Fingerprints of the Gods: A Review

Graham Hancock maintains that the world’s ancient civilizations inherited their culture and knowledge from a now forgotten “hypothetical third party”, rather than developed independently. As he puts it, “our species could have been afflicted with some terrible amnesia and … the dark period so blithely and dismissively referred to as ‘prehistory might turn out to conceal unimagined truths about our own past”

Discussions in Egyptology 34, 1996, pp135 – 142
Reproduced with permission

Even before we have a chance to read the first sentence of his new block-buster, Graham Hancock declares his opposition to traditional scholarship when he pays tribute to Ignatius Donnelly, Arthur Posnansky, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Charles Hapgood and Giorgio de Santillana:

who saw that something was badly wrong with the history of mankind, who had the courage to speak out against intellectual adversity, and who pioneered the momentous paradigm shift that is now irrevocably under way.

Fine words, but are they justified and should they be taken seriously?

The reader may be well advised to turn first to Chapter 52 (pp. 487-505) in order to find out where he or she is being taken. Egyptian evidence is used extensively from p. 256 onwards, and I shall summarize the preceding pages only briefly.

The book starts with a discussion of the remarkably detailed old maps of Antarctica (the continent which was only discovered in 1818), in particular the map drawn by Admiral Piri Reis in 1513. Intriguing monuments of South and Central America are examined and often daringly re-dated to periods much earlier than is generally believed (e.g. in the case of Machu Picchu from the 15th c. AD to about 4000 BC, or Tiahuanaco from AD 500 to as early as 15,000-10,000 BC!). Special attention is paid to the high standard of technology and mathematical and astronomical knowledge which, it is suggested, were purposefully embodied in some of the structures. A discussion of myths referring to environmental catastrophes and mysterious “civilizer” figures from all over the world is followed by contemporary scientific evidence for natural disasters on comparable scale.

The book has been a runaway hit with the public, but it hasn’t elicited much response from “orthodox” Egyptologists. Andy Beckett, in the article which appeared in the Independent on Sunday on July 30, 1995, reported that scholars at the British Museum whom he had consulted hadn’t read the book nor heard of its author. This need not mean a great deal. There is a tremendous gulf separating professional and amateur Egyptologists across which both sides view each other with suspicion. Egyptology sometimes reminds one of the television chat shows where the hosts appear as guests on each other’s programmes in a kind of incestuous relationship based on the belief that there is no world outside their own. Partisans of each faction tend to read publications of their co-believers while outsiders are largely ignored. For professional Egyptologists this is a pragmatic prioritized approach – it is hardly feasible to enter into a discussion of every “original” idea presented in popular or popularizing publications, so these tend to be almost completely ignored. This is unfortunate because such theories are given an easy unopposed ride in the press, radio and television and those behind them are, falsely, seen as representatives of the subject.

In this country there is now a growing reluctance to fund areas of learning which are perceived as unnecessary, indulgent and of no immediate “practical” relevance for modern society. There is a real danger that under this pressure Egyptology might metamorphose into harmless but irrelevant entertainment, a good read, an attractive topic for a superficial multi-part television series and a provider of lecturers for Nile cruises.

Most people would agree that there are considerable historical problems as yet unresolved. Nevertheless, one may be excused for being somewhat cautious and cynical when a “paradigm shift” is propounded in a popular book rather than in a closely argued monograph or in the pages of specialized journals where it would be exposed to merciless criticism (and, most definitely, bring no pecuniary reward). But, you might object, such theories would probably never get as far as the pages of a scholarly series or a specialized journal because many of their editors tend to shun new ideas and prefer all contributions to be clones of their own thinking. Touché.

A block-buster needs a block-busting theme. Graham Hancock maintains that the world’s ancient civilizations inherited their culture and knowledge from a now forgotten “hypothetical third party”, rather than developed independently. As he puts it:

our species could have been afflicted with some terrible amnesia and … the dark period so blithely and dismissively referred to as ‘prehistory might turn out to conceal unimagined truths about our own past (p. 183)  

As far as Egypt is concerned, Hancock adopts John West’s view that:

Egyptian civilization was not a ‘development’, it was a legacy (p. 136).

The idea of a now lost or unidentified centre of civilization from which it spread to Egypt is not new. It has, however, never been taken very seriously although scholars who have acknowledged such a possibility include Sir E.A. Wallis Budge and W.B. Emery. To be fair to them, neither argued it in detail nor was its ardent supporter. Our knowledge and understanding of ancient Egypt have grown enormously since the time of Budge and very significantly since the publication of Emery’s Archaic Egypt. While the speed of Egypt’s development in its early stages was remarkable, its civilization did not:

burst upon the historical scene, fully formed, apparently without antecedents (p. 456)

and so it is not necessary to resort to a deus ex machina in order to explain it. This particular dragon which the author so keenly sets out to slay just does not exist. Paradoxically, the picture of Egyptian late prehistory and early history appears to be “distorted” because of the rapid increase in the artistic and rudimentary inscriptional evidence, much of which is identical with our “historical” sources.

Hancock’s super-diffusionism and anti-evolutionism are global. His main thesis runs something like this:

Our civilization is not the first on our planet. Sometime between 15,000 and 8000 BC, the existing highly developed civilization, perhaps even “more sophisticated than we are today” (p. 426, quoting John West), was destroyed as the result of a catastrophe on a planetary scale.

Civilized beings (either gods or men) were present in Egypt for an immensely long period before the advent of the First Dynasty (p. 384).

They “knew the earth to be a sphere, knew its dimensions almost as well as we do ourselves, and had divided it into 360 degrees” (p. 433).

The catastrophe was probably caused by earth-crust displacement during which the landmass of the present Antarctica, the centre of the earlier civilization, was shifted some 2000 miles (30 degrees) further to the south. The after-effects of the displacement included enormous tidal waves, volcanic activity and an expanding ice-cap which nearly annihilated the whole of mankind and eventually buried the achievements of the civilization almost without trace. Fortunately, the catastrophe had been foreseen and at least some steps could be taken to ensure that there would be some survivors and that the knowledge of the civilization would be preserved and transmitted to future generations. This knowledge was embodied in structures “scattered around the world” (p. 430) in an attempt to communicate with posterity through these gigantic “learning machines”. It was also encoded in myths, in particular the numbers pertaining to the calculation of precession. Certain monuments which we regard as creations of “ancient Egypt” are, in fact, much older. It is only now, when mankind once again approaches the state of development which had been attained before the catastrophe that the knowledge contained in the monuments is being unravelled and understood. Unfortunately:

cyclical, recurrent and near-total destructions of mankind are part and parcel of life on this planet … [and] have occurred many times before and … will certainly occur again (p. 498).

The next date for such an event was calculated by the ancient Maya calendar as 4 Ahau 3 Kankin, i.e. 23 December 2012.

This is an intriguing scenario. A global catastrophe caused by the Earth’s geology, an agent from the outer space, or one which is mankind-induced (e.g. the outbreak of a nuclear war, global warming, or spread of diseases such as AIDS) cannot be excluded, although one feels that only disasters which we inflict on ourselves may statistically approach probability and need be worried about. Archaeologically, Hancock’s thesis that ours is not the first civilization on this planet is a huge and radical concept, so let us examine some of his arguments for the massive re-dating of several Egyptian monuments in the Memphite area (my comments in italics). I shall not enter into a discussion of the Osireion at Abydos which the author has re-dated because of “the nature of the architecture itself” (p. 406).

The pyramids

Hancock pays much attention to the pyramids, particularly those at Giza. They:

… express the technology, the geographical knowledge, the observational astronomy (and perhaps also the religion) of a forgotten civilization of the past (p. 169, as a hypothesis, later confirmed),

and so date to the eleventh millennium BC. They are:

an impossible engineering feat … carried out to astonishingly high and precise standards (p. 310)

Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure only associated themselves with the pyramids; parts of the pyramid-complex may, however, be theirs (p. 313).

“Unorthodox” theories are characterized by the ease with which they pluck a fact out of its context which they then completely disregard. Pyramids, as well as various parts of the pyramid-complexes, can be shown to have progressively developed and Giza pyramids and their temples, etc. have their place in this development: they have their ancestors and successors.

The pyramid of Khufu (The Great Pyramid).

A. The purpose.

1. It is a:

geodetic marker for the apex of the Delta (p. 432).

This means little – the northern part of the Memphite nome abuts on the Delta, the Giza pyramids were built close to the cultivated area and not very far from the Nile, and the definition of the eastern and western margins of the Delta as they were around 10,000 BC based on modern maps is unreliable.

2. It was designed:

to serve as a map-projection – on a scale of 1:43,200 – of the northern hemisphere of our planet (p. 434).

Well, nearly, but even if one concedes that this isn’t just a reflection of the modern obsession with numbers, the apparent similarity may be connected with the presence of the value Pi in the measurements of the pyramid.

3. It was not intended to be a tomb because of:

the absence of inscriptions or decorations anywhere within its immense network of galleries, corridors, passageways and chambers. … The fashion throughout Egyptian history had been for the tombs of the pharaohs to be extensively decorated … (as in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor … [and] the Fifth Dynasty pyramids at Saqqara) (p. 301).

The author compares royal tombs some 1200 years or more apart. The interior of pyramids before Unis (2356-2323 BC) had no texts or decoration. Those between Unis and Ibi (c.2140 BC) were inscribed with Pyramid Texts, and royal tombs of the New Kingdom (after c.1550 BC) carried extensive texts and scenes based on Underworld Books.

B. The date.

The standard Egyptological dating of the pyramid (Khufu reigned c.2551-2528 BC) is doubted for several reasons:

1. The quarry marks in the thrust-relieving chambers which name Khufu may have been put there by H. Vyse in 1837 (pp. 302-3). This is because

1.1. they are:

the only signs of the name Khufu … inside the Great Pyramid.

The pyramid interior was not inscribed before the end of the 5th Dynasty.

1.2 and 3:

It was odd that they had been found in such an obscure, out-of-the-way corner of that … building. … It was odd that they had been found at all in a monument otherwise devoid of inscriptions of any kind.

Not at all. Elsewhere such graffiti and marks (not just of quarrymen, but also stonemasons and workmen responsible for transport) would have been obliterated. They represent notes made during the pyramid’s construction and were not part of its decoration. The fact that Khufu’s name forms part of the designation of a gang of workmen shows conclusively that the structure was built in his reign. There will be many more such marks on the blocks in the pyramid’s core.


… it was extremely odd that they had been found only in the top four of the five relieving chambers. Inevitably, suspicious minds began to wonder whether ‘quarry marks’ might also have appeared in the lowest of these five chambers had that chamber, too, been discovered by Vyse (rather than by Nathaniel Davison seventy years earlier).

They may have been present on the blocks in Davison’s chamber and were later obliterated, or may not have been there at all.


… it was odd that several of the hieroglyphs … had been painted upside down, and that some were unrecognizable while others had been misspelt or used ungrammatically …

They were made before the blocks were placed in their present position. Such graffiti are notoriously hard to read and as they are mostly the names of gangs or overseers, it is difficult, if not impossible, to claim that any of them are misspelt.

2. The text of the Inventory Stela:

clearly indicated that both the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid … were already in existence long before Khufu came to the throne (p. 303)

No. The crucial passage of the text runs as follows:

The living Horus Medjedu (= Horus-name of Khufu), the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khufu, given life. He found the precinct of Isis, mistress of the pyramid, next to the precinct of Hauron, to the north-west of the precinct of Osiris lord of Rostau. He built his pyramid next to the temple of this goddess (and) he (also) built the pyramid of Princess Henutsen next to this temple.

The purpose of this tendentious text, probably written early in the 26th Dynasty, around 600 BC (palaeography, orthography, stela-type, Hauron), was to emphasize the antiquity of the cult of Isis by claiming that it was older than the construction of the pyramids. In this context, the epithet “mistress of the pyramid” is anachronistic and does not imply that the Great Pyramid was associated with Isis, and the stela does not suggest in any way that Khufu was buried in one of the subsidiary pyramids.

C. The properties:

The scale involved (1:43,200 – note J.M.) … incorporate[s] numbers relating precisely to [precession]” (pp. 435)

Let us make it quite clear how the number 43,200 is arrived at – by multiplying “4320, the number of years required for the equinoctial sun to complete a precessional shift of 60 degrees (i.e., two zodiacal constellations)” (p. 258) by ten. Are we seriously expected to recognize this as a “message” rather than a number arrived at quite accidentally?

2. Robert Bauval’s theory that the distribution of Giza pyramids reflects the skies in 10,450 BC and so:

marked a precessionally significant event: the lowest point, the beginning, the First Time in Orion’s 13,000-year ‘up’ cycle (p. 446)

is accepted enthusiastically. Bauval himself (p. 449) believes that the discrepancy between this date and that of the construction of the pyramid of Khufu suggested to him by the orientation of the shafts, 2450 BC, can be due to one of the following facts:

2.1. The site was planned around 10,450 BC, but the shafts aligned only around 2450 BC (this is his favoured explanation).

2450 BC as the date of the building of the pyramid does not fit the theory of the “global catastrophe”, with or without the retrospective calculation of 10,450 BC.

The mathematical knowledge of the builders in 10,450 BC was sufficient to calculate the 2450 BC alignment in advance.

This is difficult to follow. Khufu’s date couldn’t have been known in advance, and he couldn’t have changed the alignment of the shafts if the pyramid already existed. If the date 2450 BC is unconnected with the construction of the pyramid, what is its significance?

why … in a supposedly ‘primitive’ stone monument built more than 4500 years ago [can we see] … this strange, obsessional adherence to machine-age standards of precision? (p. 278).

Given that (a) technology, (b) organizational skills and experience, (c) resources (materials, manpower) and (d) resolution to undertake and complete the project, were all present, there is no reason why, with sufficient time (at least 23 regnal years for Khufu according to the Turin Canon), the pyramid should not have been successfully completed. The perfection of construction goes hand in hand with the size of the structure. The questions “why did the Egyptians exerted so much effort in order to raise these enormous and useless stone mountains?” and “why were they so obsessed with the perfection of the building?” have the same answer. Modern criteria do not apply. A project on such a scale and requiring such precision was demanded by contemporary Egyptian ideology (religion), and doubts about its usefulness or practical labour-saving considerations played no part In the decision-making.


… the builders of the Great Pyramid were … conversant with Pi and … deliberately incorporated its value into the dimensions … (p. 178).

Why couldn’t its presence in the design be the result of a measuring method based on the rolling of a drum?

Why couldn’t its presence in the design be the result of a measuring method based on the rolling of a drum?

The valley temple of Khafre.

A and B. The purpose and date.

1. According to Hancock, the Inventory Stela refers to it:

quite explicitly as the ‘House of Osiris, Lord of Rostau'” and shows that it was “standing during the reign of Khafre’s predecessor Khufu (p. 344).

The temple of Osiris Lord of Rostau was in the Giza area, but there is nothing in the text of the Inventory Stela to equate it with certainty with the valley temple of Khafre. The valley temple of Khafre is paralleled by comparable structures in other pyramid-complexes.

The Great Sphinx.

Here the author highlights a real problem. Egyptologists have not yet fully explained the purpose of the Great Sphinx and established its date. However, Hancock’s re-interpretation and re-dating of the pyramid-complexes at Giza (including the valley temple of Khafre) are flawed. With the eleventh-millennium BC context gone, there is no other cogent argument for an eleventh-millennium BC date of the Sphinx except for that presented by Robert Schoch (see below).

Khafre’s valley temple and the “Sphinx Temple” respect each other’s plan and so should be approximately contemporary, and the distribution of the monuments in this area of Giza suggests that the Sphinx belongs to them. I hope to demonstrate at a later date that it forms an integral part of Khafre’s pyramid-complex, but for the time being the case must rest.

A. The purpose.


The Sphinx was an equinoctial marker, with its gaze directed precisely at the point of sunrise on the vernal equinox (p. 454).

According to Hancock, this was why the statue was leonine; the constellation of Leo was -visible on the eastern horizon at dawn on the vernal equinox between 10,970 and 8810 BC.

This is a hypothesis, not a proof. If the date proposed by Hancock is not substantiated, the hypothesis ceases to exist.

This is a hypothesis, not a proof. If the date proposed by Hancock is not substantiated, the hypothesis ceases to exist.

B. The date.

1. Professor Robert Schoch, a geologist at Boston University, maintains that the sphinx shows signs of “precipitation-induced weathering” (pp. 420-1). The author believes that this is because of the long periods of heavy rainfall which followed his global catastrophe.

This is a scientific, geological argument. It can only be assessed, accepted or refuted from detailed knowledge of geology, especially erosion patterns, something which neither a standard Egyptologist, nor Graham Hancock, can do. There is no other evidence to show that the Sphinx can be dated as early as either Schoch (7000-5000 BC) or Hancock (about 10,000 BC or more) wishes to do, i.e. outside the range of dates associated with Giza pyramids. The Sphinx would stand in complete isolation among all the other monuments of Egypt, without any context, and would be incompatible with everything we know about the history of ancient Egypt. It is, therefore, the geological argument which should be looked at again (Hancock’s remarks on pp. 415-16 are methodologically incorrect).

2. The author dismisses the only three “contextual” arguments which he believes Egyptologists have for assigning the Sphinx to Khafre (pp. 348-9). This is oversimplification; these are not the only “contextual” considerations, but I shall refrain from expatiating further for reasons already mentioned. Nevertheless, some comments are called for in order to clarify the points which Hancock singles out.


Because of the cartouche of Khafre on line 13 of the Sphinx Stela.

Hancock believes that this is there because:

Tuthmosis [IV] … paid due tribute to an earlier restoration of the monument – one undertaken during the Fourth Dynasty by Khafre.

The text is so severely damaged that interpretation is difficult. Hancock’s explanation is, however, a flight of fancy. All we can say with certainty is that Khafre is mentioned, perhaps as one of the ancestors of Tuthmosis IV buried at Giza, in connection with the removal of sand covering the Sphinx by Tuthmosis IV. The text of line 13 runs as follows:

 let us bring him (i.e. the god of the Sphinx) cattle, fruit and all kinds of vegetables, let us make adoration to [our] ancestors … (and) august [gods? and] goddesses(?) … Khafre.


Because the Valley Temple next door is also attributed to Khafre.

I agree with the author that when put this way this does not look like a very convincing reason for the dating of the Sphinx.


Because the face of the Sphinx is thought to resemble the intact statue of Khafre found in the pit in the Valley Temple.

In the current state of our knowledge, I do not think one can use this either way. The face may have been re-carved later, e.g. when the support of the Sphinx’s beard received its decoration.

Graham Hancock writes a good and entertaining story. His enthusiastic account of the Oltec and Maya monuments of Mexico is a delight to read. However, his arguments concerning Egyptian monuments have not convinced me and the weaknesses in his analysis are far too serious. At times, objectivity deserts him completely, e.g. when he suggests that ancient Egypt:

was originally conceived of as a geometric construct (italics G.H.) exactly seven terrestrial degrees in length (p. 432) .

That famous scholar Groucho Marx put it succinctly:

Whom are you going to believe – me? Or the evidence of your own eyes?

And that applies to us all, orthodox or not.

Copyright © by Jaromir Malek