The Lost Civilization in Historical Perspective: Déjà vu all over again

Abstract: Examining Graham Hancock’s “Fingerprints of the Gods” Ken Feder finds that “There is nothing particularly original or new here, nothing ground-breaking. It is, in fact, diffusionism all over again, with the same long-ago discredited philosophical underpinnings.”

The intellectual legacy of Grafton Eliot Smith will, perhaps, forever be tainted by his association with the Piltdown Man Hoax. Though almost certainly not materially involved in perpetrating this paleontological fraud, the professor of anatomy at Victoria University in Manchester, England became one of the false fossil’s strongest proponents precisely because its morphology matched his expectation of a human ancestor with a modern-looking cranium, an ape-like jaw and, by inference, an ape-like body. (Spencer 1990)

At least as important as his association with Piltdown, however, was Smith’s role as one of the chief architects of the diffusionist perspective that characterized the British school of anthropology in the early years of the twentieth century (Smith 1928). An underlying view of this school of thought was, put most simply, that human beings were, in general, dull, unimaginative, and uninventive. From this, Smith deduced that most ancient human groups were culturally static and, if left on their own, would have changed very little through time.

It goes without saying that Smith understood that humanity had, nevertheless, undergone vast cultural changes since the beginning of the Paleolithic (now viewed as beginning about 2.5 million years ago). He explained these changes as the result of exceptions — or perhaps a single exception — to the above characterization of human groups as culturally inert. Smith and the other diffusionists maintained that only one or, perhaps, a very few “genius” cultures had developed in antiquity. The cultural precocity of such a group or groups was ascribed by some to their superior genetic endowment and by others to their location in a privileged habitat. For Smith, the single genius culture was that of Pharaonic Egypt.

In Smith’s view, before 6,000 years ago, people all over the world were living in a natural, primitive, and more or less fixed state. At about this time, a group of humans settled along the Nile and, as the result of an incredibly rich subsistence base made possible by the fertile valley soil, were afforded time free from the requirements of subsistence production. Using that free time to their advantage, Smith believed that the ancient Egyptians singularly produced most, if not all, of the key inventions that made civilized life possible: agriculture, animal domestication, ceramic technology, writing, monumental construction, and urban settlements.

In the diffusionist view, these inventions spread like waves on a still pond, emanating from Egypt and moving across the face of the earth. For Smith, though the Egyptians alone had independently evolved a complex civilization, several other world areas — including a number located across the Atlantic Ocean in the New World — became civilized by contact with and through their adoption of the inventions of ancient Egypt. The proverb may be correct when it states that all roads lead to Rome, but in Smith’s view, all intellectual roads led from the Nile Valley.

Though a cultural font for many diffusionists, not all embraced Egypt as the ultimate source of civilization. Some diffusionists supported the notion that, instead of Egypt, a civilization now lost in the clichéd dim mists of antiquity had been the source of all human progress. Certainly, writer and thrice-failed vice-presidential aspirant Ignatius Donnelly’s vision of the Lost Continent of Atlantis (as articulated in his book first published in 1882, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World) qualifies as an alternative source conforming to the general diffusionist perspective.


In his Timaeus and Critias dialogues, the Greek philosopher Plato (428-347 B.C.) told the story of Atlantis, a materially wealthy, militarily powerful, technologically advanced, but spiritually bankrupt society (Hutchins 1952). Today, Atlantis is viewed by many as little more than a plot device, a seemingly insurmountable adversary invented by Plato to put to the test an equally mythical ancient Athens — a perfect society that by a strange coincidence (not really) was a close match politically and socially to the hypothetical perfect society laid out by Plato in a prior work called the The Republic.

Donnelly believed that Atlantis was no literary invention but a veritable place. In the late nineteenth century and, therefore, presaging Smith, Donnelly believed that agriculture, writing, metallurgy, and monumental architecture had been invented just once — in his construct, not in Egypt but on Atlantis — and spread out from there, inspiring development of the historically known civilizations of the Old and New Worlds. Donnelly ends his book on a stirring note:

We are on the threshold. Scientific investigation is advancing in great strides. Who shall say that one hundred years from now the great museums of the world may not be adorned with gems, statues, arms, and implements from Atlantis, while the libraries of the world shall contain translations of its inscriptions, throwing new light upon all the past history of the human race, and all the great problems which now perplex the thinkers of our day.(Donnelly 1882: 480)

In the 120 years since Donnelly first presented his argument, evidence for an Atlantean source for all world civilizations has not been forthcoming. Museums are not “adorned” with the remnants of Atlantis, libraries are not filled with translations of Atlantean inscriptions. This is not terribly surprising to historians and archaeologists. Donnelly’s argument for the historical reality of the lost civilization was, after all, based on little more than general similarities among genuine ancient societies: many built pyramids and used the arch in construction; many possessed a writing system, and practiced agriculture. Donnelly proposed a common, Atlantean, source for all of these. Upon close inspection, however, one can see vast differences in the expression of these features in various ancient cultures, supporting an interpretation of their independent invention rather than diffusion from a single, common source. For example, cultures on either side of the Atlantic may have built structures that we call pyramids, but the use of a common term results from an imprecision in our language and not in detailed similarities. Differences between Egyptian pyramids and those of the Maya or the Aztecs and their predecessors in terms of their raw materials, engineering techniques, construction methods, and purpose should convince us that there could not have been a common source for them. In another example, although ancient complex societies on both sides of the Atlantic possessed agricultural subsistence bases, the crops and animals were entirely different and archaeological evidence shows long and independent developmental sequences from foraging to agriculture in a number of regions in both the Old and New Worlds. The most parsimonious explanation for this is independent invention, not diffusion from a common source.


In the 1960s another iteration of the extreme diffusionist perspective was presented, to be sure a weirder and wilder version than that of Smith or even Donnelly. Instead of pointing a finger toward Egypt or out to a spot in the middle of the Atlantic, Swiss writer Erich von Däniken pointed his finger up to the heavens, electing to find a source for human civilization and technological achievement in the cosmos (von Däniken 1970 and so many others). Von Däniken’s is a space age application of the diffusionist view; if intrinsically dull, uninventive, and unimaginative human beings had, in deep time, exhibited remarkable technologies, marvelous architectural skills, and mathematical sophistication, it must have come from somewhere else. For von Däniken, human beings did not develop such things but adopted them through the assistance of what amounts to an extraterrestrial Peace Corps. Once again, in what is clearly an extreme version of what is already an extreme paradigm, the ability of most or even all groups of humans to develop independently is rejected or, at least, downplayed. In this application, we don’t even need to find a single genius culture, at least not among humans and at least not on our planet.

This brings us to the “new” alternative writers, like Graham Hancock, John Anthony West, and Robert Bauval. One cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the view exhibited in books by these writers and in the writings of Smith, Donnelly, and von Däniken. Again and again, we encounter investigators who are perplexed that we find evidence of truly wondrous achievements in various places in the ancient world — remarkably aligned monumental structures; incredibly precise stone masonry; accurate calendrical systems — all issues that Hancock addresses in Fingerprints of the Gods. This perplexity originates in the same assumption that underpinned the diffusionist perspective of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; a perspective that rejects or at least is extremely skeptical of the possibility that people all over the world were capable of and responsible for such accomplishments by the sweat of their own brows and through the application of their own intellectual abilities.

Like the extreme diffusionists who preceded him, Hancock’s argument is circular and contradictory at the same time. Hancock must show that the archaeological record of ancient civilizations exhibits, simultaneously, incredible technological and intellectual sophistication and primitive simplicity. He must argue that simplicity represents the true state of these ancient peoples and that sophistication was introduced by a lost civilization.

Consider the following. In Fingerprints of the Gods, Hancock refers to the great sophistication of the calendar used by the ancient Maya and maintains that we should be greatly surprised by it among this ancient people. He is so skeptical of the ability of ancient Mesoamericans to have developed this calendar, he proposes that they didn’t develop it, but “inherited it” from a much older, super-sophisticated, lost civilization:

Perhaps the astronomy, the deep understanding of time, and the long-term mathematical calculations were not ‘quirks’ at all. Perhaps they were the constituent parts of a coherent but very specific body of knowledge that the Maya inherited, more or less intact, from an older and wiser civilization. (Hancock 1995:158; emphasis in original)

Hancock admits regularly in his books that ancient people could have developed sophisticated calendars, built magnificent monuments, and so on, independent of outside help, but he just as regularly suggests that it more likely was otherwise. To support his thesis that a lost civilization must have been responsible, Hancock must show that the Mesoamerican calendar is inexplicably, even shockingly out of character with the rest of Mesoamerican culture, otherwise no hypothesis of an outside source is warranted. Here he has painted himself into a tidy methodological corner and has no choice but to characterize the non-calendrical achievements of one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring ancient civilizations as “generally unremarkable” (Hancock 1995:158), to refer to their way of life as being only “semi-civilized”(p. 161), and to pres

Though the dust jacket of Fingerprints of the Gods asserts that Hancock’s work “contains the makings of an intellectual revolution,” in fact, it contains little that is new or revolutionary. It really is best characterized by the old Yogi Berra malapropism repeated in the title of this paper: It’s “déjà vu all over again,” a reprise of the old and tired diffusionist refrain. Even the specific examples of technological accomplishments exhibited in the archaeological record that Hancock feels are best explained as an intellectual inheritance from a far more ancient, almost preternaturally gifted culture, bears a strong resemblance to von Däniken: the Nazca ground drawings and lines; the Maya king Pacal’s coffin lid (Hancock sees a “machine” in the relief carving on the lid; von Däniken saw a spaceship); Khufu’s pyramid, et al. That Hancock points to Antarctica rather then Egypt, Atlantis, or Proxima Centuri as the homeland of the lost civilization and source for cultural development is interesting but beside the point in this discussion. Of greater relevance here is the fact that Hancock’s argument is, at its core, based on an underestimation of the abilities of ancient human beings, at least those not lucky enough to have been members of a lost civilization which was the source of all cultural development. There is nothing particularly original or new here, nothing ground-breaking. It is, in fact, diffusionism all over again, with the same long-ago discredited philosophical underpinnings.

Donnelly, Ignatius
1882 Atlantis, the Antediluvian World. N.Y.: Harper (1971 edition).

Hancock, Graham
1995 Fingerprints of the Gods. New York:Three Rivers Press.

Hutchins, R.M. (editor)
1952 The Dialogues of Plato, translated by B. Jowett. Chicago:William
Benton/Encyclopedia Britannica.

Smith, Grafton Eliot
1928 In the Beginning: The Origin of Civilization. New York: Morrow.

Spencer, Frank
1990 Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. Oxford:Oxford University Press.

von Däniken, Erich
1970 Chariots of the Gods. N.Y.: Bantam Books.