In 1909, the Arizona Gazette ran an article titled "Exploration in Grand Canyon." It said that an explorer by the name of G.E. Kincaid went into the National Park for the Smithsonian and found caves full of mummies and ancient Egyptian treasures that put everything we thought we knew about civilization on its head.
Well, the Smithsonian called the articles bunk reporting that Kincaid never worked for the institution. And it turns out he never existed! So how can a conspiracy that has been repeatedly debunked for decades, survive for so long?
Endless Thread finds out.
This content was created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, what is the conspiracy theory you can't let go of?
Amory Sivertson: I have a very nerdy sort of public radio conspiracy theory, do you want to hear that?
Ben: Let's go.
Amory: That might get me in trouble, but you know at the end of every episode of This American Life, Ira Glass says like, our show's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, and then they play some out-of-context clip from the episode that is kind of like embarrassing for Torey Malatia.
Amory: My conspiracy theory is that they like contractually have to acknowledge him every episode and that's their way of being like, here you go, bud.
Ben: Ahhhh. We'll have to get in touch with him about that.
Amory: Yeah, I'm creating, I'm creating radio gossip, I guess. Uh, what's yours?
Ben: Mine is that somewhere, somehow, Trader Joe's parking lots, uh, have been, like, sent to destroy us.
Amory: No tinfoil hat required for that one, I believe it.
Ben: Also, I think that, like, there's no vast, evil, powerful conspiracy. But there are a bunch of billionaires who literally just could not care about the rest of us and would like to keep it that way.
Amory: One thousand percent. Yes. One billion percent.
Ben: The one percent.
Amory: One percent.
Ben: But we're here to talk today about a conspiracy theory that just will not die.
Jacob Garcia: Until now. We're here to kill it forever.
Amory: Yes, WBUR Newsroom fellow who loves podcasts, Jacob Garcia.
Ben: Welcome to the Endless Thread Conspiracy Theory Message Board, Jacob.
Jacob: Thank you, thank you.
Amory: And Jacob, I understand you come from what we would call a conspiracy- theory-positive-household?
Jacob: Yeah, my dad told me a lot of things growing up. Like how those streaky clouds you see in the air are actually 'chemtrails' sprayed by the government to keep us docile.
Ben: Mmm. I don't think they're doing a very good job at keeping us docile. I'll say that. If that's the plan, they need to keep working on it.
Jacob: Another one he told me recently was that there's a conglomeration of food companies, insurance companies and drug manufacturers that all work together to create more patients. Basically, vertical integration from 30 Rock."
30 Rock Clip: What's vertical integration?
Imagine that your favorite corn chip manufacturer also owned the number one diarrhea medication.
That'd be great, because then they could put a little sample of the medicine in each bag.
Except then they might be tempted to make the corn chips give you... Vertical integration.
Jacob: My dad's introduction to conspiracy theories is rooted in a general lack of trust for the government. Which you know at times can be warranted.
Al Garcia: When you find out how terrible the U. S. government has been to its people, you can't put anything past them.
Jacob: Yeah, my dad's an immigrant who grew up in New York. He's been around minorities all his life. Learning about you know African American pregnant mortality rates – it gets to you after a while.
Ben: Yeah, there's definitely been things we've learned about as journalists that started as conspiracy theories and then became actual realities.
Jacob: But we're here to talk about one particular conspiracy theory today.
Ben: Ours is pretty old. It goes back all the way to 1909 and for a number of reasons this conspiracy theory just won't die yet.
Amory: All right, I'm in. Where are we going?
Jacob: So get this. It's a slow news week in April of 1909 in Phoenix, Arizona, and a local Phoenix newspaper, the Arizona Gazette, runs an article titled, "Explorations in Grand Canyon."
Amory: So what's the article about?
Jacob: It says that a great explorer by the name of G. E. Kincaid was on an excavation of the Grand Canyon for the Smithsonian.
Amory: As they say on the internets, seems legit so far.
Jacob: So far. And while there, the article says that the great explorer G. E. Kincaid found evidence of an ancient civilization living in the Grand Canyon.
Ben: That just sounds like facts man. North America’s had humans for 20,000 years or something?
Jacob: That's the thing, though. This ancient civilization that they found, according to the Arizona Gazette, was from ancient Egypt.
Ben: So, Jacob, you say your dad is really into conspiracy theories. Did he already know about this one?
Al Garcia: Yeah, I've heard it. I think it was on TikTok.
Amory: What about other pyramid conspiracies?
Jacob: Yeah, he's definitely talked to me about those before.
Al Garcia: I think that there's pyramids everywhere in the world. I think it makes sense that they had some level of communication.
Amory: Wait, who is they in this statement? Aliens? Are we talking aliens?
Jacob: Don't worry, he doesn't believe ancient aliens built the pyramids but he was open to the idea of this conspiracy.
Al Garcia: If anything, it'll, you know, I don't know. It'll prove what? That, that, that we're all connected? That, you know, we're not as, you know, as separate as everybody thinks that we are?
Jacob: Alright, how realistic do you think this idea could be?
Al Garcia: I mean, anything is possible Jake.
Ben: I mean, looking at this article, some of the stuff in here is crazy. They apparently found hundreds of rooms, gold artifacts, and ancient hieroglyphics. They find any mummies?
Jacob: According to the article, yeah.
Amory: Pics or it didn't happen.
Jacob: Not a single one.
Amory: Shocked. I am shocked. This is some pretty messed up stuff here. It claimed that present-day native tribes in Arizona might be descendants of these Egyptian slaves? What did the Smithsonian have to say about this?
Jacob: So, the Arizona Gazette is overdue on some corrections. The Smithsonian totally called the article out. They said G.E. Kincaid didn't even work for them. In fact, there's no records that even prove he was a real person.
Ben: Just making up stuff in the local newspaper. No problem.
Amory: Making up people, making up stories.
Jacob: Even though this hoax did come out over a century ago, it's still being talked about today.
Amory: And why is that?
Ben: Oh yeah, I definitely heard something about this in 2019 on my favorite podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
Amory: Oh no.
Joe Rogan: Could there have been an entire civilization of Egyptians living here? If so, how did they get here? Dun dun dun.
Jacob: Good old Joe Roe isn't the only one talking about this. The History Channel also covered the topic.
Amory: And it looks like people are still running with this on YouTube, too. To
YouTube Conspiracy Theorists: We are finally exposing the Smithsonian cover up about the ancient Egyptians and giants in the Grand Canyon.
Intrigued, they went up to investigate, only to find something even odder, the entrance to a man made cave.
Venturing into the cave, Kincaid's flashlight pierced through the darkness, revealing an intricate chamber that defied explanation.
On the walls, he saw writing, but it wasn't English or Native American writing. It was ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Ben: So join us on this journey.
Amory: To watch Jacob Garcia slay a century old conspiracy theory.
Ben: And we'll hear some righteous setting the record straight-ing from people who understand the burden of proof.
Amory: And we'll hear from some people who don't.
Amory: You're listening to Endless Thread,
Ben: We're coming to you from WBUR Boston's NPR station.
Jacob: Today's episode. The Grand Can-spiracy.
Ben: So we know that this conspiracy theory isn’t true. But what we need to figure out is how it’s survived so long, and how we can kill it. That is Endless Thread’s mystery to solve here.
Jacob: Right. Maybe first let’s re-establish the truth.
Amory: So do we get to go to the Grand Canyon now and see if we can dig up the truth?
Jacob: Kinda. Ellen Brennan is the Cultural Resource Program Manager at the Grand Canyon. She's been working there on and off since 1978, and she got her first request for information about ancient Egyptian caves 20 years ago. Since then, she's responded to a bunch more.
Ellen: I would say it happens at least once or twice a year, sometimes more. It especially happens if a new article has come out. or a new video has been posted to the web about the story.
Jacob: Some of these videos can be so convincing. They're produced really well, and not even park rangers are safe from these hoaxes.
Ellen: I actually have a new employee that asked me about it on his first day on the job. So... I'm going to have to give him all the articles and information. I was pretty shocked that he even asked me.
Amory: So what's kept people looking at this particular conspiracy and refusing to change their minds about it?
Jacob: Well, in recent history, you know, there's podcasters and, you know, like YouTubers, like how I mentioned before. But if we want to look even further back, um, you know, there's this vernacular of white settlers who came to this place and there's actually a lot of buttes and mesas in the Grand Canyon with names from ancient Egypt.
Ellen: Early mappers of the Grand Canyon, they didn't really have knowledge of the ancestral people who lived here. And it wasn't common in those days, in any case, to name geological features after native peoples or using native language. That's something that we're working on changing.
Jacob: So Ellen, who, yes, was working in a bit of a thunderstorm here, says the combination of ignorance about native peoples, and, you know, a fascination with Egyptian history, led to this random naming convention.
Ellen: They were inspired by the landscape, and so they chose grand names such as Cheops Pyramid or, um, Isis Temple and things of that nature.
Amory: Does she know of anyone who's gone out looking for these caves?
Jacob: No, but there are other adverse effects.
Ellen: It does cheapen the majesty of the Grand Canyon. But to me, a more important aspect of this myth is it really denigrates the Native American history of the park and the accomplishments that they made to live in this pretty rugged and difficult to live in environment.
Jacob: So, we wanted to talk to somebody who knew a little bit more about this, and we found him, working out of his car.
Ben: Working out of his car, chasing fires, controlling them, and stopping them before they destroy too much of our protected nature. Which is what you do when one of your many titles is fire archaeologist.
Jason: Just adjusting our radios for the day here.
Jacob: We asked Jason to give us his full set of titles though, because he has another reason to speak on this conspiracy theory.
Jason: [Begins introduction in Navajo] So, I said I'm Jason Nez, I'm from the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona, and I'm Zuni Edgewater, born for the Salt Clan. My mother's father is Tango people, my father's father is Mexican people. And I'm a fire archaeologist at Grand Canyon National Park.
Ben: We cut right to the chase with Jason.
Ben: We are now, uh, you know, 111, 12 years later here, uh, and people are still reaching out to the Grand Canyon asking about these caves. What is your gut reaction, uh, to these people reaching out and asking about this?
Jason: So, there's a lot of... misinformation, miseducation, and undereducation about this particular issue. And, in my gut reaction, a lot of this ancient aliens, um, pseudoscience, is detrimental to indigenous communities because it diminishes our contributions to what this country is.
Jacob: Jason went on to say that these claims just further disconnect Native communities from the landscape. There's so many people that just want the land that was stolen from them back. Like the Sioux people who were just given back their land in Minnesota this September.
Jason: It makes it easier for those working against the best interests of indigenous people to say that we're not from here. That we don't have any rights, we don't have any connections to these lands.
Ben: And Jason is no stranger to a good story. He just thinks, this one, it's in bad taste.
Jason: A lot of us that grow up on a reservation, we have very active imaginations. We tend to grow up to be storytellers, and artists, and poets, and writers, and that's what the desert does to you. But even in my wildest imagination, I can't imagine what it takes to believe these outlandish stories.
Ben: A lot of conspiracy theories about who built the pyramids in Egypt have the same issue. Oh, it must have been aliens, because ancient North African people could never have done something this impressive.
Jacob: But when you dig into this stuff, there are people and communities that are hurt from these conspiracy theories.
Ben: What would you say to people who buy into this story? If you could speak to them directly?
Jason: I would ask them to look at what they can see. Look at what they can prove. Look at where they can go. And look at who they can talk to. And maybe they can visit an indigenous community and see that it doesn't help us to say these things. I think that if they come to our reservations and see how we're struggling, and how we're surviving, they'll see the damage that they're doing. I really wish the History Channel would see these things and know these things, but they don't.
Ben: Ah, the History Channel. Sometimes they talk to real journalists, like Amory.
Amory: True, true. I've talked about a few things on the History Channel.
Ben: And other times they talk to people about, well, you know, Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster. I miss the History Channel of my youth, though. It's crazy how it's sort of... devolved from super historical and fact based channel to, well, you know, ancient aliens.
Jacob: Or maybe we just regarded a little too highly cause of nostalgia.
Amory: Nostalgia. Did I just age 20 years in your eyes, Jacob?
Jacob: No! No, not at all! [laughter] I'm serious though. I mean Ancient Aliens first aired in 2010, right? And it's been thriving on the channel since then. Season 19 literally just wrapped up in September. But in 1994, there was Ancient Mysteries, hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
Ancient Mysteries Clip: Perhaps our cosmic visitors were here many times at the beginning of human history. Perhaps they brought with them a message from the stars that may still lie buried within these stones and ruins.
Amory: Okay, I just want to say, I have never been on Ancient Aliens, okay?
Ben: Obviously! [laughter]
Amory: I have only, I have only been on to talk about mysteries of history, which I guess sometimes do involve aliens.
Jacob: There's been other conspiracy theory shows since then, like America Unearthed, which just so happens to have an episode on this very myth.
America Unearthed Intro: The history that we were all taught growing up is wrong. My name is Scott Walter and I'm a forensic geologist. There's a hidden history in this country that nobody knows about. There are pyramids here, chambers, tombs, inscriptions. They're all over this country. We're going to investigate these artifacts and sites and we're going to get to the truth. Sometimes history isn't what we've been told.
Jacob: The show quickly became accused of trafficking conspiracies. Here's a YouTube reaction video titled, in part, "Scott Walter is a con artist and this show is garbage."
YouTube Clip: America Unearthed, is honestly one of the most deceitful series I have ever watched on archaeology because it utilizes a sleight-of-hand application of hard science in order to make its claims.
Ben: I think the problem here, which honestly is the same problem of like the Joe Rogans of the world, is the positioning of, "Hey man, we're just asking questions," right? Um, which like Jason says, doesn't really cut it when your questions are erasing real history and convincing people of BS conspiracy theories.
Amory: Has the History Channel responded to this at all? Have they, have they given an explanation for why this is on their air?
Jacob: Well, unlike the conspiracy YouTubers I chased, we're gonna find out. And it got awkward.
Will: Um... um... um... um...
Ben: Back in a minute.
Ben: On December 8th, 2013, the History Channel show America Unearthed ran its newest episode titled Grand Canyon Treasure.
Amory: Its host, Scott Walter, went out to investigate whether our legend claiming ancient Egyptians traveled to the Grand Canyon is true. And he came back pretty convinced that it was.
Jacob: While I wasn't able to reach Scott I did get in touch with his writer and producer.
Will: My name is Will Yates. I'm a TV documentary writer, producer, now been working in the industry for about two decades.
Jacob: Yeah, and like me producing this episode, he reached out to the Smithsonian. No luck.
Will: They obviously, unsurprisingly, uh, dismissed the, the, the story and, and, and the legends.
Amory: Yeah, the Smithsonian doesn't play around.
Will: Obviously some of these stories, one can arguably debunk, but we are making a 43 minute television program. So it's, it's about finding a way to explore these, these legends and stories that is not completely dismissive.
Amory: So this maybe doesn't apply to this particular legend, which sounds like it just really came from someone's imagination. But there are unknown things in the world, and I do think it's fun to explore all of the different possible explanations for them. But it also sounds like, like a line was crossed here.
Ben: Will's been in the industry for two decades. He's worked on other wacky History Channel shows, a National Science Foundation-funded docu-series called SciGirls. And he has worked as a video producer for Shell.
Amory: Like Shell the oil company?
Ben: Yep, the oil company.
Jacob: He's definitely got a broad range of projects that he's worked on. And he seems to believe in all of them. Or at least he wants to believe.
Will: I think for the Grand Canyon treasure episode there was enough legitimate bits of mystery...
Amory: Oh boy, where is this going?
Will: For example the the 1909, Phoenix Gazette article, uh, that was kind of the origin of these stories.
Jacob: Yeah, it was actually the Arizona Gazette, and the article was debunked by the Smithsonian.
Will: Uh, the fact that in, uh, Southern Illinois, there were, you know, there were places called, um, Cairo, um, Little Egypt.
Jacob: And, like Ellen said, that's just because early mappers were really into ancient Egypt.
Amory: Hey Ben, can I ask you something? Actually for both of you.
Amory: How often do you think about the Egyptian empire?
Ben: Not, not as much as the Roman empire, but still pretty often!
Jacob: Every day.
Amory: [laughs] Just checking.
Ben: Anyway, Will had a lot of long-winded answers to whether he was a believer or not. Here's just one example.
Ben: Did you believe in this story personally?
Will: For me as a program maker, I maintain objectivity for this story, and it's still a curious question about where this article came from. Could it have been a late April Fool's joke? There's not evidence to support, uh, Egyptian artifacts in the Grand Canyon.
Ben: You're trying not to have an opinion about it, but then you, you just finished that statement saying there's no objective evidence that the Egyptians were there.
Will: My personal opinion is that there's not evidence of treasures from Egypt within the Grand Canyon, but there are stories and myths and legends that talk about this.
Ben: Right. To me, those are statements of facts, but not necessarily an opinion. (laughter)
Will: I could have a personal opinion about something, but then as a, as a program maker, as a, as a journalist, um, explore a subject and have my personal opinion sit outside of that.
Amory: This is one of those statements where you have no idea how this guy Will actually feels. But he definitely does not want to talk smack about the History Channel.
Ben: Yeah to me, it was surprising to hear him sort of avoid having an opinion on it because like why wouldn’t he? After all, history isn’t a neutral thing. Right?
Jacob: So as you can see, Will wasn't the most comfortable with sharing his opinion on, you know, the validity of this myth, even if he could acknowledge the damage that it's doing.
Will: Ideas of transatlantic, travelers from prehistoric times coming to, uh, America could essentially be damaging to, um, the, the, the history of Native Americans. Um, and, and I think that's a, that's a very, very sad thing
Amory: Isn't that pretty much exactly what Jason said earlier?
Jacob: Pretty much, yeah.
Jason: In these times where indigenous people are working toward justice and basic participation and land management policies this is detrimental to us all.
Jacob: So, after giving Will the rundown of our conversation with Jason, we had an important question to ask him.
Ben: Would you change any of the way that this played out or would you make edits?
Will: For this episode of America Unearthed, uh, having watched it again recently, I don't know if I would change it. I did feel like, um, the episode, held together, uh, fairly, fairly well.
Amory: So will clearly sees how this can be detrimental to the Native community. But he also doesn't think it needs tweaking.
Jacob: Pretty much.
Ben: I think it's fine to question and be skeptical, but like if you're presented with evidence that sort of really strongly shows that there's nothing to this. And you continue to sort of question the thing. I think that's kind of detrimental to how we can exist in a society.
Will: I think you bring up a really important points. There's concerns that I had after the fact, uh, particularly, uh, around 2016 when the U. S. Election was happening. Just thinking about the breakdown of consensus and the spread of misinformation information, I did question whether, uh, a show like this could have contributed to that.
Ben: Will, you're so close! You're so close to taking direct responsibility for creating BS. You can do it, man.
Amory: [Laughs] Has Jason seen this show yet?
Jacob: He knows it's out there. He's seen clips of it on YouTube, but he refuses to watch it.
Jason: When someone's insulting you, when someone's insulting your ancestors, when someone's insulting the things you believe in, we're under no obligation to listen to it.
Amory: You know, we still have no idea whether Will believes in this or not.
Jacob: Oh, jeez.
Ben: I'll try one last time and, and, and just say, you don't believe this, right?
Will: Uh, believe that...
Ben: Egyptians came to the Grand Canyon and left treasure. You don't believe that, right?
Will: It would be quite a stretch, I think to...
Ben: Will a simple yes or no will do! A simple yes or no Will!
Will: It would quite a stretch to envision the idea of Egyptians coming to the Midwest. But you know, they were seafaring. They were seafaring cultures like the Phoenician at the time. You know, you, you can't discount history until we find something else. Right. Uh, um, you know, in terms of the objectivity of it. Like who knows...
Ben: Who knows indeed.
Amory: You can't discount history, Will. You're right! But you can discount theories that have no basis in actual history and might be doing more harm than good in the process of exploring them. Ah!
Ben: It's a post-fact world, baby.
Jacob: A world where the algorithm is constantly throwing fake news at you.
Ben: No offense to ah…Joe Rogan and Scott Wolter. And…Youtube…and TikTok…and Facebook.
Jacob: All of which helps conspiracy theorists become SO CONVINCED of this bunk. Ellen, our Park Ranger from the Grand Canyon, is worried about living in this post-fact world too.
Ellen: The thing is, I'm never going to be able to convince them. If they really want to believe nothing I say will convince them and have them change their minds.
Amory: But here’s the GOOD news. Ellen’s wrong about one thing. She’s an original source. And original sources DO change minds. Although Jacob… do we know WHY the original article was written in the Gazette?
Jacob: In 2009, the Grand Canyon Historical Society looked into it. And they basically found out that it was a bad April Fools prank.
Ben: And the point about original sources matters here too. G.E. Kincaid, the supposed original source on the original story in the Gazette…DOESN’T EXIST. If you don’t have an original source…you probably don’t have a real conspiracy. Which is why, again, I think Will’s unwillingness to take a position… is dangerous.
Amory: But let’s go back to Jacob’s dad. Jacob…did you present him with the evidence on this conspiracy theory?
Jacob: I, I did Amory.
Amory: And what does he think of what Will has to say?
Al: I think he's full of shit. I think everybody wants to believe their own shit, right? Everybody wants to believe their own, you know, their own bullshit story.
Amory: So did we do it, Jacob? Have we saved someone from the Grand Canyon Ancient Egypt hoax?
Jacob: We did, Amory. Yeah. When I told him about Ellen, he, like, immediately believed the article was fake because she's a direct source.
Ben: It's about education. Presenting original sources…evidence…facts. Which is hard to do in the age of the internet. But it is possible. Which is why...thank goodness...we have people like Jason.
Jacob: Yeah… Jason said something that stuck with me. He said that instead of diving into ancient aliens or Egyptians and what might be – we should just appreciate what is. You know, you don’t have to go down a rabbit hole to appreciate nature, you just go out and enjoy it.
Jason: I think that everyone should get out and enjoy their public lands. Not just look at it, not just drive by, but get out and become part of the food chain for a while. And you'll see how resilient you are. You'll see how strong you are. And you'll see how... us human beings, we have great capabilities and strength that we undervalue. And when you see it in yourself, you can see it in others. And you'll see that the indigenous people who this issue affects, we're just as strong as you can be. We're just as beautiful.
Ben: Yeah, humans are amazing. And nature is amazing. And we don't need like a crazy conspiracy or undiscovered revelation to know that and to celebrate it.
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston. This episode was written, produced and co-hosted by Jacob Garcia. Also hosted by Ben Brock Johnson, and me, Amory Sivertson. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus and Matt Reed. The rest of our team is Dean Russel, Grace Tatter, Emily Jankowski and Samata Joshi.
Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines that you see when you look at the actual Grand Canyon because that thing is so inconceivably vast it may as well be a painted backdrop that we're all looking at. You know what I mean? Maybe that's my conspiracy theory.
Anyway, if you have an untold history, an unsolved mystery or some other wild story from the internet, you know what to do.
Hit us up: email@example.com.
See you next week!