This week Graham Hancock posted video of a reading he gave at a local TEDx event about what he sees as epistemological problems with the “house of history.” TEDx events use the format of the well-known TED Talks but are organized by local groups and are not officially endorsed by the TED organization. In the video, Hancock reads from a prepared text because, he wrote on his blog, “my concern, with this one, was above all in getting the content right.” Hancock asked his fans to watch the video quickly, before the TED organization removes it as they did his last TEDx Talk, which was found to violate the organization’s standards for scientific accuracy.
The presentation began with a description of Plato’s Atlantis, just as it did for Ignatius Donnelly in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, though Hancock takes a more moralizing tone. He emphasizes the role that income inequality played the divine punishment of Atlantis. He suggests that it was the “arrogance” of the Atlantean elite that led to the collapse of their civilization, an echo of his own liberal political ideology. He then notes that archaeologists do not take seriously anyone who believes in Atlantis.
From this Hancock tries and fails to describe what he calls “the house of history.” He alleges that history as we know it is based on a series of interlocking timelines crafted by historians to demonstrate “slow, steady evolutionary progress.” This view of history was proposed by Lewis Henry Morgan in 1877 when he claimed that societies progressed up a ladder leading from savagery to barbarism to civilization. This unidirectional and progressive view of civilization received challenge from Franz Boas in the early 1900s and has not been scholars’ model of historical development for more than a century.
Afterward, Hancock summarizes the main argument of his recent book Magicians of the Gods (2015), in which he argues that a massive comet collision wiped out a lost civilization. He is now a full Atlantis theorist and identifies the lost civilization as Atlantis and Plato as an accurate guide to its end around 9,600 BCE. Hancock tries to argue his point by analogy, claiming that the destruction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, in the K-T boundary event, proves that a cosmic collision could wipe out a civilization without a trace. The problem, of course, is that we have plenty of evidence for the existence of the dinosaurs, all of which survived the cosmic collision for us to find, while Atlantis left absolutely nothing behind.
Hancock emphasizes the skepticism that the claims of a meteor strike causing the K-T boundary event received until physical evidence emerged, and he uses that initial skepticism as an analogy for why his listeners should similarly reject skepticism over a comet collision at the beginning and the end of the Younger Dryas glacial period. He makes much of the scholarly dispute over the reality of such a collision, but he omits the key issue of logic: Proving the existence of such a cometary collision, and even the memory of it in mythology, does not logically imply the existence of Atlantis any more than the existence of the Titanic proves that the characters Jack and Rose from the movie Titanic actually existed.
That’s why it is so strange that Hancock devotes the entre central portion of his TEDx talk, the majority of it, to laying out the evidence—still disputed by different groups of scientists—that a comet hit during the last ice age.
It's rather striking, though, that Hancock’s argument is nearly point for point identical to that of Ignatius Donnelly in his sequel to Atlantis, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, although dressed up in more modern scientific clothes. But Donnelly faced the same problem: Even if we accept that stories of a comet impact were passed down from the Ice Age, how does that prove that a lost civilization had massive and wondrous cities before the comet hit? For a man whose TEDx talk focused on both Atlantis and a comet collision destroying it, the omission of Donnelly can only be intentional and designed purposely to avoid the criticism he fears will fall on anyone who dares speak the name of Atlantis.
Nevertheless, Hancock baldly states his belief (well, in rhetorical question form) that Plato’s dating of Atlantis’ destruction to 9,600 BCE must be a memory of “the precise date” when a comet hit North America and sparked a global flood. The problem here, which Hancock ignores, is that Plato never claims that Atlantis’ destruction resulted in a global cataclysm. The story he tells says only that the island of Atlantis sank beneath the waves—not that the ocean rose up and flooded it, and not that anyone else was affected. Indeed, his characters specifically state that Egypt was unaffected by the cataclysm and that Athens (which didn’t exist then but does in this story) continued on its merry way. Strangely, Hancock is happy to reject Plato’s plain statement in order to support Robert Schoch’s radical re-dating of the Sphinx, whose erosion Hancock now attributes to the heavy rains induced by the comet.
Hancock then swings to a series of claims centered on the 9,600 BCE timeframe. He alleges that Göbekli Tepe, the ancient carved megalithic temples in Turkey, emerged “out of nowhere” around this time, with no antecedent architecture. He alleges that the ancient site is a “transfer of technology” from Atlantis. He then claims that the people of Göbekli Tepe had agriculture brought from Atlantis and taught it to the surrounding hunter-gatherers, a claim he attributes to German scholars but with which I am unfamiliar. I do not know of evidence for agriculture at Göbekli Tepe, and I think Hancock is somewhat misunderstanding or misrepresenting the fact that the ancient site has upended traditional views about the origins of agriculture. Göbekli Tepe suggests that complex societies emerged before and led to the development of agriculture rather than agriculture leading to social complexity.
Historians and archaeologists, Hancock said, have so far refused to incorporate a comet collision into their models of Neolithic culture, which he says fatally undermine the “house of history.” “We are obliged to contemplate the possibility that everything we’ve been taught about the origin of civilization could be wrong,” he concludes. And yet the fact remains that there is no evidence for a lost civilization from before the impact—no ruins, no pollen from cultivated plants, no fossilized remains of the inhabitants, no trash middens of their refuse, no anchors from their ships, no carved megaliths—nothing. Even the dinosaurs left more behind, and the meteor that ended them was much more devastating than the comet Hancock thinks hit the Earth in 9,600 BCE. All he has is the story of Atlantis.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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