If you know me, you’ll know that I think this finding is cool, but not surprising. I believe that advanced mathematics were widely known in the ancient world. How else could the Giza pyramids have been built as a model of the stars of Orion’s belt (using pi in their proportions) … the temple complex at Teotihuacan been built as a model of the solar system (with the pyramids there also using pi in their proportions) … Stonehenge been built as an astronomical observatory that also functioned as a calculator … or the circular chambers at Gobekli Tepe been laid out forming a perfect equilateral triangle?
This doesn’t mean that every people group since the dispersion of mankind has had a knowledge of advanced mathematics. Obviously not. But either it was known to a central civilization and then lost in many cases, or else human beings are so clever that they are capable of discovering mathematical principles independently, whenever they have the need and the interest. Or both.
People are probably going to tell you that crediting the Pythagorean theorem to Pythagoras (through whom we first heard about it), rather than to the Babylonians, is racism. It’s not. In one sense, the fact that we credited Pythagoras was harmless. It was ignorance, not a cover-up. That was the farther our knowledge went; now, it goes a little farther.
But if we are super duper surprised that this theorem was in use 1,000 years before we thought it was, then we might be dealing here with an equally wrongheaded attitude. Instead of looking down on some peoples based on their skin tone, this is looking down on them based on the fact that they lived and died just too long before we were born. It’s the assumption that modern people are better at abstract thought, science, and technology than ancient people. Though self-flattering, this belief isn’t just an irrational prejudice. It’s a consequence of the evolutionary presupposition that people started out as animals, and that we had to slowly develop things like language, music, art, religion, mathematics and all kinds of higher thought. Thus, by definition, modern people should be smarter and our technology and mathematics more advanced than those of ancient people. The silent testimony of megalithic monuments all around the world belies this.
As I heard a podcaster say, “The plural of anecdote is data.”
Wait. Are We Even Sure It Was Worldwide?
You can make a case that the account in Genesis 7 – 8 is not necessarily describing a global flood. This is because the same Hebrew word can be translated “world,” “earth,” or “land.” How we interpret it depends upon context. There is a case to be made, for example, that the whole book of Revelation is describing the devastation of the land of Israel during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (hence the frequent warnings that it is going to happen “soon”), and that lines like “one third of the people on the earth died” are better translated as “one third of the people in the land died.”
I have even seen people try to interpret the poetic descriptions of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 as happening from the perspective of a person standing on the surface of the earth, in the land of Israel.
However, getting back to the flood narrative, there are good reasons to think that the text is in fact describing a global flood. This passage is set in very ancient times, before the nation of Israel existed. It’s before Abram was called by God out of Ur. Before Abram was even born. Before the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). So, not only was there no nation of Israel at the time of flood narrative, but we can’t even be sure there was a land of Israel, given the dramatic damage that the flood did to the earth’s geography. (And by the way, yes, I have just revealed that I think the flood narrative was not composed by Moses — even under the inspiration of God — but was passed down to Moses from a much older source.)
Finally, it’s hard to imagine how a local flood could “cover the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (Genesis 7:20) … especially for enough of a length of time for Noah and his sons to take soundings so as to estimate this depth.
So, given all this, I don’t think it’s straining the text to say that the flood account in Genesis is meant to be describing a global event.
Like so many sensational things in the Bible, the flood account sounds hard to believe, but the longer we look at it, the better it matches with the world we live in. Here are some features of the world we live, which are features we would expect if the dark millennia of our past concealed a worldwide flood.
Oral Flood Histories from Around the World
I have written before about Graham Hancock. I really enjoyed his book Fingerprints of the Gods, which posits an ancient period of cataclysms that included “earth crust slippage,” a geological upheaval so dramatic that it would have caused catastrophic floods among many other disasters. Hancock keeps changing his theories, and he has his own reasons for collecting the historical data that he does. However, here is some of the data that he conveniently collected about flood legends worldwide:
More than 500 deluge legends are known around the world and, in a survey of 86 of these (50 Asiatic, 3 European, 7 African, 46 American and 10 from Australia and the Pacific), the specialist researcher Dr. Richard Andree concluded that 62 were entirely independent of the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts.
Hancock, Fingerprints, p. 193
page in Fingerprints
“First Sun, Matlactli Atl: duration 4008 years. In this age lived the giants … The First Sun was destroyed by water in the sign Matlactli Atl (Ten Water). It was called Apachiohualiztli (flood, deluge), the art of sorcery of the permanent rain. Men were turned into fish. Some say that only one couple escaped, protected by an old tree living near the water. Others say there were seven couples who hid in a cave until the flood was over and the waters had gone down. They repopulated the earth and were worshipped as gods in their nations …”
188 – 189
The Noah figure is called Utnapishtim. He later tells his story to Gilgamesh. It almost exactly parallels the Genesis 7 account.
South American tribes
191 – 192
Hancock mentions flood accounts coming from the following tribes: Chibcas (Colombia); Canarians (Ecuador); Tupinamba (Brazil); Araucnaian (Chile); Yamana (Tierra del Fuego); Pehuenche (Tierra del Fuego); and numerous groups in Peru.
192 – 193
“a terrible flood, accompanied by an earthquake, which swept so rapidly over the face of the earth that only a few people managed to escape in their canoes or take refuge on the tops of the highest mountains.”
“The planets altered their courses. The sky sank lower towards the north. The sun, moon, and stars changed their motions. The earth fell to pieces and the waters in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the earth.”
Flood accounts in: Chewong (Malaysia); Laos and northern Thailand; Karen (Burma); Vietnam; tribes along the northern coast of Australia
“The world was destroyed by a flood and later recreated by a god named Tangaloa.”
The flood is survived by “two human beings who put to sea in a boat which eventually came to rest in the Samoan archipelago.”
The Pacific islands were formed after the deluge receded.
195 – 196
After a series of races of gold and silver, there is a “bronze race” who “have the strength of giants, and mighty hands on their mighty limbs.” After Prometheus gets them into trouble, Zeus wipes out the bronze race with a flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha float over the sea in a box for nine days and finally land on Mt. Parnassus.
196 – 197
The Noah figure is named Manu. He rescues a fish, which in return warns him of a coming flood. Manu loads a ship with two of every living species and seeds of every plant. The fish turns out to be Vishnu, who pulls Manu’s ship through the flood.
Egypt (Book of the Dead)
Thoth says, “They have fought fights, they have upheld strifes, they have done evil, they have created hostilities, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble and oppression … I am going to blot out everything which I have made. This earth shall enter into the watery abyss by means of a raging flood, and will become even as it was in primeval time.”
Mayan (Popol Vuh)
“It was cloudy and twilight all over the world … the faces of the sun and moon were covered … Sunlight did not return till the twenty-sixth year after the flood.”
204 – 205
An awful lot happens in this apocalyptic tale. First a “hideous winter,” then worldwide war, then Yggdrasil (the earth tree) is shaken, causing the earth to literally fall apart. Then, worldwide fire. And finally, a flood. “The earth sank beneath the sea … Yet not all men perished in the great catastrophe. Enclosed in the wood itself of the ash tree Yggdrasil — which the devouring flames of the universal conflagration had been unable to consume — the ancestors of the future race of men had escaped death. In this asylum they had found that their only nourishment had been the morning dew. Slowly the earth emerged from the waves. Mountains rose again …”
The charming thing about these origin tales is that couple who survive the flood usually end up landing on the local mountain, founding the nation that is currently telling the story, and not moving from that spot ever since. This is similar to how nearly every people group has a local landmark (usually a mountain, terrain permitting) that is believed to be the home of the gods or “the center of the world.”
This is what origin stories are supposed to do. They ground the local community in the great ancient story of the world, and they also give the ancient stories credibility by grounding them in local features “still seen to this day.” This is not to say, however, that origin stories are simply made up out of whole cloth. They are handed down the generations, and though they might get tailored to make human beings look better, and have bits of other interesting stories added to them, they ultimately have some kind of origin in actual events. (Especially since they often come with genealogies that are also handed down.) I can’t imagine the coincidence that would be required for hundreds of peoples all around the world to make up a traditional flood story.
Yes, But It Could Still Have Been Local, If …
… if all of these widely scattered people groups were descended from a small number of couples who were once all in one place and who experienced a catastrophic local flood together.
That is true. Could still be true. And, in fact, even if the entire world were experiencing earthquakes, uplifts and sinkings, tsunamis, etc., all at once, there wouldn’t necessarily have been a moment when water was covering all the land on earth all at the same time. On the other hand, there wouldn’t have to be, for events to satisfy the description given in these flood accounts, including the Genesis one. After all, the perspective from which these stories are told, is that of human beings experiencing the flood and associated disasters, not the perspective of an observer looking at the globe from outer space. The mental picture of the whole world sitting under a flat layer of water, while not impossible, is more of a Sunday School stylization of the account, than the actual claim being made.
Buried Beneath a Wave of Mud
In all of these accounts, the flood is sudden, dramatic, and overwhelming, whether or not it is accompanied by other disasters such as earthquake or fire. Even the Genesis account (often simplified to sound like just rain) says “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11, NIV).
In a world in which this had happened, we should expect to find the remains of plants and animals that had been instantly buried under huge waves of mud and essentially frozen in time. And that is exactly what we do find. Here is the latest example, which was called to my attention by Google within the last month:
This poor dino mom, if she had been given any warning that she was about to be buried in an oxygen-free environment that would later prove convenient to future paleontologists, would probably have fled or tried to move her eggs to safety. OK, maybe she would have stayed to protect them. But we also find fossil dinos caught in the act of, say, eating prey. We find mammoths apparently flash-frozen with summer plants still in their mouths and/or stomachs. I can’t imagine how that could have come about, but it can’t have been gradual. (Although here are some fish who appear to be frozen in a wave, but the process was a quite different.)
They number in the hundreds, can be larger than an NFL football field and are found across Saudi Arabia. … radiocarbon dating of charcoal found within one of the structures indicates people built it around 5,000 B.C.
“This ‘monumental landscape’ represents one of the earliest large-scale forms of monumental stone structure construction anywhere in the world.”
Oooh, so many thoughts.
We keep finding these things everywhere. And every time one is found, it’s older than expected, such that it seems we are constantly being told that “the earliest” or “one of the earliest” has just been found.
There is Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the earliest (?) stone temple.
There are standing stones, marching stones, and stone circles all over the Middle East and Europe.
So, I don’t necessarily believe that these monuments in Saudi Arabia are “the first” of anything (even though, I’d like to point out, the monument could be older than the charcoal they found in it).
What I do believe is that they are yet more evidence that the compulsion to build massive stone structures, and the engineering skills to pull it off, was near universal among ancient humanity.
It looks most probable to me that these “earliest monuments” in Arabia were contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the other “earliest stone monuments” and temples and things that we keep finding, all over the world.
Perhaps people were dispersing from somewhere (somewhere near the Fertile Crescent, say), taking this building culture with them as they went. They would have hit northwest Arabia fairly quickly. The Table of Nations, in Genesis 10, lists all the peoples that descended from Noah’s three sons after the Flood. Though this is supposedly a comprehensive list, when it tells where they settled, the homelands listed for them are all in the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, and Arabia, though it is obvious that some of these peoples eventually ended up settling in much more far-flung places.
See also my posts about The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, who presents evidence that fully functioning human civilizations existed 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 years ago.
I wonder whether you’ve ever heard of Gobekli Tepe. I hadn’t until just a few years ago, which makes sense because it wasn’t rediscovered (and so, presumably, begun to be excavated) until the 1990s.
It’s called the world’s oldest temple because it dates back more than 10,000 years. In the article I will link to below, dates of 11,500 years ago and even 15,000 years ago are mentioned. This puts it in the Neolithic: the Stone Age. Like many other ancient complexes that have been given more recent dates, it is made of megaliths placed with geometrical precision.
The Dating of Gobekli Tepe
It sounds really to cool to say that a til-recently-unknown stone structure in Turkey with an exotic name is the “world’s oldest temple.” But as we sometimes mention on this blog, it’s very possible that some of the other megalithic structures found around the world are in fact older than conventional dating would have it. An argument has been made, for example, that the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza are closer to 20,000 years old. Gobekli Tepe, then, is the oldest megalithic temple that has been able to convince mainstream archaeologists of its bona fides. At any rate, it clearly hails from a very ancient time when people all over the world were for some reason (and with some method???) building stuff with megaliths.
Two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, PhD candidate Gil Haklay and his supervisor, Prof. Avi Gopher, have now unveiled new secrets of its sophisticated architecture, highlighting an intricate geometrical pattern that was conceived before humans had even discovered agriculture or pottery.
… Um, are you sure they hadn’t discovered agriculture or pottery, Professors?
Göbekli Tepe features dozens of monolithic pillars four to five meters tall placed along at least 20 concentric rings, which archaeologists refer to as “enclosures.” The pillars are decorated with remarkable reliefs depicting animals including gazelles, jaguars, Asiatic wild donkeys and wild sheep. …
“We found that there is a center point in each enclosure, which we identified not only in the three in the main excavation area, but also in others located outside it,” Haklay explained. “We also found out that the center of these enclosures was always located between the two large central pillars aligned with the front side. These pillars also presented an anthropomorphic structure and they have a front side. In each enclosure based on the surrounding peripheral pillars was found an alignment with the narrow front side. This was our first observation: an abstract design rule.“We later noticed that the role of those center points extended beyond an individual enclosure, because the three center points of enclosures B, C and D form an almost perfect equilateral triangle,” he added.
Haklay highlighted that they went on to verify whether the geometric pattern was confirmed by further observations, for example the orientation of the central pillars. They found many other elements supporting it. Among others, the main access to the structure was located between the only two pillars carrying anthropomorphic as opposed to animal reliefs.
But how was all this accomplished?
[I]t is not clear how long its construction took but it might have been centuries if not more, with different people initiating it and adding to it.
But yet later, we get this:
This discovery also overcame a previous theory common among researchers that the enclosures were conceived and built in unrelated stages.
Huh? So it was built over hundreds of years, added to a little at a time, but yet planned by one or a few masterminds?
“We are talking about hunter-gatherers, but at the same time we see signs of a very complex social structure,” Haklay said …
But how could such a complex design be envisioned by people who did not even know how to create a simple pottery vessel?
Oh, stop. Just … stop.
Gobekli Tepe in Fiction
There is one novel that I know of which focuses squarely on Gobekli Tepe: The Genesis Secret, 2009, by Tom Knox. See my review of it here. Interestingly, though Knox is not a believer in the Judeo-Christian God (quite the opposite, in fact), he takes seriously the accounts of giants walking the earth in Genesis 6 and, in fact, his novel ends up revealing that Gobekli Tepe was built at the initiation of a violent, giant race who left large, misshapen skulls behind them.
In film, within the last year I saw on a Netflix a Turkish show called The Gift. In it, a young artist who lives in Istanbul finds that a symbol she has spontaneously drawn all her life has recently been uncovered at the ancient site of Gobekli Tepe. I enjoyed this show, but be warned it has some entirely gratuitous sex scenes.
And Now, for a Really Wild Speculation …
People who take Genesis seriously as history have speculated about the location of the original Garden of Eden. Genesis mentions four rivers as arising from the Garden (or running into it; the linguistics are ambiguous). Two of these are the Tigris and Euphrates. The other two (the Gihon and the Pishon) have been lost to time.
Of course, to try and locate the original Garden is probably impossible. If you suspect, as I do, that the Flood was a result of continental-drift like changes in the Earth’s geography, then nothing anymore is located where it was in Adam’s day, including rivers. On this view, the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates are probably just named after some much more ancient rivers, which could have been in a completely different location.
But if we assume that the continents look more or less the same now as they did in Adam’s day, we can try to guess the region where Eden once stood. One likely candidate is northeastern Africa, or even what is now the floor of the Red Sea (sea levels having risen).
Another candidate is the mountainous region of eastern Turkey, near the headwaters of the modern-day Tigris and Euphrates, along with several other rivers.
The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.
They Are Surprising to Other People
I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”) And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.
The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.
A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:
“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.
The Magnificent Maya, p. 22
They Got Romanticized
In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.
Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read. Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,
… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.
The Magnificent Maya. p. 33
Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound). As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.
They Were Shockingly Cruel
First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed. (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)
But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.
Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.
If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.
The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140). Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.
Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95). This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.
Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”
They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart
And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.
The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year. Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.
All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:
As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:
“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”
Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162
Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”
“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)
Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.
The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012. It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.
Bottom Line, the Mayans are People
I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.
So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.
Humans are smart.
Humans are evil.
Humans are wonderful.
Humans are everywhere.
Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.
Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.
Welcome to Maya week! Believe it or not, today’s post is going to tie in both to Mayan archaeology, and our recent theme of disaster preparedness.
About a month ago, I got a fever for a few days. (I don’t know. Thanks for asking. Hope it was. I’m fine now.) Of course, one of the perfect things to do while feverish is lie on the sofa and watch disaster movies that are nearly 3 hours long. Perhaps the fever was the reason I enjoyed this one so much, I don’t know. You be the judge …
As you can see, this movie has every disaster movie trope ever. Cities falling into huge cracks in the ground? Check. Tsunamis and volcanoes? Check. Evil powerful people refusing to save or warn the masses? Also check. Also, vehicles jumping over gaps, cars driving just ahead of the dust cloud, planes flying just ahead of the falling building, and the dog not dying. Also, Woody Harrelson as the crazy conspiracy theorist who turns out to be right.
I guess the only disaster movie trope that doesn’t make itself known is zombies.
Do you remember that in the years before 2012, there was a lot of talk about the Mayan calendar predicting that that year would bring a world-ending disaster? The Mayans were mathematical geniuses who had these really elaborate calendars and they would calculate dates into the extremely distant past and future. They also, like many cultures worldwide, had a cosmology that involved cataclysmic disasters recurring in a cycle. This movie imagines how it would have been if they were right, not just about recurring disasters but about the exact dates.
But it gets better. The type of disaster the movie envisions is earth crust slippage, a geological disturbance so vast that it would cause massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and – as an indirect result – massive tsunamis worldwide.
Graham Hancock, in his book Fingerprints of the Gods, speculated that just such a slippage occurred between about 14,500 and 12,500 BC, and that this gave rise to the many disaster myths that are found worldwide, and to the obsession with astronomy and with predicting future disasters that we find in some ancient cultures including the Maya. This theory was originally floated by Charles Hapgood. I was really tickled that the movie even mentioned Hapgood by name.
My post about Graham Hancock’s theory of earth crust slippage here.
My post about the problems with Hapgood’s theory here.
If you are a disaster movie buff, you have probably already seen this one. If you aren’t, perhaps you wouldn’t enjoy 2012. If, like me, you are in the sweet spot – or have a fever – I highly recommend 2012 as a solid few hours of entertainment.
(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.”)
Despite this healthy skepticism, we do try to use sound reasoning and pay attention to evidence. For this reason, there are certain wild historical theories that I’ve never felt the need to engage with. One of these is the flat-earth theory.
Luckily for us, someone has already done the work for us.
Faulkner got interested enough in the flat-earth movement to study it. In this short piece, he gives a handy overview of the movement and a critique of its reasoning. The reasoning appears to depend on a radical skepticism not just about things that have earned some skepticism like social science and carbon dating, but about any and every kind of research or scholarship.
Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.
It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.
Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.
I have not read America Before, but my impression is that this review represents it accurately. I have two reasons. The first is that it is (believe it or not) a sympathetic review. The reviewer, Jason Colavito, knows and likes Hancock and is clearly familiar with the body of Hancock’s work.
In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas. But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work. … Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …
“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito
And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.
In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.
I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.
So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.
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.