Exploring Kincaid's Cave
The year was 1909, and the finer folk were settling into their comfy chairs for the morning newspaper and coffee. But today's report told about something completely new: it was the discovery of a magnificent cave in the Grand Canyon, but quite unlike any of the Native American domiciles already discovered. This one was vast, but vast on a scale that can scarcely be imagined. In the several hundred interconnected chambers discovered so far, scientists estimated 50,000 people could have lived. Its discoverer was explorer G. E. Kincaid (sometimes spelled Kinkaid), a scout for the Smithsonian for the past thirty years. Today we're going to check in on this cave, a century later, and see how the exploration is going.
According to the Arizona Gazette newspaper article that broke the story, the work was under the direction of Prof. S. A. Jordan of the Smithsonian, and was being expanded to a team of some 30 to 40 archaeologists. The cavern was:
The riches found within were fabulous:
And also dangers, reminiscent of the day's best pulp fiction:
So should we go try and find this cave? Don't bother, Kincaid advised:
Based on the hieroglyphics found throughout the caverns, and many of its relics, Jordan's team concluded the residents were Egyptians. Egyptians, in the southwestern United States.
The explanation of this story can, at first glance, seem like a tremendous disappointment: There was no G. E. Kincaid, there was no Prof. S. A. Jordan, there was no marvelous cave. Not a shred of evidence has ever supported the existence of any person or thing in the article. The tale was the purely fictional invention of the anonymous writer who concocted it to gild his pages of the Arizona Gazette. In response to an inquiry, the Smithsonian wrote to one researcher:
For those needing a bit of extra confirmation that the newspaper story is likely untrue, I point to two examples. First, if the apocryphal Kincaid had actually been in the employ of the Smithsonian for thirty years, he would likely have known that its correct name is Smithsonian Institution, not Smithsonian Institute, as given in the article. Second, he described the cave entrance as:
Though no canyons bear such a name, El Tovar is the name of the popular South Rim lodge that opened shortly before the article was published. And 42 miles upriver from there, 1486 + 2000 is indeed a reasonable approximation of the canyon's depth. Most of that was carved in the past 1.2 million years. As brief as that sounds geologically, it's six times older than the first anatomically modern humans in Africa. That people skilled in metallurgy, using modern Asian imagery, and capable of excavating millions of tons of rock, lived there at river level at the time, seems improbable by any number of measures.
But I would argue that this is neither a disappointment, nor is it the end of the story -- it could only be seen as such by those who insist that it must be simply a literal historical account. I argue that as a piece of American folklore, it is a work of exquisite elegance; dovetailing into the popular fiction of its day with a craftsman's precision, and composing a marvelous puzzle box of historical documentary research.
The era has been called "the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction". Popular magazines such as Argosy published westerns, romances, science fiction, and high adventure by authors such as H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs in the model of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Google for an old issue, and enjoy the tales of lost treasures, archaeological mysteries, and adventurous explorers just like our Kincaid.
As an illustration of the popularity of bizarre archaeological wonders in popular fiction, we can see the example written by Mark Twain for the newspaper the Territorial Enterprise in 1862. He wrote the entirely fictional account of "A petrified man... found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford." To hint that his account was satirical, he had the stone man thumbing his nose; and noted that "Everybody goes to see the stone man, as many as three hundred having visited the hardened creature during the past five or six weeks."
Thirteen years later he published an account of the hoax in his book Sketches New and Old, in which he expressed his frustration at being unable to write a satirical account of an archaeological wonder because the general public believed every word of all such stories, published anywhere:
This was not just enthusiasm on the part of the public. In 1869 businessman George Hull created the Cardiff Giant hoax, a 3-meter stone man that he had carved but claimed to have unearthed. He created it in part to appeal to Biblical literalists who cited Genesis 6:4, "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days," referring to a race of giants. Some Christians, even after having been told the Cardiff Giant was a hoax, continued to promote its authenticity as an act of evangelism.
Even more than 60 years after the Cardiff giant, the public remained rabid for lost underground civilizations. In episode 46, we talked about the labyrinthine city of the "Lizard People" claimed to be underneath Los Angeles; and during those intervening years, at least two books were published revealing the subterranean city of a mythical race called the Lemurians inside California's Mount Shasta. And these are only a few examples among many. So we can scarcely act surprised to learn of yet another iteration of the same basic story in 1909, the remains of an ancient civilization living in tunnels beneath some famous American landmark. It could be argued that it would be more surprising if someone hadn't invented this tale.
Now that we're in the 21st century we can look back on this period of American history and see it in its full context. These stories were not just isolated pranks or whimsies in regional newspapers, not even fads or trends; but were emblematic of much broader cultural currents. The American Romanticism and Transcendentalism movements were at full bore, rejecting the corruption of modern society and yearning for the perceived purity of ancient Eastern cultures, of which Egyptian and Tibetan were among the most revered. Howard Carter would not discover Tutankhamen's tomb for another thirteen years; but at the time of the Arizona Gazette article, there were already celebrity Egyptologists trumpeting news of the Valley of the Kings to the West. Besides Carter, Theodore Davis and Edward Ayrton were household names, delighting American audiences with traveling exhibitions of marvels from the enlightened ancient East. This syncretism of petrified ancient Americans, primeval natural wonders, and the romanticized view of Eastern mysticism was very much influenced by the neopagan and New Thought manias that were sweeping America at the turn of the twentieth century. It was no less unexpected for a newspaper to report an Egyptian find in Arizona then, as it is for one of today's Hollywood celebrities to tout the benefits of an organic detox today.
When viewed within its proper historical context, the inevitability of a claimed Egyptian tomb underneath a popular American landmark like the Grand Canyon cannot be overstated.
So when we proceed to investigate the historicity of Kincaid's Cave, it is not with a misguided expectation of simple fact vs. fiction, but with a zeal for context. What treasure might be found is not golden urns in a cave, but insight into why and how Americans were so eager for such a story, and eager to please one another by concocting it.
Today, a few online communities persist at belief in the cave's literal reality, generally echoing the same overtones of conspiracy mongering that we've grown accustomed to hearing from alternative historians. In their view, official channels have covered up the evidence of Kincaid's cave to protect some orthodox view of human history. In fact this would be a bizarre thing for archaeologists to do, as any actual such discovery would make a scientist's entire career.
So enjoy your pulp fiction and its cultural context, and don't get too caught up in any need you may feel to regard it as factual. Considering the trends of the day, my suspicion is that the Arizona Gazette's unknown weaver of high adventure tales would be far happier if you enjoyed his story for what it is, than if you instead dismissed his creativity and mistook it for bookkeeping.
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