Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was a nineteenth-century polymath who made notable contributions to botany, zoology, the study of prehistoric earthworks in North America and Mesoamerican ancient linguistics. Rafinesque was eccentric, and is often portrayed as an “erratic genius”. He was an autodidact who excelled in various fields of knowledge, as a zoologist,botanist, writer and polyglot. He wrote prolifically on such diverse topics as anthropology, biology, geology, and linguistics, but was honored in none during his lifetime. Today, scholars agree that he was far ahead of his time in many of these fields.
In 1836 Rafinesque published his first volume of The American Nations. This included Walam Olum, a purported migration and creation narrative of the Lenape(“Delaware Indians”). It told of their migration to the lands around the Delaware River. Rafinesque claimed he had obtained wooden tablets engraved and painted with indigenous pictographs, together with a transcription in the Lenape language, from which he produced an English translation of the tablets’ contents. Rafinesque claimed the original tablets and transcription were later lost, leaving his notes and transcribed copy as the only record of evidence. Later linguistic, ethnohistorical, archaeological and textual analyses, particularly from the 1980s and 1990s onward, suggested that the Walam Olum account was largely or entirely a fabrication, and described its record of authentic Lenape traditional migration stories as spurious.