I watched the series Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix. This was labelled as a documentary but it was the presentation of the ideas of Graham Hancock, who is classified as a crank. I watched it to see how he presented himself and his ideas. I think Hancock is interesting for reasons that have little to do with those ideas, which are not especially original or argued at all convincingly; he may have more compelling deeper motives for them.
The fact that Hancock is a controversial figure is part of his brand and was incorporated right from the start in the series. The very first scene shows the mechanics of the film crew commencing an interview with the man himself, and we get the first of many montages showing him being mocked or stared at incredulously by various interviewers. His antagonists include such luminaries as Jeremy Paxman, who can only scoff since they don’t know anything themselves. An exception is Joe Rogan, the American professional opinion-haver, introducing Hancock on his show by noting that “mainstream” culture is slowly catching and accepting that he’s right about things.
Hancock describes himself as a “journalist”, qualified as an “investigative journalist” (one who chases a story rather than merely reporting it as it comes in) and at no point presents as a “scientist” of any kind himself.
One thing that gets blurred over in these segments is whether the “controversy” is a major event in mainstream academia; although it can reject the outsider’s ideas implacably, it may not devote much time or energy to the topic. There may be heated debates about specific topics, which Hancock has compiled into his own world-story, but that doesn’t mean Hancock is recognised as an important player in them. Another contextual detail missing is that there are lots of unconventional outsider views contesting the orthodoxy in lots of academic fields – amateur historians, quantum crystal healers, alternative ideas about dinosaur evolution – most of which do not even evoke a flicker of contempt from the experts who are supposed to be undermined by them. It isn’t just the gatekeepers of received wisdom about piles of old stones that have indie competitors.
We don’t see much of Hancock’s readers in this show, other than a glimpse of the audience at some event where he is giving a presentation. Although they may also share a range of other sceptical ideas, Graham positions himself as taking a very limited and particular line of doubt and alternative explanation. He is against “mainstream archaeology”, or just “archaeology”. He is not against “science” and in fact he would be hard put to be a general sceptic since many of his arguments involve accepting conventional western academic positions about geophysics, the Ice Ages, the movement of the Earth in space, and the validity of radioisotopic dating methods. Many of the people interviewed in this series can be considered legitimate authorities on the particular sites visited; there are very few “freelance” or “independent” researchers.
The great programmatic statement of Hancockism is at the start of the final episode 8:
At sites around the world we’ve seen what I believe are the fingerprints of a lost civilisation dating back to the last Ice Age. The last great mystery is: what happened to this advanced civilisation? There may be clues in the origin myths of ancient cultures because many of them tell the same basic story. According to these legends, once upon a time, humanity shared the Earth with a more advanced society, whether Atlanteans, or giants, or gods on Earth. Until an horrific global cataclysm occurred, a great flood, only a chosen few were spared to repopulate the Earth. Who were later visited by other survivors, mysterious great teachers, usually arriving by sea, to help lay the foundations for the rebirth of humanity and civilisation as we know it today. Science now confirms that just such a series of apocalyptic events did occur at the end of the last Ice Age, around 12800 years ago, an epoch known to geologists as “the Younger Dryas”.
Here we get a number of ideas which are quite well-established and widely circulated in modern western culture: the existence of a lost Golden Age; the possibility of collapse; the notion of an Enlightened Elite keeping the old knowledge alive, and the followers who can share in awareness of the great secrets. The authority of physical sciences to decide questions about the distant prehistoric past is taken for granted, and also modern thinking about the probability that meteoric collisions can cause rapid and global change. Graham briefly alludes later to the suggestion that volcanic eruptions may be a cause of atmospheric changes; we don’t hear much about this rival to the more popular Asteroid Impact lore, and we don’t also hear from any sceptics about the theory that planetary impacts could be the primary cause of mass extinction events. Maybe the dust settled relatively quickly and not all dinosaurs died out, and we need more theories about what killed them all off. Modelling climate events that have simply never happened in recorded history (including hypothetical disasters such as “nuclear winter”) is not quite as straightforward as the versions presented confidently in pop culture, and Hancockites should appreciate that as their man is arguing for a cataclysm that did not kill all the dominant creatures on Earth, and was over and done with relatively quickly. There is an implicit tension here with the received wisdom about mass extinction, but that isn’t elaborated because those particular experts are not in question. Graham tells us “Nobody disputes” that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, but that’s not quite true and in any case maybe someone ought to.
We see more of Hancock’s strategy against “the mainstream view” at the start of episode 2, after surveying the remains of a structure in Indonesia.
The fact that these ancient pyramids, whose builders supposedly had no contact with one another, have so much in common is a mystery. Is it just a coincidence? I don’t think so. The general view that archaeology puts forward is that pyramids around the world were built in the form that they have because that’s the easiest way to make a high building. The problem is that these structures are universally associated with very specific spiritual ideas. What happens to us after death? This is always connected with pyramid structures, and that’s the case whether you find them in Mexico or whether you find them in Ancient Egypt or whether you find them in Cambodia or whether you find them in India. It’s a detail that defies the accepted mainstream view that various human civilisations around the world independently invented pyramids. What it suggests to me is that something else was going on behind the scenes. Could we be witnessing the unfolding of some extraordinary masterplan? A shared legacy from some lost global civilisation that provided the seeds and the spark of inspiration from which many later civilisations grew.
It is of course a complete non sequitur to point out that pyramids are associated with particular ideas. The Ancient Ones could have chosen pyramids because that was the best quote the builders offered for the job, and also they associated their biggest buildings with the most important topic they could think of. But this passage, along with Graham’s surprising claim that “archaeologists ignore myths” brings unspoken questions forward. What is “civilisation” and what does Graham take it to be, how does he individuate them? He seems to have an uncertain relationship with Kenneth Clark, not sure where the present day boundaries of “western civilisation” lie. Has it engulfed the world, are we living in a single modern global civilisation currently, or are there recognised outside zones? Is “civilisation” the superset of all the distinct “cultures” or “nations”, which are at roughly the same level of technical development, and interact mostly peacefully, but conduct their domestic business in their own languages according to their own historic customs?
There is also the puzzle about these “spiritual ideas” might be and how we identify them in a cross-cultural, cross-temporal way. A belief in reincarnation and a belief in a Final Judgement are both beliefs about death and spirituality, but they mark out quite different territories, because it’s a big continent with lots of different places in it. Everybody talks about the same thing if your translation manual maps lots of different words to the same ones in your language.
The big question is: what kind of discipline is “archaeology”, what could it be and what ought it to be? How much does it inherit from Egyptology and Assyriology and old Europeans and later Americans arriving in the Middle East and other far-away-from-home places, preloaded with assumptions and with sometimes Biblical narratives to validate? On the latter point, there is some history of many explorers in Palestine and Mesopotamia coming to doubt what they expected to find; we have also come to doubt that amateurs like Heinrich Schliemann were being systematic when excavating what they took to be the location of ancient Troy.
Interpreting fragments of the past as traces of human activity requires placing it in a structure of interpretation that identifies functions and can assign meanings. A stone can be used as a paperweight but we need more evidence to suppose that it filled that role. Assembling evidence and validating interpretations cannot be done piecemeal, as nothing can be seen as a specific artefact until we have a model in which it can assigned as some kind of artefact. Unusual details may simply be marks of the non-human world we have never encountered before. These problems occur in Graham’s narrative – it never seems to occur to him that some of the structures might be fortresses (which would also explain death-themed decorations), but he also underestimates the possibility that some of the markings on the ocean floor might have a natural origin. He seems over-impressed by the occurrence of regular patterns, which is odd as the natural world has abundant examples of regular structures, if you’re in the mood to notice them.
Function is also a problem when assigning meaning to symbolic structures: what kinds of stories are they telling? “Myth” is a technical term that has passed in to wider pop-intellectual use, and parsing it as other genres such as “history” or “cosmology” is a tacit projection of our own genres and interests. We are also leaving out the possibility of a quasi-psychoanalytic reading, that the true cultural universals are in a collective unconscious in which the Deluge represents the trauma of birth into a strange new world… it’s a thought, if we’re going to take Freud and Jung seriously at all.
If archaeologists are unexcited by the Hancockian challenge it could be that none of these bigger questions are new to them. Like the rest of the social and human sciences they have had to reconsider their own history and the problems of hermeneutics. Long ago I saw a review in New Scientist of the story of “New Archaeology”, which was noticeable as it showed an influence of logical positivist philosophy on the working methodology of a discipline. There is a Wikipedia article which has the rare distinction of being flagged as “too technical for most readers to understand”, so I think that makes it an appropriate link to put in here, since this is only a minor blog post and I’m not even pretending to be an expert in any sciences or even an investigative journalist.
I’m no more a pseudoscientist than a dolphin is a pseudofish. I’m an investigative reporter, my job is to investigate the official story.
Graham makes this declaration in episode 3, and this is where he gives us a bigger clue about how he sees this topic. “We look on the past as though our ancestors were simpler than us.” I have a theory about how Hancock got to this point. Following Hancockian methodology, I am simply going to rummage around for anything that can be fitted in to a narrative that I find attractive at the outset.
Atlantis was destroyed because it had fallen out of harmony with the universe. And I think that our civilisation today is in a very similar predicament. We have fallen out of harmony with the universe. Our conceit at our own achievements, our willingness to impose our power around the world on other less powerful peoples. All of these things in mythological terms would suggest that our civilisation is in very great danger.
I own one book by Graham Hancock, and it isn’t mentioned in Ancient Apocalypse but I think it is the origin story of why he distrusts mainstream “experts”… although it’s odd that he’s ended up with a counter-narrative about Great Teachers turning up around the developing prehistoric world and delivering useful and genuine expertise. The Antediluvian World Bank knew what they were doing.
Hancockism rises out of a justified outrage at the arrogance and incompetence of modern day global civilisers. It identifies the supposed neglect of non-European mythologies by official archaeologists as a paradigm case of this insular, inauthentic civilisation. Those are serious ideas that deserve some respect, and they are in fact already respectable since they are expressed inside modern civilisation by people who don’t care about pyramids and static telescopes that need to be rebuilt every 1000 years to reset with the known drift of the stars in space (how “advanced” were the Atlanteans, if they couldn’t engineer for that issue?).
Ideas about ancient wisdom, and the Fall interpreted as Modern Man’s loss of its true sources, are mercenaries that fight for all armies – usually conservatives and “traditionalists”, although they conflict with some religious orthodoxies as well as scientific ones. Hancock is novel for approaching from a western-sceptic position, though since he is reaching a Joe Rogan audience perhaps his appeal would be limited if he started talking more about global justice and redistribution.
I did very much enjoy reading The World Atlas Of Mysteries by Francis Hitching when I was a teenager. Hitching knew his business well, he understood he should put down the charlatanry of Eric Von Daniken to present Velikovsky and others as more sober and reasonable.
I particularly enjoyed reading about Xavier Guichard, author of Eleusis Alesia, who also has appearances in Simenon’s novels. His ideas are a joy for anyone who loves drawing patterns and connections that may not mean anything at all. All alternative archaeology is a wonderfully quaint world of cranks and loons who could probably talk forever about what’s wrong with the modern West, and never get around to what the Megalithic Yard was all about. Devil’s Tor isn’t so bad either.
If there is ever a summit meeting between the mainstream and the alternatives let it use a big backdrop of Magritte’s The Art Of Conversation, since that appeared on the cover of an edition of Foucault’s The Archaeology Of Knowledge.