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.
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 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 (human or divine) who taught them to do things that are basic to that culture. 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.