South African Philosophy Professor Endorses Graham Hancock's Lost Civilization, Demands Paradigm Shift in Archaeology
One of the themes that I have hit upon more than once is the poverty of “new” ideas in fringe history. The same few topics come up time and again, in a few major variations. Once you’ve mastered Atlantis, hyperdiffusionism, the Nephilim, space aliens, and a handful of conspiracies theories revolving around lost races and tribes, Jews, the Holy Bloodline, and Freemasonry, you have pretty much been exposed to the root form of most of the claims you will encounter. Nevertheless, it surprises me to no end to see how these bad ideas keep seeping into conversation over the centuries.
Yesterday, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper published a blog post from Prof. Bert Olivier, who is a professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and also teaches philosophy at the University of the Free State and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He was awarded the 2004 Stals Prize for Philosophy by the South African Akademie vir Kuns en Wetenskap, and his academic work focuses on postmodern interdisciplinary explorations of popular culture. In his blog post, Olivier endorsed the Graham Hancock hypothesis and basically accused archaeologists and historians of being close-minded.
Olivier opens his blog post with some puffery about the importance of paradigm shifts, and he then proceeds to offer a midcentury caricature of human history that reflects his own memories of his schoolboy lessons. It’s a depressing theme, really: Old men discover that the information they learned in the 1960s and 1970s has been superseded by new information, but mistakenly believe that no one else is aware of this fact and therefore the entire field of archaeology must be flawed.
Here is how Olivier describes what he thinks the field of archaeology teaches about human history, a view simplified from one popular in the middle twentieth century:
It is safe to say that the conventional, or orthodox, assumption in archaeology, encountered in the vast majority of textbooks, and underpinning the bulk of ongoing archaeological research, amounts to the view that the earliest ‘advanced’ civilisation on Earth was that of ancient Egypt, which flourished approximately 3500 years BCE. As a corollary of this view it is accepted that before 10000 BCE – more or less when the agricultural revolution is supposed to have occurred – humans on the planet lived in small communities of hunter-gatherers, and were certainly not capable of ‘advanced’ cultural activities such as building structures evincing thorough knowledge of sophisticated, mathematically-informed building techniques.
I need not point out that even in the middle twentieth century, it was recognized that Sumer predated Egypt. After all, the most famous book of the era on that subject was called History Begins at Sumer, and was published in 1956. Perhaps the issue is the question of what Olivier means by “advanced,” since archaeology has long since identified and explored the complexity of Neolithic civilizations. Çatalhöyük, for example, was excavated in the early 1960s and was discovered to have flourished from 7500 to 5700 BCE. It was an entire proto-city, and “advanced” relative to the hunter-gatherer criteria Olivier seems to hold as the baseline for defining culture.
Olivier follows the typically shortsighted view of the fringe historian, ranting inchoately about the idea that scholarly elites hold “the arguably narcissistic belief that contemporary society instantiates the most advanced technological society in the history of humankind.” His argument, taken from Hancock, is that if only we imagine a lost ancient society of technological supermen, we might will one into existence despite the lack of evidence for such a society. But more specifically his complaint is founded on a misunderstanding born of a fiction of progress carried over from Victorian times:
This goes hand in hand with the view, that there was a gradual development from about 10000 years ago, through ancient Egyptian culture (and others such as ancient Greek and Persian cultures), as well as early and late modern civilisation, to where humanity is today, namely (supposedly) at the zenith of technically developed and oriented civilisation.
This has not been the view of the majority of archaeologists or historians for centuries. Civilization, however you define it, moves in fits and starts, and it has long been recognized that an individual culture will go through periods of expansion, intensification, and growth, followed by periods of stagnation, constriction, and collapse. Taken together, the overall complexity of the cultures across the globe increases over time, since technological development builds on earlier innovations and allows for greater social and cultural complexity. But the process is not linear, and there is no guarantee, as they say, that past performance indicates future results. The idea of the arrow of progress went out of style a century ago, and you would think that a professor of philosophy would know something about that particular philosophical conceit.
But the depth of Olivier’s understanding becomes quite clear when he devotes space to praising Graham Hancock, whom he considered a thorough and detailed researcher: “Yet, as long ago as 1995 someone called Graham Hancock published an extensively researched book, Fingerprints of the Gods, the multiple references in which alone should convince one of the thoroughness of the research.” It flabbergasts me that someone can make it through graduate school without understanding that the number of references is irrelevant if the references are wrong. Does he not know that you need to actually check them? Hancock has a history of misrepresenting sources or using weak or discredited sources. It’s no wonder then that Olivier ends up endorsing claims that Hancock himself now considers inoperative, particularly Charles Hapgood’s ideas about “Earth-crust displacement” and its role in crushing the remains of a lost Ice Age civilization in Antarctica. It’s also touching that Olivier is so stuck in the twentieth century that he cites Hancock’s 1995 claims about Hapgood’s 1960s-era hypotheses, which in turn were based on Victorian ideas first proposed by Brasseur de Bourbourg in the 1870s, as “relevant evidence,” despite even Hancock having acknowledged that modern science makes such ideas virtually impossible.
The rest of the blog post is a straightforward summary of Hancock’s 2015 book Magicians of the Gods, and Olivier adds that Hancock has convinced him that the Turkish site of Göbekli Tepe, more than 10,000 years old, will force archaeologists to adopt the Hancock model of a lost civilization. Apparently, the philosopher is unable to conceive of a culture of hunter-gatherers who came together to build things without being told to do so by superior overlords in their far-off techno-metropolis.
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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