Graham Hancock Wants Your Help Proving Alaskan Mammoths Died in One Massive Catastrophe
Just days after recovering from a life-threatening seizure and coma, alternative history researcher Graham Hancock put out a call to crowdsource research for a forthcoming book. Hancock asked his fans to help him research the question of whether wooly mammoths faced a catastrophic extinction event in Alaska at the end of the Ice Age. Hancock is particularly interested in the work of Frank Hibben and Froelich Rainey from the 1930s and 1940s, and the articles that he cites sounded familiar to me. It turns out there was a good reason for that. The sources Hancock uses are the same ones that creationists have spent the better part of half a century using to allege that the mammoths were “flash frozen” by a catastrophic change in temperature. I explored those claims last year (here and here), but Hancock has now offered a slightly more sophisticated version of the earlier claim in defense of his current hobbyhorse, that a comet slammed into the Earth at the end of the Younger Dryas, destroying Atlantis.
Hancock has long been interested in flash-frozen mammoths. The story appears in Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), where Hancock first used it as evidence of a sudden and catastrophic “pole shift” that froze the mammoths in the space of an hour or two as the entire Earth’s crust slipped over the planet’s surface.
The story of the flash-frozen mammoths goes back a long way, before it was even a part of creationist and fringe history lore. It began with jokes about Alaskan restaurants serving mammoth steaks, derived, ultimately, from a Russian account of what happened when the Berskova mammoth was unearthed in Siberia in 1901. As a 1929 investigation showed, the flesh at first seemed fresh, but after thawing smelled so bad that only the sled dogs would eat it. The only scientist to try the meat immediately became violently ill. Nevertheless, anti-imperial propagandists painted a portrait of the Tsar himself dining on mammoth steaks and prehistoric grains in a decadent feast of extinct foods. In the 1940s, Hibben examined the melting remains of what he claimed were “thousands of tons of rotting mammoth meat” in Alaska and alleged that he had tasted some. His account, which Hancock cites approvingly in this week’s call to action, has long been disputed as fanciful (How did no one else notice so much putrid meat?), but it is the text that brought Russian mammoth dinner stories to Alaska, where they hung out for decades. From this kernel of truth, a widespread legend of mammoth dinners arose, reaching the peak of their popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the stories were a staple of popular literature about the Arctic.
Hancock, however, dismisses all of this and alleges that the real propaganda effort is the one scientists have launched to discredit Hibben: “Indeed a co-ordinated campaign to discredit him has been mounted by a group of modern geologists who claim that his colourful descriptions are ‘nothing more than imaginative fiction’.” Hancock neglects to note that one of the key reasons for disbelieving Hibben is that he was suspected in the 1940s of fabricating evidence for a pre-Clovis culture at Sandia Cave.
But for Hancock, the real issue is whether Hibben can be proven correct that the mammoths died in a catastrophe rather than a more gradual extinction. To that end, he jumbles together a number of arguments and misunderstands the purpose of scientific citations. He quotes Paul Heinrich, a geologist, who explained in 2007 that more recent geological research found that Hibben was incorrect when he described the layers in which the rotting mammoth meat was found as comprising an indiscriminate jumble of flora and fauna, mixed as though by catastrophe. Hancock takes issue with the fact that Heinrich cited modern geological research to support his evaluation. This is because Hancock cites an Immanuel Velikovsky apologist (really) as saying that none of the cited articles specifically mention Hibben by name. That is because the apologist (and Hancock) seem to misunderstand that current research on the same geological layers is by default a refutation of Hibben, even without naming him, if it contradicts his research. An article needn’t be a specific attempt at debunking to provide data that contradict an earlier claim. Hancock then suggests that any admission that many mammal fossils were found in Alaska is de facto confirmation of Hibben’s claims to have found catastrophic jumbles, even though the argument isn’t over the number of fossils but rather how they were found and how they ended up that way. Heinrich makes very clear that he was citing sources that provided modern research into Alaska geology, not intentional efforts to disprove Hibben. That is Heinrich’s own conclusion from the science.
Let’s take an example of how Hancock misrepresents things. Here is Hancock writing of Heinrich’s citation of Troy L. Pewe’s 1975 Quaternary Geology of Alaska:
On the other hand, however, we have Pewe, one of the very sources that Heinrich offers as proof that Hibben’s claims and descriptions were ‘exaggerated’ and ‘inaccurate’. Yet, in the passages quoted above, Pewe offers no such proof. On the contrary, he cites Hibben himself and refers unambiguously to ‘the abundant remains of extinct Pleistocene mammals, found in frozen deposits along major rivers and in the valleys of many minor streams.’
Remember, the argument isn’t over whether there are lots of animal bones but rather whether they were deposited all at once in a confusing and irregular jumble. But even if we were to concede some ambiguity in Pewe’s text, the portion Hancock quotes is not the one that Heinrich cites. Now here is what Heinrich actually uses from Pewe’s paper, and (shock!) it’s actually data, not opinion:
For example as shown in Figure 29 of Pewe (1975a), buried forest containing in situ tree stumps at the top of the Fox Gravel, the Gold Hill Loess, and the Goldstream Loess. Each of these buried forests are characterized by the in situ stumps of mature trees rooted in buried soils developed in the top of each of these units (Pewe 1975a, 1975b, 1989; Pewe et al. 1997). These buried forests consist of the stumps and fallen trunks of forests buried in place by colluvial deposits or solifluction lobes. Papers and monographs published in the last fifty years have shown the claims and descriptions made by Rainey (1940) and Hibben (1942, 1946) concerning the abundance and distribution of fossil bones to be grossly exaggerated and quite inaccurate.
What a surprise! Hancock leaves out the relevant material from Heinrich that explains what specific facts were cited in order to concoct a false narrative by cherry-picking and misunderstanding material.
“Like many of his colleagues in universities around the world today,” Hancock writes, “Heinrich appears to be ideologically committed to the uniformitarian notion of slow, gradual geological changes – so it’s no surprise that he rejects and seeks to ‘debunk’ catastrophist explanations.” However, Hancock helpfully elides a variety of early, creationist, and fringe claims into one. Explanations that ranged from localized natural disasters to pole shifts and comet collisions are all folded together to explain fossil finds, as though a local disaster and a global geological catastrophe were equivalent. They are, but only in the minds of fringe writers who take all contradictions of “official” science as equally valid.
8/30/2017 11:38:00 am
Great legend - herds of frozen mammoths across the great white north.
8/30/2017 12:04:20 pm
". . . a sudden and catastrophic “pole shift” that froze the mammoths in the space of an hour or two as the entire Earth’s crust slipped over the planet’s surface."
8/30/2017 12:11:57 pm
I am shocked that Graham Hancock did not cite a more reliable source. I am referring to the television show "Northern Exposure". In one episode the head character, played by Rob Morrow, finds a mammoth frozen in the tundra. He reports this, but before the mammoth can be excavated, some of the locals butcher it and dine on mammoth steaks. This source has as much validity as the sources he did use.
8/30/2017 12:15:21 pm
Well I guess the actual scarcity of frozen mamoth & other corpses will now be used as evidence that bigfoots ate them as they defrosted.
8/30/2017 12:19:16 pm
For someone who wants to be taken seriously, Hancock sure does love older, disproven ideas. A consequence of those ideas finding no acceptance among actual scientists.
8/31/2017 09:04:37 pm
A person would think so. However, I suspect Hancock in his criticism is just pandering to his base by essentially accusing this guy of being an enemy of science and playing the victim. This appears to be similar to the populist politicians who also panders to their base by accusing journalists of being enemies of the people and explains his failures as someone elses' fault.
8/30/2017 01:00:07 pm
So all one has to do to crowd-fund something is claim that "scientists" are trying to suppress it. Noted. Let the mourning for reason continue.
8/30/2017 03:01:01 pm
Clarke's Fiifth Law:
8/31/2017 12:06:07 pm
". . . how can such a significant percentage of our population . . . be so knee-jerk anti-science?"
8/30/2017 03:26:37 pm
I'm starting a crowd fund to raise $250,000 to prove that one can learn just as much science as those uppity pHD's just by watching TV,
8/31/2017 09:19:22 am
Hello Jason -
An Over-Educated Grunt
8/31/2017 10:08:20 am
And Newton practiced alchemy. Being smart, even brilliant, is no defense against being proven wrong down the line.
8/31/2017 01:49:34 pm
Yeah, so? Alternate explanation: the head injury made him think he'd been a courier. And elves stole his notebooks.
8/31/2017 10:35:28 pm
Seriously, what are you smoking?
8/31/2017 11:00:34 pm
Should I complain to Jason about your post apparently accusing me of drug use?
8/31/2017 11:07:10 pm
No worries Americanegro. He's just going to tell Jason that it wasn't really him again, and ask him to delete the comment afterwards. It's his new MO.
9/1/2017 12:58:54 pm
"I'll be continuing this later today."
8/31/2017 04:25:02 pm
It isn't enough for Hancock that he's been making a mockery of ancient history, astronomy and archaeology, he's had to cross over into paleontology as well.
9/1/2017 01:28:42 am
Well, and Robert Schoch.
8/31/2017 05:17:41 pm
Paul Heinrich seems to have commented about the Graham Hancock blog post -
9/1/2017 09:23:29 am
I'll handle Paul on Monday.
9/1/2017 06:02:44 pm
Keeping us posted on the contents of your dayplanner is a valuable contribution. Thank you!
8/31/2017 09:27:11 pm
OMG. This is going to fun.
9/2/2017 07:02:46 pm
I sent a polite invitation to Hancock offering to show him around Alaska and introduce him to some local experts. We'll see what happens.
9/1/2017 10:44:47 pm
Someone should tell Hancock that the post, which he and the Velikovsky apologist criticized was just one of a series of posts that were part of an extended exchanged with Mr. Grondine. and me The full list of posts are:
9/1/2017 11:17:04 pm
Someone should summarize whatever the heck you're talking about. Are you a layabout, Focker?
9/4/2017 11:02:26 am
Hello Paul -
9/4/2017 12:32:35 pm
Uh, bones ≠ ivory. That mistake in grade school knowledge calls anything you say about science into question. Do you even science bro?
9/2/2017 07:07:25 pm
I just reread Hancock and I'm working my way through your posts now. After that, Hapgood, Sanderson, and Hibbert.
Paul H. 002
9/4/2017 08:06:31 pm
Given that fossil bones have been accumulating in sediments of the New Siberian Islands over the last 200,000 years, a person can cherry pick the data, including any one of the several radiocarbon date "clusters," to prove anything they want.
9/5/2017 02:55:17 am
I see that Paul's full reply to E.P. Grondine appears here:
9/6/2017 02:03:15 pm
Hi Murgatroyd -
9/7/2017 09:29:58 am
In the Hall of Maat, the weight of your sins are measured against the weight of a feather.
9/4/2017 09:26:29 pm
"However, Graham Hancock is the person causing real problems to real researchers by publishing pseudoscientific predictions about killer asteroids without any usable evidence to base them on. Having people cry "wolf" about impact hazards does not help anyone who studies them."
9/4/2017 10:58:43 pm
"You and I both know that the mucks Hibbens observed were being exposed by the Fairbanks Exploration Company, which was hydraulically mining gold, and no longer survive."
9/5/2017 06:12:09 pm
Hi Paul -
9/5/2017 06:28:37 pm
Hi Paul -
9/6/2017 01:00:15 am
"if the animal required a large amount of food daily, it died."
9/6/2017 02:05:30 pm
9/7/2017 08:40:56 pm
Like ebony, bones still ≠ ivory. You've just been grade-schooled.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.