What did the history books get wrong?
December 17, 2012 3:44 AM   Subscribe

What facts about history did people once believe, only to have them later discredited? I'm looking for cases where historians changed their opinion about concrete facts ("It turns out George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree") or about cause and effect ("Maybe the French Revolution wasn't just caused by the rise of the Middle Class.") I'm NOT looking for cases where historians re-evaluated their ethical judgments ("Maybe it wasn't so cool that the Founding Fathers owned slaves.")
posted by yankeefog to Society & Culture (51 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this one was ever formally acknowledged by historians or was merely a longstanding belief influenced by cultural tradition, but slaves didn't build the Pyramids of Giza.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:20 AM on December 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

Benedict Arnold's legacy is undergoing something of a rehabilitation. Specifically, against the common view that he was just a meritless traitor who betrayed America.

More recently, you see much more nuanced debate around his earlier heroics and leadership, and why he became disaffected with what became the leadership of the newly independent America. You also see more recognition that early in the war Arnold's actions secured the support of the French, and, ultimately, set in motion a chain of events that would lead to America's independence.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:24 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

[Comment deleted; OP is really looking for specifics as opposed to relativism, or how future historians might view current/recent events.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:44 AM on December 17, 2012

I don't have a link handy, but the BBC series "Ancient Inventions" covers the subject of the legendary city of Atlantis - believed to be just a myth, with evidence that such a city did exist and Greek (?) traders had contact with the island.
posted by MinusCelsius at 5:35 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

If more archaeological examples are acceptable, here are a few:

In the early 1900s most educated people thought Native Americans had not been in the Americas for very long. Some thought a few hundred years while others thought 2-4,000 years. The investigation of the Folsom site by archaeologists in the 1920s provided evidence that humans were here during the last Ice Age, and therefore were here at least 10-12,000 years.

Throughout much of the 1900s, academics thought that the Norse colonization of the North Atlantic had not made it much further than Greenland and had certainly not made it to the Americas. The Norse saga makes references to places called Markland and Vinland. A few throught these could be references to North America, and the majority thought these were probably fanciful and unreliable accounts. The discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows changed all of that and proved the Norse made it at least as far as Newfoundland.

Only a fringe few in the academic community have thought it likely that Polynesians made it to the Americas in PreColumbian times. The recent discovery of chicken bones in 15th century archaeological deposits in Chile that were genetically linked to Polynesian chickens has provided new evidence. Along with the movement of sweet potatoes, and the word for sweet potatoes, from South America to Polynesia, it means that this contact is now viewed much more favorably. A recent scholarly book looks at the debate.
posted by Tallguy at 5:38 AM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Are you looking for science based ones as well? Because there is a ton of those. The widely held belief that the world is flat, for example. Or that the sun orbits the earth. Or that boats could sail off the edge of the world.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:39 AM on December 17, 2012

It happens constantly. As new evidence is presented, old theories are challenged. New ideas can compliment existing ones in complex chains of causality, or replace them entirely.

There's been ongoing debate about the first European in North America, and these days the prize definitively goes to the Scandinavians. There've been interesting things coming up about how humanity spread out of Africa, which is in itself occasionally contested theory... though rarely credibly contested these days, the ball is pretty solidly in Africa's court. (A lot of that comes out of anthropology, but I get the feeling that you're not strictly talking about academic history.) The black plague was probably not bubonic, and the witch hysteria in salem is certainly not explainable on the back of ergot poisoning.

I mean honestly, listing these is kind of silly. You can brainstorm up a few dozen if you try. Think about what social movements have brought about, and what the waning influence of religion in the western academy has done.

There's a lot of room for debate in the field of academic history. It's built upon theory, hypothesis , and evidence, and research means constant upheaval. Does it make it to the pop-culture level so that people will know about it? Yes, with varying speed.
posted by Stagger Lee at 5:40 AM on December 17, 2012

I don't know about the causes of the French Revolution, but there has been a great deal of revision regarding the causes (and nature) of the English Revolution English Civil War, moving away from a class-based analysis (which began with Marx but was the mainstream for the mid20th century) for which the evidence isn't strong to looking a religious and political causes (again).

But also: if you want smaller examples, just about every History PhD will have some revision of fact or cause, since they are required to have new material or interpretation.
posted by jb at 5:45 AM on December 17, 2012

Are you looking for science based ones as well? Because there is a ton of those. The widely held belief that the world is flat, for example.

Speaking of which, there's also a persistent historic myth that "Columbus proved the world is round". But it isn't so - most people in Columbus' time knew that already. The whole notion of "Columbus proving the world was round" can be traced back to a kids' book Washington Irving wrote.

There's also been some very colorful historic tall tales concerning how Ireland got populated - people believed everything from giants to ancient Greeks to Egyptians - until we'd done sufficient archeological research on the Celts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:47 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The First Thanksgiving?
posted by Blake at 6:01 AM on December 17, 2012

I promise not to thread-sit, but just to clarify: Tallguy, archeological answers are absolutely acceptable.

Puppet McSockerson, I'm really looking for beliefs about history. So, "Columbus thought the world was flat, but he was wrong" wouldn't fit, because it describes Columbus's beliefs about his contemporary world. However, EmpressCallipygos's example ("People in the 19th century thought Columbus thought the world was flat, but they were wrong") IS what I'm looking for, since it has to do with 19th century readers' beliefs about the past.

Thanks for all the great answers, folks. (Even the ones that think it's a silly question.) Keep 'em coming!
posted by yankeefog at 6:09 AM on December 17, 2012

See also this previously: Help disabuse me of some historical falsehoods.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:13 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Science showed the earth revolved around the sun and the planet was round. The moon missions gave us photographs that prove it conclusively.
posted by infini at 6:18 AM on December 17, 2012

The theory of evolution, especially when they found archaeological evidence of early hominids.

On my phone so not going into detail, but the theory of plate tectonics and cause of it. First was the discovery plates move, then there were wrong suppositions about the cause (but they were beliefs held for a while), then they figured out why.

At Yellowstone Park, grand prismatic lake was believed to be showing the colors because of sunlight reflecting through the water like a prism. The colors were later discovered to be caused by bacteria that can live in extreme conditions.

A literary example. Anne Frank's diary is usually thought of as raw material. In fact, she intended it for publication and was rewriting an edited version. She didn't finish before she was captured. When the pages were recovered after the war, her father (I believe) completed the editing she began.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:28 AM on December 17, 2012

Early Medieval history is full of these! Though given the source material there's probably someone somewhere who can still argue in favour of these statements, the mainstream has refuted them.

- The Pictish kingship was matrilineal (No, passed in the male line to a strong successor, likely a brother)
- The Pictish language was non-Indo-European (No, place-names suggest Brythonic)
- A particularly weird 19th century one, not terribly widespread but genuinely believed by some was that the Picts remained as a relic population in Scotland, small and living in the countryside, which gave rise to stories of pixies. (Just... no. But it did eventually give us the Nac Mac Feegle).
- Alfred the Great was thought of as, well, Great (He didn't get the epithet 'great' until the 16th century. He wasn't thought of as a bad king, just not as standout as we think of him).
- Vikings ripped people's lungs out as a 'blood eagle' sacrifice (No, later writers just didn't understand a kenning when they saw one)
posted by Coobeastie at 6:31 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Romulus and Remus story (founding of Rome) may fit in here. I say "may" because "Romulus" is clearly one of those made-up names of legend, and the story is very much on the level of George Washington and the cherry tree. So you would think most people only half-believed it all along. Yet at the same time, you still see news articles about people saying they found the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf.
posted by BibiRose at 6:32 AM on December 17, 2012

It turns out that most of the history books describing the Battle of Waterloo got it badly wrong. About 30 years ago David Hamilton-Williams decided to write yet another history of the battle, and instead of basing his book on previous history books, he went to collections all over Europe to examine primary sources.

And he found that they didn't seem to be describing the battle he thought he knew. So he investigated why, and found out the answer. It's all explained in a large chapter in his book.

All the incorrect histories were based on a single book by Captain William Siborne. When he wrote it, he was deeply in debt. In order to placate his creditors (many of whom were at the battle), he deliberately changed the story to make them seem more heroic and important.

The single most important thing Hamilton-Williams discovered was how the battle ended. It turns out that the Prussian I Corps managed to break the French line, and began fanning out to both sides to roll up the French. That was when the rout happened.

The French Old Guard routed because they were at risk of being attacked in rear by Prussian Cavalry, who had moved through the breach in the French Line.

Siborne completely omitted that event, and every history book since then before Hamilton-Williams was based on Siborne's telling of the story.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:52 AM on December 17, 2012 [12 favorites]

the theory of plate tectonics and cause of it.

Along this line and previously mentioned on MeFi a few times, Annals of the Former World by John McPhee, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1998, is (among other things) intended to be a study of several key geologists mid-discovery, so to speak, of the plate tectonics theory. Until reading it I honestly hadn't realized how recent our modern understanding of plate tectonics and geology is. It's a great example of how numerous previously accepted ideas about geology were turned on their head within the space of a generation.
posted by flug at 6:58 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, meant to link:

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee: wiki, Amazon
posted by flug at 7:13 AM on December 17, 2012

In the early 1900s most educated people thought Native Americans had not been in the Americas for very long. Some thought a few hundred years while others thought 2-4,000 years. The investigation of the Folsom site by archaeologists in the 1920s provided evidence that humans were here during the last Ice Age, and therefore were here at least 10-12,000 years.

But not all humans in pre-Columbian North America were Native Americans. As a related point, people thought that Native Americans were the first/only ones in North America. The discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996, skeletal remains dating to c. 7500 BC of a man who was definitely not Native American, changed that and annoyed a few NA tribes in the process
posted by Tanizaki at 7:38 AM on December 17, 2012

the discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996, skeletal remains dating to c. 7500 BC of a man who was definitely not Native American, changed that and annoyed a few NA tribes in the process

Except that there is no evidence that Kennewick Man was not Native American, except unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

Native Americans were the first people in North America - that's what defines "Native American" (aka people here before colonization). The only other pre-Columbian population that we have any evidence for is the short-lived Norse settlement on Newfoundland and the slightly longer one in Greenland.
posted by jb at 7:48 AM on December 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

also see Lies My Teacher Told Me.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 7:53 AM on December 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

(High school history teacher here!)

Chastity belts are a 19th-Century myth, not a medieval custom. They simply didn't happen.

"Right of the First Night" is also a complete myth. (It figures prominently in the film "Braveheart," which is overwhelmingly just made up.)

Also worth remembering: "Feudalism" is a very broad umbrella term used to generalize relationships between lords and vassals. You will not likely find any individual monarchy or nation that practiced it in a manner closely aligned with what our history books describe. Everyone had their idiosyncrasies. Nobody living in a "feudal" society would have known what the hell "feudalism" was.

Something more modern: US History textbooks (in America, anyway) will generally say that the US entered WW I because of the Lusitania, the Zimmerman Note and to generally safeguard democracy. Many historians, however, will point out that American banks and other interests had lent Britain and France an awful lot of money, and that the US was motivated mostly by a desire to secure said investments.

High school history textbooks are awful. They are generally written to please as many special-interest groups as possible. The ratio of text to pictures and the complexity of concepts and vocabulary swings with the prevailing moods of pedagogical theory. They can be used as a starting point--much like Wikipedia--but in the end, they are not to be trusted.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:28 AM on December 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

Also: In broad brush strokes, most books (and teachers) will tell you that the Russian winter was what destroyed Napoleon's army. While the terrible effects of weather surely had a significant impact, I could recommend a great book making a very solid case that typhus, not winter nor Russian soldiers, did most of the work in destroying that army.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Piltdown Man.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:34 AM on December 17, 2012

Also, at the risk of going out of bounds with your question (or telling you something you already know): Americans love to talk about WW II and pat themselves on the back for having defeated the Nazis and saved the world from Hitler. While it's indisputable that the US played a major role in all this, and that it's hard to imagine things turning out well without US involvement... the raw numbers will bear out that the Soviet Union did the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to "who defeated the Nazis." They bore the largest share of casualties, absorbed the largest share of Germany's attention and inflicted the largest share of losses.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:36 AM on December 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Steady State theory had a lot of heavy hitters in astrophysics backing it - this was the theory that the universe had neither beginning nor end, and that as the universe expanded, matter was being created to fill it. It wasn't until observational evidence from radioastronomy arrived that the Big Bang theory went from an odd also-ran to generally accepted as mainstream, and Steady State became (almost) completely discredited.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:37 AM on December 17, 2012

"Right of the First Night" is also a complete myth. (It figures prominently in the film "Braveheart," which is overwhelmingly just made up.)

I once heard a medieval history professor (whose expertise was peasant servitude and serfdom) discuss this (any errors are due to my swiss cheese brain) -- and he pointed out that if "droit du seigneur" were a legal right, we would have LOTS of sources from the Church complaining about it (they really didn't like sex, even in marriage, and certainly would not have stood silence against any law/custom that broke marriage vows like that). We do have sources mentioning it, but they are all from peasant rebellions, etc, and are (like Braveheart) scary myths of how terrible aristocrats could be. That's not to say that sexual assault by nobles didn't happen, of course, but it wasn't legal -- and the stories of it are very much like the Church's own stories of heretics (whether medieval Free Spirit or early modern Anabaptists) having sex on altars - it's basically the most terrible thing that people could think of.
posted by jb at 8:37 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ooh, the mention of Braveheart reminded me of a book that may be a fun tangent for you - Past Imperfect, which is a collection of movie reviews written by historians. There are about 60 different films about historical events covered, each by a different scholar who lays out "here's what really happened, and here's what the movie says happened". Sometimes they also get into "and here's what was happening when they made the film, which influenced how they told the story". Some films have done a lot to spread the kinds of misconceptions you're talking about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:52 AM on December 17, 2012 [10 favorites]

Throughout much of the 1900s, academics thought that the Norse colonization of the North Atlantic had not made it much further than Greenland and had certainly not made it to the Americas. The Norse saga makes references to places called Markland and Vinland. A few throught these could be references to North America, and the majority thought these were probably fanciful and unreliable accounts. The discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows changed all of that and proved the Norse made it at least as far as Newfoundland.
Although I can't speak to how many disbelieved it, by the late 1800s there certainly was a strong contingent of historians who thought the Norse had travelled to North America, and they had no doubt about it. The theory was thought respectable enough for the Oxford University Press to publish.
posted by Jehan at 9:23 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

People have long been mixed up about or have seriously debated all kinds of things in history - check out this thread about the KKK from yesterday, for some examples.

Heck, the number of Civil War myths generally accepted by at least some significant portion of the population is enough to devote the life's work of many academics to; a search on Amazon turns up so many different books I'm not going to link to any of them, though Shelby Foote loved to pull up random myths and prove they were wrong throughout his works. Lots of people did this over the course of the ninety-five-gazillion-hour-long Civil War documentary by Ken Burns. Which, OH NO, is available for free streaming on Amazon Prime, and there went the rest of the month for me.

Anyway, enjoy History's Greatest Lies after you finish Lies My Teacher Told Me.
posted by SMPA at 9:41 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Except that there is no evidence that Kennewick Man was not Native American, except unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

"No evidence" is certainly not accurate. I do not consider the head of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Division of Physical Anthropology to be a dealer in unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. You also may recalled the Ninth Circuit's ruling that, "The administrative record contains no evidence—let alone substantial evidence—that Kennewick Man’s remains are connected by some special or significant genetic or cultural relationship to any presently existing indigenous tribe, people, or culture. An examination of the record demonstrates the absence of evidence that Kennewick Man and modern tribes share significant genetic or cultural features...Later testing by scientists demonstrated that the cranial measurements and features of Kennewick Man most closely resemble those of Polynesians and southern Asians, and that Kennewick Man’s measurements and features differ significantly from those of any modern Indian group living in North America." (I do not think the Ninth Circuit deals in unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, either.) It was because of the lack of any evidence of a connection to modern tribes that the court held that Kennewick Man's remains were not Native American remains subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and therefore, the academic study of the remains could continue.

So yes, I stand by my comment that Kennewick Man disproves what was once widely believed, and is apparently still believed by some.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:51 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the 19th Century, the idea of unearthing Troy seemed as unlikely as unearthing Shangri-La. People weren't quite sure if it had ever existed. And yet it was indeed unearthed, revealing several "layers" of Troy throughout history. In the early 1990s, they finally identified what must have been Homeric Troy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:51 AM on December 17, 2012

Mars has canals.
posted by mule98J at 9:54 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The planet Mercury was once believed to be "tidal locked" to the Sun, owing to its close proximity to the sun. Tidal-locking refers to the rotation of the world being the same as the revolution time and therefore the same face towards the sun at all times. Just as our tidal-locked moon rotates once/28 days, the same length as its orbit around the Earth, so it was thought that Mercury rotates once for each of its trips around the sun (which is 88 Earth-days long). This was based on an observational bias-- it always showed the same face whenever it was in the best spot for viewing the sun-facing side.

There's actually a decent amount of early- to mid-20th-century SF that depends on Mercury having one face towards the sun at all times, and one "cold" side. Such an idea could present real possibilities of settlement on Mercury, and mining its heavy metals and so on.

However, radar observation in 1965 allowed us to see that Mercury has a very interesting rotation indeed: It rotates three times every 2 of its years, so while its year is ~88 E-days long, its rotation is ~59 days, but its day-night cycle is ~176 days long. It turns out that the other planets (primarily the bullies of the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn) influence Mercury enough that it has this rotation, along with an eccentric orbit (a longer ellipse, compared to more nearly circular ellipses for most planets). Yet if Mercury had, long ago, found any other orbit, it's likely it would've been either gradually dampened/amplified by the tug of Jupiter to find its current place, or worse, dampened to fall into the sun, or amplified the hell out of the solar system. Or put another way, all that stuff was in "bad" orbits long ago has all, or nearly all, been either ejected from the solar system or sent flying into one of its bodies (including us!). This system-clean-up performed by Jupiter's gravity is also considered to one of the reasons our planet surface lasted long enough, mostly unmolested by giant meteors, to support life.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:00 AM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and has anyone mentioned yet in this thread how things with Galileo actually went down? The phrase "and yet it moves" wasn't recorded till a hundred years after his death, and he wasn't actually in prison (it was house arrest,) and the Catholic Church took his book off the index of forbidden books almost two hundred years ago (the general ban against heliocentristic books was lifted before the American Revolution.)

To say that this is not what I learned in elementary school, nor what my sister learned from a series of high school textbooks published by an evangelical group (my mom got a fantastic deal on the price, and figured, you know, "it's not science,") would be... an inadequately vigorous assertion.

To tag onto Troy - people thought that the Titanic wasn't anywhere near where it was, and some argued (based on the official findings) that all those people who said it broke into two pieces were just hysterical or otherwise remembered it wrong. I remember this mainly because the people talking on the news about Ballard's discovery were so amazed that I, as a five-year-old, interpreted the hubbub to mean that people had thought the Titanic itself was the myth (like Atlantis, basically.)

And, the Vesuvius story has been subjected to decreasing amounts of doubt since 79AD (basically, people more and more believe that things happened more or less exactly the way that Pliny the Younger said they did - it's down to a "did it happen in September or October" kind of issue.) A lot of older manuscripts (e.g. Josephus) have been subjected to "NO WAY"->"Yeah, probably" transformations over the centuries, usually with slides over to "that's not quite right" and "you totally failed to understand that" kinds of things, along with my personal favorite, "the people who studied this all four hundred years ago were gullible morons, who clearly got it EXACTLY WRONG and should be mocked forever." There is nothing quite so common as a historian sure that dead people (who can't argue back) were fundamentally mistaken about the nature of reality and had no clue how to do anything important (i.e., do history.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls come to mind - anything that involves a surprise discovery in the middle of the desert is generally subjected to (pretty understandable) suspicion, but I'm not sure that carbon-dating the exact same scroll three separate times (twice using very similar methods) counts as reasonable. People still argue a lot about who wrote it all, too.

[If you want to hear more from a former history major subjected to a lot of tedious required reading about historiography, I'm happy to oblige.]

BTW, did you see this thread from 2010?
posted by SMPA at 10:22 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Mercury, Newton's law of gravitation could account for almost, but not all, of the perihelion precession of Mercury. It was proposed that a planet between Mercury and the sun, Vulcan, was the source of the anomaly. Amateur and professional astronomers claimed to have observed the transit of Vulcan, but in the end, Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted Mercury's behavior without the need for a planet Vulcan.

Some people still search for a planet between Mercury and the sun, and some astrologers still factor in Vulcan when doing whatever it is astrologers do.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:27 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was also a time when physicists supported a Young Earth theory, based on the idea that the molten core of earth was merely the current state of a formerly hot but yet cooling Earth, one that would eventually solidify-- they modeled the Earth as a giant droplet of molten rock. Projecting its cooling rate into the past, and accounting for the insulation of the crust and such, the age of the earth was considered to be on the order of 20-40 million years, as determined by Lord Kelvin in the late 19th century.

The discovery of radioactive materials at the end of the 19th century, which could continue to re-heat the Earth and considerably enhance estimates of its age, came as Kelvin was very advanced in years, and the story goes that Ernest Rutherford (among the early researches of radioactivity) presenting this new evidence before Kelvin (and many others in a lecture hall) waited until the old man nodded off before getting to the meat of his age estimates. Kelvin wasn't a dolt-- he recognized that there did seem to be extra heat coming from somewhere, but the radiation mechanism wouldn't be understood for a few years yet.

At any rate, thanks to not only terrestrial evidence, but study of the solar system and lunar geology and so on, we estimate the Earth to be greater than 4.5 Billion years of age.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:38 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Archaeology's history is chock-full of issues like this, not only as sites are discovered (or re-evaluated) but also as scientific testing has clarified some issues, like dating and genetics. (Not that this is at all free of controversy, of course.) Etruscan tombs have produced tens of thousands of Greek vessels, so much so that for a time those vessels were considered Etruscan, rather than of Greek origin.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just read this article in the LA Times about how mapmakers thought California was an island.
posted by dottiechang at 11:10 AM on December 17, 2012

Tanizaki - the original claim was that Kennewick man was Caucasian (that is, Eurasian). He was not - the evidence you cite suggests that he was descended from people from Asia, just like other Native American people.
posted by jb at 11:11 AM on December 17, 2012

Myth: Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy. They actually had many kinds of noodles, and the word pasta well before his journey. Some doubt whether he even went to China at all...My source on this is Salt by Mark Kurlanksky.
posted by silvergoat at 11:42 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

There was once a strong belief that the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain involved a highly disruptive massacre of the natives with wholesale population replacement. The truth is now known to be far more complex, with fewer settlers, less violence, and more continuation (although much is still disputed).
posted by Jehan at 12:19 PM on December 17, 2012

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood may also be of interest to you:
[Stephens] became convinced, after only a short time in the region, that the theories regarding Hebrew or Egyptian or Atlantean origins for the Maya ruins and glyphs were wrong and that the structures and language were both autochthonous.
Catherwood's artistic experience at Old World sites helped shape his opinion that the art and languages he saw at Mayan sites were their own artistic tradition, and not influenced somehow by the Near East.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:45 PM on December 17, 2012

The popular narrative of the Bougainville expedition holds that the naturalist Commerçon's cross-dressing valet, Jean(ne) Baret, was exposed only when the Tahitian islanders, in their native naïvite, recognized her as a woman whereas the civilized French could not, spurring a moderate amount of popular sociology about gender markers in different levels of society. However, this narrative is entirely from Bougainville's own published journal of the voyage, and the journals of other travelers on the voyage (particularly the surgeon Vivès and the passenger Othon, Prince of Nassau-Sigen) suggest that Baret was exposed almost immediately and that her sex was essentially an open secret among the crew.
posted by jackbishop at 12:53 PM on December 17, 2012

To build upon the Piltdown Man example - it's not only that Piltdown Man was once believed to be real but was then discovered to be a fraud. The prevailing anthropological wisdom about human evolution was the reason why Piltdown Man was believed for so long.

In the first days after Darwin, the conventional wisdom was that human ancestors must have had apelike bodies who diverged from other apes by brain expansion first. Piltdown Man was made from an orangutan jaw and a human cranium, so it conformed to this narrative (ape body, human-size brain).

Since the discovery of the Australopithecines, however, the current view is that the earliest human ancestors were bipeds with small brains, and the brain expanded much later.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 1:19 PM on December 17, 2012

This is still a matter of controversy, but a minority of researchers believe that FDR's illness was not polio, but Guillain-Barr Syndrome.

He was also not entirely wheelchair-bound, as I, for one, understood it, but could stand with the aid of a supporting person or podium, ascend ramps with the aid of handrails, and sometimes walked with crutches.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:25 PM on December 17, 2012

It's famously been said that 'all history is contemporary history', meaning that our perception of history is shaped by our own cultural preconceptions, whether we realise it or not. History is constantly being revised, not just in the banal sense that we now know things we didn't know before, but in the profounder sense that our 'ways of seeing' keep on changing. Just look at the difference that feminist history, or postcolonial history, has made to our perception of the past. This is both a revision of 'concrete facts' and a reevaluation of 'ethical judgments', and I'm firmly of the opinion that you can't separate the two.

Sometimes, though, you can see the perception of a historical event changing before your very eyes. One of the biggest revolutions taking place at the moment is in the field of medieval history, where historians like R.I. Moore and Mark Gregory Pegg are overturning everything we thought we knew about Christian heresy. The introduction to Pegg's A Most Holy War is one of the most uncompromising statements of 'everything you think you know is wrong' that I've ever encountered:
Everything about the Cathars is utter fantasy, even down to their name .. More than a century of scholarship on both the Albigensian Crusade and heresy hasn't been merely vaguely mistaken, or somewhat misguided, it has been breathtakingly wrong.
The common assumption is that the Cathars were Christian dualists, like the Manicheans, who believed that the world was divided between a benevolent God and a malevolent Demiurge. As this was radically opposed to traditional Christian orthodoxy, the Catholic Church saw Catharism as a profound threat and did everything in its power to destroy it. But historians are now arguing that 'Catharism' never existed, and that the Cathars or Albigensians were not dualists at all but faithful Catholic Christians who had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of a moral panic about religious heresy. And on that proposition, much in Western medieval history turns.
posted by verstegan at 3:08 PM on December 17, 2012

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time examined the deaths of the Princes in the Tower - Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. They are often portrayed in literature as being killed by King Richard, but, well, read the novel. I read it some time ago, and enjoyed it a lot.
posted by theora55 at 10:02 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, thanks everybody-- that's a ton of fascinating answers. Much appreciated!
posted by yankeefog at 2:01 AM on December 18, 2012

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