A new Netflix series called Ancient Apocalypse shot to the top of the streaming service's rankings the week it was released. It claims that an advanced civilization which thrived during the Ice Age was wiped out by comets and floods, but left humanity with science and technology. In the world of archaeology, such claims aren't new, and are referred to by experts as "pseudo-archaeology." This episode of IDEAS unearths the long history of pseudo-archaeology, how it's been deployed to advance political and cultural ideas, and where it crosses over from pseudo-science to religious myth-making.
I recorded an interview for the show a few weeks ago, and based on the questions, it should be an interesting an insightful hour.
The timing is fortuitous since Graham Hancock, the host of Ancient Apocalypse, just posted a lengthy and hysterical response to the Society of American Archaeologists’ open letter to Netflix asking for the series to carry a disclaimer and to be reclassified as fiction. The SAA issued its letter on November 30, so it is unclear why Hancock became so upset about it this week.
Back in November, I said that I thought the SAA’s letter was ill-advised because it singled out one TV show while dozens of similar shows on cable and streaming went uncriticized and because emphasizing historical ties between Atlantis theories and “white supremacy” is bad optics given that Hancock’s ideas fall under unintentional structural racism more than they do explicit white nationalism, and his show distanced itself, albeit imperfectly, from those historical roots. “Hancock’s narrative emboldens extreme voices that misrepresent archaeological knowledge in order to spread false historical narratives that are overtly misogynistic, chauvinistic, racist, and anti-Semitic,” the SAA wrote. This is true enough, but it was also true of the Solutrean hypothesis spread by the Smithsonian, the mound builder myth promoted by Mormons, the Templar mythos of the History Channel, and any number of other claims; extremists will latch on to anything.
It's not unreasonable to want speculative programs to carry the same kind of disclaimer that FCC regulations once imposed on In Search Of…, which began each episode reminding viewers that it was based “on theory and conjecture.” But those days have long passed by, and cable TV now openly shows completely fabricated “nonfiction” content without bothering to hint to the audience that it’s fake.
But Hancock isn’t concerned about that so much as he is with affronts to his dignity. In language redolent of a defamation lawsuit, Hancock alleges that “the SAA seeks to disparage me as an individual, to defame my reputation for honest reporting and to do harm to me personally. […] Since the late 1990’s I, Graham Hancock, the host of the series, have been insultingly dismissed and repeatedly attacked by archaeologists using aggressive rhetoric and seeking intentionally to do harm to my reputation, my family and my work.” It rather forces one to ask what type of criticism Hancock would consider legitimate, since he has conflated himself and his speculations to the point that he sees the latter as an extension of the former.
Hancock, of course, zeroes in on the ill-conceived effort to associate Ancient Apocalypse with the racist history of Atlantis ideas:
This is a spurious attempt to smear by association. My own theory of a lost civilization of the Ice Age, and the evidence upon which that theory is based, presented in Ancient Apocalypse in 2022 and in eight books over the previous 27 years, is what I take responsibility for. It is nonsensical to blame me for the hypotheses of others, either now or in the past, or for how others have reacted to those hypotheses.
Here, Hancock is half-right. He can’t be blamed for past ideas, but the theory is not his own—by his own admission in his own books, it is a rather transparent update of Ignatius Donnelly’s two books, Atlantis (about a lost civilization) and Ragnarok (about a comet destroying said civilization) (Hancock denies influence from the latter, but he openly thanked Donnelly for the former in Fingerprints), but he can be blamed for building on, recycling, and reusing faulty ideas and arguments from those past hypotheses, and for remaining ignorant of their origins and implications. Ignatius Donnelly was writing in the context of Euro-American imperialism, which colored his arguments about Atlantis, and when Hancock repeats those claims, he needs to be aware that he is bringing forward those old colonialist ideas, no matter how he dresses them up in more diverse clothing.
Hancock finishes with a lengthy and outraged section continuing to take offense at the association between his ideas and racism, claiming that he works to “honour indigenous voices and perspectives.” As I mentioned above, this is a difficult issue because the SAA went too hard into the racism argument, making claims about explicit white supremacy when the actual issue isn’t KKK-style white nationalism as much as it is a subtler structural racism that Hancock himself isn’t aware of, though he perpetuates. The SAA pointed to Hancock’s use of indigenous myths of “white” men bringing civilization from across the sea, and Hancock disputes the widespread conclusion that such stories were manipulated by the Spanish missionaries who recorded them. He refutes the strawman view that the Spanish made up the stories, though the better argument is that the Spaniards interpolated or exaggerated preexisting culture-hero figures into “white” men, much as they turned other stories into analogs of Noah’s Ark or the Tower of Babel—examples not controversial.
Anyway, even Hancock himself, in racing to defend his dozen or so mentions of the Atlanteans’ “white” skin in Fingerprints of the Gods, forgot that back then he praised his lost civilization’s “racial equality” because the colossal stone Olmec heads, he claimed, were its “Negroid” Black African co-rulers. The Black and Caucasian folk, he said, were murdered by the savage indigenous people. (Oops! So much for him “honour[ing] indigenous voices”!) But if Hancock has forgotten his own claims—or, rather, dropped them decades ago because he doesn’t want to claim the Olmec were ruled by Africans anymore—then I suppose I have no reason to keep probing this pointless morass.
Probably all we need to know is that Hancock posted his screed and then went on the Daily Caller’s right-wing outrage stream to help push their anti-elite, anti-science narrative. He praised the Daily Caller on Twitter, even though it stands against every form of social justice he claims to support.
1/31/2023 03:39:09 pm
He says that he takes responsibility for his body of work over the last 27 years. Hancock's earlier work not only played fast and loose with Native alleged myths of white people introducing civilization but also included his own claims of carvings and statues in Mexico having clear caucasian features. Why then get uptight over people being concerned about the racial implications of this material? One might be a little more inclined to sympathize with him in the present if he had made a clear effort to repudiate earlier materials. Instead it appears that he has made a gradual shift in his portrayals of who the Atlanteans were over the years without acknowledging the problematic nature of how he discussed the topic for years. At least that is how it appears. Or has he been clear about this in more recent works or public statements?
1/31/2023 10:00:50 pm
The Daily Caller,, lol,,,,
2/2/2023 04:58:24 pm
Ideas is a really great show for well-thought out interviews and…er…ideas. Congratulations to you and to them for reaching out to you. I’ll be tuning in.
2/2/2023 05:01:13 pm
Scientists know that paradigm shifts have happened in the past.
Brother can you paradigm?
2/3/2023 10:40:25 pm
Perhaps a good start would be to actually read the book?
2/4/2023 03:04:42 pm
There's another good book that's relevant to this discussion: DSM-5.
2/6/2023 05:45:40 pm
paradigms are replaced by paradigms that work better.
2/4/2023 04:17:39 pm
It looks to me like Hancock is as confused as Plato was.
2/5/2023 03:58:02 pm
I don't think you get to call the person who *made up the story* confused. Was Tolkien confused about the equally non-existent Middle Earth? Was Frank Herbert confused about the equally non-existent Dune? Same same. I think not.
2/6/2023 09:23:45 pm
Why do you people keep stopping me from getting back to my own work? It's almost like I have no control over myself and need supervision at all times.
2/5/2023 12:38:33 pm
Most people want their racism like their pizza: hot, fresh, big, and right there on their doorstep, at least figuratively. KKK rallies, skinheads beating up immigrants, cops using racial epithets while curb stomping a black motorist in the next town over or on the evening news. Drilling down on more subtle aspects of it in GH's work requires quite a lot more thought than most people want to engage in. Perhaps even resulting in some uncomfortable self-reflection in terms of race, racism, etc. More than many people want to bite off.
3/14/2023 01:17:18 am
The Society for American Archaeology ought to know better than to condemn GH in terms like: ‘Hancock’s narrative emboldens extreme voices that misrepresent archaeological knowledge in order to spread false historical narratives that are overtly misogynistic, chauvinistic, racist, and anti-Semitic.’
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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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