We knew about the Olmec and Maya, but their sites were hard to spot and hard to study because of the jungle. Now, we keep learning more and more.
A train project on the Yucatan Peninsula is uncovering hundreds of Mayan settlements, proving that the area was more densely populated than once thought, as archaeologists have been beginning to suspect.
Meanwhile, Lidar technology is able to peer through the jungle and reveal not onlymore and more ceremonial sites stretching over the Olmec and Mayan culture areas, but also common layouts that seem to indicate a broad shared cultural (or at least, architectural) tradition dating back to 3,400 years ago.
It looks to me like what we have here is a Central American version of the Sumerian urban/bureaucratic/temple-based civilization, giving rise to a series of civilizations that followed the same model: Akkadian, then Babylonian, and so on. And, if we believe the 3,400 YA date, the same thing in Central America was happening at almost the same time. It’s almost as if people tend to set up hierarchical city-states with temples wherever they settle, almost as soon as they settle there, whenever circumstances permit. Almost as if they were dispersing, and remembering something.
How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?
Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …
I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.
In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.
But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?
But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.
Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.
Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:
I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
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.
Who is this handsome fellow? He is Lord Pacal (or Pakal), denizen of the most spectacular tomb ever discovered from the Mayan civilization. This is the tomb at Palenque, the excavation of which reads like an archaeological thriller. The limestone slab covering Lord Pacal’s coffin is the location of the famous Mayan “astronaut” carving, the actual cosmological significance of which is explained here.
This watercolor of him is my own interpretation, done from a photograph of a sculpted head of him, reproduced below.
Though I did my best, in the sculpture his face is even longer, leaner, more angular, more … well … Mayan. I took a guess about skin, hair, and eye color. I also had to interpret his hairstyle and headdress, after staring for some time at the textures in the statue. As near as I can tell, his hair has been arranged to cascade upward and forward over some sort of cone-shaped crown, which I imagined to be jade, a stone the Maya valued. The hair style is apparently meant to accentuate the tall, narrow shape of the head, which was a head shaped valued by the Maya if we go based on their other art. The headband I rendered as a buff-colored woolly material, again based on its texture, though given Pacal’s status it could have been red or gold.
I spent maybe an hour or two on this watercolor, but no doubt the sculptor spent much, much longer on his or her rendering of Lord Pacal, which was probably the most important work of his or her lifetime.
You can see that it’s a dramatic face. You can see why I wanted to paint it.
In my watercolor, Lord Pacal came out looking surprisingly sensitive and gentle. In real life, he probably wasn’t, at least not by the time he reached the age of his death. He was buried with six teenaged human sacrifices, and he came from a culture that produced statues of torture victims.
But my main concern here is with the shape of his face. I am fascinated by the wildly varying types of shape that can and do work as recognizable, and indeed attractive, human faces. Lord Pacal’s face is almost a perfect diamond. It’s widest at the brows and cheekbones, narrowest at the chin and forehead.
As I went to draw this face, I was reminded that I had once drawn another face with a similar shape.
Here is a pen portrait I did from life. This man’s jaw is a touch wider than Lord Pacal’s, but the main difference between the two faces is the nose. This model has a small, rather flat nose with a very low bridge, unlike Lord Pacal’s knifelike nose with its very high bridge, extending all the way up into his forehead, which seems to have been a convention in Mayan portrait art. Whether it this was an ideal of beauty or a real-life physical feature, I don’t know. I do know that low nose bridges are not valued in the culture that the second portrait came from … though I think both kinds can be perfectly beautiful.
And my second model for a diamond-shaped face came from … Borneo. Land Bridge, baby!
The Magnificent Maya, Lost Civilizations series, by the editors of Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993.
(Much more has been discovered about the Mayan civilization since the publication of this book. In particular, Lidar and UAV aerial imaging have revealed that the Mayan cities were much larger and more numerous than was known in 1993. However, though the context for their interpretation might have changed, the artifacts documented in The Magnificent Maya have not ceased to exist, so I am using the book as an introductory source.)
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.
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.