(When I first saw the satellite image of Eagle Island, visible in the second article, for a second I thought it was the whole continent. The headline in my browser had been something like “Antarctic Ice Melting,” and then there’s this image, left and right, left mostly snow-covered, right showing lots of brown rock, melt ponds, coastline. I was like, “WOW! That melted REALLY fast! We can see the land and everything! Oh … wait … that’s a small island, not the whole continent.”)
Like most sane people, I hate Internet debates. Love/hate, that is. Even in real life, I’ve always found it hard to let a debate go. I’ve sometimes stubbornly backed positions that later turned out to be false, and on the other end of the spectrum I’ve gotten scared by ad hominems and conceded stuff I didn’t need to concede. Almost no matter how the debate goes, I end up feeling like an idiot.
I don’t want this site to become a debating site. But a few weeks ago, I posted a wild historical theory and invited you guys to critique it. Benjamin did, in the comments, here. So, for the integrity of this site, I’ve got to respond to the critique found in the link. If you don’t like Internet debates, please please skip this post.
The link that Benjamin posted to is
to a site called Bad Archaeology. The
site has two guys’ names on it, but at appears to be mostly written by one guy.
(At least, he is the one who responds to comments.) Let’s call him KFM. I am not posting his full name here nor am I
linking to his web site, because I don’t want to attract his attention because
I hate Internet debates! However, you can easily find his site by
The site exists to debunk “Bad Archaeology” (caps in the original), which mostly means various wild theories like the ones we’ve been discussing about lost civilizations, aliens, etc. It calls proponents of these theories Bad Archaeologists and it fights them with facts, with mischaracterization of their positions, and sometimes with mockery. And by capitalizing its references to them. Always fun.
Summary of the Refutation
KFM’s main arguments against
Hancock’s idea that the Piri Reis, Orontius Finaeus, and Buache maps come from
an older source are as follows:
-Piri Reis SAID he got his data for
the New World part of his map from Columbus. This is confirmed because he faithfully
reproduces some of Columbus’s errors, such as
as part of the mainland.
-Most Bad Archaeologists
consistently spell Orontius Finaeus’s name wrong. (Oronteus.)
This shows they don’t know what they’re talking about.
-There are major errors in Reis’s
and Finaeus’s depictions of Antarctica. So we cannot claim that a supposed older
source map was accurate. (More on this
in a second.)
-Only one version of Buache’s famous map exists that shows Antarctica. It is in the Library of Congress. Other versions of the same map just show a big blank space there.
-Buache was an accomplished geographer who had a theory that there must be a landmass at the bottom of the world. He also theorized that within it, there must be a large inland sea that was the source of icebergs. So, if the map he supposedly drew is not a hoax and was in fact drawn by him, then he just made it up out of pure speculation. In fact, he wrote “supposed” and “conjectured” all over it.
-He also shows ice and icebergs all
over it. This renders ridiculous the
idea that it is a map of Antarctica before the
continent was covered in ice.
-Buache’s and Finaeus’s maps don’t match Reis’s or each other, so clearly they cannot have come from a single source map, let alone an accurate one.
KFM’s arguments look, at first glance, super convincing. Some of them are dead on.
The strongest part of KFM’s argument is this:
Hapgood, [Hancock’s source for this theory], assumed that the original source
maps, which he believed derived from an ancient survey of Antarctica at a time
when it was free from ice, were extremely accurate. Because of this, he also
assumed that any difference between the Piri Re‘is map and modern maps were the
result of copying errors made by Piri. Starting from this position, it mattered
little to Hapgood if he adjusted the scales between stretches of coastline,
redrew ‘missing’ sections of coastline and altered the orientation of
landmasses to ‘correct errors’ on Piri’s map to match the hypothesised source
maps …. Hapgood found it necessary to redraw the map using four separate
grids, two of which are parallel, but offset by a few degrees and drawn on
different scales; a third has to be turned clockwise nearly 79 degrees from
these two, while the fourth is turned counterclockwise almost 40 degrees and drawn
on about half the scale of the main grid. Using this method, Hapgood identified
five separate equators.”
This is pretty damning to the theory. It’s not necessarily fatal to the idea that Reis used an obscure ancient source among the 20 that went into his map. After all, copying errors do happen, especially when we are trying to compile a bunch of maps from different eras of places we have never surveyed ourselves. But that’s an unfalsifiable claim, so let’s leave it. Regardless, Hapgood’s shenanigans certainly are fatal to the idea that this ancient map, if it existed, was astonishingly accurate in latitude and longitude.
The Not So Strong
alongside this excellent argument, KFM also includes a bunch of inconsistent
in all, the Piri Re‘is map of 1513 is easily explained. It shows no unknown
lands, least of all Antarctica, and contained errors (such as Columbus’s
belief that Cuba
was an Asian peninsula) that ought not to have been present if it derived from
extremely accurate ancient originals. It also conforms to the prevalent
geographical theories of the early sixteenth century, including ideas about the
necessity of balancing landmasses in the north with others in the south to
prevent the earth from tipping over.”
So, the map does not show Antarctica, but one sentence
later it does show Antarctica, but Antarctica was only put there because contemporary
geographical theory demanded it. Also,
note the assumption that the ‘extremely accurate originals’ are supposed to
have included all of the Americas
as well as Antarctica. That’s not my understanding of Hancock’s
It’s also not clear whether KFM is claiming that all the data for Reis’s map came from Columbus. If he is, this inconsistent with both Hancock’s claim (and KFM’s own showing) that Reis said the map was compiled from 20 others, including among them a map whose source was Columbus.
Similarly, KFM shows errors on Orontius Finaeus’s map, although he admits that “There are fairly obvious similarities between the general depiction of the southern continent by Orontius Finaeus and modern maps of Antarctica.”
The Buache Map Shows an Archipelago
For the Buache map, KFM contends that Buache essentially made up the entire map to satisfy a geographical theory he had, namely that there must be a land mass at the bottom of the world to balance the land at the top (this was a popular theory at the time), and that it probably had a large inland lake in it with two major outlets leading to the sea (this was Buache’s own brilliant guess, and he thought this lake must be the source of the icebergs that navigators encountered in the southern sea).
take KFM’s word that Buache had this theory, and that his map shows ice and
icebergs on Antarctica, which KFM says “makes the claims that Buache’s map
shows an ice-free Antarctica all the more
sort of. But actually, Hancock’s claim
is that the source map Buache used shows Antarctica
early in the process of icing over. Also, given Buache’s theory, it would not be
surprising if he had added ice and icebergs to any other data that he may have
“Over several parts of the southern continent, Buache writes conjecturée (conjectured) and soupçonnée (suspected).” KFM thinks this is conclusive proof that Buache basically invented the interior of Antarctica on his map, based purely on his own theory. That could be. But I have to say, if it is, he did a great job! He does not just draw a round mass, attach the few islands and promontories that he knows about (New Zealand, which he took for a peninsula, and the Cape of the Circumcision), and then draw a lake in the middle. Instead, he has a waterway offset between two unequal land masses. It corresponds surprisingly well to the shapes of the ranges of mountains and low areas that we now know Antarctica has.
The “Well, I’ll Bet You Didn’t Know About … This!” Argument
Besides these arguments, KFM includes a lot of interesting history about the biographies of these cartographers. Almost half his page about Finaeus is taken up with the cartographer’s biography, even though it has little to do with claims about his map (beyond boosting his credentials, which I would think Hancock would also want to do). Similarly, with Buache we are given: “The claims of Bad Archaeologists about Buache’s map ignore a crucial fact: he was the foremost theoretical geographer of his generation, whose published works include hypotheses about the Antarctic continent.” I’m not sure why Buache’s eminence is supposed to be a devastating blow to any claims about his map, but again we are treated to a long and interesting biography before KFM finally gets to Buache’s theories about a southern continent.
This style of argument reminds me of people
who think they have shown the Bible is not divinely inspired merely because
they can show that it happened in a particular historical context and is
expressed in a particular historical idiom.
They will trot out some tidbit of historical context that they assume is
complete news to some Bible scholar who has been studying ANE history his whole
life. Their line of argument is based on
a misunderstanding of what divine inspiration is claimed to be. They assume that if something is claimed to
be the Word of God, it must have come to humanity in an abstract, context-free,
propositional and not literary or historical form. (They also assume that it must cover all
knowledge in the world, e.g. so that the discovery of North
America was supposed to somehow shake our faith in the Bible.)
KFM’s argument about these maps is exactly the same kind of argument. He gives a bunch of historical context about these cartographers and thinks that refutes Hancock’s claims. It’s as if Hancock had been arguing that Piri Reis, Finaeus, and Buache were born of virgins, went through life without interacting with anyone, and then one day, without any context whatsoever, this complete, easy-to-interpret map from an ancient civilization dropped out of the sky into their hands. Well, that certainly isn’t the argument that Hancock makes in his book. His argument is (or was; he has apparently retracted it) that there were several source maps, made over centuries or millienia, which traced the progressive growth of the Antarctic ice cap. He does not claim that these were complete, accurate world maps or even that they showed the Americas. “Someone who knew what they were doing once mapped Antarctica.” That’s the basic claim.
When We Think We Don’t Have Preconceptions
It turns out that there is a more than
coincidental similarity between the way KFM caricatures Hancock’s claims and
the way that some people caricature claims about the Bible. KFM, in fact, classes Biblical Archaeology as
a subset of Bad Archaeology. The
following quotes should give you a sense of his general attitude:
Archaeology is just so outrageously Bad that it can only be examined charitably
by assuming that its proponents are slightly confused. How else can you explain
the complete lack of critical judgment, the belief in ancient fairy stories,
the utter absence of logical thought they display? Either that, or they have a
particular agenda, usually driven by a religious viewpoint.
Biblical Archaeology, which has
been described as excavation with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the
other, is a specialised branch of archaeology that often seems to ignore the
rules and standards required of real archaeology. Conducted for the most part,
by people with an explicitly religious agenda (usually Christian or Jewish), it
is a battleground between fundamentalist zeal and evidence-based scholarship … If we can’t find evidence for Solomon’s
glorious empire, it must be that we’re not interpreting the archaeological data
correctly and that a big discovery is just around the corner (the ‘Jehoash
inscription’ leaps to mind in this context). If contemporary Roman documents
don’t mention Jesus of Nazareth, why here’s an ossuary that belongs to James,
his brother… It’s all very much centred around contentious objects,
poorly-dated sites and great interpretative leaps that the non-religious may
Got that? If you believe in a historical Solomon or
even a historical Jesus, you’ve just been dubbed a Bad Archaeologist. Welcome to the club, friends.
I mention this attitude not because it’s off-putting, but because it tells us something about KFM’s mindset and about what it would take to convince him that something is “good” archaeology. I’m guessing that any evidence of advanced civilizations older than about 4,000 BC is going to be dismissed out of hand. As will any evidence showing that humanity might have declined, rather than slowly progressed, over our history.
Going back to the maps, what has been shown here? I would say it’s inconclusive. The maps are less accurate than Hancock claims and far less accurate than I made them sound in my original post, because I was going over Hancock’s theory at treetop level and didn’t bother to get off into the weeds when he discusses the details of the maps. (As I still haven’t done in this post. I would like to, but my time is limited.)
On the other hand, I think the Finaeus and Buache maps especially are more accurate than we would expect of maps that had been drawn out of pure conjecture, without any source at all. It looks like more was known about Antarctica in the 16th century than we previously assumed, whatever the source of that knowledge.
So it’s not a case of “Lost civilization proven!” but neither is it “Nothing to see here.” The most we can say is that something strange is going on, but we don’t know what. To paraphrase Andrew Klavan, KFM isn’t wrong to think Hancock and Hapgood are wrong; but he is wrong to think that he himself is right.
About the theory of earth crust slippage, I feel the same way. On the one hand, it’s a pretty hard theory to swallow on geological grounds. (For example: if a big section of the earth’s crust pivoted around the North American plains – even granted that this could happen – shouldn’t there be some kind of seam where the edge was?) On the other hand, clearly something weird happened, or we wouldn’t have Siberia being ice-free when Canada was ice-covered. Nor would we have flash-frozen tropical plants and baby mammoths.
So, in conclusion, nobody knows
anything, boys and girls. Let us eat,
drink and be merry.
In this post I attempt to summarize Graham Hancock’s book Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization (1995). This book influenced the background for my novels. It also, in my mind, dovetails with Douglas Van Dorn’s biblical/archaeological research on giants in ways that I am sure Hancock never intended or imagined.
This post is only a summary. It will naturally be much less convincing than the book itself. My copy of Fingerprints runs 578 pages counting the bibliography and index. Hancock builds up to his thesis slowly, presenting many different lines of evidence and dropping mysterious hints to keep the reader intrigued. He also has to get into some fairly technical topics, particularly when talking about astronomy. I can’t do any of that in a 1,000-word post. So, like a bucket of cold water in the face, you will be treated to Hancock’s thesis in all its bizarre and fascinating glory.
Incredibly Sophisticated, Incredibly Ancient Maps
Hancock’s first two chapters are dedicated to the details of a number of old maps drawn up during the 1500s which show parts of South America that were undiscovered by Europeans at that time. More intriguingly, they show the coast of Antarctica as it appears under the ice. (This was before modern man’s discovery of Antarctica, and before seismic surveys revealed what lay beneath the ice.) The best-known of these is the Piri Reis map (drawn up in A.D. 1513), but there are others, such as the Orontes Finaeus map, the Mercator map, and the Buache map. All these mapmakers drew on older maps, which they compiled. Piri Reis, for example, had access to the Imperial Library at Constantinople, which is probably where he got the sources for his map.
The other amazing thing about these old maps is they often show locations in South America, for example, at accurate longitude and latitude.
The lesson that Hancock draws from these maps is this. Whatever source maps Piri Reis and others used, must themselves have been drawn up by an advanced seafaring civilization that had explored the world and knew how to project longitude and latitude. Amazingly, these seafarer/mathematicians apparently charted Antarctica at a time when it was not yet completely covered in ice. That makes their civilization, how do you say? Very, very old.
Ancient Astronomer/Engineers Again
Hancock then turns to the sophisticated ancient buildings that have baffled us in previous posts. He dedicates ten chapters to the Incan and pre-Incan civilization: the Nazca Lines, the amazing complex at Lake Titicaca, and the tradition that connects these to a bearded culture-bringer (the Viracocha), who came from over the sea.
Eleven more chapters describe the Central American cultures: their obsession with numbers, with calculating exact dates in the distant past and future, with forestalling the apocalypse (including by human sacrifice). They were also sophisticated astronomers. The pyramid complex at Teotihuacan, for example, appears to have been laid out as a scale model of the solar system.
And then there is ancient Egypt. Seventeen chapters are dedicated to it. There are many things to notice. Here are just a few: ancient Egyptian civilization seems to have appeared suddenly as a high civilization, complete with myths, history, engineering, and an obsession with boats. Overall, its history is one of slow decline and loss of knowledge, rather than slow buildup. (Interestingly, the same point has been made about ancient Sumer.)
The pyramids at Giza do not match the pyramids that are supposed to have been built immediately before and immediately after them. They are far more durable and sophisticated than these others. If we accept the received chronology, the Egyptians built some relatively crummy pyramids, then a few generations later built some amazingly good ones, then turned around and went back to building relatively low-quality pyramids again. Hancock suggests that instead, the Giza pyramids are much older than commonly thought. They were built with knowledge or technology that was subsequently lost. The comparatively crummy pyramids are attempts to copy the ones at Giza.
Hancock writes, “Robert Bauval’s evidence showed that the three pyramids [at Giza] were an unbelievably precise terrestrial map of the three stars of Orion’s belt, accurately reflecting the angles between each of them and even (by their respective sizes) providing some indication of their individual magnitudes. Moreover, this map extended outwards to the north and south to encompass several other structures on the Giza plateau … the Giza monuments were so arranged as to provide a picture of the skies … as they had looked – and only as they had looked – around the year 10,450 BC.” (page 356)
The Great Pyramid at Giza has a ratio of 2pi between its original height and the circumference of its base. This strengthens the argument that it was meant to represent a star (a circle). The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan has a ratio of 4pi between height and base circumference. Both of these pyramids had to have an odd angle of slope to accomplish this (52 degrees for Giza; 43.5 degrees for Teotihuacan), so it seems to have been intentional. Pi was supposedly not calculated correctly until it was done by Archimedes in the third century BC, but apparently the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Mexicans were familiar with with it.
Where Hancock is going with all this is that people on both sides of the Atlantic got their amazing engineering, mathematical, and astronomical knowledge from an older “source” civilization. He thinks it was the same seafaring civilization that apparently charted Antarctica. This impression is strengthened by the Egyptian obsession with boats and by the Incan legends that say all this knowledge came from over the sea.
Is Hancock Arguing for Aliens?
Not in this book.
He has written several books about ancient mysteries. I have not read them all. He has now started writing fiction, and in the one novel of his that I have read, it becomes apparent that his interest in all this is decidedly New Age in character. The novel features an angelic/earth mother spirit guide, telepathic Neanderthals, the whole nine yards. So, I can’t swear that aliens won’t show up at some point. But that is not the thesis of Fingerprints. Hancock is arguing that there was a very advanced civilization of people well before 10,000 BC. Whether these people were taught by aliens, spirits, or some other stuff like that, he does not say, thankfully. Because, luckily, this book relies heavily on evidence.
So the ancient cartographers were not aliens, not even according to Hancock. But still we have a problem: Where was this civilization located? You don’t normally get an advanced civilization until you have a critical mass of arable land. In short, a continent. Hancock believes he has solved this problem. He believes there was such a mass of land, but that it has since undergone a cataclysm. And now we come to the really wild part of his thesis.
It’s the End of the World As They Knew It
Mythology about a period of cataclysms in ancient times is universal. Hancock dedicates four chapters to this alone. Flood myths, for example, are very common. But most cultures also record things like earthquakes, fire falling from the sky, the sun not rising for some long period of time, or an endless winter. Hancock discusses myths like this in some detail from the following cultures: Aztec, Sumerian, Greek, Inuit, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Pacific, Indian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Norse. It should not be hard for the reader to track down these myths. Some cultures (the Aztecs and the Hopi, for example) believe that disasters come at regular intervals and that each one ushers in a new age of the world.
Hancock believes that these myths are actually historical records (with all the usual caveats about them becoming garbled, etc.) of a period of geologic upheaval that happened within human history. I’ll put it in his own words:
“This geological theory was formulated by Professor Charles Hapgood and supported by Albert Einstein. What it suggests is a complete slippage of our planet’s thirty-mile-thick lithosphere over its nearly 8000-mile-thick central core, forcing large parts of the western hemisphere southward towards the equator and thence to the Antarctic Circle. This movement is not seen as taking place along a due north-south meridian but on a swivelling course – pivoting, as it were, around the central plains of what is now the United States. The result is that the north-eastern segment of North America (in which the North Pole was formerly located in Hudson’s Bay) was dragged southwards out of the Arctic Circle along with large parts of Siberia [which were dragged into the Arctic Circle].
“In the southern hemisphere, Hapgood’s model shows the landmass that we now call Antarctica, much of which was previously at temperate or even warm latitudes, being shifted in its entirety inside the Antarctic Circle. The overall movement is seen as having been in the region of 30 degrees (approximately 2000 miles) and as having been concentrated, in the main, between the years 14,500 BC and 12,500 BC – but with massive aftershocks on a planetary scale continuing at widely-separated intervals down to about 9500 BC.” (page 471)
So that’s the thesis. Here are the things it explains:
Why North America was once covered with glaciers, centered around Hudson Bay, and why they suddenly started melting.
Why, during the same period of time, Siberia was apparently not covered in glaciers
Why there is evidence that the climate was once much warmer in parts of Siberia. We find flash-frozen mammoths with temperate or even tropical plants still in their mouths and stomachs. (Actually, I still don’t understand how mammoths could be flash-frozen even with Hancock’s thesis. But at least it offers some explanation.)
Why there is evidence that the climate was once much warmer in Antarctica as well.
According to Hancock’s theory, the survivors of this advanced civilization that previously existed on what is now Antarctica fled their homeland, taking their science with them.
They settled in other parts of the world and tried to rebuild.
Hancock also thinks that they deliberately seeded myths and cults to preserve knowledge and to draw people’s attention to the processional cycle of the constellations because they wanted to warn them. They believed that geological disasters like this occurred cyclically in concert with celestial events. He believes this is why the pyramids were built, for example. A good chunk of his book is about this, but I don’t have time to relate it here.
What’s a Christian Writer to Do With All This?
First of all, it is not possible to integrate everything. It just isn’t.
To take just one example from above, if the earth’s crust took 2,000 years to slip, how did mammoths come to be flash frozen? I have no idea. I don’t think anybody does, whatever their theory.
To take another example, Hancock’s thesis requires that after the age of cataclysms, there were human survivors in scattered parts of the world. These were then visited by refugees from the mother civilization, who taught them things, and they remember these culture-bringers in their mythology. You cannot make this work perfectly with the idea that at one point there was a universal flood that wiped out all humankind except four couples, and that the flood myths are memories of that.
Every culture has stories of culture-bringers who taught them to do things (whether divine or human), and most cultures with a flood myth have the survivors of the flood landing right in that culture’s homeland and becoming the direct ancestors of that culture. Most of them don’t have a section in there where the survivors land somewhere very far away, and then their descendants travel a really long way to get to the current homeland. Most peoples believe that they live at the mythic center of the world. So you have to take these things into account. Every origin myth cannot be true in all its details.
That said, here is what I, as a Christian, have attempted to do with Hancock’s thesis and more importantly with the evidence that inspired it.
What I appreciate about Hancock is his attempt to take seriously the many lines of evidence that human beings were familiar with advanced mathematics, engineering, and astronomy long ages before we are told that human civilization started. This fits in, far better than the received “cave man” picture, with the ancient world as it is hinted at in the early chapters of Genesis. There we see civilization taking off like rocket, apparently with writing and record-keeping, and flourishing until it is destroyed by the flood.
Hancock’s theory of earth crust slippage does not contradict the Genesis account either. It is not hard to imagine an age of cataclysms leading up to the great flood. We are not told that this happened, but then Genesis, with its laser focus on redemptive history, does not tell us a great many of the things we would like to know. If we imagine earth crust slippage culminating in a worldwide flood, we end up with almost the same picture as that painted in Fingerprints. The only difference is that the amazing monuments at Giza and other places could not have been built by refugees from a mother civilization. They would have to have been built by Noah’s descendants trying to recover lost knowledge … or by the almost-unknown-to-us civilizations before the flood.
Genesis: Even More Daring than Hancock
Genesis does not give us a complete picture of the antediluvian world. It tells us only a few major names and events with very little explanation or context. We are not told how long the antediluvian period lasted; what the world population was before the flood; what the people or animals looked like or their relative sizes; what kind of technology existed; whether there were cities. As a result, we tend to picture Noah and his family, almost all alone, out in the middle of a desert (inspired by the way the Middle East appears today), with a bunch of modern-day animals. But we aren’t told that’s how it was. We aren’t told much at all. In fact, we don’t have – anywhere – any reliable sources that can tell us much about the very ancient world.
Genesis does, however, tell us one very weird thing which fits in well with worldwide myths but which Hancock’s thesis basically ignores.
Interesting as I find Fingerprints of the Gods, it is of course not perfect. Among other problems, it fails to take seriously the universal testimony of human culture that there used to be “gods.” Hancock falls prey (at least in this book) to the materialist notion that anything attributed to gods must be explainable by smarter people with higher technology. Of course, this smuggles in the idea that most ancient humans were stupid and gullible and would apply the “gods” label to anything they didn’t understand. This kind of snobbery dogs Hancock. For example, he quotes with approval a source that wonders how the Mayans could have had such advanced calendars when they hadn’t even invented the wheel.
Genesis, on the other hand, does not patronize ancient humans. Shockingly, it vindicates their myths. It is recorded in Genesis chapter 6 that the “sons of God” (some kind of heavenly beings, members of the divine council) came down to earth and intermarried with human women, and that their offspring were giants.
Obviously, that is a stunning claim. I can’t blame you if you’re not convinced of it on first hearing. Some day I will deal with it in more detail in another post (one that summarizes Douglas Van Dorn’s book). For now, I just want to say a few things about this idea as it relates to Hancock’s thesis.
Every culture, worldwide, has myths about gods and giants. There is a huge body of mythology about this stuff, and it usually shows up in the form of origin stories and tales that purport to be about historical rulers. No doubt the ideas of gods and giants, and many other themes from mythology, are a deep part of the human mental furniture. But this does not necessarily mean they are not also memories of historical events. How and why did this particular furniture get in our particular living room? Perhaps people did not get these ideas just from plumbing the depths of the human psyche. We might want to take these stories seriously as memories of historical events, since we are taking seriously the stories of floods and cataclysms that show up in the same cultures, and often in the very same narratives.
And, if you are still with me, taking seriously the idea of gods and giants might also give us our answer as to how people managed to build incredibly sophisticated monuments out of megaliths. Imagine a world in which people typically live almost a thousand years (per the ages given in Genesis) … in which ten or twelve generations can be alive at the same time, so knowledge is not lost … in which people are smarter and healthier than we are now, since there has been less genetic decay … and in which some of these people are actual giants. All of a sudden it starts to sound … maybe … almost possible. Maybe you and I could build the Giza pyramids too, if we had a thousand years to do it in and if we had intelligent giants helping (even directing?) us.
Now it’s your turn. I am posting this 24 hours late (I usually post on Friday, not Saturday), and even with the extra time, I realize this post is loosely written. This is such a big topic, worthy of an essay weeks or months in the making … not to say years. I did not spend years, months or even weeks on this post (although I have spent a few years thinking about all this stuff). My goal is not to make a watertight argument, just to sketch out some intriguing possibilities. Still, if you find problems with the post, point them out in the comments section (alongside your laudatory comments, of course) and I’ll do my best to tighten and polish it.
Readers of The Long Guest have noticed that it features some “dragons.”
These are not the kind that breathe fire, collect treasure, talk in riddles, and sail through the sky on golden wings. Lord knows, I’ve got nothing against that kind. But The Long Guest is not that sort of story. It’s a speculative novel about what life might have been like in the very ancient world. Its “dragons” are basically animals, part of the milieu through which the characters move as they leave Babel.
They are, of course, dinosaurs. Below is some of the research that prompted me to include them.
Wait, ‘Dragons’ Are Dinosaurs?
The evidence from paleontology is complex, incomplete, hotly debated and far, far beyond the scope of this article. But there is plenty of historical evidence that human beings occasionally saw, and even might have interacted with, various kinds of dinosaur. Often they called them “dragons.”
Dragon ‘legends’ exist all over the world. For example, when my husband and I lived in Borneo, there were stories of a long, skinny water dragon (‘naga’) that lived in the rivers. This dragon was part of the local mythology, but it was also believed to be an actual animal. After all, the other prominent animal in the local mythology was the hornbill (a bird similar to a toucan), which still lives in the interior of Borneo in great numbers.
Dinosaurs in Premodern Art
Let’s start with depictions of dinosaurs in premodern art. All the examples I am going to give below appear in the context of art that features many other animals found in the natural world.
On Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, there is an image that appears to be a stegosaurus alongside depictions of a monkey, deer, and parrots. On Kachina Bridge in Utah, the Anasazi petroglyphs include an animal that looks like an Apatosaurus. Among the petroglyphs at Havai Supai Canyon, near the Grand Canyon, is an image that appears to be a dinosaur with a long neck, standing upright and balancing on its tail.
Then there are the tens of thousands of small handmade clay sculptures that have been dug out of the ground near the foot of El Toro mountain in Acambaro, Mexico. Besides sculptures of people, musical instruments, idols, and so on, there are – you guessed it – hundreds of recognizable dinosaurs.
Finally, we have the Ica burial stones of Peru. These have images incised on them, including lots of dinosaur images. Interestingly, they show sauropod-like creatures with spikes on their backs. When I was a kid, sauropods were shown as large, grey, slow, and reptilian, with smooth backs. But apparently, in 1992 we moderns figured out that sauropods had “dermal spines.”
Visual images, especially petroglyphs, can be hard to interpret. As you might expect, the sculptures and images above are beloved of creation scientists and have been the subject of debunking by those who hold that dinosaurs did not survive to overlap with people. Sometimes the debunking takes the form of “That’s not really a dinosaur”; other times, as in the case of the Acambaro sculptures, the refrain is, “It must be a recent hoax.”
In the links above, I have tried to include a mix of both sympathetic and skeptical sources. I wanted you to be able to see the images; when possible, I took you to a skeptical source so that you can verify that the image in fact exists. Using the links above, the curious can find out more about the controversies (and with prehistory, the controversies never end).
But now we turn from visual images to less ambiguous accounts in the form of writing.
Historical Evidence for Dinosaurs
Once we start taking dragon ‘legends’ seriously as possible historical accounts of dinosaurs, we start seeing that there are a lot of accounts to consider. Here are just four:
The ancient Chinese, of course, had a whole cosmology built around different kinds of dragons. So much could be said, but I just want to note two things here. First, Chinese dragons are strongly associated with the Emperor because, among other reasons, of a legend of an early emperor, Xia Yu, who was helped by a wise dragon. (Note in the link above that Xia Yu’s story has other features common to the early chapters of Genesis. He lives hundreds of years; he is a founder and a culture bringer; he helps tame the dangerous floods. He is also an ancestor and founder who is later worshiped as a deity, as seems to have been the case with Nimrod.)
Speaking of feathered dinosaurs: myths about, and worship of, a feathered serpent go way back in a variety of Mesoamerican cultures. This feathered serpent is called Kukulkan in Mayan, but is better known by his Nahuatl name of Quetzalcoatl. He even has a pterosaur named after him, though in reconstructions it looks more like a big bird than like a winged snake. (But compare this myth to the Hebrew “seraph serpents.”)
Continuing with the ancient Hebrew, here is a passage from the book of Job: “Look at the behemoth, which I [God] made along with you [Job] and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar (!); the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. … Under the lotus plants he lies, hidden among the reeds in the marsh. … When the river rages, he is not alarmed …” (Job 40:15-23)
This description, particularly the tail swaying like a cedar, sounds like some kind of sauropod. For comparison, in the chapter before this God has given some poetic, but accurate, descriptions of the behavior of mountain goats; does; wild donkeys; wild oxen; ostriches; war horses, hawks, and eagles.
Job, by the way, apparently lived in the Ancient Near East not too long after Babel, if we go by his lifespan. According to the book of Job, he lived another 140 years after the events he is famous for. In Genesis 11, we see life spans of roughly 200 years becoming commonplace some time between Babel and Abraham. This is also the time period in which my book is set.
And now, we come to my favorite: dinosaurs in Beowulf. For this analysis, I owe Bill Cooper, author of After the Flood (1995). His book has an entire chapter devoted to zoological terms in Beowulf. Among many other rich ethnological and linguistic details, Cooper points out that in the original Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is nowhere referred to as a “troll.” In fact, ‘Grendel’ appears to be not a personal name but a name for a species: there are place-names in England such as “Grendeles Mere” (Grendel’s Lake), Grindles Bec, and Grendeles Pyt. There is even Grindelwald (“Grendelwood”) in Switzerland. (!)
Looking at the characteristics of Grendel as described in Beowulf:
He is in “the shape of a man, though twisted” and “more huge than any human being.” In other words, large and bipedal.
He is a “mearcstapa” (a marsh-stepper), who stalks the marshes.
He is a nocturnal predator (a “sceadugenga” — shadow-goer).
He is a “muthbona,” one who slays with his mouth. He is able quickly to devour human beings (once, 15 in one night). This would be difficult if he had a humanoid type of head and jaw.
Hrothgar’s warriors have been unable to kill Grendel for 12 years, and he is said to be invulnerable to ordinary weapons.
The way Beowulf kills him is to grip him by his “claws,” at which point Grendel, realizing he is in trouble, tries to get away. But Beowulf twists Grendel’s arm off at the shoulder and Grendel runs off to bleed to death.
Later, when Beowulf beheads Grendel’s corpse, it takes four men to carry the head home on a spear (this is my own observation, not Cooper’s).
And another of my own: Grendel and his mother are both referred to as having “locks,” but see the discussion above about feathers or spines.
After offering all this evidence, Cooper doesn’t even bother to name the dinosaur. “Is there a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs? There are several such species.” (page 159)
Thus, four different streams of historical record that I think may be more than myth.
I am not suggesting that every story of a dragon is to be taken seriously as a sober historical record of a dinosaur encounter. Fables have been invented about dragons, just as fables have been invented about other animals that have captured the human imagination (i.e., nearly all of them). But this does not invalidate every historical account. No one thinks that foxes do not exist because of Aesop’s story of the fox and the grapes. No one thinks that whales do not exist because of Moby Dick or Pinocchio.
But Do They Breathe Fire?
The “dragons” in my books do not breathe fire. However, I have nothing in principle against the idea of an animal that could. After all, this world of ours contains the electric eel, the bombardier beetle, bat radar, bio-luminescent beaches, and the platypus, which apparently is able with its bill to detect electric fields put off by living things and so home in on its prey. Since all these things are possible, surely an animal could have existed that could expel superheated liquid, gas, or even – who knows? – actual fire. The process that allowed it to do this would likely be chemically based and so perhaps not visible in a fossil.
Dragons in The Long Guest
Dragons in my first book appear as part of the milieu, not as characters. Since they do not play a major role, I can mention them without spoilers.
Early in the book, two of the men go on a hunting/scouting trip. They observe a duckbill-type dragon with a crest with pink coloring. On the way back, they have an encounter with another dragon of the raptor type, which is hunting a wild boar that they are also hunting.
Much later in the book, the tribe has crossed Mongolia and has almost reached what is now the Liao River (home of the “pig dragon” artifacts). There they have a friendly encounter with a group of strangers who are capturing a dragon to take home to their king. The “dragon” in this scene is a Triceratops-like creature that sports dermal spines, blue-and-gold feathers on its crest (because why not?), and smooth feathers over the rest of its body. (My day was made, once about ten years ago, when I read in a newspaper that a Triceratops had been found covered in feathers. I now can’t track down the source … but it’s too late. Feathered triceratops/Chinese pig dragon has already made it into the book.)
Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons. Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True Story About Dinosaurs and Humans. Apologetics Press, Inc., 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, Alabama, 1st ed. 2004, 2nd ed. 2008.
Cooper, Bill. After the Flood: The early post-flood history of Europe traced back to Noah. New Wine Press, PO Box 17, Chichester, West Sussex, England, 1995. The creatures in Beowulf are discussed in Chapter 11, p.146 ff.
Kleeman, Terry & Barrett, Tracey. The Ancient Chinese World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.