacts that have since disappeared, discovered by an expedition that the Smithsonian has no record of, suppressed for vague and nonsensical reasons. The nature of a good conspiracy theory is such that it explains why there is no evidence to support it. A mysterious, shadowy They are suppressing all the evidence, for some reason, and the fact that we can't find any evidence is proof of how elaborate and deep the conspiracy runs.

A burro being packed for a desert ride, circa 1900. 

But there is also sufficient proof within the article itself to cast doubt upon it. For example, "G.E. Kincaid" from the first article seems to have become "G.E. Kinkaid" in the second. Furthermore, there is no evidence of anyone by that name ever having existed. Kincaid, or Kinkaid, is mentioned as hailing from Lewiston, Idaho, and has the distinction of being the first child of European descent to to have been born in the territory. On the contrary, the first white person born in Idaho was widely considered to be Eliza Spalding, daughter of missionaries Henry and Eliza Hart Spalding, who lived among the Nez Perce Native Americans  from 1836. For example, an 1884 history of the Idaho territory lists Spalding as the first white child born in the area. There are no further records of birth, education, employment, marriage, or death for Kincaid/Kinkaid, no other articles or documentation mentioning him, and no published papers by him.

Nor is there any record of a "Prof. S.A. Jordan" ever having existed or ever having worked for the Smithsonian (which is an institution, not an institute, as it is erroneously called in the Gazette article). If Jordan was ever born, educated, married, had children and descendants, worked anywhere, or had any published papers on any topic, it has all been expunged from history. Is this the result of a vast conspiracy to erase his existence, or did he simply not exist? Which is the more likely option?

Another clue is the nature of the artifacts they described as a cross between Tibetan Buddhism and Ancient Egyptian, complete with mummies and "Malay type" engravings. Those are very different, and very distant, things. Any qualified explorer, archaeologist, or anthropologist of 1909 would have been sufficiently educated to tell those things apart and better narrow down their conclusions. So why pick those two specific, but entirely incompatible, cultural aesthetics?

Left: The Great Buddha of Sahri Bahlol, excavated in 1909
Right: A black granite statue of Ramses II from a 1909 textbook.

The most evident answer is that if you were going to try to capture people's imaginations with ideas of lost, exotic cultures of antiquity, you'd pick reference points they've actually heard of. Namely: Ancient Egypt and Tibetan Buddhism. And there is precedent for this fascination with Orientalism in the Grand Canyon. When John Wesley Powell lead his scientific expedition down the Colorado River in 1869, his geologist Clarence Edward Dutton took the liberty of bestowing upon its peaks and promontories the names of mythology, history, and "exotic" religions: Vishnu Temple, Isis Temple, Brahma Temple, Jupiter Temple, Juno Temple, Krishna Shrine, Masonic Temple, Shiva Temple, Osiris Temple, Wotan's Throne, Walhalla Plateau, Zoroaster Temple, Buddha Temple, Tower of Ra, Tower of Set, Cheops Pyramid, Confucius Temple, Sheba Temple, Conquistador Aisle, Holy Grail Temple, King Arthur Castle, Guinevere Castle, Excalibur Ridge, Gawain Abyss, Merlin Abyss, Freya Castle, Thor Temple, Vulcan's Throne, Solomon Temple, The Tabernacle, Hindu Amphitheater, Ottoman Amphitheater, Montezuma Point, and so on (as well as grand names like Point Imperial and Point Sublime, and points named for local Indigenous tribes and people). Tibetan Buddhism and Ancient Egypt is an idiosyncratic mix that only makes sense in the context of strange, exotic, foreign things that the general public would have actually heard of. 

One finely-dressed lady attempts to jumpstart
her companion's burro, circa 1910.

Then there is the problem that there is no corroborating evidence anywhere. This Lost Civilization of the Grand Canyon would have arrived, stowed all evidence of their existence in an inaccessible cavern in this inhospitable valley, and never did anything else. Nowhere do we find Egypto-Buddhist artifacts anywhere in North America. With the exception of the Viking settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, nowhere is there archaeological evidence of anything but Indigenous, Native American societies in North America until Europeans arrived in the 1400s. 

Altogether, this leaves the Lost Civilizations of the Grand Canyon with two options: 1) a conspiracy so elaborate and far-reaching that it has successfully expunged the existence of entire people from the history books, or 2) a rather superficial hoax that wafts away on the slightest analysis.        

While there may be a romance to the idea that some ancient Egypto-Buddhist civilization arrived in North America in millennia past, it comes at a price. More fanciful flights with this conspiracy theory even suggest that this ancient civilization built the Grand Canyon. They compare the superficially pyramidal shape of the Grand Canyon's "temple" peaks with the Egyptian pyramids, and even take the name of Isis Temple or Osiris Temple at its word. After all, why could they possibly be named that unless that's what they actually were? It certainly couldn't have been a geographer's flight of fancy, could it? 

Though really, the similarities are just too obvious, aren't they?
One simply cannot image peaks naturally eroding in pointed mountains
that are stratified into layers of different kinds of rock contiguous with
the rock of the surrounding canyon walls.

The price this romance exacts is an injustice perpetrated by these fanciful conspiracy theories against the actual ancient civilizations of the Grand Canyon. Namely, the long tradition of the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai, Paiute, Yavapai-Apache, and Zuni peoples who have called the Grand Canyon home for thousands of years. Conspiracy theories about the Grand Canyon's Lost Civilizations ultimately act to further erase peoples who in recent history were dispossessed from these lands. 

A circa 1910 photo of an Indigenous person
overlooking their ancestral lands.


1 comment:

Norman Hugh Redington said...

This hoax was probably inspired by an actual event, the discovery of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado in 1888. The discovery was heavily publicised, and featured many similar similar elements: a forgotten but clearly advanced civilisation, caves, mummies, art treasures... The first scientific excavations were conducted in 1891 by the Swedish Academy of Sciences: the ranchers who made the discovery had tried to interest archaeologists at the Smithsonian, but they didn't show up until 1906. (Perhaps all their resources were tied up in top-secret excavations in the Grand Canyon!)

The 'Indian legend' at the end of the news-story is basically authentic, although the Hopi version asserts that all people, not just the Hopi, emerged from the underworld in the Grand Canyon. In some ways, the news-story is an Euhemeristic version of the pan-Puebloan origin myth, with a literal underground city replacing the underworld.