One of the most memorable factoids in Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1996) is his claim on page 115 that a circular pyramid just south of Mexico City is more than 7,000 years old, and probably 8,500 years old. It certainly made an impression on me when I read the book more than 15 years go, and I always wanted to know more. It was a challenge though. The pyramid is named Cuicuilco, but Hancock won’t tell you that for reasons that will become clear later. According to Hancock, archaeologist Byron Cummings excavated the pyramid in the 1920s and discovered that it was buried beneath a layer of lava that geologists of the era dated to between 7,000 and 8,500 years ago. The pyramid, Cummings claimed, was the “oldest temple” in the Americas since any structure beneath the lava flow must be older than the eruption that buried it.
If true, this would be the best hard evidence ever found for Hancock’s imaginary lost civilization, which he believes spread around the world at the end of the last ice age. So, it was somewhat surprising when I first read Fingerprints that Hancock declined the opportunity to investigate this hard evidence further to provide proof positive of his lost civilization. Why did he stick with soft claims about myths and alignments when the geologic proof was staring him the face? How could science have missed a 7,000 year old lava flow that spread, according to Hancock, over more than 60 square miles?
In fact, Cuicuilco is the oldest pyramid in Mexico. But it dates back to 900 BCE, not 7,000 or more years ago. So, Hancock is partly right. But here’s the kicker: The lava that covered the pyramid came from an eruption that occurred between 300 and 400 CE. When Byron S. Cummings excavated in the 1920s, he did not have access to modern dating techniques. His outdated estimate cannot be relied upon in light of modern, more accurate dating. This same volcanic flow buried the nearby Copilco site, which radiocarbon dates place in the Preclassic period—about 5,000 years too late for Hancock’s faulty estimate.
Hancock claims Cuicuilco has been “ignored by historians and archaeologists, who do not believe that any civilization capable of building a pyramid could have existed in Mexico at such an early date” (p. 115). This site was so completely ignored, in fact, that archaeologist only excavated at the site in the 1920s, 1955, and most of the 1990s. All of these archaeological investigations, apparently, were in conspiracy to hide evidence of a lost civilization.
As it turns out, Hancock’s claims about the pyramid were second- or third-hand. His source was Charles Hapgood’s notorious Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, a work of colossal pseudoscience. Hapgood carefully noted (pp. 199-200) that the geologists who investigated the site estimated the age of the site by estimating how long it would take for the sediment atop it to gradually pile up. But Hapgood notes that this method is flawed and that early radiocarbon dates returned an age of 709 BCE to 414 CE, numbers Hancock fails to note in order to preserve the mystery. Given that Hancock’s own source understood the importance of the radiocarbon evidence, it is unconscionable that Hancock simply wished it away. Journalist that he was, Hancock should have understood the need to report the facts at least as fairly as Hapgood.
Hapgood attempted to rebut the radiocarbon dates with Cummings’ 1920s reports about earlier culture layers dating back 2000 years (c. 50 BCE) and 6500 years (c. 4450 BCE), but modern research has shown that the site was first occupied around 1200 BCE with the first phase of building around 800 BCE. These match Cummings’ culture layers. The discrepancy in dating is due to Cummings’ use of highly inaccurate sediment deposit rate estimates to guess dates. Modern radiocarbon dates are much more exact.
It seems Hancock left out the name of the pyramid so it would be harder to look up the information that contradicts his claims about it. There is one last thing Hancock didn’t tell his readers: Cuicuilco is open to the public. Anyone can go and visit and see for him- or herself the “evidence” for the 8,500-year-old pyramid. If there really was a conspiracy to suppress this site’s true history, running tours to the place seems like a weird way of doing it.
Oh, and here's a picture of the pyramid that archaeologists supposedly don't want you to see:
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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