Pseudohistory and anti-intellectualism: Why it sometimes sucks to be a historian

“Extraordinary claims require extraorinary evidence.” (Carl Sagan)


Sometimes, being a historian sucks.

This weekend, a book purporting to reveal a secret history of pre-Maori colonisation of New Zealand will will hit the shelves of major bookstores. Titled To the End of the Earth, its authors claim to have discovered evidence that explorers from Greece, Spain and Egypt settled here thousands of years before the arrival of Maori.

Nonsense, you say? I agree wholeheartedly. The problem, however, is that many people gobble up this kind of populist, pseudohistorical nonsense like the latest episode of American Idol. The comments section of a stuff article discussing the book’s release is testament to that fact; riddled with conspiratorial outrage and anti-intellectual high-fives, it’s enough to make the average historian cry.

Why? Because the claim that the arrival of Maori in New Zealand was predated by an earlier civilisation has been thoroughly discredited by dozens of historians, archaeologists, ethnologists and anthropologists, including H. D. Skinner, Ruger Duff, Arthur Thomson, Keith Sincialr, Michael King, James Belich, K. R. Howe, and more recently Paul Moon, Atholl Anderson, Scott Hamilton, Matthew Dentith, and David Riddell. Yet the notion of pre-Maori colonisation persists, like a tick burrowing its way into the nation’s public consciousness.

I’ve decided not to bother engaging with this kind of nonsense for two very good reasons. Firstly, it’s not my area of expertise; there are far more knowledgeable academics who have, and will continue, to pour scorn on it. But more importantly, engaging with it on an academic level provides it with a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Instead, I’d like to contextualise it by outlining the ongoing discourse of anti-Treatyist literature that it falls within. I will also compare this literature to its far more virulent cousin, the Australian History Wars, and demonstrate why it is so important for academics to ignore these kinds of pseudohistorical challenges.

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