Atlantis

Graham Hancock and the ‘Lost Civilisation’

Holiday reading

Fingerprints of the Gods, paperback edition 1996

Fingerprints of the Gods, paperback edition 1996

I feel ashamed that I have not written a blog post for almost a year. This is compounded by the feeling of guilt that what I am about to write ought to have been written more than seventeen years ago. In March 1996, I was waiting for a flight at Manchester Airport, taking me on holiday to the Canary Islands. I spotted a book, Fingerprints of the Gods: a Quest for the Beginning and the End that piqued my curiosity. I had been vaguely aware of its publication and knew something about its use of the ideas of Robert Schoch regarding the date of the Great Sphinx at Giza, but had never picked up a copy as its very size (607 pages in the paperback edition) daunted me. Nevertheless, I bought a copy, thinking that it might be light relief from the more academic books I was taking as holiday reading.

Despite the reputation of the Canary Islands for a temperate and dry climate all year round, March 1996 was one of the coldest and wettest months in more than fifty years. Expecting temperatures in the low twenties, I had taken no warm or waterproof clothing other than the coat I had worn on the journey to the airport in England. As a result, I had plenty of time for reading, being stuck in my holiday apartment at Puerto Rico de Gran Canaria, a singularly unattractive holiday resort. I managed to read Fingerprints of the Gods from cover to cover in a couple of days, despite my growing unhappiness. It started badly for me, with a discussion of the Piri Re‘is map, which does not show Antarctica as Hancock claims. It went downhill from there but I was determined that I would create a website refuting its claims as soon as I got home.

The Great Sphinx at Giza in 1988

The Great Sphinx at Giza in 1988

Back in Chester, I started writing up some notes for a website that was originally called “Cult and Fringe Archaeology” and was hosted on my personal website. However, it quickly became apparent that Hancock’s data was largely recycled from earlier writers, so I focused more on the first appearance of the data and its refutation. I wrote a little about Graham Hancock, dealing with his misuse of Egyptology. I eventually became diverted from dealing with his work into the wider implications of Bad Archaeology. And there things have languished since the spring of 1996.

Fingerprints of the Gods

Criticisms of the very brief page on the “lost civilisation” on the main website have become more frequent in recent months. I admit that I have not written the refutations of his arguments that I originally intended (indeed, I say on the page that “[A] comprehensive analysis of his works would require a massive book, since it would need not only to refute his claims but also to present the comprehensive contextual evidence to show why his ideas cannot stand up”). This post is the start of my attempt to remedy that omission.

Fingerprints of the Gods, second edition 2001

Fingerprints of the Gods, second edition 2001

First published in 1995, the book is divided into eight separate parts, most with numerous chapters (52 in total), almost 50 pages of references and 8 pages of bibliography. A second edition, issued in 2001 with a different subtitle, includes a new introduction in which Hancock dismisses his critics and three appendices (almost a hundred pages of transcripts of interviews with BBC reporters, an attempted critique of radiocarbon dating by Sean Hancock and a critique of the radiocarbon dates for Tiahuanaco, also by Sean Hancock); the cover of the paperback loudly proclaims “Includes 40,000 word update”.

According to the cover blurb of the first paperback edition (1996), the book contains “a drastic re-evaluation of man’s past, using the high-tech tools of modern archaeology, geology and astronomy… [and] reveals not only the clear fingerprints of an unknown civilisation that flourished during the last ice-age, but also horrifying conclusions about the type and extent of planetary catastrophe that would have had to occur in order to obliterate almost all traces of it”. This is not the first book to make such sweeping claims, but it is certainly the one to attract the most attention.

To live up to the claims of the blurb, the evidence it presents must be powerful and will have to explain the data relating to the last Ice Age (which I take to mean the Devensian/Weichselian/ Würm Glaciations in Europe, Wisconsin in North America, Mérida/Llaniquihue in South America) better than existing models. It is widely recognised among archaeologists that the book utterly fails to do this, but Graham Hancock quickly developed a loyal and vocal following.

He and a coterie of similar writers (including Robert Bauval, Robert Schoch, Rand and Rose Flem-Ath among others) tried to promote themselves as the “New Egyptologists” during the late 1990s, modifying a term used by archaeological theorists during the 1960s and 70s. The Egyptological establishment was and remains unimpressed. His analyses of South American and Meso-American archaeology have perhaps had less impact on popular consciousness, although Tiwanaku is mentioned by some commenters on the main site as an alleged problem for the mainstream.

The name of Khufu inside the Great Pyramid; after claiming it was fraudulent, Hancock later admitted that it dates the construction to Khufu's reign

The name of Khufu inside the Great Pyramid; after claiming it was fraudulent, Hancock later admitted that it dates the construction to Khufu’s reign

Unlike many Bad Archaeologists, though, Hancock has modified his conclusions in the light of irrefutable evidence that earlier conclusions were wrong. This is unusual and something he uses to reassure his supporters that, unlike writers such as Erich von Däniken, he is capable of recognising that conclusions may have to be changed in the light of new evidence. Indeed, he continued to write further books (Keeper of Genesis with Robert Bauval, Heaven’s Mirror and Underworld), further exploring his idea of an advanced world-wide civilisation during the later Pleistocene.

The ‘lost civilisation’ does not stand up to scrutiny

Archibald Sayce: a man who really did discover a lost civilisation, the Hittite Empire

Archibald Sayce: a man who really did discover a lost civilisation, the Hittite Empire. Source

So, why do mainstream archaeologists reject his hypothesis of an Ice Age civilisation? Hancock and his supporters maintain that this is because of the hidebound nature of academic archaeology. This shows a failure to understand how academia works. Careers are made by overturning accepted hypotheses: the person who discovers a previously unknown civilisation would have their future career assured, but only if they are able to provide evidence that it actually existed. This would take the form of remains dating to the period that civilisation flourished.

What does Hancock do? Faced with a complete lack of contemporary evidence for his “lost civilisation”, he claims that it can be detected through its influence on later cultures. In one or two cases, he tries to show that the accepted dates for monuments of known civilisations are wrong and that they are actually from the eleventh millennium BC. In these cases, his redating of the monuments has not been accepted by mainstream archaeologists. I will be working on a detailed refutation of the eight major sections of the book over coming weeks, which will be published on the main site.

An underwater city west of Cuba

Underwater pyramids west of Cuba

A computer-generated image of the supposed pyramids and other city features west of Cuba

Whatever happened to this story? Back in December 2001, the media were abuzz with claims that “explorers… have discovered what they think are the ruins of a submerged city built thousands of years ago”. It was a big claim that got attention from respectable sources, such as National Geographic, as well as the more woo-woo crowd, such as Linda Moulton Howe of cattle mutilating aliens conspiracy fame. The news was greeted with delight by those who believe Atlantis to have been a real place rather than a political fable by Plato. More specifically, it appealed to those who, following the supposed psychic medium Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), believe Bimini in the Bahamas to be a part of the sunken island.

Sonar data supposedly showing sunken structures

The initial side-scan sonar data supposedly showing sunken structures

What were the claims based on? In 2000, Paulina Zelitzki and Paul Weinzweig, owners of Advanced Digital Communications (a company that appears not to have a website), were one of four companies commissioned by the Cuban government to undertake sonar surveys off the Guanahacabibes Peninsula at the western tip of the island. Advanced Digital Communications had previously had success in locating the remains of the USS Maine, which sank under mysterious circumstances in Havana Harbour in 1898, during the Spanish-American war. It was hoped that they could locate further sunken ships. They were astonished to find in the survey off the Guanahacabibes Peninsula that some of the sonar images appeared to depict symmetrical features aligned to a grid. This prompted them to undertake a second survey, using a submersible robot. It was this second survey that returned data that seemed to show pyramids and other structures. Indeed, according to Paulina Zelitsky, the images suggested that the “city” was built from blocks of cut and polished granite.

An analogue of the Face on Mars?

An analogue of the Face on Mars under the sea off Cuba?

Here, at last, was something that seemed to be good physical evidence for the existence of an advanced civilisation at a time when sea levels were much lower (the inference being that this would have been during the Pleistocene Ice Age). Some of the claims repeated on the web included the identification of a sphinx, a structure resmbling Stonehenge and a monument identical to the “Face on Mars”. All of this is under 600-750 m (2000-2500 feet) of water, a very long way down indeed. It was so deep that it caused problems for the Advanced Digital Communications team, who could not explore the site in the detail needed to confirm their ideas.

In order to get better data, Paulina Zelitsky began raising funds for a third expedition to the site. It was announced in October 2004, in a story that seems not to have been picked up by the world’s media (although various New Age and fringe type websites noted it), but “they could not complete the mission due to technical deficiencies of the submarine that rendered it unable to take images from the marine bottom”. One wonders why they went under-equipped when on the verge of so important a discovery. Nevertheless, Zelitsky announced that they would be returning in 2005, with funding from National Geographic Society. Since then, silence (apart from its inevitable appearance on Ancient Aliens).

Problems, of course

Pleistocene sea levels around western Cuba

Pleistocene sea levels around western Cuba: pale blue shows exposed land now under water, while the approximate position of the site discovered by Paulina Zelitsky is marked with a yellow cross

The depth of the alleged remains is the biggest problem of all: during the Pleistocene, sea levels dropped as water was locked up in the ice sheets that developed around the globe. At the maximum extent of the ice, the drop in level was around 100 m, which is very different from the 600-750 m depth of the alleged remains. At no point during the Ice Age would they have been above sea level unless, of course, the land on which they stand has sunk. This is the claim made for Atlantis: according to Plato’s account (the only primary source for it), it was destroyed σεισμῶν ἐξαισίων καὶ κατακλυσμῶν (“by violent earthquakes and floods”). However, if we take Plato at his word – as we must if we assume Atlantis to have been an historical place – the violence of its sinking makes it improbable that an entire city could have survived plunging more than 600 m into an abyss.

Remember that this was μιᾶς ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς χαλεπῆς (“in one fearful day and night”); also recall that διὸ καὶ νῦν ἄπορον καὶ ἀδιερεύνητον γέγονεν τοὐκεῖ πέλαγος͵ πηλοῦ κάρτα βραχέος ἐμποδὼν ὄντος͵ ὃν ἡ νῆσος ἱζομένη παρέσχετο (“and this is why the sea in that are is to this day impassable to navigation, which is hindered by mud just below the surface, the remains of the sunken island”). Rapid sinking would devastate structures; the persistence of mud just below the surface suggests that the sinking was not to a depth of 600-740 m. Unless we are prepared to jettison Plato’s text – the sole source for the story of Atlantis – we cannot identify the features found by Paulina Zelitsky with Atlantis.

The next problem involves trying to understand what the sonar shows. All the fancy graphics showing pyramid-like structures are computer generated: they are not photographs of things seen under the sea. All the detail is limited to the resolution of the side-scan sonar, which is not good enough to determine whether the supposed structures exhibit 90° angles, let alone confirm the claims that some stones are covered in hieroglyphs. The initial images, which do not have the three-dimensional data provided by the side-scanning sonar, show rectilinear but not rigorously right-angled features, so I suspect that the angularity of the generated images is an artefact of the processing, much like many of the details claimed for the ‘Face on Mars’. We have some interesting sonar images that are basically like ink-blot tests: they need interpreting and the interpretation is entirely dependent upon the preconceptions an biases of those looking at them. Paulina Zeltisky was predisposed to see artificiality, because that is what she was being paid to do (even if the artificiality she was specifically interested in involved sunken ships). Others have seen geological formations.

So, what happened to the story?

Although some conspiracy theorists have suggested that either Paulina Zelitsky’s findings from 2004 or 2005 were suppressed by Teh Military or she was prevented from returning to the site, again by Teh Military, in reality, the story simply went cold. Despite initial enthusiasm in some quarters, including from the Cuban marine geologist Manuel Iturralde-Vinent, experts were not convinced that Paulina Zelitsky had really discovered a sunken city. Zelitsky continues to work as an oceanographic engineer based in Ontario (Canada) and has not announced any plans since 2004 to return to the site. Although some may see this as evidence that she has been warned off it, it is more likely that she has been unable to persuade anyone to finance an expedition in search of something that in all likelihood doesn’t exist.

The story was given a new lease of life thanks to its exposure in Ancient Aliens, but no new information about it has emerged. After the initial flurry of excitement, once scientists began to look critically at the data, especially the sonar images, the story could be seen to be nothing more than hype. For anyone outside the small band of “alternative researchers” and New Age true believers, the story simply died for lack of evidence. But when did a lack of evidence ever stop woo-woos making unsupported claims?