Would You Believe Yoga Can Prove the Olmec Came from Vedic India? This Man Does, and Graham Hancock Wants You to Meet Him
After a week of heavy political material, I imagine we can all use a break with a case of classic ridiculousness. No, I’m not talking about Scott Wolter’s bizarre tweet in which he speculated that the light fixtures around the U.S. Capitol are secret copies of the Ark of the Covenant, or the one later in which he imagined that the Lincoln Memorial, modeled on a Doric temple, is also the Ark. Instead, I am talking about the special guest article by Bibhu Dev Misra on Graham Hancock’s website in which the Hindu nationalist speculates that the Olmec are in fact secret descendants of Vedic Indians because of yoga!
All right, there are some politics involved.
Bibhu Dev Misra doesn’t describe himself explicitly as a Hindu nationalist on his website (so far as I was able to see), but since he makes no bones about the fact that he is a Vedic creationist and traces everything in the ancient world—Greek mythology, Minoan culture, the stone city of Petra, all world religions—back to the Indus Valley or the Vedas for the greater glory of India, there isn’t really any other way to describe him. He claims as key influences writers like Graham Hancock, Erich von Däniken, Michael Cremo, Walter Cruttenden, John Anthony West, and David Frawley. That’s quite the crew.
In his article for Graham Hancock, he adds the Olmec to the list of world cultures he imagines have a Vedic origin, but his evidence is laughably awful. He went on the internet and did an image search for Olmec statues. After reviewing them, he found that he was able to match the poses of the statues to some of the 900 classic yoga poses identified by the Indian government in 2008.
Hindu nationalists believe that yoga dates back to Vedic times, perhaps to the Indus Valley Civilization 5,000 years ago, and is therefore a prehistoric religious practice, one of the first on Earth. However, mainstream scholars suggest that yoga developed sometime around 600-400 BCE, far too late to have influenced the Olmec, who flourished almost a millennium earlier.
The larger issue is also the easier one to understand: The human body can only bend in so many ways. By the time you reach 900 different poses, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have hit upon most of the ways a person can sit, stand, lay, or kneel. You can match poses anywhere if you have enough to choose from. But that doesn’t stop Misra, who has a bigger point about the Olmec, one taken over from old fringe history books, like those of Graham Hancock:
They are often called the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, for they laid many of the foundations for the subsequent civilizations of the region. Intriguingly, they sprang up as a fully developed, sophisticated civilization, sometime around 1500 BCE, with no sign of a period of cultural evolution anywhere in Mexico. This raises the very pertinent question of whether the Olmecs were migrants.
Misra said he got the information from Nigel Davies’s book The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico (1982), but dollars to doughnuts he learned about it from Hancock, who used the book in Fingerprints of the Gods to make the same claim. Oddly, both Misra and Hancock give the citation incorrectly, one mangling the name, the other the title. I say that it is likely that he learned of Davies from Hancock because Hancock cites Davies as proof that the Olmec emerged fully formed, though that isn’t what Davies said. Speaking of the oldest known Olmec center at San Lorenzo, he said in 1982, “It is generally considered that, since San Lorenzo presents a fully developed culture, an Olmec formative stage must have developed elsewhere, perhaps in the Tuxtla Mountains, though [Michael] Coe also writes of a probable early or pre-Olmec phase in San Lorenzo itself.” Note that this is not the same as saying that the Olmec had no cultural evolution. It’s worth noting that in subsequent years, clearer evidence for the pre-Olmec phases has been excavated, and the idea of the Olmec emerging ex nihilo cannot be supported. Indeed, archaeology has shown a gradual and connected transition between the stages once seen as “pre-Olmec” and the classic Olmec period. “It is no longer appropriate to view the earliest phases defined at San Lorenzo as ‘pre-Olmec,’” Maria del Carmen Rodriguez and Panchiano Ortiz Ceballos of the National Anthropological and Historical Institute of Mexico wrote in 1997. Since two decades have passed, I’d say it’s probably time that even fringe writers became aware of these “new” developments.
The rest of his evidence is just as silly, covering a random assortment of things that may or may not look like Hindu religious iconography, if you squint. He sees what he wants to see, or rather, what his ideology suggests that he wants 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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