The Field Book Project has reserved Halloween for a Collection Highlight on Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a man whose field notes, life and death are full of treats and quite possibly even a few tricks. A man such as Rafinesque, however, really can’t be summed up in one article, so here is a sneak peak at the man and his collection. Be sure to read Part Two on Halloween Day!
Published before 1923 and public domain in the US. Retrieved October 25, 2011 from Wikimedia Commons.
The Hoax that Spanned Two Centuries
It was not until 1995 that Constantine Samuel Rafinesque’s translation of a Lenape or Delaware Indian text called “Walum Olum” (published in The American Nations (1836)) was generally accepted by scholars as a hoax. Walum Olum, the original of which Rafinesque claimed was lost, supposedly recorded the history of the Lenape crossing the Bering Strait to enter the Americas. Although subsequent research disproved many of the claims made in Walum Olum, the text was still thought to be legitimate for the rest of the 19th Century and most of the 20th Century. To confuse matters further, there are resources (for example this webpage) that claim some Lenape believe Rafinesque’s translations are based on authentic Lenape mythology.
Rafinesque was a self-taught naturalist who was widely regarded by the established American scientific community as an eccentric and by some as a charlatan. This rejection must have been frustrating for Rafinesque; as next week’s article will discuss, he was a brilliant man who more contemporary scientists have come to recognize for his field work and avant-garde thinking. It is ironic that one of his few successes during his lifetime should turn out to be fraudulent.
Why would Rafinesque attempt such a hoax? According to this article in Archeology: A Publication of the Archeological Institute of America, Rafinesque may have had several motivations: 1) profit from the book’s success (he was often in debt), 2) in response to the popularity of the Book of Mormon, which Rafinesque viewed as a hoax, 3) promotion of his own theories that Native Americans originated from Asia, and 4) in response to what Rafinesque viewed as ridiculous claims in Josiah Priest’s “American Antiquities (1833)”.
|Comparitive word lists of an "Eskimo" (Inuit) language and Greenlandic. SIA RU007250. Click to see more detail.
To his credit Rafinesque was a talented linguist, and during his tenure as a professor at Transylvania University, taught languages as well as natural history. There is evidence in Rafinesque’s natural history field notes, too, of his propensity toward linguistics. One of Rafinesque’s field books includes notes on Native American languages. It appears his intention was to compare languages or dialects of Native Americans throughout North America by identifying similarities across word lists. The language table he outlined in his field book is mostly incomplete, but word list comparisons of a few languages were recorded. For example, on the first page of the table there is a list of words in an Eskimo language and in Greenlandic. As far as I know, Walum Olum is the only known Rafinesque hoax. Although I hold Rafinesque in high regard, I recognize that it can be wise to take anything related to him with a grain of salt. As you will see on October 31st, it’s difficult at times to separate the man from the myth.