This week the BBC announced that it would screen a new documentary next week that will allege that the famous terra cotta warriors found in the tomb of China’s first emperor were the work of ancient Greek artisans who traveled to China in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. Alexander’s armies reached as far as India before his death in 323 BCE, and a Hellenistic Greek-Indian kingdom existed in what is now Afghanistan down to perhaps as late as the first century CE. The terra cotta warriors were sculpted in the years leading up to Qin Shi Huang’s death in 206 BCE.
It is not controversial that Greek contact with India influence Indian art, particularly among the Buddhists of the Greco-Indian kingdoms. I wonder, though, how one would distinguish between direct influence from Greek artisans and mediated influence from Greco-Indians or Buddhisits.
The article promoting the upcoming broadcast quoted on archaeologist, Li Xiuzhen, as saying there was evidence of Greek contact, and a second, Lukas Nickel, as saying he believes in the idea of influence. The article declined, however, to indicate the evidence in favor of this hypothesis. The claim itself seems to originate with Nickel, who proposed a Hellenistic connection in 2013, on the grounds that the Chinese were not known to have sculpted life-sized statues before this time. It’s unclear to me, however, how Greek sculpture, which differs in technique, material, and style, would have influenced the Chinese except perhaps as an example of what could be done, much less how a Greek craftsman oversaw the Chinese statue assembly, as Nickel proposes.
Yesterday I discussed the claim that the Hopi believed that a pole shift devastated ancient civilizations, and at the time I noted that I could find no evidence that this claim existed before the middle twentieth century, when it was recorded after the controversy about pole shifts created by Immanuel Velikovsky and Charles Hapgood. Prior to this, the records of the Hopi story of the Four Ages of the world was quite different, and involved successive climbs to higher planes from a starting point in the underworld. As I was thinking about this, I wondered if there had been contamination in the story from the more apocalyptic Four Suns myth of the Aztec. This is the story of how successive creations were destroyed by various cataclysms. One of the best known versions was recorded by Clavijero in his History of Mexico:
The Mexicans, the Acolhuans, and all the other nations of Anahuac [the Basin of Mexico], distinguished four ages of time by as many suns. The first named Atonatiuh, that is the sun, or the age of water, commenced with the creation of the world, and continued until the time at which all mankind almost perished in a general inundation, along with the first sun. The second Tlaltonatiuh, the age of earth, lasted from the time of the general inundation until the ruin of the giants, and the great earthquakes, which concluded in like manner the second sun. The third, Ehècatonatiuh, the age of air, lasted from the destruction of the giants until the great whirlwinds, in which all mankind perished along with the third sun. The fourth Tletonatiuh, the age of fire, began at the last restoration of the human race, and was to continue, as we have already mentioned in their mythology, until the fourth sun, and the earth were destroyed by fire. This age it was supposed would end at the conclusion of one of their centuries; and thus we may account for these noisy festivals in honour of the god of fire, which were celebrated at the beginning of every century, as a thanksgiving for his restraining his voracity, and deferring the termination of the world.
I was surprised to discover that my intuition was closer to the truth than I imagined. It turns out that the first person ever to propose a pole shift as the explanation for the Four Suns myth was Brasseur de Bourbourg, the Atlantis theorist of the nineteenth century. In 1873, in the wake of George Smith’s publication of early Assyrian documents recording primeval history, many wondered if these records would parallel the chronology recorded in ancient Mexican mythology or other world mythologies. Brasseur de Bourbourg assumed all the texts referred to Atlantis, and he read the above myth in the form recorded in “History (or Legend) of the Suns” in the Codex Chimalpopoca of May 22, 1558, whose preamble I give here in a modern translation:
Here are the wisdom-discourse fables,
Brasseur de Bourbourg fell into the Victorian vogue for etymology, and he believed that by etymologizing each Nahuatl word used to write these lines, he could uncover secret and hidden layers of meaning within them. To that end, he believed that he had discovered in these words a secret treatise on prehistoric geology:
In this short paragraph, one can satisfy oneself of several very important things: that the ancient Mexicans were great geologists and no less learned in hydrology, a science still in its infancy here, just like geology. They had observed the causes of sedimentary deposits of the seabed and land and had a detailed law of water movement; they also knew both equatorial currents, which shape all the others. (my trans.)
I placed the complete text in my Library.
He argued that his analysis of each word also allowed him to determine that the passage recorded knowledge of the hot and cold currents of the Gulf Stream and its surrounding waters, of the lost continent of Atlantis, and of the Hebraic title Adonai, the Lord. He also determined that the “years” referenced should actually be periods of 13 years, and he misread some of the numbers, so he concluded that the events took place around 10,500 BCE.
For our purposes, though, the key sentence is this one: “Although I have not yet fully and thoroughly reviewed the History of the Suns, I thought I saw that the disasters were caused each time by a shift in the axis of the world, upsetting the polar ice caps and reversing the order of the seasons. Mankind, following these Mexican documents, lived in these ancient times.” This is pretty much exactly the pole shift hypothesis Charles Hapgood later introduced into fringe history, apparently independently. It probably goes without saying that Brasseur de Bourbourg was wrong and that he was seeing in the text something that does not exist. It’s probably also worth noting that this was Brasseur de Bourbourg’s final interpretation, which had started years earlier with volcanic and glacial cataclysms and ended now with speculation about pole shifts.
Note, though, that Brasseur de Bourbourg, through his own errors, placed the pole shift in 10,500 BCE, exactly when and where Graham Hancock located it in Fingerprints of the Gods. It’s all the more remarkable because Hancock didn’t seem to know anything about Brasseur de Bourbourg’s article. Instead, he derived his view from the same stew of fringe touchstones: Atlantis; the Ice Age; Mexica, Mesopotamian, and Hindu mythology; and gonzo geology. Start with the same bad inputs, end with the same bad conclusions.
Now, here’s the kicker: The modern pole shift craze launched in 1948 when Hugh Auchincloss Brown, an engineer, tried to figure out how woolly mammoths had become “flash frozen,” something he learned about when reading gonzo press accounts, most likely Frank C. Hibben’s July 1944 Harper’s magazine article about frozen mammoths, the article that would eventually inspire Ivan Sanderson to write his own in the 1960s, which in turn became evidence—in circular fashion!—of Hapgood’s pole shift! Brown, for his part, had his ideas reported in the New York Times and Time magazine. He recommended atom bombing Antarctica to keep the ice from tipping the planet over.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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