The Museum of Hoaxes
hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive
   
Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014
The Walam Olum of Constantine Rafinesque

Constantine Rafinesque
Constantine S. Rafinesque (1773-1840) was a naturalist who emigrated to America from Europe in 1815. He studied descriptive zoology, botany, and meteorology. In 1836 he produced a document he called the Walam Olum, claiming it was an ancient text written on birch bark by early Lenape (Delaware) indians that he had been able to translate into English.

The document, which described the peopling of North America, was long considered to be authentic and historically important. It was not until 1996 that the researcher David Oestreicher exposed it as a hoax. Based on an examination of Rafinesque's papers, Oestreicher concluded that Rafinesque had first translated the text from English into Lenape, rather than from Lenape into English, meaning that the Lenape document was a forgery.

The reason Rafinesque created this hoax, Oestreicher argued, was partly out of a desire for fame and recognition. Rafinesque may also have been inspired by Joseph Smith's then recent translation of the Mormon Bible from golden tablets inscribed with ancient Egyptian which he claimed to have found in upstate New York. Rafinesque had publicly denounced the Mormon Bible as a hoax, but viewing its success, he may either have decided to attempt something similar himself, or he may have been trying to cast doubt on the Mormon assertion that Native Americans had descended from Hebrew tribes.

Links and References
  • Walam Olum. Wikipedia.
  • David M. Oestreicher, "Unraveling the Walam Olum," Natural History, October 1996, 14-21.
Linguistic19th-Century Hoaxes (1800-1850)AnthropologyScientific Fraud


Submit a Comment

Note: Comments by non-members are all checked by a moderator before appearing on the site. This may take a while.











All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.