Graham Hancock's Ideas about Ancient North America Were Proposed 200 Years Ago, by a Plagiarist and Fraud
If you’ve been reading fringe media or even the mainstream news this week, you likely saw one of dozens of articles claiming that a new scientific paper evaluated the evidence for an advanced civilization millions of years ago. They were lying. The paper isn’t about proving such a civilization existed. It was a thought experiment asking us to consider the impact of civilization on the planet and how permanent our footprint will be in the long term. There is no evidence of an ancient lost civilization millions of years ago and the authors even wrote in the Atlantic that they don’t believe there ever was such a civilization, though they suggest that it might be worth looking for any geological traces of one, if only for the accidental discoveries it might produce. It’s about as much proof of prehistoric Old Ones as At the Mountains of Madness.
Meanwhile, you have probably heard that Graham Hancock is writing a new book called America Before about the prehistory of North America, and his thesis is going to be that a comet struck the continent during the Ice Age, wiping out an advanced civilization whose legacy is embodied in the astronomical alignments of the famous mounds of the Ohio Valley and elsewhere. He wrote on Twitter last week that he is currently writing a chapter about Ohio’s Serpent Mound. There is a degree of irony that Hancock’s book is essentially a mirror image of my own current project, which is a narrative history of the rise and fall of the mound builder myth—essentially the same “lost civilization” hypothesis.
The interesting thing is that this material can be found all the way back in 1801, in the work of Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, also known as John Hector St. John, the former French consul at New York and a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Crèvecoeur was an unrepentant plagiarist, and he accidentally concocted the myth that a comet destroyed a lost civilization in America when, in creating his Travels in Upper Pennsylvania and the State of New York, he pieced together from a series of books a fake speech to place in the mouth of Benjamin Franklin. He first has Franklin talk about a lost white race that must have been the true builders of the mounds. Then he has him say:
“This planet is very old,” he continued. “Like the works of Homer and Hesiod, who can say through how many editions it has passed in the immensity of ages? The rent continents, the straits, the gulfs, the islands, the shallows of the ocean, are but vast fragments on which, as on the planks of some wrecked vessel, the men of former generations who escaped these commotions, have produced new populations. Time, so precious to us, the creatures of a moment, is nothing to nature. Who can tell us when the earth will again experience these fatal catastrophes, to which, it appears to me, to be as much exposed in its annual revolutions, as are the vessels which cross the seas to be dashed in pieces on a sunken rock? The near approach or contact of one of those globes whose elliptical and mysterious courses are perhaps the agents of our destinies, some variation in its annual or diurnal rotation, in the inclination of its axis or the equilibrium of the seas, might change its climate, and render it long uninhabitable.” (trans. E. A. and G. L. Duycknick)
This is basically Hancock’s entire raison d'être at this point, and it is all the more remarkable that the idea is a fortuitous product of Crèvecoeur’s random selection of texts to raid. Here I will share just a small part of my analysis in my book:
When Crèvecoeur was casting about in 1801 for material to plagiarize for his Voyage, there was surprisingly little to choose from if he wished to write about the mounds except for the material emerging as a result of the Webster controversy. As an admirer of the Americans, he could not help but want to contribute to the glorification of the country through the creation of an epic past equal to that of Greece and Rome. But what to do? Crèvecoeur picked up a copy of Gilbert Imlay’s Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, a best-seller a decade earlier, and started copying. The connection must have occurred to him because an appendix reproducing Benjamin Franklin’s views on immigration to America appeared just pages from an appendix by a soldier named Jonathan Heart speculating on the history of the ancient earthworks in the 1797 edition Crèvecoeur used.
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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