I know this goes against the tenets of skepticism, but I really want to like Graham Hancock’s work. He is an engaging writer who makes the wonder of the past come alive like few other writers on ancient history. His Fingerprints of the Gods is enormous fun to read, and when I was a teenager it had me convinced that there was a lost civilization in the deep past. But the trouble is that Hancock is largely oblivious to fact and has adopted a postmodern, New Age approach to knowledge that imagines that there is no objective truth to be discovered in archaeology, only data points that can be endlessly reconstructed to fashion “alternative” narratives that are somehow equally valid.
What is perhaps surprising is that more than 15 years after Fingerprints of the Gods (and twenty years after his first “alternative” foray, The Sign and the Seal), Hancock is still pushing the same revisionist theories, though mercifully he is now confining them to fiction, where they belong. However, a recent interview in Veritas magazine (September/October 2012) shows that Hancock hasn’t changed his tune, although he is increasingly upset that the “mainstream” refused to accept his “radical” hypotheses, discouraging him from proposing more.
He begins the interview by stating that he believes that history is merely “a story” or “a narrative” imposed on the public by “the large-scale media” and the “education system.” This would be the same media that broadcasts Ancient Aliens with comments from Graham Hancock, the infamous NBC Mysterious Origins of Man documentary with comments from Graham Hancock, and, let’s say, Graham Hancock’s very own Quest for the Lost Civilization series? Instead, he says, the historical narrative is “an interpretation” for which valid alternatives exist. The fact that these alternatives lack, let’s say, evidence doesn’t bother him so long as there are “traditions” (i.e. myths) that can support them. He references global flood myths as “evidence” that a lost civilization was destroyed by the rising seas at the end of the Ice Age.
This is where Graham Hancock’s view is simultaneously more interesting than ancient astronaut theorists and more dangerous than them: He is not completely wrong. At the end of the Ice Age, sea levels did rise, and they did wash away the villages located on what is now the continental shelf. It is even possible that some stone monuments on the order of Göbekli Tepe might have been built and lost to the seas. But this isn’t the same as an Atlantis-style advanced civilization that bestrode the world like a colossus. There is, though, just enough truth in the scenario to make it seem possible, even though no proof of advanced Ice Age civilization exists. Maddeningly, Hancock still claims to be a rigorous searcher after truth despite his refusal to actually investigate the Mexican pyramid he claimed via secondary sources to be the only real proof of his lost civilization ever found.
Similarly, Hancock’s more recent investigations—prompted by boredom with his imaginary lost civilization—are also just shy of accepted truth. Hancock, who recently confessed to more than 20 years of moderate to heavy marijuana use, has become an advocate for ayahuasca, a South American hallucinogen. Since taking the drug for his 2005 book Supernatural, Hancock has supported the concept that mind-altering substances give their users access to a spirit world where one can commune directly with the “gods.” Or, as he put it to Veritas, “the brain may not be so much a generator of consciousness, but a receiver or a transceiver that manifests consciousness into the material plane.”
This is a question for philosophers more than scientists. Strict materialists will disagree, on principle, but the “simulation” hypothesis (that our “reality” is a virtual construct of a higher order of being) has had a long and respected run in philosophy despite the recognition that it could never be conclusively proved from within the simulation. However, Hancock’s views in Supernatural are only the New Age flip side of David Lewis-Williams’ masterful The Mind in the Cave (2002), which also posited that altered states of consciousness give rise to religious and creative feelings and the archetypes of human culture. Lewis-Williams, however, believes this to be the result of evolution and the wiring of the human brain, while Hancock ascribes trans-dimensional meaning to the same process.
But here’s the rub: Hancock’s newer views about meeting the gods on the spirit plane all but negate the foundation of his earlier work in Fingerprints of the Gods and its sequels. Those books argued that the “coincidences” in ancient cultures far removed across time and space—the architectural styles, the patterns in mythology, the love of numbers generated from multiples of 2 and 3—all pointed to an original, physical, ancient super-culture. But if you allow for the realm of the gods (or access to archetypical images shared by all humans, as per Lewis-Williams), you eliminate the need for a 12,000-year-old, global super-culture. The myths may well be more or less literally true. Shamans worldwide went off to the plane of the gods (an altered state of consciousness) and retrieved those archetypical shapes, colors, or thoughts. No Atlantis needed. This more parsimonious explanation neatly eliminates any need to hypothesize a physical connection standing behind widespread cultural similarities.
This is why it is disappointing to see elsewhere in the interview that Hancock now claims that the Tamil legend of Kumari Kandam represents proof of a global Atlantis myth.
But Hancock is being deceptive, or ignorant. The story of Kumari Kandam is nowhere near as old as Atlantis, dating back perhaps to the early centuries CE. Nor is it any more than superficially similar to Plato. The myth—as pieced together from scattered fragments in Tamil literature—tells of an island at the tip of India that was gradually lost to the sea, forcing the inhabitants to conquer parts of Sri Lanka and India to replace their lost empire. Atlantis did not have “survivors” who passed on “seeds of civilization.” That was Ignatius Donnelly’s interpretation. Worse, the Kumari Kandam legend Hancock reports is found not in ancient literature but in Theosophy-influenced nineteenth century Tamil literature, where the island becomes identified with Lemuria and takes on the characteristics of Donnelly’s Atlantis! Even the very name Kumari Kandam is a modern invention retroactively applied to scattered fragments of the ancient story.
Hancock also makes a frankly bizarre statement that the 5100 years of the Mayan calendar cycle (from 3114 BCE to 2012 CE) represent the period of the “bureaucratic” civilization, in which hierarchical, bureaucratic governments and corporations and religions control the lives of the masses. This, he feels, began in dynastic Egypt and will end with us, with “a new mood and a new consciousness emerging in the world.” I can’t express how vastly this oversimplifies the astonishing diversity of the human experience over the past 5,000 years, not to mention the inconceivable problems of attributing to the Maya—and only the Maya—a predictive understanding of the “cycles” of human civilization.
Hancock is no longer interested in researching the “facts” of history but in becoming a prophet of the New Age. Just listen to his thoughts on the Maya, whom he views as privy to the ultimate fate of humanity:
Sure they did. The Maya knew about Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, the Eurozone crisis, and Google. And of course, rather than writing any of this down, they instead left us a number that would be useless until after it was too later to do anything about it.
But this apocalyptic strain in alternative thinking is not unique to Hancock. Recall the Erich von Däniken’s most recent tome also predicted an upcoming, world-changing revelation (the arrival of the aliens) and keyed it, too, to the Maya calendar. In 1999, before the Millennium fever and before 9/11, Frederic J. Baumgartner issued a history of millennial thinking, writing that “Longing for the endtime is far too deeply ingrained in Christianity and Western civilization, and indeed all human culture… It helps to make sense of the evil that seems to pervade the world and promises that a perfect society without evil is close at hand. It explains why ‘good people’ have to suffer persecution and the malice of the wicked.” Hancock's view is in keeping with this centuries-old tradition.
What all millennial prophecies have in common is that all of them have failed. Von Däniken’s and Hancock’s stand no better chance.
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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