As part of the British leg of the rollout, Hancock gave a lengthy interview to London Real in which he expressed his belief that the story of the human past is guarded by doyens of dogma who, for obscure reasons, refuse to recognize the existence of a lost civilization in the Ice Age.
In particular, he describes how his joint appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience with Michael Shermer, which descended into acrimony, reshaped his approach to ancient history and made him an angrier, more strident advocate of alternative history:
I began to realize how ideological this all is. […] It’s helped me to understand that there is an ideological war over our past. […] The mainstream, for some reason in this [ideological war], doesn’t like cataclysms. It doesn’t like cataclysmic events. It doesn’t want to think that cataclysms have played a role in the human story. So seeking for a way to explain the disappearance of the megafauna, the natural option for a mainstream archaeologist is to say “oh that was human predation that did it” […] and suddenly we’re required to picture a group of hunter-gatherers who are so incredibly efficient, and so ruthless, that they wipe out the entire megafauna of North America in a matter of months. So, there’s a tendency in the study of prehistory to want to keep the past kind of nice and calm, and just the way it is now. There’s even a word for it, it’s called ‘uniformitarianism’ […] and it’s a doctrine.
There are so many mixed up ideas in this passage that it’s hard to know where to begin. Uniformitarianism is a geological principle, for one thing. But a review of standard accounts of Earth’s history shows that for several decades the consensus has been that uniformitarianism is a general principle punctuated by extreme catastrophes, such as the space rock that killed the dinosaurs. The problem, of course, is that there is no definitive evidence for a cosmic catastrophe during recent human history. It is for that reason—not a refusal to believe catastrophes happen—that archaeologists don’t believe a comet took out the megafauna.
Hancock’s claim that we are “required” to image Paleoindians massacring every animal in “months” is a rather ridiculous imaginary version of the various hypotheses put forward to explain the extinction of the mammoths. There is currently no agreed-upon consensus, much less a required dogma. Even those hypotheses (heavily disputed) that put it down to human intervention expect that the effects of human predation played out over generations, not months.
To that end, consider Hancock’s misrepresentation of the Clovis-First hypothesis, which emerged in the 1960s and remained the scholarly consensus down to 1997, when a blue-ribbon panel verified the first pre-Clovis site in the Americas, Monte Verde in Chile. Since then, as more evidence has come to light, the consensus conclusions—which were always based on the known evidence—have changed as well. For Hancock, however, he sees dogmatic priests of science imposing an ideology in opposition to all the possible conclusions that an absence of evidence allows imagination to conceive:
The position of archaeology for 50 years is “those were the first human beings to enter the Americas, no human beings entered the Americas before 13,600 years ago.” And those are the same archaeologists who repeatedly called me a pseudoscientist, or a pseudoarchaeologist, for suggesting other possibilities. […] All archaeologists admit this now, that Clovis-First was a mistake, they got it wrong, completely wrong. […] but what they don’t comment on is the careers that were ruined as a result. […] So when archaeologists of that type say “Hancock is a pseudoscientist,” I say “Hang on a minute, you guys are the pseudoscientists. You guys sold us Clovis-First for 50 years. You guys withdrew funding from research that might have exposed that lie earlier. […] You wouldn’t let it happen.” And that’s not right, it shouldn’t be that way. Archaeologists should not take the view that they have got a firm and fixed picture of the past. Because actually we know so little about the past. They should always be saying “this is our provisional position, but we are open to other possibilities.” Because if they don’t say that, those other possibilities are going to come along and kick them in the ass pretty soon.
As you can see, Hancock has difficulty understanding that conclusions derive from evidence, not from possibilities. Clovis-First was the logical position based on what was known at the time, and it gave way when new evidence emerged. The process wasn’t neat and wasn’t clean (though much more orderly than, say, the battle over Piltdown Man), but that is true of major changes in almost any discipline.
I’m still waiting to get my orders from Dogma Central. As best I can tell, I have yet to see two archaeologists actually agree completely on an interpretation, let alone conclude that we have a “fixed” picture of ancient history.
I think it’s telling, however, that Hancock sees describing what we know about the past as taking a “position,” as though it were a political act.
Finally, Hancock actually describes what he thinks the “lost civilization” was like, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he sees it as essentially Europe of the imperial age! I mean, of course he does:
I think we’re talking about a civilization – more than 12,000 years ago – which was as advanced as our civilization was, say in the late 18th century or early 19th century. In other words, they could navigate the world, they could explore the world, they could measure the world accurately, they had precise astronomy, they could create beautiful maps that were accurate in terms of latitude and longitude. That kind of level of civilization.
Victorians from Atlantis. Well, maybe the Regency in Atlantis, but let’s spot him a few years. No three words could better sum up the entire genre of alternative history.
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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