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.