Tracing Graham Hancock’s Shifting Cataclysm

Skeptical Inquirer , Volume 26, No.4, July/August 2002, p 45-9
Reproduced with permission

By the late 1960s the theory of plate tectonics had become firmly established in geological thought. They had survived close scrutiny and challenges from competing hypotheses and propositions, both within and outside the scientific community. One of the most prominent unorthodox interpretations put forward was Charles Hapgood’s “Earth Crustal Displacement”, which was never accepted as a truly valid competing scientific hypothesis and the author was not part of the geological community. Popularised in his 1958 book, “Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science“, the last decade has seen the re-emergence of the Earth Crustal Displacement idea in alternative circles. Its most vocal supporters are the librarians Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, and the journalist Graham Hancock. Hancock based a large portion of his book “Fingerprints of the Gods” (1995, revised 2001) on Hapgood’s evidence for catastrophe at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, 12 000 BP.

Earth Crustal Displacement is based on the premise that the Earth’s lithosphere (the outer part of the rocky Earth, about the uppermost 80 kilometers or 50 miles) has shifted as a whole at different times in the past over the Earth’s interior. Hancock (1995: 11) went so far as to claim no geologist:

has succeeded in proving it incorrect.

Results from pollen analyses have revealed patterns of climate change which are at odds with the inherent predictions of the Earth Crustal Displacement model. Studies have shown that the Polar regions have either contracted or expanded towards the equator, but have never shifted their positions as required by Earth Crustal Displacement. The CLIMAP Project (1981) reconstructed climatic zones during the Last Glacial Maximum and the results obtained shows the North and South Poles (and the equator) in the same position as today. Paleontological data, summarised by Thiede et al. (1990), reveals that the Arctic Ocean has continuously experienced polar climates, almost permanent ice cover and glacio-marine sedimentation for all of the Late Cenoziac since the mid-Pleistocene. Phillips and Ganze (1997) reconfirm that, regardless of how the climate has varied in the Arctic Polar regions, they have been colder than the oceanic areas south of it for at least the past 7 million years. Earth’s lithosphere is attached to the mantle in such a way as to make Earth Crustal Displacement impracticable. The mechanism for Earth Crustal Displacement was postulated to be the sheer weight of the ice built up over time; this caused the crust to shift through unequal weight distribution. However, this weight is compensated for by isostatic depression of the crust. Finally, there is no paleomagnetic evidence for Earth Crustal Displacement having occurred.

In Fingerprints of the Gods, Hancock hypothesizes that the demise of the mammoths and other megafauna was caused by a catastrophic cataclysm brought on through an Earth Crustal Displacement. The result was that:

terrible forces were unleashed on all living creatures during the last Ice Age

and that:

the northern regions of Alaska and Siberia appear to have been the worst hit by the murderous upheavals between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago. In a great swathe of death around the edge of the Artic Circle the remains of uncountable numbers of large animals have been found – including many carcasses with the flesh still intact, and astonishing quantities of perfectly preserved mammoth tusks (Hancock 1995: 212, 213).

Hancock makes a case for Siberia having experienced a warm climate before 11,000 B.P. and contrasts it with the conditions seen there today. As evidence, Hancock focuses on stomach contents:

The mammoth died suddenly, in intense cold, and in great numbers. Death comes so quickly that the swallowed vegetation is yet undigested… Grasses, bluebells, buttercups, tender sedges, and wild beans have been found, yet identifiable and undeteriorated, in their mouths and stomachs (Hancock 1995: 215-16).

The source for the quote by Hancock is a 1960 newspaper article in the Saturday Evening by Ivan Sanderson. Hancock (1995: 216) also claims:

Needless to say, such flora does not grow anywhere in Siberia today. Its presence there in the eleventh millennium B.C. compels us to accept that the region had a pleasant and productive climate – one that was temperate or even warm… What is certain, however, is that at some point between 12-13,000 years ago a destroying frost descended with horrifying speed upon Siberia and has never relaxed its grip. In an eerie echo of the Avestic traditions, a land which had previously enjoyed seven months of summer was converted almost overnight into a land of ice and snow with ten months of harsh and frozen winter.

The positions and actions of ice sheets are more complicated than the blanket portrayal in Fingerprints of the Gods. The Barents Ice Sheet covered most of northern Russia and goes unmentioned in Fingerprints of the Gods, as does the reasons behind why Siberia was not all covered in ice. Siberia lay west and south-west of where there Barents Ice Sheet had formed. There was insufficient snowfall to create enough ice to expand the Barents Ice Sheet into Siberia. Chinooks blowing down off the ice sheet, moderating the climate of the area in front of them, was the cause of the insufficient snowfall. North America was also subjected to its own Chinook winds. As has been documented with the Sierra Nevadas and other mountain ranges, the air descending 2-3 km from the top of an ice-sheet would heated up to an average of 4-7 degrees centigrade. The areas of Siberia and North America in front of the ice sheets would have experienced a milder winter than present, although their summers were colder, which resulted in more conducive conditions for plant growth and towards animals than those currently experienced. Moreover, a rain shadow was cast over Siberia by the ice sheet and the Arctic Ocean, covered in ice, could provide little moisture for precipitation over Siberia. This scenario was tested by COHMAP members (1988) who found a dry Siberia, a glaciated Barents Sea and a glaciated North America to be compatible.

The Frozen Mammoths

Claims that the mammoths were quick-frozen have been propounded for decades and were disputed by Zimmerman and Tedford as long ago as the mid-1970s (1976: 183):

Histologic examination of rehydrated tissue samples from late Pleistocene Alaskan mammal mummies demonstrates that the preservative effect of freezing and drying extends to remains 15,000 to 25,000 years old. Some muscle and liver retained identifiable histologic structures. Most tissues were completely disintegrated and partly replaced by masses of bacteria, an indication of considerable post-mortem decay before the remains were entombed beneath the permafrost zone.

These points were taken up and elaborated upon further by Kurten (1986: 51-2):

Various legends exist about frozen mammoths. It has been said, for instance, that the scientists who excavated the Beresovka mammoth, discovered in the year 1900, enjoyed a banquet on mammoth steak. What really appears to have happened (as I was told by Professor Anatol Heinz) is that one of them made a heroic attempt to take a bite out of the 40,000 year old meat but was unable to keep it down, in spite of a generous use of spices… The facts are not hard to find. In 1902, Otto Herz, a zoologist at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Pietersburg published in German an account of the expedition to the Beresovka River which he had led the year before, with the purpose of salvaging the mammoth carcass that had been discovered in 1900… The point here is this: Herz definitely states that it was only the superficial part of the cadaver that had been preserved. The internal organs had rotted away before the animal had become frozen.

“Blue-babe”, a bison who perished 36,000 B.P., was discovered with its chest cavity torn open by predators, which allowed its body to be quick-frozen. If it had been catastrophically frozen, it would have been too hard to tear open and be feasted upon. Second, its predators should have been quick-frozen by the same catastrophe that overcame their feast.

The size of the mammoths was an adaptive advantage to the cold environment in which they lived, and not to the warm environment postulated by Hancock. Low surface-to-body ratios help to reduce passive heat loss through the skin. They had small ears and trunks by comparison with their African elephant cousins, who use their large ears and trunks to dissipate the heat. The mammoth’s body was cold-adapted in other ways. They had a 10cm thick undercoat, 50cm long body hairs and a 10cm layer of white insulative fat under the skin. The woolly rhinoceros, Coelodonta antiquitatis, also had a shaggy coat and a layer of extra fat underneath its skin. Mummified remains of these rhinos have also been found in the permafrost.

Permafrost Plants

The plants and pollen found within the mammoths, together with the remains in the surrounding sediments, consist entirely of plant varieties adapted to cold climates. The plant remains found in the guts of the mammoth and other mummified animals from Siberia have been analysed and summarised in detail by Ukraintseva (1993). Further work on the climate of Siberia by Russian paleontologists, paleobotanists and geologists has also been summarised in Ukraintseva (1993). Siberia was not dominated by tundra when the mammoths lived. As Ukraintseva (1993: 240) points out:

Integrated investigations threw light on environments of the concrete specimens of fossil animals discussed here and the ‘mammoth’ fauna as a whole. Most of the mammals died in warm periods during the last 53,000-10,000 years when the vast territory of Siberia was covered by various forests, paludal communities and bogs, whereas communities of azonal character (meadows, steppe meadows and others) which served as pastures to the mammals sharply reduced in area.

Ukraintseva also says:

Cold (glacial) epochs were dominated by open, treeless landscapes such as arctic meadows, various tundras, and periglacial steppes. Remains of fossil trees, dated by 14C analysis, suggest that woody plants did not disappear completely during short cold phases of the last Pleistocene and Holocene. They remained as small forests and separate trees in the river valleys and serves as peculiar advanced posts for forest advance northwards at warm periods.

The arctic meadows, tundras and steppes contained the herbaceous plants, leaves and sprigs of shrubs and low shrubs needed for the mammoth to feed on and survive in glacial Siberia. The mammoths also had complex molars that were ideally suited for its macrograzing habitats. These data were available to Hancock when both editions of Fingerprints of the Gods were published.

The problem is that the winters had to have been cold enough to freeze and mummify the remains, and the summers warm enough to melt the permafrost and produce mudflows to bury the carcasses. If the summers were too cold then mudflows wouldn’t have occurred and the carcasses buried and preserved; if the winters were too warm, the carcasses would have decayed or devoured fully by predators before being preserved. The remains of Pleistocene mammals in Alaska and Siberia have been discovered in permafrost, which resulted in the body tissue being preserved through desiccation-induced mummification.

The end of the Last Glacial Maximum was a continuation of cyclical events occurring over hundreds of millions of years, which has its origins of the tilt of the Earth and the Earth’s eccentric orbit around the sun. Although the latter is mentioned in Chapter 28 of Fingerprints of the Gods, entitled “Machinery of Heaven”, its implications are not discussed. The two Milankovitch factors combine to vary the amount of solar radiation different areas of earth receive at different times in accordance with orbital forcing. Current cycles last 100,000 years and are affected also by ocean current and the rise and fall of mountain ranges. In-depth analyses have been undertaken and presented by John and Katherine Imbrie (1979), as well as Wally Broecker and George Denton (1990).

The climate changes which affected the habitats of the mammoths, and other mammals, at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum have been eloquently and concisely expressed by Vereshchagin and Baryshnikov (1984: 506-7):

Winters with little snowfall and the development of a luxuriant grass cover on hard, dry ground with abundant summer insolation allowed horses, bison, and saiga to occupy huge expanses of northern Eurasia. The boundary between the Pleistocene and Holocene was characterized by sharp, short climatic oscillations: The Bølling interstadial (12,400-12,000 yr B.P.), the Middle Dryas stadial (12,000-11,8000 yr B.P.), and the Allerød interstadial (11,800-11,000 yr B.P.), the Upper Dryas stadial (11,000-10,300 yr B.P.), and so forth, which affected the Pleistocene species decisively. It was precisely in this time range that the massive extinction of the mammoths and their ‘fellow travellers’ occurred in the arctic zone. Testimony to this extinction are the hundreds of thousands of bones from disarticulated skeletons and the occasional frozen carcasses buried in Sartan deposits (late Wisconsin) in northern Yakutia and on the Tajmyr Peninsula. Judging from modern examples of mass death among wild and domestic ungulates in the Kazakhstan steppes, the best explanation for such death at the end of the Pleistocene is the frequent occurrence of snowstorms (blizzards) in winter and the transformation of the nutritious Pleistocene tundra-steppe into a boggy, lake-dotted tundra. In subarctic latitudes at this time, taiga and mixed-forests advanced rapidly onto open expanses, and a forest fauna developed. From the paleozoologist’s point of view, the most convincing proof that the landscape changed radically on the boundary between the Pleistocene and Holocene is the change from a steppe, mammoth fauna into a forest fauna on the Russian Plain, in the northern Urals, in Siberia, and even in the Far East.

These two authors place great emphasis upon the role of climate in the demise of the megafauna (512):

The examples we have presented of extremely rapid decline in some nonexploited mammal species during the Quaternary and at present in northern Eurasia point to the supreme importance of external, abiotic environmental factors in their extinction. The near total extinction of large species of the mammoth fauna in the tundra and taiga zones and their partial survival in the forest steppe and steppe confirms the decisive effects of climatic and landscape changes for the life and death of this species group. The best proof of what has been said is the ubiquitous transformation of the Upper Pleistocene “steppe” fauna into a forest and taiga fauna over huge areas in upper and middle latitudes in Eurasia. In this case, the primitive species were not crowded out by more progressive ones, nor were their population structures disrupted, nor were they destroyed by human activity. Environmental change was so radical and dramatic that morphological evolution simply did not have time to catch up. The destructive activity of people is often thought to have been decisive in the extinction of Quaternary giants (mammoths, rhinoceros, cave bear, and others). However, while human influence on animal populations steadily increased in prehistory, it became definitive only in the last few millennia and centuries. In addition, the role of man has not been the same in all geographic zones. It has been greatest in the ancient heartlands of civilization in the Mediterranean Basin, western and central Asia, and China, and least in the polar dessert. The remaining causes of extinction have apparently been secondary, merely promoting further reduction in ranges and numbers of species after they had suffered from climatic and landscape changes or from human pressures.

Other theories place greater or lesser emphasis upon human involvement on the extinction of the megafauna, but the point here is that the competing scientific hypotheses are rooted in sound factual evidence that strongly contradicts Fingerprints of the Gods.

The book Quaternary Extinctions is cited four times in Fingerprints of the Gods (Chapter 26), which puts forward Hancock’s view of a cataclysm having struck Siberia and Alaska causing the demise of the mammoths and other fauna. In each case, no mention is made of the evidence and views proposed by the scientists on the basis of valid scientific research into the cause of fauna extinctions at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary.


In the scenario painted by Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods, Siberia and Alaska are ice free with temperate climates prior to a cataclysm occurring at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. This dramatic shift to an ice-bound climate explains the existence of frozen mammoths and the demise of a number of megafauna. Accordingly, to test Hancock’s ideas the following factors would have to have been proved correct:

1. The faunal remains found inside the mammoths and in the surrounding environment could not be from plants which can adapt to the cold;
2. The dates of frozen mammoths carcasses would be clustered in the couple of thousand years following the Last Glacial Maximum;
3. No mammoths would have survived the Earth Crustal Displacement-induced cataclysm;
4. Earth Crustal Displacement would need to be a valid scientific theory; and
5. No other geological and archaeological theory could better explain the currently available evidence.

Until 3,700 B.P., a small woolly mammoth species existed about 200 km off the coast of Siberia, on Wrangel Island. The body of the mammoth was adapted for the cold and the environment of Pleistocene Siberia and Alaska was far from the warm picture portrayed in Fingerprints of the Gods. Earth Crustal Displacement is a discredited hypothesis which no longer has any factual basis on which to stand: it was tested, as all scientific hypotheses are, and found wanting. The demise of the mammoth and other megafauna at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition is readily explainable through primarily climatic influences and human activities.

The information cited in this article was available to Hancock before the publication of the first edition of Fingerprints of the Gods. He has since brought out a second edition, with the only change being an Introduction and additional photos. It is fitting to end off this article in Hancock’s own words (2001: xvii-xviii):

I don’t believe in revising or ‘updating’ books. For this reason, I haven’t changed a word of the original text of Fingerprints of the Gods. All of it is reproduced here exactly as it was in the first, 1995, edition… The proper place for all this new material to come out, in my view, is in new books, not in updates to old ones. So even as I write this introduction to the 2001 edition of Fingerprints of the Gods I am happy to report that I have also completed the first three chapters of Underworld – which is scheduled for publication in 2002 [please note that Underworld will not be covering the same subject material as Fingerprints of the Gods]. Writing new books, rather than going back to tamper with books already written, is also the way I prefer to respond to criticisms of my work… I am proud of this book and continue to stand by it despite the unremitting hostility and criticisms of academics.


Broecker, W., and G. Denton. 1990. What drives glacial cycles? Scientific American, January 1990: 43-50.

CLIMAP Project Members. 1981. Seasonal reconstructions of the Earth’s surface at the last glacial maximum. Geological Society of America Map and Chart Series, MC-36. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado.

COHMAP Members. 1988. Climatic changes of the last 18,000 years: Observations and modelling simulations. Science 241: 499-502.

Hancock, G. 1995. Fingerprints of the Gods: A Quest for the Beginning and the End. London: William Heinemann.

Hancock, G. 2001. Fingerprints of the Gods: The Quest Continues. London: William Heinemann.

Hapgood, C. 1958. Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science. New York: Pantheon Books.

Imbrie, J., and K. Imbrie. 1979. Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Kurten, B. 1986. How to Deep Freeze a Mammoth. New York: Columbia University Press.

Phillips, R., and A. Ganze. 1997. Quaternary history of sea ice and paleoclimatic in the Amerasia Basin, Arctic Ocean, as recorded in the cyclical strata of Northwind Ridge. Geological Society of America Bulletin 109(9): 1101-115.

Thiede, J., D.L. Clark, and Y. Herman. 1990. Late Mesozoic and Cenozoic paleoeceangraphy of the northern polar ocean. In The Arctic Ocean Region, A. Gantz, L. Johnson and J. Sweeney eds. The Geology of North America, Boulder, Colorado.

Ukraintseva, V. 1993. Vegetation Cover and Environment in the “Mammoth Epoch” in Siberia. San Diego: The Mammoth Site.

Vereshchagin, N. & Baryshnikov, G. 1984. Quaternary mammalian extinctions in Northern Eurasia. In Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution, P. Martin, and R. Klein eds. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Zimmerman, M., and R. Tedford. 1976. Histologic Structures Preserved for 21,300 Years. Science 194 (4261): 183-4