Skeptic Vol. 6, No. 4, 1998, pp 92-4
Reproduced with permission
Graham Hancock has become one of the book publishing and television documentary phenomena of our time, particularly in the U.K., from where he originates. After a series of journalistic books about northeast Africa and the Middle East, he produced The Sign and the Seal, in which he claimed to have traced the fabled Ark of the Covenant to a closed religious building in Ethiopia. (Unfortunately, the present guardians of this building refused him admittance, so we may never know if he was right!) This was followed by Hancock’s masterwork and bestselling book, Fingerprints of the Gods (FOTG), a mélange of alternative astronomy, geology, archaeology, and folk-myth which has reportedly sold more than 3.5 million copies. Indeed, it was so popular in the U.K., topping the “general’ (i.e., what used to be called “nonfiction”) charts for so long that it continued to sell in hardback even after the paperback edition was on sale, a publishing rarity.
Since FOTG, Hancock has produced more books, working in cooperation with fellow alternative theorist Robert Bauval. His latest project just hit the air waves here in the U.K. in a three-part documentary series entitled Quest for The Lost Civilization, a joint production of the U.K.’s Channel 4 and The Learning Channel (soon to air in the United States). There is a companion book for the series, Heaven’s Mirror. Quest for the Lost Civilization, an exquisite coffee-table book with dozens of four-color photographs taken from the various sites of lost civilizations Hancock visited in filming the series. Watching Hancock in action, as well as reading him, we can now begin to make sense of the Hancock phenomenon.
The first thing to be said about Hancock is that he knows how to tell a tale. He is a fluent and persuasive writer who structures his books well; FOTG is a real page-turner, leading the reader on from revelation to revelation towards the final apocalyptic conclusion. And much of this sense of narrative comes over on television; the programs are carefully structured, with sufficient repetition to engage the new viewer, and always leading toward the promise of some new and path-breaking conclusion. Hancock himself comes over sympathetically, communicating his enthusiasm and commitment even to a skeptical viewer like myself (though with the unfortunate and eventually irritating habit of emphasizing too many words in every sentence!).
In all this he is well-served by his television backers, for this is no cheapskate piece of tabloid television, but rather a well-resourced and well-designed production. It is a major strength of the producers that they provide detailed (and often quite stunning) footage of many ancient sites. In particular, for those of us no longer amazed by the Pyramids of Giza, there are some wonderful scenes of the still neglected Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia and of less well-known stone structures on Pacific islands. We get some idea of the scale and complexity of these edifices through a careful mixture of copious aerial photography and wandering round the sites on foot. The series is worth viewing just to see how extravagant and wonderful many of these ancient sites are. In addition, Hancock uses state of the art computer graphics to illustrate patterns and hypotheses about the layouts of these sites; courtesy of this virtual reality you can whiz breathlessly through some of the many shafts in the Great Pyramid to emerge into the night-sky of antiquity. This is not only as exciting as many Disney rides, but also helps to illustrate clearly some of the more abstract geometrical points of Hancock’s claims.
What are those claims? Here, I’m afraid, the skeptic in me rises to the surface. Hancock’s basic thesis remains unchanged: there once existed a worldwide civilization, the work of a race of oceangoing navigators with a profound knowledge of astronomy and architecture. This race was extinguished by a global cataclysm about 13,000 years ago, but elements of their culture survived, passed on and became embodied in the cultures of the ancient Egyptians, Cambodians, Incas, etc. By reading correctly the monuments that survive, we can learn much about this ancient civilization and what message it was trying to transmit to later generations.
This thesis goes against everything that orthodox archaeologists tell us (though Hancock has gone on record with his expressed contempt for “experts”) and so we have to judge it by the evidence provided. Unfortunately for Hancock, the evidence never quite matches the revelatory nature of the thesis. Hancock makes much of the many similarities between widespread ancient cultures. For instance, why are pyramids such a major architectural feature in Central America, Egypt, and Cambodia? Is this evidence of a common influence from an earlier global civilization? Hancock suggests as much, but a more plausible explanation not considered here is that if you want to build a very tall edifice, and have no access to sophisticated architectural techniques, then you will sooner, rather than later, arrive at the idea of the pyramid, and this is just what happened independently in these locals. They are much easier to build than skyscrapers and they cannot fall over, no matter how strong the wind. A simple process of trial and error in placing stones on top of each other would seem inevitably to lead you in the direction of the well-built and solid heap – the pyramid. (And we may wonder why this hypothesized super-civilization never arrived at such basic architectural ideas as the arch, a simple development which enabled the Romans to produce many longlasting and majestic edifices.)
Hancock places much greater weight on what he sees as a more important similarity His central thesis in the television series is that certain ancient sites were deliberately constructed to reflect key astronomical patterns: they are, as his books title makes clear, in some way mirrors of the heavens. Thus the layout of the main pyramids at Giza mirror Orion’s Belt (and the nearby leonine Sphinx is designed to gaze at certain times at the rising of the constellation Leo), while the layout of the Angkor Wat site mirrors the constellation Draco. But, claims Hancock, none of these alleged mirrorings work with today’s night-sky: the precession of the earth’s axis has moved the star-patterns round. Using computer-generated star-patterns as they would have appeared then, he claims that these sites are designed to mirror features of the night sky at about 10,500 B.C., the time of the fall of the hypothesized great lost civilization.
The problem with this is that some of these resemblances are not as striking as Hancock claims. The “Orion’s belt” layout at the Great Pyramid complex in Egypt, for example, is upside down to the sky’s orientation. Further, any sufficiently complicated site (and the Angkor Wat sites are incredibly complex) is capable of generating a near-infinite number of different patterns. Throw in an indefinite number of star-patterns from every night sky going back 13,000 years, and you are bound to be able to generate some resemblances. Seek and ye shall find. (The argument here is much the same as that against the recent book The Bible Code – generate enough data with enough possible combinations and you can find nearly any pattern you like.) There is, I am afraid, a lot more of Bible Code-style pattern seeking in these programs, and mere repetition and accumulation does not convince.
Hancock’s thesis is further weakened by what does not appear in the series. There is, for instance, a singular lack of conflicting voices or skeptical viewpoints. The others who appear, apart from Hancock and Bauval, are scientists or alternative theorists who broadly support his project. As historians and philosophers of science know, revolutionary ideas in science generate mountains of critics before they trigger a paradigm shift (if they succeed). Hancock sees himself as a revolutionary bucking the status quo and hoping to trigger his own paradigm shift amongst archaeologists and historians, yet critics are conspicuous by their absence. A striking exception is a brief interview with the present Director of Antiquities in Egypt, but this makes him come across as something of a blinkered fool, unwilling to allow Hancock to start excavating under the Sphinx to prove their thesis. (In a contemporaneous newspaper interview, however, this gentleman makes the reasonable point that his department is so flooded with alternative theories about the pyramids and Sphinx that they could not possibly allow all these people to dig around for themselves or there would be nothing of Egypt left!)
If there is a lack of skepticism in Quest for The Lost Civilization, there is also a lack of answers. In particular, the thesis of a preexisting super-civilization raises questions which are either ignored or inadequately addressed. Why can we find no direct trace of such a civilization? And what happened to them? Hancock’s answer to the second question has changed over time, but still provides no satisfactory solution for the first.
In FOTG, Hancock tied together a number of threads in order to come up with a catastrophe suitable for disposing of such an early civilization. His conclusion was that remains of this civilization might exist but are inaccessible, buried under the Antarctic icesheet. Sometime in the 11th millennium B.C. a planetary alignment, perhaps acting in conjunction with an excessively heavy ice-sheet at the pole, generated sufficient gravitational force to jerk the crust of the earth around upon its molten base, moving the location of this civilization from a temperate region to the South Pole. This thesis was widely ridiculed by just about everyone with any knowledge of astronomy and geology as hopelessly misunderstanding both subjects. And this rejection undercut much of the narrative excitement of FOTG, and especially its newspaper serializations, since they traded heavily upon the fact that we could expect another such planetary alignment in 2012, and thus the end of the world for us might also be nigh.
Since orthodox science has managed to make it abundantly clear that few of us need fear waking up in Antarctica unless we were foolish enough to go to sleep in Antarctica first, Hancock now needs a different cataclysm to dispose of his civilization. In Quest for The Lost Civilization he argues that around 10,500 B.C. the world’s sea-levels rose dramatically, inundating the sites of this supercivilization, if not overnight then certainly fairly quickly; in any case, soon enough to prevent them from relocating inland. So they did leave us lots of evidence, but it is all underwater somewhere, thus also neatly accounting for all those Atlantis or Lyonesse-type legends of sunken kingdoms. Hancock is not certain of the cause of this catastrophe, but suggests a comet strike, perhaps in the polar regions, which melted enough of the ice-cap to bring about this flood (and bring about all of the flood-myths we find in ancient scriptures). The singular lack of any supporting hard evidence for this disaster, not to mention the thorny problem of whether any comet strike powerful enough to melt that amount of ice would leave anything alive at all, is passed over. (And here I am sure Hancock’s production team let him down with the computer graphics: for a comet, as any schoolchild not corrupted by Hollywood special effects ought to know, is not a large rock but a large and dirty snowball!)
Even if we allow Hancock his disaster, this still does not answer the questions. Why should such a widespread civilization only occupy low-lying and easily-flooded locations? Why can’t we find traces of them in the many parts of Earth that were not inundated? If they had such an influence on peoples who lived in the high Andes or well inland in Indochina, why no traces of them there? Even the most primitive of our ancestors – the much-maligned Neanderthals – left behind simple burial sites for us to puzzle over. Here the absence of evidence speaks volumes.
The only evidence Hancock proffers is an underwater site at Yonagumi off the southernmost tip of Japan. Here we see much startling footage of divers moving over a noticeably regular rock formation of some sort in a location which all agree has been underwater for at least 10,000 years. But is it a natural formation or an archaeological remnant? I noticed that unlike most of the other sites we were shown, all of these rocks were smooth and showed no signs of carving of any kind. But Hancock’s intuition is that these are really buildings, genuine architectural traces of the lost civilization.
Here, unfortunately, is the nub of the matter. Intuition, like fire, is a fine servant but a terrible master. Without the guidance of hard evidence, intuition tends to go running off all over the landscape. Hancock eschews the slow and hard grind of acquiring data which guides the orthodox archaeologists he so disdains, and so we get theories which lead us all round the world but ultimately take us nowhere. The last program ends with a vague appeal to a sort of New-Agey spiritual message from the past which we may be able to access if we can ever decipher the messages from these long-lost ancestors. (Though we never find out why these messages are so vague. Why pass down hints about star-patterns instead of a clear narrative, in carved pictures if necessary, of what actually occurred?) We are left with this, and perhaps a subliminal threat that there might somewhere out there be a comet with our name on it.
It is all a shame, for the Hancock phenomenon trades upon some profound mysteries. Aliens once walked upon the Earth, and I do not mean in the tedious von Daniken sense. For those of us who live in a civilization where astronomy is the highly-expensive province of a handful of specialists, it is hard to imagine the minds of those early peoples for whom the stars and the seasons governed absolutely every aspect of their behaviors. We have only the stones they left us and our own capacity for creating stories; the builders of Stonehenge or Angkor Wat might as well have been Martians, so different were their beliefs and cultures from our own. Perhaps we will never be able to make sense of what they hoped to achieve through their various architectural endeavors.
But honest ignorance will never sell as many books as a good story, and ultimately Hancock is just a good storyteller. Broadcasting his story on The Learning Channel will perhaps give it a credibility it really does not deserve, for learning is not just about making up stories but about coming to test them against evidence – this marks off the storyteller from the true scientist. In this case “Quest for the Lost Evidence” might have been a better title; and though the journey was often fun, at the end the evidence for our supposedly missing super-ancestors remains as non-existent as before.