Before we get started with today’s topic, I want to direct your attention to my newest book release, Faking History: Essays on Aliens, Atlantis, Monsters, and More. This book is a compilation of fifty of my best articles, essays, and blog posts from the past decade, covering a wide range of subjects, everything from ancient astronauts to Afrocentrism, from chupacabra to mokele-mbembe. Every piece has been newly revised and updated, and I’ve added full academic references to every article. It’s available in both trade paperback and eBook formats.
I want to thank Aaron Adair for bringing to my attention on his blog a TEDx talk that alternative historian and novelist Graham Hancock—who is discussed in Faking History (hint, hint)—gave in January. The talk described Hancock’s drug use and his belief in the need for the decriminalization of hallucinogens. In the talk, Hancock asserted that David Lewis-Williams had argued that hallucinogenic mushrooms were responsible for the origins of human consciousness, which is not something I gleaned from my reading of The Mind in the Cave. (Earlier, in 1988, Williams proposed that Paleolithic rock art reflected altered states of consciousness, brought about by hallucinogens or trance.) He also asserted that drug use can lead to communion with beings that are possibly non-human intelligences with the power to teach and to heal, and he argued that “reductionist” and “materialist” science is unable to account for the mystery of consciousness.
The TED organization removed his talk from its YouTube channel last week as a result of complaints from scientists and skeptics about its factual accuracy, and Hancock responded, challenging several of the TED organization’s allegations. TEDx events are independently organized and are not controlled by the TED organization. The video was re-posted here.
I’ll leave the question of how TED selects its speakers and polices their ideas to TED. It’s none of my business, though I can’t imagine that every word ever uttered at a TED or TEDx event has been 100% true until Graham Hancock spoke.
Hancock explained that he had been abusing marijuana for twenty-four years, during which he was “permanently stoned” and suffered from paranoia, anger, and irrational rage. Hancock admitted that his cannabis habit began in 1987 and continued until 2011, when he switched to ayahuasca, a more powerful hallucinogen, which he ingests annually in order to communicate with non-human “intelligences” and to battle demons. Although Hancock will not state definitively that he believes these intelligences have an existence beyond his own mind, his writings make plain that he is convinced they do.
I have no interest in Hancock’s drug use per se, but it is exceedingly interesting to note that Hancock’s marijuana-paranoia-irrational phase coincides exactly with his quest for an Atlantis-like lost civilization, and the gradual degeneration of that idea into a quest for a global cult of astral immortality. That’s not me saying that; Hancock admitted it himself in an article posted on his website shortly after the TEDx talk:
My first investigation of an ancient mystery was "The Sign and The Seal: A Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant", which I began to research seriously in 1987, shortly after getting into cannabis. “The Sign and The Seal” was published in 1992. During the writing of that book it was my habit to smoke cannabis only in the evenings for an hour or two before going to bed, but things changed from 1992 onwards when I began to work on my next non-fiction historical mystery “Fingerprints of the Gods”. This was when I began to smoke cannabis all day long and to experiment with writing while I was stoned. I liked the result and it soon became my practice to light up my first joint (or pipe if it was hash) the moment I sat down at my desk in the morning and then just to carry on smoking all day long until I went to bed – often in the small hours of the morning. This remained my habit thereafter – smoking continuously from morning to night, whether writing or not, and gradually seeking out stronger and stronger strains of the herb.
I don’t want to say that Hancock’s uncritical acceptance of claims of lost high civilizations, ancient super-technology, and a worldwide cult pursuing the science of immortality is the direct result of a drug trip, but surely marijuana helped to convince him of the reality of the fanciful connections he made between scraps of evidence from ancient civilizations. Carl Sagan famously wrote in a 1969 essay that marijuana helped to inspire his work, letting him make connections and experience strong emotional insights, especially regarding art, history, and sociology:
I find I can bring to bear, for example, a range of relevant experimental facts which appear to be mutually inconsistent. […] Then in trying to conceive of a way of reconciling the disparate facts, I was able to come up with a very bizarre possibility, one that I’m sure I would never have thought of down. […] I think it’s very unlikely to be true, but it has consequences which are experimentally testable, which is the hallmark of an acceptable theory.
Not coincidentally, I think, Hancock experienced the same feeling of connection, but his frame of reference wasn’t scientific like Sagan’s, so his insights formed from less rigorous material, leading to incorrect connections and false conclusions when he never took the next step to actually test his ideas. (Indeed, when tested, his claims vanish into a cloud of pretty words and few facts.)
During this period, Hancock says he grew increasingly paranoid—and this can be traced in his work as well. As the 1990s wore on Hancock grew increasingly convinced that academics were engaged in a conspiracy against him, that academic elites were hiding the truth about ancient history, and, by 1998, that NASA was in a conspiracy to hide evidence that his lost civilization had built monuments on Mars—a position his book The Mars Mystery (written with Robert Bauval and John Grigsby) advocated to the point of ridiculousness: “To be perfectly honest, we will always have a lingering suspicion that there could be something dark and dreadful going on behind the scenes, something much bigger, and much more awful, that a mere conspiracy.” Now we know where that conspiratorial thinking came from.
But that wasn’t all. Hancock repeatedly accused skeptics of working against him, and in those years he used his website to launch attacks on those who disagreed with him, leading to the great Graham Hancock Forum war in which disgruntled posters decamped to a rival site, The Hall of Ma’at, which still exists to this very day, testament to Hancock’s paranoid phase.
Obviously, the origins of Hancock’s theory of a globe-trotting cult of white saviors from a vanished Ice Age civilization have no bearing on whether it is true. But precisely because it is not true, it’s fascinating to see that it emerged from little more than the fever dream of a self-described drug abuser, high, paranoid, and angry.
Not that he’s learned much from this, of course. His website says he’s researching another sequel to Fingerprints of the Gods, and he’s still giving speeches and lectures about the “lost civilization” at conferences around the world, including a scheduled lost civilization lecture at the London Festival this May.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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