Category Archives: Nazi Germany

Herman Wirth and the Origins of Writing

Did our early human ancestors develop a  written “code” some 30,000 years ago or more, inscribing and painting cave walls with its enigmatic symbols?  This is the question posed by new research from Genevieve von Petzinger,  a recently graduated master’s student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and the subject of a fascinating new article in New Scientist.  What no one has mentioned so far, however,  is that the  idea of such an ancient script dates back to the nineteenth century and has a dark link to Nazi Germany.

First,  however,  let me summarize my understanding of von Petzinger’s very cool new research.  Struck by the profusion of little circles,  triangles,  lines and other marks on rock-art-covered cave walls dating to Paleolithic times,  von Petzinger created a massive database of all such recorded marks at 146 sites in France.  (No one else had apparently been willing to undertake this seemingly thankless task, so full marks to von Petzinger.)  The sites  ranged in age from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In analyzing this new database with her thesis advisor April Nowell,  von Petzinger noticed that cave artists had repeated 26 different signs–including circles and triangles–over and over again. The artists had also used a kind of visual shorthand–inscribing just mammoth tusks instead of a whole mammoth, for example–which is common in pictographic languages.   Moreover,  in some caves,  von Petzinger discovered pairs of signs,  a type of grouping that characterizes early pictorial language.

This all sounds exceedingly interesting,  though I am waiting to see the paper that the pair has just submitted to Antiquity. But I feel obliged to point out that the idea of a very early system of written symbols was strongly championed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s by Herman Wirth,  one of the most controversial prehistorians in Europe and the first president of the Nazi research institute founded by SS head Heinrich Himmler.   (This institute was the subject of my last book,  The Master Plan:  Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.  In it,  I wrote two full chapters on Wirth and his research. )

Wirth,  who had a Ph.D in philology,  was a man of great personal charm and many bizarre ideas.  He became convinced that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic race had evolved in the Arctic,  where it developed a sophisticated civilization complete with the world’s first writing system.  Furthermore, he proposed that Plato’s description of Atlantis and its demise was in fact an accurate account of the catastrophe that befell the Nordic civilization on an Arctic  island.

According to Wirth,  the Nordic refugees from this  disaster escaped to northern Europe,  bringing with them their ancient writing system,  an invention that later diffused to cultures around the world.   So Wirth spent years poring over ancient European rock art, searching for evidence of this system and recording examples of circles,  disks and wheels that he believed were ancient Nordic ideograms symbolizing the sun,  the annual cycle of life,  and so on.

I found Wirth’s ideas about an ancient master race and an Arctic Atlantis preposterous.  Indeed,  they would have been laughable  had it not been for the fact that Himmler,  the architect of the Final Solution,  used Wirth’s published works  to lend credence to the official Nazi line on the Aryan master race,  and that Wirth, who died in 1981,  still has many avid followers in Germany and Austria today. Indeed,  I  interviewed one of his ardent supporters.

I think that von Petzinger’s new research on Paleolithic symbols sounds immensely intriguing.  It certainly fits with our growing awareness of the abilities of our human ancestors.  Moreover,  I  want to state clearly that the Canadian researcher did not for a moment come under the influence of Herman Wirth and his ideas.  Indeed, she proposes that the ancient sign language may have originated in Africa and arrived in Europe with modern humans–a proposal that would have horrified Wirth.

Nevertheless,  I think it’s  important to point out the troubled history of the idea of an ancient European script recorded in rock art.    We cannot afford to forget in any way the Nazi past.

Today’s photo shows a plaster cast that Wirth made in the late 1930s of Bronze-Age rock art in Sweden.  I photographed this cast in 2002 as it hung in a museum in a small Austrian town, Spital am Pyhrn.  At the time,  Wirth’s casts were clandestine Nazi memorials.

Politics, Science and the Cloning of Neanderthals

As some of you will know,  I posted yesterday on the ethics of cloning a Neanderthal,  a subject I have been thinking about after reading an article Zach Zorich wrote for Archaeology magazine. Today Zach left a thoughtful response in the comments section of that post,  raising a number of key points.  I’d like to reply.

But first let me briefly summarize  Zach’s remarks. He notes that all the researchers he interviewed for the piece are well aware of the ethical dilemmas of such cloning and that each had given serious thought to these matters–even though such clones are clearly somewhere off in the future.

Then Zach took exception to the comparison I made between the science of creating a Neanderthal clone and Stalin’s desire to fabricate an army of “humanzees”,  human-chimpanzee hybrids.   As Zach points out, “this isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination.”  Cloning research, he points out, is part and parcel of a larger picture of legitimate medical research,  and any heavy-handed legislation to prevent Neanderthal cloning could wreak havoc with projects designed to extend and protect human life.

I see Zach’s points here, and I share his concerns about heavy-handed legislation.  I’d hate to see a law block an entire line of desperately needed medical research.  But having said that,  I still can’t shake off my anxiety about what could happen further down the road if and when science is indeed capable of cloning a Neanderthal.

Even well-meaning scientists, after all,  are unable to foresee all the consequences of their research,  as some have discovered to their rue.   In the 1960s,  for example, Norwegian researchers developed a new and very lucrative technology for ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon.  So great were the profit margins that a bedazzled Canadian government agreed to permit the same technology–with the same fish–on the British Columbia coast.  Large corporations began farming Atlantic salmon in pens off the British Columbia coast in 1984, leading to the escape of tens of thousands of these alien fish into the  Pacific Ocean.  Today Atlantic salmon gobble up wild food and threaten native salmon species.

So even when guided by the best of all possible intentions,  scientists can create futures they never envisioned.  And it seems to me that when the stakes include the creation of another of our close human relatives that we need to exercise extra special care.  I think that means taking  into account worse -case scenarios, even one as dire as the intentional creation of Neanderthal clones by a malevolent political regime for the purpose of slave labor.

As Zach notes in his comments (and  I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I know Zach and that he is my editor at Archaeology), my worst-case scenarios do indeed draw on the research I did for my book on Hitler’s archaeologists.  In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly during my four years of research and writing on the book was how terribly susceptible science is to political influence.

Most scientists need laboratories,  expensive research equipment,  and academic appointments  in order to pursue their research.  Corrupt regimes know this and they reward pliable scientists with prestigious jobs and ample research funds.  Conversely, they weed out their opponents from universities and cut off their research funding.  In Nazi Germany,  these simple strategies convinced many scientists to pursue lines of state-approved racial research that they would probably have never considered otherwise.   It could certainly happen again.

All this is to say I’m very uneasy with where this cloning research might lead us in the years to come.  I’d like to see legislators at the UN draw a line in the sand.  Cloning research for medical purposes is an important pursuit.  I’m all in favor of it.   But we should never allow cloning experiments to create Neanderthals.


The Architecture of Quarantine

Image courtesy of Richard Nickel Jr/The Kingston Lounge

I recently came across a series of remarkable photographs that have given me pause for serious thought. The images are the work of a guerilla preservationist and urban archaeologist, Richard Nickel Jr., and they capture in haunting detail the current state of a place once known as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum in Milledgeville,  Georgia. What struck me immediately was how much these institutional corridors and claustrophobic rooms resembled the architecture I had seen at Dachau  concentration camp in Germany.

Dachau was the first concentration camp that the Nazi government built in Germany,  and it was constructed to isolate those who could not,  according to a German government press release issued on March 21, 1933,  be housed “in normal state prisons.”   Moreover,  its prisoners could not be released back into the general population because,  and again I’m quoting here from the 1933 press release, “they continue to agitate and create unrest when released.”  In other words,  Dachau was designed as a quarantine facility.

And who needed such quarantining?  Adolf Hitler had a very specific population in mind.  In Mein Kampf,  he likened a Jewish person to a type of germ–“a noxious bacillus [that] keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him.   And the effect of his existence is also like that of spongers; wherever he appears,  the host people dies out after a shorter or longer period of time.”   This hideous racism led directly to the death of six million European Jews.

Facilities such as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum were also clearly designed as places of quarantine,  isolating people with a wide range mental health issues (including the emotional trauma that resulted from sexual abuse and incest) from the general population. And many of the  inmates in these facilities perished far from the public eye.    Some historians suggest that 30,000 people lie buried today at the old Georgia  asylum,  an astonishing figure in my view.   This cemetery is,  according to one paper I read, the largest graveyard  in the world for people with mental issues.

How did so many people come to die in this institution?  Some historians cite rampant epidemics of typhoid and other infectious diseases.  This is may well be true.   But I personally think this is a tragic history that needs further exploring.

For further information on the history of Dachau,  see Barbara Distel and Ruth Jakusch (ed.), Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945 (Comite International de Dachau, Brussels: Munich, 1978.)