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.
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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