On April 5, 1909, a newspaper called the Arizona Gazette published an article on the front page of its evening edition. The story, “Explorations in the Grand Canyon,” was filled with wild claims that remnants of an Egyptian civilization had been discovered within a massive cave in the Grand Canyon’s cliffs.
Perched 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the chambers of this “underground citadel” were littered with artifacts, hieroglyphics and even mummified remains, possibly of Egyptian descent.
There’s just one catch: The story is unequivocally false.
Yet, despite being more than 100 years old, the tales sparked by the hoax article continue to circulate today. (In recent years, they’ve been given new life on social media) The Smithsonian Institution, who supposedly sponsored the expedition, has even been inundated with inquiries about it over the years — despite the fact that the investigation in question never took place.
The Origins of the Grand Canyon Egyptian Cave Myth
You don’t have to spend much time on Google to see just how pervasive the Grand Canyon urban legend has become.
It’s been discussed in countless blog articles and several books, promoted by the History Channel show America Unearthed and floated as an intriguing possibility on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. But where did all of this starry-eyed speculation come from?
When the story’s seeds were first planted in the Arizona Gazette over a century ago, the article, written by an anonymous author, purported that Smithsonian-funded explorer G.E. Kinkaid — under the guidance of a professor named S.A. Jordan — had made a history-defining find.
“[It was] not only the oldest archeological discovery in the United States,” the article read, “but one of the most valuable in the world.”
The Cracks in the Cave Legend
The holes in the Arizona Gazette article emerge as soon as you examine its basic premise: For one, there is no record of the existence of either Kinkaid or Jordan. (The Gazette had previously reported on an earlier part of Kincaid’s “adventure” in March of that same year, but made no mention of Egyptian artifacts or the cave itself.)
Egyptian Cave Grand Canyon Hoax
Indeed, in 2000, a representative for Smithsonian Institution — not Institute, as it’s inaccurately named in the Gazette article — responded to one of these inquires in an email exchange, affirming their position that the story was, in fact, a hoax.
“The Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology has searched its files without finding any mention of a Professor Jordan, Kincaid or a lost Egyptian civilization in Arizona,” the representative wrote. “Nevertheless, the story continues to be repeated in books and articles.”
Haley Johnson, president of the Grand Canyon Historical Society, also speaks to the inconsistencies in the original article. “The images alone are obvious fakes,” she says.
In a 2009 article in The Ol’ Pioneer, the magazine published by the Grand Canyon Historical Society, author Dan Lago examined more than a dozen newspapers from the time — and found that most ignored the Gazette story entirely, with only one paper reprinting it without comment.
The one paper that did comment — the Coconino Sun in Flagstaff, Arizona — pointed to a likely culprit behind the hoax story: Joe Mulhattan, a traveling salesman who became famous in the 1870s and 1880s for deceiving newspapers into publishing fake articles.
“Joe Mulhattan is known in every city in the United States and has probably caused more trouble in newspaper offices than any other man in the country,” The New York Times wrote in 1891. “His wild stories, written in the most plausible style, have more than once caused special correspondents […] to hurry from coast to coast to investigate some wonderful occurrence which only exited in the imagination of the great liar.”
How Has the Hoax Been Kept Alive for So Long?
Regardless of whether Mulhattan was the mastermind behind the original article, in 1909, American newspaper readers (and even editors) wouldn’t have batted an eye at the revelation that the Gazette published a phony story.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yellow journalism was widespread; the controversial style of newspaper reporting presented hyperbolic, sensationalized stories as objective fact, often as a way to gain readers and boost circulation.
“Myself and many others who live and work at Grand Canyon National Park tend to agree that someone needed something eye-catching to print, and a local mischief maker may have spun an old story into some sort of ‘local lore’ to attract readers,” says Johnson. “It probably worked really well for the Gazette.”
Even still, the Gazette story quickly faded into obscurity after its initial run. But it was revived decades later in 1962, when it was featured in Arizona Cavalcade, a book collection of newspaper clippings from Arizona’s early history.
Then, in 1992, it was rescued from the historical dustbin once again when it was included in Cities of North and Central America, in which author — and pseudoscience proponent — David Hatcher Childress personally explores the alleged occult origins of various archeological sites in America, including the Grand Canyon Egyptian cave.
What’s more, according to Childress, the fact that the Smithsonian wasn’t able to confirm the existence of either Jordan or Kinkaid was proof that the organization was involved in a conspiracy to suppress the truth. From there, other theories — including some that expanded upon the Smithsonian cover-up angle — blossomed and spread across the internet.
Debunking the Egyptian Grand Canyon Cave Story
Despite attracting the attention of occult enthusiasts and internet conspiracy theorists alike, it’s not hard to spot other falsehoods and logical inconsistencies in the Egyptian cave story.
For starters, says Johnson, the remote nature of the Grand Canyon would have made it incredibly difficult to access without technical gear or ladders.
“Not to mention it would have been impossible to haul all those supposed ‘artifacts’ into such a remote and inaccessible cave without a helicopter,” she adds. “Even a helicopter wouldn’t be able to access many of the Grand Canyon’s caves directly due to the nature of the impassible cliffs.”
Beyond that, the story itself contributes to the erasure of the Native Americans indigenous to North America who lived in the region for thousands of years — in this case, the 11 tribes with historic connections to the resources and lands found within Grand Canyon National Park.
“If there was some massive influx of Egyptian rulers and laborers, wouldn’t the Indigenous tribes know?” says Johnson. “Wouldn’t their oral histories, pictographs and petroglyph panels, that dot the landscape like freckles, depict this sort of world-changing event?”
Read More: Ancient Egypt’s Fiercest Female Rulers
The Grand Canyon and Ancient Egypt Connection
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there is one verifiable link between the Grand Canyon and the ancient Egyptians: The names of some of its geological landmarks, which were granted titles like Isis Temple, in reference to the Egyptian goddess of healing and magic, or Horus Temple, named after the falcon-headed Egyptian sky god.
Other pantheons crop up in the Grand Canyon’s monuments, too, like Apollo Temple, named after the Roman deity of light; there are even summits named for figures of Arthurian legend, such as Guinevere Castle and Galahad Point. Many of the canyon’s landmarks, says Johnson, were named by 19th-century geologist Clarence Dutton, who conducted a detailed geologic survey of the region in 1882.
“[Dutton] believed that the canyon was such an important and impressive feature that the names of its features should reflect all the world’s cultures and religions,” says Johnson. “He, and his successors, chose to name the many landmarks in the Grand Canyon after mythologies and legends from around the world.”