Who “discovered” ley lines?

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935)

Alfred Watkins (1855-1935) (source)

The name that springs instantly to mind is Alfred Watkins (1855-1935). The story of his “discovery” of an ancient system of lines crossing the British landscape is well known to present-day ley line afficionados and to the small number of archaeologists who have ever looked into them. I quote his summary of the system on the main site, but it is worth repeating here:

…imagine a fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak, as far as the eye could reach, and paid out until it touched the “high places” of the earth at a number of ridges, banks, and knowls. Then visualize a mound, circular earthwork, or clump of trees, planted on these high points, and in low points in the valley other mounds ringed round with water to be seen from a distance. Then great standing stones brought to mark the way at intervals, and on a bank leading up to a mountain ridge or down to a ford the track cut deep so as to form a guiding notch on the skyline as you come up. In a bwlch or mountain pass the road cut deeply at the highest place straight through the ridge to show as a notch afar off. Here and there, at two ends of the way, a beacon fire used to lay out the track. With ponds dug on the line, or streams banked up into “flashes” to form reflecting points on the beacon track so that it might be checked when at least once a year the beacon was fired on the traditional day. All these works exactly on the sighting line. The wayfarer’s instructions are still deeply rooted in the peasant mind to-day, when he tells you—quite wrongly now—“You just keep straight on”.

According to a later account, all this came to him “in a flash” on 21 June 1921 during a visit to Blackwardine; according to his son Allen, this happened while poring over a map. A variation on the ‘origin myth’ quoted by John Michell holds that the revelation happened whilst out riding in the hills near Bredwardine in 1920, observing the Herefordshire landscape he loved. It is unclear why there are two different versions of the story; Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy note wryly in their excellent Ley Lines in Question (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1983) that John Michell’s version reflects how “ley hunters would like to think it happened”.

What is strange is that few people ever bother to read what Watkins himself says in the Introduction to his first publication on the subject, Early British Trackways, in 1922. There, he says:

I knew nothing on June 30th last of what I now communicate, and had no theories. A visit to Blackwardine led me to note on the map a straight line starting from Croft Ambury, lying on parts of Croft Lane past the Broad, over hill points, through Blackwardine, over Risbury Camp, and through the high ground at Stretton Grandison, where I surmise a Roman station. I followed up the clue of sighting from hill top, unhampered by other theories, found it yielding astounding results in all districts, the straight lines to my amazement passing over and over again through the same class of objects, which I soon found to be (or to have been) practical sighting points.

So, what Watkin noted was an alignment of sites on a map; he may have seen this while planning his journey to Blackwardine, during the journey or upon arrival at his destination. At any rate, we can put the minor controversy of the exact details of his “discovery” to rest.

But to what extent was this his discovery? Wikipedia is in no doubt: “The concept of “ley lines” originated with Alfred Watkins in his books Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track, though Watkins also drew on earlier ideas about alignments; in particular he cited the work of the English astronomer Norman Lockyer, who argued that ancient alignments might be oriented to sunrise and sunset at solstices.”. Much as I am criticised by commentors here for quoting Wikipedia, it has become one of the most widely used sources of information in the world today and is often the first (and, indeed, only) reference source to which people will resort. It also tends to reflect received wisdom (even when that wisdom is wrong). And that is what seems to be the case with its entry for ley lines.

Back to Joseph Houghton Spencer

Joseph Houghton Spencer was a nineteenth-century antiquary, who published papers on Castle Neroche, Taunton Castle and other sites of interest in the Taunton area. He was an architect by profession, restoring the church at Goathurst (Somerset) in 1884 and designing a number of others. He was based, unsurprisingly, in Taunton (Somerset, England). His antiquarian interests are best represented through his transcripts of historic parish registers, which continue to be used today.

He came to my attention thanks to a member of my local archaeological society, who knows my interest in Bad Archaeology. During some research this member was undertaking on medieval routes in north-eastern Hertfordshire, he came a cross a paper published in The Antiquary Volume XIX (1889, pages 94-101), titled Ancient trackways in England (a number of sources incorrectly give the volume of The Antiquary as XX).

Barton Grange, Taunton (source)

Barton Grange, Taunton (source)

The paper starts with an account of “a broad pathway, about 600 feet long, which is crossed by another of the same length, thus forming a Greek cross” in woodland at Barton Grange in Taunton. From this, he leaps to a number of conclusions that go way beyond the evidence: noting that the Grange “is said to have been the summer residence of the Prior of Taunton” and that these paths were known as “the “Monks’ Walk”” in the 1880s, he concludes that they were part of the putatively monastic layout. He then proceeds to extend the centre lines of these paths to tracks and monuments outside Barton Grange Park and surmises that to avoid blocking the view from the central crossing of the two main paths, “openings were left in the walls when the building was first projected on the line of sight”. In other words, he is suggesting that the layout of the paths pre-dates the monastic foundation.

Next, astronomical alignments are brought into play: one line “points directly towards the position on the horizon where the sun sets on June 21”. He also brings into play various prehistoric earthworks, including hillforts and round barrows, prominent hills and “suggestive names”, such as Cold Harbour, Pipe House, Horn Ash, Three Ashes and Stony Knap, without explaining what is “suggestive” about them. One line is extended out to the south coast at the Isle of Portland and in the opposite direction across the Bristol Channel to south-west Wales and further, across the Irish Sea and into the Atlantic Ocean “at or near Killala Bay”. This makes the supposed St Michael’s Ley seem positively parochial! The other principal line is also extended, using Roman roads as well as the usual hills and earthworks together with “Black’s “Atlas”” to the North Sea, “nearly in a line with Spurn Head”. He then devises lines parallel to these, passing through Castle Neroche.

What does he make of all this?

Having recorded these observations, I venture to suggest the following explanation:

The general design of the works seems to be a central line of long distance signals, with more frequent posts to the right and left connecting the natural harbours at the mouths of the Wey, Axe, Otter, Exe, Teign, Parret, Brue, Avon, Medway, Thames, and Humber; also St. Gennys, near Bude Haven, an important position on the Cornish coast, and Minehead.

These direct signal-line stations, though no doubt connected with each other by trackways, would not always afford the best lines for the principal roadways; and we find that the early ridgeways, so far as they have been traced, connected nearly all the foregoing points; but, owing to the physical and other difficulties, not in straight lines. There seem to be indications of other parallel arrangements of fortified posts and beacons, and it is probable that, upon further research, it will be found that these north-west and north-east lines are preserved as guiding ones throughout the entire district, which was under the control of these early, perhaps Phœnician, far-seeing engineers.

This is all very similar to Watkins’s system, but without the insistence that the hypothetical tracks need to follow precisely the alignment marked by various monuments and landscape features.

Like Watkins, Houghton Spencer seems to have regarded the system as surviving through the medium of christianised pagan sites. He hypothesised that the system fell into disrepair “until the dissolution of the religious houses by Henry VIII. Then the idea was lost, and, consequently, no regard was paid in building, from the seventeenth century downwards, to the far-reaching lines of the cross”. Unlike Watkins, who saw medieval church builders as merely building on ancient markers, Houghton Spencer believed that the medieval church retained a knowledge of this system, although “in the hands of laymen it has been carefully preserved for more than three centuries, and by no one more conservatively than the present owner… to whom I would venture to suggest that a careful excavation at the cross-centre would probably be attended with interesting results”. Also unlike Watkins, everything in the system hinges on these crossing paths at Barton Grange, described as “[t]his cruciform centre of, perhaps, both civil and religious government”.

The paper concludes with a typical late nineteenth century farrago of quite unscientific linguistic speculation. Using Greek and Hebrew to seek etymologies for English placenames provided Victorian antiquaries with opportunities to show off their learning, but carry little weight today except among misguided amateurs. Once again, though, Watkins was equally keen on “suggestive names” to determine the passage of a ley line, where no physical marker could be found.

1880s Ordnance Survey map of Barton Grange and the woodland walks to its south-east

1880s Ordnance Survey map of Barton Grange and the woodland walks to its south-east

Of course, to a twenty-first century archaeologist, these broad pathways present no problem. They are typical of eighteenth-century gardens created by landscape gardeners to enhance the country estates of the wealthy. Barton Court is a probably sixteenth-century house, now much altered; nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps show the layout of the woodland walks and they look absolutely typical of this type of garden feature. The two principal arms of the cross run to the corners of the roughly rectangular woodland and appear to survive, albeit overgrown, to the present day. We can discount any great scheme of alignments, spiritual and political centre of ancient Britain, routes to the significant harbours of Britain and so on.

Watkins or Houghton Spencer?

So, who did ‘discover’ (recte ‘invent’) ley lines? The term ley belongs to Watkins, completely misunderstanding Old English lēah (principally meaning ‘woodland clearing’ in placenames). The ley line system as widely (mis)understood today is his concept, modified by the New Age speculations of writers such as John Michell. But was Watkins drawing on this paper by Joseph Houghton Spencer? He does not mention it in any of his published works. The Woolhope Club, the antiquarian and natural history society of which Watkins was a prominent member, did not subscribe to The Antiquary, so he will not have seen Houghton Spencer’s thirty-year-old paper in the club library. Although the two ideas are so close in conception, there seems to be little cause to accuse Alfred Watkins of plagiarism. The idea of ancient trackways of any age—prehistoric, Roman or medieval—or any character—military ways, saltways, trade routes—was part of the general culture of Late Victorian and early twentieth-century antiquarian speculation. A more rigorous approach to studying tracks has never really been at the forefront of archaeological research: some of the worst “research” was been carried out on Roman roads (for instance, The Viatores Roman roads in the south-east Midlands, while well intentioned, is a triumph of enthusiasm over rigour).

On a final note, I’d like to correct a misconception in the Wikipedia entry for Alfred Watkins, quoted above. According to the editors, “[a]rchaeologists in general do not accept Watkins’ ideas on leys. At first they regarded the ancient Britons as too primitive to have devised such an arrangement, but this is no longer the argument used against the existence of leys”. That is just plain wrong, although it is the sort of accusation flung at archaeologists by ley hunters. As Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy point out, academics largely ignored it, even if O G S Crawford did regard Watkins as a crank, his reason for notoriously refusing an advertisement for The Old Straight Track in Antiquity. There was a general perception that prehistoric people had little use for such a complex system. The prevailing (but incorrect) view of Neolithic Britain as a heavily forested landscape, save for a few pioneering farms, made the establishment of the network a virtual impossibility in the view of prehistorians. It was left to amateur enthusiasts to take up Watkins’s idea. No, the problem that academics had with the concept of ley lines was that Watkins, like Houghton Spencer before him, failed to provide any evidence for the antiquity of the system. Despite Wikipedia, ley lines do not exist!

The Paracas skulls: aliens, an unknown hominid species or cranial deformation?

Three Paracas Necropolis Culture skulls, showing different shapes produced by head binding

Three Paracas Necropolis Culture skulls, showing different shapes produced by head binding (Source)

Sources of dubious (and not-so-dubious) news on the internet have been getting very excited for the past week or so about some skulls from Paracas in south-western Perú. According to these sites, the skulls have been shown to have DNA that proves them not to be modern Homo sapiens but something else. Depending on the slant of the site, they are the remains of either an unknown but earthly species or aliens. Some sites make comparisons with the Starchild Skull, which has been touted as a human/alien hybrid. So just how reliable is the news?


The skulls were discovered by the respected Perúvian archaeologist Julio César Tello (1880-1947) during excavations in 1927-8 on the northern side of the Cerro Colorado area of the Paracas Peninsula. In all, some 429 mummy bundles were recovered from two clusters at a site known as Wari Kayan, a large subterranean structure. The mummies were wrapped in cotton cloths, some of which were embroidered with wool to create elaborate patterns, which are among the best South American textiles ever found. The mummies were then placed in baskets in a sitting position, facing north; as with all South American mummies, their preservation is due to natural desiccation. Almost four hundred embroidered cloths were recovered. All the burials were of males and the quality of their grave gifts suggests that they were of high status; some have suggested that many of the men buried there had been brought for some distance to a special location, although this is not accepted by all.

Tello had previously excavated at Chavín de Huantar and recognised that there were cultural affinities between its products and those found at Wari Karan and suggested that the Paracas Necropolis Culture, as he called it, was related to the largely contemporary Chavín Culture. Comparisons have also been made between the later Paracas textiles and those of the Nasca Culture, suggesting another relationship. The pottery was largely plain and thin walled; it is very similar to ceramics found in the Cañete and Chincha Valleys, to the north of Paracas and is generally known today as Topará style. Similar pottery is also found in the earliest Nasca culture. It is generally accepted that the Nasca culture derives from the Paracas Necropolis Culture.

An example of Paracas Necropolis Culture embroidery

An example of Paracas Necropolis Culture embroidery (Source)

A Paracas Necropolis settlement has been found at Arena Blanca, in the coastal plain below the Cerro Coloarado. It covers an area of some 5- hectares, divided into twenty separate ditstricts, with buildings made from cobbles in dried mud. It inhabitants had cultivated plants, while cotton nets may be evidence for fishing. It appears to be contemporary with the earliest phase of burial at Wari Kayan and after its abandonment, was used as a cemetery by people of the Topará Culture. Further settlements are known in the Ica Valley to the south, where they span the entire period of the Paracas Necropolis Culture (conventionally reckoned to span 1-200 CE, although some prefer to place it earlier).

So far, so good. We have burials from a culture whose cultural affinities are well established and whose chronology is reasonably clear. Now for the part that has led to the recent controversial claims. Many of the high status burials of the Paracas Necropolis Culture have deformed skulls, which are usually believed to be deliberately induced using boards and weights. These result, in extreme cases, in skulls that are elongated into tall conical shapes. No two are alike and all are believed to have denoted high status in Paracas Necropolis Culture society.

The beginning of the controversy

A foetal mummy, illustrated by Rivero and Tschudi

A foetal mummy, illustrated by Rivero and Tschudi

For many years after their discovery, the Paracas Necropolis Culture burials were regarded as ordinary Andean mummies, whose high status males exhibit the cultural deformation of the skull practised by a number of pre-Columbian New World societies. Enter David Hatcher Childress, a well known promoter of some very Bad Archaeology indeed. In a 2012 book, The Enigma of Cranial Deformation: Elongated Skulls of the Ancients, co-written with Brien Foerster (described as a “Canadian-Peruvian anthropologist” by Amazon, although it would be more accurate to describe him as a tour operator), Childress suggests that the phenomenon is not one of cranial deformation. Quoting a nineteenth-century doctor, John James von Tschudi who claimed to have seen a seven-month term foetus with a head as elongated as its mother, Childress claims that this is evidence for a separate race or species.

What is not made clear is that they are quoting from the book Antigüedades Peruanas (1851) by Mariano Eduardo de Rivero y Ustáriz (1798-1857) and Johann Jakob von Tschudi (1818-1889) or, rather, its 1855 English translation by Francis Lister Hawks (1798-1866), who also managed to “translate” the authors’ names (as, indeed, does the original Spanish edition, where Dr von Tschudi is given the forenames Juan Diego!). Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Until one reads Antigüedades Peruanas and discovers that this is in a chapter dealing with racial typology and phrenology and that Tschudi is reinforcing a typology of three Amerindian races he first proposed in Archiv für Pysiologie in 1845. The type to which they attribute the elongated crania are described as Aymaran, and the presence of a large wormian bone at the parietal/occipital interface is said to demonstrate the primitive nature of this people: se halle en una seccion del género humano, un fenómeno anómalo constante que falta en las demas, pero que es característico en los animales rumiantes y carnívoros (“there is thus found in one section of the human race a perpetual anomalous phenomenon, which is wanting in all others, but which is characteristic of the ruminant and carnivorous animals” in Hawks’s translation). Because of the high incidence of such bones among the indigenous peoples of the Andes, they are sometimes known as Inca bones.

The engraving that shows the foetal mummy (curiously found in the English translation but not in the Spanish original) does not depict the extreme of cranial deformation that Childress claims is genetic in origin: while the skull appears dolichocephalic, it appears to be entirely in the range of normal human foetuses. Moreover, although Rivero and Tschudi claim that it was found within the womb of a pregnant mother, the engraving does not show a foetus in a natural position, but in the position of a typical Andean mummy. It also appears to be wearing a kilt. In other words, there is a degree of deception in their account. It appears that Childress and Foerster cannot adduce any recent discoveries of neonatal of foetal mummies displaying supposedly congenital or hereditary skull deformation of this type.

Enter Lloyd Pye

Brien Foerster managed to persuade Juan Navarro Hierro, director (and owner) of the Paracas History Museum (sic: the name is given first in English, then, smaller, in Spanish) to part with some tissue samples. He claims that he did this because “[t]he only way to establish the actual age, and possible genetic origins of the Paracas people is through DNA analysis of the skulls themselves”. Dating human tissue by means of DNA analysis is such a new technique that I can find no other use of this remarkable development in any other archaeological investigation. Of course, there is no such dating technique: this is Brien Foerster displaying his ignorance of archaeological dating techniques!

Where did he choose to send the samples? To some prestigious university department, well known for its work on ancient DNA? No. Instead, he chose to send them to Lloyd Pye (1946-2013), a crank who believed in ancient astronauts, the extraterrestrial origins of humanity and, worst of all, the “Starchild Skull” as an alien/human hybrid. Why? This suggests that, far from being a dispassionate researcher, Brien Foerster has a preconceived agenda and it’s one that involves aliens. Although his lists his affiliation as “University of Victoria, Biological Sciences, Department Member”, his association with the university is as a graduate, not a member of faculty.

A Paracas skull: note the dimple toward the top of the head, which is a product of head-binding, depressing the suture between the parietal plates that Brien Foerster claims does not exist

A Paracas skull: note the dimple toward the top of the head, which is a product of head-binding, depressing the suture between the parietal plates that Brien Foerster claims does not exist (Source)

On his website, Brien Foerster makes a number of claims about the skulls from Paracas, citing Lloyd Pye as an authority. He refers to “5 physical factors, pointed out by Lloyd Pye and myself, which are not at all common to Homo sapiens”, of which he lists two: “the presence of 2 small holes in the back of the skull” and “only one parietal plate, where there should be 2”. This is backed up by a photograph, although it appears to depict a skull with no cranial deformation.

The “small holes” are the parietal foramina, perfectly normal features of the human skull (he does say that Lloyd Pye believed that they might be “natural”, so why are they flagged up as a factor “not at all common to Homo sapiens”?). There are few photographs that show the top of the Paracas skulls, but it is obvious that the frontal bone (the bone behind our foreheads) is stretched enormously; it is also evident that the sagittal suture (between the two parietal bones) begins very high up on the skull on those few photographs that show this element. Either Brien Foerster is entirely ignorant of the normal features of the human skull, or he is deliberately deceiving a readership he expects of be ignorant of these features.

It gets worse

Just when you thought that this story couldn’t possibly take off, Brien Foerster managed to put out a release on his Facebook page on 12 February 2014 hinting about initial results from his DNA tests. This is what has set the internet of dubious news stories talking excitedly. This is what Brien Foerster quotes:

Whatever the sample labeled 3A has came from – it had mtDNA with mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal known so far. The data are very sketchy though and a LOT of sequencing still needs to be done to recover the complete mtDNA sequence. But a few fragments I was able to sequence from this sample 3A indicate that if these mutations will hold we are dealing with a new human-like creature, very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans.. I am not sure it will even fit into the known evolutionary tree. The question is if they were so different, they could not interbreed with humans. Breeding within their small population, they may have degenerated due to inbreeding. That would explain buried children – they were either low or not viable.

I am surprised that a geneticist would make this statement, but it is presented as verbatim, so we must assume that she/he genuinely wrote it. Let’s analyse what they are saying. Firstly, that Sample 3A “had mtDNA with mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal known so far”. That’s a very far reaching statement. It means that the source of the sample is unrelated to any animal on the planet. Any animal. Think about that for a few moments. The clear implication is that this is a non-terrestrial life form. The only one not to be related to all other animals, be they Bryozoa, Porifera, Acanthocephala, Acoelomorpha, Brachiopoda, Chaetognatha, Ctenophora, Cycliophora, Entoprocta, Gastrotricha, Gnathostomulida, Hemichordata, Kinorhyncha, Loricifera, Micrognathozoa, Nematomorpha, Nemertea, Onychophora, Orthonectida, Phoronida, Placozoa, Priapulida, Rhombozoa, Rotifera, Sipuncula, Tardigrada, Xenoturbellida, Echinodermata, Cnidaria, Annelida, Nematoda, Platyhelminthes, Chordata, Mollusca or Arthropoda. Incidentally, we belong to the phylum Chordata.

A Paracas Necropolis Culture skull with hair

A Paracas Necropolis Culture skull with hair (Source)

Now, this statement troubles me. For a start, there is the skeletal morphology. This morphology shows that the owners of the Paracas skulls were Chordates; more than that, they belonged to the sub-phylum Vertebrata (or Craniata), as they possess a bony vertebral column; more than that, they were members of the superclass Tetrapoda, as they possess four independent limbs; more than that, they belong to the class Mammalia, as they possess hair (which can be seen on some of the skulls); more than that, the skeletal morphology demonstrates that they belong to the Primates, as do all apes, including humans, monkeys, tarsiers, lemurs and lorises. In other words, far from possessing “mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal”, they appear to be human. So what does the mtDNA sequenced from Sample 3A mean?

Well, our anonymous geneticist goes on to classify Sample 3A as “a new human-like creature”. So it’s not actually unrelated to the rest of the animal kingdom. That’s a relief. However, it’s “very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans”, whatever that is supposed to mean. Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Denisovans (exact species not yet determined, although members of the genus Homo) are extinct hominins whose distribution was restricted to Europe and western Asia: one would not expect to find them in South America. If the mtDNA of Sample 3A really is “very distant from Homo sapiens”, the only hominin so far known from the New World, does this mean that the geneticist considers it to be another species within the genus Homo or a member of an entirely separate genus. This is something I would expect them to give an opinion on and I find it curious that they apparently have not.

The hominin evolutionary tree, as understood in 2014

The hominin evolutionary tree, as understood in 2014 (Source)

What is even more curious is the statement that “I am not sure it will even fit into the known evolutionary tree”. This is worryingly ambiguous and can be taken in two ways. It might mean that Sample 3A derives from a species whose position in the hominin lineage cannot yet be determined, but which might one day. I suspect that this is not the intended meaning though. Given the thrust of the rest of the statement, I suspect that it is meant to imply that the mtDNA belongs to a species entirely outside the hominin lineage. In other words, it’s leaving open the possibility that we should regard the sample as deriving from an alien. There does not appear to be any consideration given to the likelihood that the odd features of the mtDNA recovered are not “mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal” but a result of contamination (after all, the skulls were excavated in the 1920s and we do not know the conditions under which they have been stored, how much they have been handled, whether any procedures have been used to stabilise them and so on) or errors in the laboratory.

The statement ends with a very worrying pair of sentences: “Breeding within their small population, they may have degenerated due to inbreeding. That would explain buried children – they were either low or not viable.” “[D]egenerated” is a very loaded term: it smacks of racialist theories and I am surprised that a scientist would use it. Be that as it may, it is true that inbreeding within small isolated populations will increase the likelihood of genetic disorders that will led to the eventual extinction of that population. However, it is quite ludicrous to claim that it “would explain buried children”. Has this geneticist no knowledge of pre-twentieth century population mortality patterns? Before the development of modern medicine, infant mortality rates were high; in some societies, fewer than half of all live births would survive more than five years. The burial of children in the Paracas Necropolis Culture is a perfectly normal phenomenon in many human societies. To claim otherwise is deliberately misleading.

I find the entire statement released by Brien Foerster to be quite unprofessional. It makes unsubstantiated claims; it deals with preliminary results; it contains at least one outright untruth. This is not standard scientific procedure. Let us assume that the mtDNA sequencing has been done properly. The geneticist states that “[t]he data are very sketchy”: so why release them, particularly when “a LOT of sequencing still needs to be done”? It is very unusual for a scientist to “leak” preliminary results in this way, unless they are very certain of their reliability. Doing it with “sketchy” data is inexcusable. Unless there is a hidden agenda…

Assessing the claim

There are so many problems with the statement posted by Brien Foerster, that it is difficult to see why anyone would take it seriously. For a start, it sits in glorious isolation from any archaeological data. The Paracas Necropolis Culture is not the product of some mysteriously isolated group of non-human creatures: its position within the broader cultural development of prehistoric Perú is well understood. The cranial deformation seen in mummies from the Wari Kayan cemetery fit into a known pattern, termed the Aymara deformity, which is produced by wrapping the skulls of infants tightly in circular bands. This exerts pressure along a transverse axis, through the mastoid region and the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occiput. This can cause the skull to appear tri-lobed (as seen in the “Starchild Skull”), although the Paracas skulls exhibit a more conical deformity. The compression may disrupt the normal growth pattern of the skull, particularly along the sutures, and can produce a depression in the sagittal region, exactly as seen in a number of the Paracas skulls. Altering the shape of the skull also alters its volume, despite Foerster’s claim that it does not [edited 19.2.2014 by KJF-M]. Although small variations away from normal volume can be produced, they are not significant; however, while Foerster claims that the capacity of the skulls is too great for Homo sapiens, this is not the case: the Paracas skulls have an average capacity of 1600 cm3 and the human range is up to 1800 cm3 and they therefore fall well within the normal distribution range.

Secondly, the interpretation of the genetic information so far released is said by the scientist carrying out the sequencing to rest on “sketchy” data. Does this mean that further work may modify the interpretation? Is the geneticist allowing themselves a way of retracting the interpretation of further work shows the mtDNA to belong to a perfectly ordinary Amerindian type?

I was initially reminded of another DNA related story, the announced discovery of Bigfoot DNA in 2013 by Melba Ketchum. Although some early analyses of Brien Foerster’s statements regarding the Paracas DNA implicated Melba Ketchum, this is not the case, although Foerster has said that he is working with her, while she has hinted that she has been working with elongated skulls. It thus appears that the anonymous geneticist who wrote the bizarre statement posted on Foerster’s Facebook page. As happens so often with this sort of work, Brien Foerster is asking for donations to carry on the work (the site shows as of today (15 February 2014) that one donor has given $1000, twenty have given $100, twelve have given $50, while there are 38 donations of smaller sums).

In summary, this is a non-story. There is nothing at all unusual about the population of the Paracas Necropolis Culture, apart from the extreme nature of the head-binding they practised. DNA or no DNA, they are fully human: every aspect of their skulls can be explained in terms of genetics (such as the large wormian bone) and culture (such as the cranial deformation). Any statements to the contrary contain a mixture of deliberate deception, ignorance of anthropology, lack of archaeological knowledge and jumping to wild conclusions using “sketchy” data. They are not evidence for aliens or an otherwise unknown hominin species.

Update 20 February 2014

There is a condition known as craniosynostosis, in which one or more sutures fuses early. The most common form is sagittal sysnostosis, which is found in about half all cases and suppresses growth in the lateral plane of the skull, compensated by a disproportionate growth in length, resulting in a long, narrow skull. In The Enigma of Cranial Deformation, Childress and Foerster publish a colour photograph of a skull from Camacho (Perú) showing exactly this form of sagittal synostosis, which they wrongly claim shows that the individual had a single parietal plate. As with all their other discussions of palaeopathology, all they show is their ignorance of the subject: they are completely unqualified to write an entire book on the subject if they can make such basic mistakes. It’s a shame that the readers of their book are unaware of the depth of their ignorance.

Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods Part III Plumed Serpent: Central America (part one)

Remaining in the New World, that treasurehouse of “mysteries” that most of his readers will find unfamiliar, Graham Hancock turns his attention to what he calls Central America (why do so many people not understand that Mexico, Guatemala and Belize are North American countries?). This region was the home to a number of spectacular civilisations, of which two—the Maya and the Aztecs—are likely to be known to his readers, but as little more than names. Both were active when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the second decade of the sixteenth century and although the Aztec kingdom was quickly defeated, resistance by Maya communities lingered long and the Maya of Yucatán rebelled against Mexican government a number of times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

None of this recent history is of any consequence to Graham Hancock, of course. His is a “quest for the beginning and the end”. We must put to the back of our mind any thoughts about the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs that has allowed a history of individual city states to be read, about the chronicles written in indigenous languages after the Spanish conquest and about the results of more than a century of archaeological research. That would spoil Mr Hancock’s fun with the facts.

Chapter 13: those bloodthirsty Maya!

After reading this chapter twice, I still have the impression that there is very little to it. Perhaps I am doing Graham Hancock a disservice, but it seems remarkably data free. We are launched, without preamble, into a description of Chichén Itzá, one of the best preserved (albeit much restored) of the Maya cities of the northern Yucatán. It dates from the Late Classic to early Post-Classic period (around 600-1200 CE), although the surviving buildings belong to the later phases of activity at the site.

El Castillo, Chichen Itzá

El Castillo, Chichen Itzá (Source)

We start with a description of El Castillo, sometimes known as the Temple of K’uk’ulkan (after the snake god of the Maya), which Hancock refers to as a ziggurat, although most people refer to it as a pyramid. Somehow, he finds the 91 steps on each face and the additional step of the platform on top remarkable, in that they add up to the 365 days of the Haab’ year. He is also impressed by the illusion of a snake crawling down the northern staircase of the pyramid caused by the moving shadow of the north-western corner on the afternoon of the equinoxes. I’m not sure why the idea that the phenomenon lasts “for 3 hours and 22 minutes exactly” is meant to be so important.

Nor is it clear why he has to mention “the oft-repeated fallacy that the peoples of Central America had never succeeded in developing the column as an architectural feature” until we realise that it is an obvious bit of innuendo: the fearless Mr Hancock is telling his lucky readers what no-one else will tell them. Never mind that any description of the city in a standard tourist guide-book will mention the Group of a Thousand Columns that lies in three principal sections to the north and south of the Temple of the Warriors and east of El Castillo. Hancock has successfully muddied the waters with an implication that there are misconceptions about the archaeology of the Maya that only he can sweep away.

A chacmool from Chichen Itzá

A chacmool from Chichen Itzá (Source)

Climbing the steps of the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), he is confronted by a Chacmool, exuding “a fierce and pitiless energy… thin-lipped and implacable, as hard and indifferent as the stone from which they were carved”. He doesn’t seem to like the Maya: theirs was “a hybrid society… by no means exceptional in its addiction to cruel and barbaric ceremonies”. We can sense (and indeed empathise with) his distaste. To a twenty-first century westerner, the practice of human sacrifice, performed by ripping the still-beating heart from the chest of the victim, is horrific. What Hancock has not done is to place it in its cultural context.

Suddenly, with nary a train journey or an aeroplane flight, we are in Villahermosa, beside the River Tonalá west of the base of the Yucatán peninsula. There is an ominous subheading: Slaughterhouses. Clearly, we are not going to be spared further details of the Meso-American obsession with human sacrifice. To add to the horror, Graham Hancock is considering the “Altar of Infant Sacrifice”. He hasn’t told us that he’s not actually in Villahermosa, a Spanish city founded in 1564, but at La Venta, a kilometre or so to the north-west of the historic city.

Altar 5 at La Venta

Altar 5 at La Venta (Source)

We are still immersed in Hancock’s revulsion, as he describes what he calls “the Altar of Infant Sacrifice”, although stick-in-the-mud archaeologists, who refer to it prosaically as Altar 5, do not see priests carrying off “a healthy, chubby, struggling infant, whose desperate fear was clearly visible” but were-jaguars. Although the scenes have been thought to represent child sacrifice (and such did take place in Mesoamerican cultures), this is a minority opinion and it is thought more likely that they depict a myth about the origins of humanity or an allegory of spiritual development. Human/animal hybrids were commonplace in Olmec art, although their precise interpretation is unknown and is likely to remain so. Never mind that these structures are no longer thought to be altars, anyway: it is generally agreed that they functioned as thrones for Olmec rulers during religious ceremonies, as they are set up facing pyramid mounds. As ever, despite the purple prose, things are not quite the same as Hancock’s description.

Nevertheless, he is correct in stating that the Olmec culture is the earliest known complex society of Mesoamerica, although he strangely doesn’t give an absolute date. Instead, he leaps forward in time to the Aztecs, whom he places 2500 years later “at the time of the Spanish conquest”. Well, I suppose that 1000 BCE is during the period of the Olmec civilisation, which is generally reckoned to have lasted from around 1200 to 600 BCE, with a formative stage from around 1700 BCE. Is this reluctance to give calendar dates part of Hancock’s technique of making the well understood seem obscure?

There is no relief from bloodshed as we jump to the Aztecs, notorious even today for their love of human sacrifice, which, we are told, they performed “with fanatical zeal”. We have gory descriptions of their religious rites, with a stress on the vast numbers slaughtered at particular times. Yes, these were horrible ceremonies but Graham Hancock seems not to want them to be done in the name of a god: instead, they were “done to delay the coming of the end of the world”. We are clearly about to be immersed in an account of the Mesoamerican conception of cyclical history. Remember that all this was written before the fuss about 2012!

What follows is an exposition of the Aztec belief of the Five Suns: the idea that there had been cycles of creation, each ending in a destruction of the entire universe. Hancock gives a perfectly reasonable description of the Aztec beliefs, which seem to have been shared between the Nahua peoples, although he does not mention that they are known in a number of different versions. The generally agreed outline is that the first world, Nahui-Ocelotl (Jaguar Sun), was inhabited by giants who were devoured by jaguars; at the end of the second world, Nahui-Ehécatl (Wind Sun), people were transformed into monkeys when the world was destroyed by hurricanes; in the third world, Nahui-Quiahuitl (Rain Sun), the  inhabitants were turned into birds when the world was destroyed; the fourth world, Nahui-Atl (Water Sun), was destroyed by floods and its people were transformed into fish (although in one version, a couple were transformed into dogs). Modern humans live in Nahui-Ollin (Earthquake Sun), which will be destroyed by earthquakes. The Aztec people believed that, as the chosen people of the sun, they could postpone the end of the world by providing it with tlaxcaltiliztli, the blood and beating hearts of human victims. Some versions of the stories say how long each sun had lasted: the first lasted for 4008 years, the second for 4010, the third for 4081 and the fourth for 5026.

The Piedra del Sol

The Piedra del Sol (Source)

Inevitably, we are introduced to the Piedra del Sol (the “Sun stone”), often thought to be an Aztec calendar, discovered during repairs to the cathedral in Mexico City in 1790. It is thought to be a symbolic representation of the Aztec year, as it contains glyphs representing the days of the month, but it is thought unlikely that this was its principal function. At the centre is a face, usually thought to represent Tonatiuh, the sun god, but possibly Tlaltecuhtli, an earth god; surrounding it, four rectangular panels depict the gods responsible for the destruction of the previous four worlds. Next comes a circle containing the glyphs for the twenty days of the Aztec month: Coatl (the snake), Cuetzpallin (the lizard), Calli (the temple), Ehecatl (the wind), Cipactli (the alligator), Xochitl (the flower), Quiahuitl (the rain), Tecpatl (flint), Ollin (movement), Cozcacuauhtli (the condor), Cuauhtle (the eagle), Ocelotl (the jaguar), Acatl (the reed), Malinalli (the grass), Ozomatli (the monkey), Itzquintli (the hairless dog), Atl (water), Tochtli (the hare), Mazatl (the deer) and Miquiztli (a skull). The next circle contains forty rectangular panels, each containing five dots. These are separated into groups of ten panels by a spike, with intermediate spikes resting on the outer edge of the circle, making eight in all. The next ring contains twelve jaguars and the whole design is contained by the bodies of two snakes, their heads at the bottom of the stone. The stone itself bears a date of 13 Acatl between the tails of the snakes, which is the date at which the fifth creation was believed to have occurred in 1011 CE. Most sources, though, think that it commemorates a later date in the 52-year cycle, perhaps 1427 or 1479. This is a much broader period than the 1479 accepted by Hancock during the reign of Axayacatl as King of Tenochtitlán (1469-1481), although it seems to be widely repeated on the web. However, it may simply be a reference to the creation of the current world. Once again, Graham Hancock is demonstrating a certainty that is not backed up by the evidence.

This discussion of calendars (and the Piedra del Sol is almost certainly not a calendar, even though it is decorated with calendrical data) brings us to the “Maya apocalypse”. Like so many westerners, Hancock is all too willing to conflate the beliefs of different Mesoamerican civilisations and to jump between cultures to make a point. While the Aztecs certainly subscribed to a cyclical view of history and believed that the current Age would end with cataclysmic movements of the earth, this is quite different from the largely invented “Maya apocalypse”. The Maya calendar expressed dates in terms of overlapping cycles, which would occasionally reset to a day zero; one such reset was due to happen—according to some calculations, at any rate—on 21 or 23 December 2012. Graham Hancock leaps at the apocalyptic idea (his “quest for… the end” taking over from his “quest for the beginning” at this point, no doubt) and finds himself “from time to time bothered by a nagging intuition that the voices of the ancient sages might deserve a hearing after all”. He is under the impression that the Maya “believed that they had worked out the date of the end of the world”, when in reality their calendar was coming to something akin to a contemporary change of millennium (which many of us also lived through unscathed). In this chapter, he’s turning out to be a real bundle of laughs.

Chapter 14: the Wiraqocha of the north?

Quetzalcoatl in human form

Quetzalcóatl in human form, from the Codex Borgia (Source)

However, it’s not all doom and gloom on the Mesoamerican front: Graham Hancock was “intrigued to discover” the Mexican twin of Wiraqocha, Quetzalcóatl. Unless this is a literary conceit (oh, the shock!), then his researchers haven’t been doing a very good job. The comparison—indeed, conflation—of Wiraqocha with Quetzalcóatl is a favourite theme of alternative historians. Erich von Däniken, for instance, seems not to understand that they are deities from different cultures; a discussion comparing them on David Icke’s forum ranks high on Google (third place when I checked); the wonderfully named Lunatic Outpost has a thread repeating much the same stuff. It’s all over the place, not just on the web, so how did Hancock only discover the alleged resemblances once he’d got to Mexico?

Just as we saw with Hancock’s treatment of Wiraqocha, he relies on Spanish accounts that describe him as a white, bearded man. For instance, he uses the Monarchichia Indiana of Juan de Torquemada (c 1562-1624)—no, not that Torquemada!—and cites that well-known scholarly work, Atlantis the Antediluvian World (1882) by Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831-1901), as a source for a statement in John Thomas Short’s (1850-1883) The North-Americans of Antiquity: their origin, migrations, and type of civilization considered (1880). Although the book is today used mainly as a quarry for data by believers in Atlantis, John T Short had been one of the prime movers of the Ohio Archaeological Society, founded in 1875. An ordained Methodist minister, he was appointed Assistant Professor in the newly formed Department of History and Philosophy at Ohio State University in June 1879, becoming Professor in September of the same year. John Short was clearly a well known individual and his book is still widely available: it is therefore amusing to note that Graham Hancock gets its title wrong and calls it North America of Antiquity! He has seen the citation in Atlantis and wrongly expanded Donnelly’s contraction “North Amer. of Antiq.”. We are seeing a recurring pattern in his “research”: the use of secondary sources, where the primary source is readily available, and introducing errors of his own making. Had he looked at Short’s book, he’d have found that the source for the statement about a civilising white man was… Juan de Torquemada, yet he describes it as an additional and confirmatory source. This is ridiculously sloppy and the sort of error that an undergraduate would be marked down for making.

Fair Gods and Stone Faces

Constance Irwin’s Fair Gods and Stone Faces (1964)

We are next told that the same character appears as Gucumatz (more correctly Q’uq’umatz) among the K’iche Maya (Hancock, as ever, prefers to use the Spanish spelling Quiche, and I can’t help thinking of a French savoury custard flan), Ku’ku’lkan in Yucatec and K’uk’ulchon in Tzotzil. He repeats the often-quoted assertion that all three names mean “feathered serpent”, although it is more correct to say that Quetzalcóatl and Q’uq’umatz mean “quetzal serpent”, the quetzal being a bird native to the area. While a bird is certainly feathered, that’s not quite the same thing. His discussion of these deities is heavily dependent on Constance Henrietta Frick Irwin’s (1913-1995) Fair Gods and Stone Faces: ancient seafarers and the New World’s most intriguing riddle (1964). Constance Irwin was an eclectic writer, with many genres to her name, including children’s books—perhaps Graham Hancock can identify with her output—but she was by no means an expert in American anthropology or archaeology. An avowed diffusionist, she believed that there were widespread contacts between the Old and New Worlds long before the Viking voyages of around 1000 CE.

Francisco Núñez de la Vega's Constituciones diocesanas del obispado de Chiappa (1702)

Francisco Núñez de la Vega’s Constituciones diocesanas del obispado de Chiappa (1702), which introduced Votan to the western world

Using Irwin’s work, Hancock introduces us to Votan and Itzamná (whose name Hancock spells as Itzamana, a less usual form). We are told that the first was pale-skinned and associated with snakes, while both were bearded and robed. What we are not told is that Votan first makes an appearance in Constituciones diocesanas del obispado de Chiappa (1702) by Francisco Núñez de la Vega (1632-1706), Bishop of Chiapas, who said he had heard the story in the 1690s. De la Vega does not describe his appearance, which is something that comes into later versions of the story, which include fantastical additions and are clearly not based on indigenous traditions. It has been thought that Votan was a genuine Post-Classic individual, as de la Vega identified a number of people who used the name as a surname, claiming to be his descendants. At least we are spared the white supremacist fantasy that connects Votan with the Germanic Wotan/Woden/Óðinn! Itzamná appears to be the same as a deity referred to by Mayanists as God D, sometimes depicted as an old man with a large nose, hollow cheeks, wrinkled skin and no teeth, but no beard or robe, and sometimes depicted as a bird with a two-headed snake in its beak. While Diego da Landa tells us about his role in the calendar, Maya texts present him as a creator god and inventor of writing.

We are back in the realm of euhemerisation, the phenomenon I described when Hancock tried to make Wiraqocha an historical character rather than mythological. He notes with approval the opinion of Sylvanus Griswold Morley (1884-1948) that the “attributes and life history [of K’uk’ulkan] are so human that it is not improbable that he may have been an actual historical character, some great lawgiver and organizer, the memory of whose benefactions lingered long after death, and whose personality was eventually deified”. What Hancock is not telling us, of course, is that Morley (along with John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898-1975)) was one of the promoters of the now discredited idea of the “peaceful Maya”, a people whose cities were seen as largely empty ceremonial centres inhabited by philosopher priests. This view has been shown to be utterly wrong, particularly since the increase in our ability to read Maya hieroglyphs has made it clear that the city states were ruled by warrior kings; although the idea of a civilising K’uk’ulkan may appeal to Hancock, it distorts the nature of Maya gods.

To state that “[a]ll the legends stated unambiguously that Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan/Gucumatz/Votan/Itzamana had arrived in Central America from somewhere very far away (across the ‘Eastern Sea’) and that amid great sadness he had eventually sailed off again in the direction whence he had come” is to conflate stories about separate deities and to misrepresent those stories. I could just as easily conflate Abraham, Moses and Jesus of Nazareth by pointing out that the Bible states unambiguously that all three spent time in Egypt, had interactions with a Pharaoh/Pontius Pilate (whose role clearly is that of Pharaoh) and were buried in caves. That proves nothing, least of all that all three characters were the same historical individual. I wouldn’t get away with this if I proposed it in what purported to be a serious reassessment of the history of the Jewish people, so why should Graham Hancock be permitted to get away with the same thing in his “drastic re-evaluation of man’s past”?

A page from the Book of Chilam Balam

A page from a manuscript of the Book of Chilam Balam (Source)

Next, Hancock commits a ridiculous error. Quoting the Book of Chilam Balam as quoted by the journalist Peter Tompkins (1919-2007) (once again, he’s using a secondary source without checking), he tells us that “‘the first inhabitants of Yucatan were the “People of the Serpent”. They came from the east in boats across the water with their leader Itzamana, “Serpent of the East”, a healer who could cure by laying on hands, and who revived the dead’”. Now, this is conflating information from different parts of the work. The statement that the conquerors of Yucatan “came from the east” is found in Book V, but it refers to “the foreigners, the white men”, who came “in Katun 11 Ahau”. That’s 1513 CE. This passage is referring to the arrival of Córtez! The only mentions of Itzamna are in Book II, where it occurs as a placename, and in Book XVIII, which is a series of obscure prophecies (“The Katun is established at Kinchil Coba, Maya Cuzamil, in Katun 13 Ahau. Itzamna, Itzam-tzab, is his face during its reign”). There is no mention of boats until after the Spanish conquest, no mention of “People of the Serpent”. It would have been a simple matter for Hancock or his researchers to check whether or not Peter Tompkins was quoting accurately; it appears that he was not. This is one of the traps of relying on secondary sources.

Graham Hancock has spent an inordinate number of words trying to establish Quetzalcóatl (and the various deities with whom he is conflated) as a civiliser in the mould of Wiraqocha in the face of the bloodthirsty nature of Mesoamerican cultures. He’s not finished, but I have to admit that I am losing patience with the repetitious quotations from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish writers. It’s almost as if he realises the weakness of his arguments and is hoping to convince the reader by sheer weight of words.

Never mind, the chapter finishes with three mercifully brief sections. The first, Cosmic struggle, poses the questions “Why did Quetzalcoatl go away? What went wrong?”. Hancock’s euhemerised Quetzalcóatl is the victim of a bloodthirsty god, Tezcatlipoca (mis-spelled, as is Hancock’s wont with some Maya and Aztec names, as Texcatilpoca), who somehow defeats him at Tollan (which Hancock identifies with modern Tula-Hidalgo, although this is one of a number of places identified as Tollan). However, this is an oversimplification of the myths. According to the Aztecs, the rival gods Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca were joint creators of the world and, in some versions, alternated between ruling and destroying the world in each of the five cycles.

Of course, Tula-Hidalgo is introduced to enable Hancock to take a swipe at conventional archaeology (after all, it’s about time we had some archaeology in this chapter!): the city is “not believed to be particularly old—not much more than 1000 years anyway—but the legends surrounding it linked it to an infinitely more distant epoch”. Really? Are the legends dated? We’ll ignore the fact that the name Tollan was originally applied to Teothihuacán, a city in northern Mexico known in Maya texts as puh (“Place of Reeds”, which is the meaning of Tollan in Nahuatl), founded c 100 BCE. No matter that “[a]ll the traditions agreed that it had been at Tollan that Tezcatilpoca had vanquished Quetzalcoatl” when these traditions are almost certainly not referring to Tula-Hidalgo. Hancock doesn’t want you to know that.

Pyramid B at Tula

Pyramid B at Tula (Source)

This, of course, is leading to the penultimate section of the chapter, Fire Serpents, in which Graham Hancock, sitting atop “the flat square summit of the unimaginatively named Pyramid B” contemplates the Toltec city. Those dreadful archaeologists, coming up with unimaginative names for monuments. Why couldn’t they have called it The Pyramid of Ripped-out Hearts or The Pyramid of Indescribable Cruelty. No, they lack the daring imagination of Mr Hancock, who shudders internally at the “terrible gladiatorial games” performed in the ball court and who is intimidated by the “hard, implacable faces… without sympathy or emotion” of the four monolithic statues on top of Pyramid B. Incidentally, this pyramid does have more romantic names—The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl or of The Pyramid of the Morning Star—but to tell the reader that would deny him the opportunity to berate archaeologists.

The statues on Pyramid B at Tollan

Those terrifying statues on Pyramid B at Tollan, holding their mysterious devices (Source)

These statues were supports for the roof of the now missing temple on top of Pyramid B. By claiming that “[a]rchaeologists admitted that they didn’t really know what these objects were but had tentatively identified them anyway”, Hancock makes the objects in their hands mysterious. They are generally agreed to be atlatls, spear-throwers, and he does not cite any references to show that archaeologists are in fact puzzled by them. As happens so often, he proceeds by innuendo as he “had the distinct sense” that they sculptor was portraying “devices which had originally been made out of metal” and “looked like pieces of technology”. They reminded him of “the equally mysterious objects in the hands of the idols in the Kalasasaya” at Tiwanaku and he “remembered legends which related that the gods of ancient Mexico had armed themselves with xiuhcoatl, ‘fire serpents’”. Thanks to his clever technique of avoiding definite statements about his unorthodox interpretations, he manages to leave an impression without saying anything that can be refuted. That’s the advantage of journalistic training!

Finally, we reach the Serpent Sanctuary. Well, that’s how Hancock translates Coatzacoalcos, although the Nahuatl means “place where the snake hides”, which is subtly different. The site appears to have been founded around 200 BCE and to have remained a major population centre until the time of the Spanish conquest. However, for Hancock, it is the place of departure for Quetzalcóatl after his defeat by Tezcatlipoca; this is a variant of the usual legend. According to the principal version, Tezcatlipoca made Quetzalcoatl drunk and either tricked him into sleeping with a virgin (his own sister, in some accounts) or then held up his magic mirror that showed Tezcatlipoca’s face instead of his own. In shame, he threw himself onto a funeral pyre and burned himself to death; his heart was taken up to the heavens, where it became Venus, the morning and evening star.

Summary so far

This is taking me a long time to get through. In part, this is a reflection of my scanty knowledge of Mesoamerican mythology, which underpins so much of these two chapters. That same lack of in-depth knowledge made this the most convincing section of the book when I first read it (although it didn’t convince me that Hancock’s arguments are correct, it did make me wonder how reliable our knowledge of the origin of Mesoamerican civilisation is, quite wronglt). However, it is also a reflection of just how tedious I am finding Hancock’s book. There is too much repetition; too often, he has the impression that something is the case without stating it outright; too often, we are not supplied with all the evidence and are not told that there are alternative versions of stories or alternative interpretations. The reason I failed even to start my intended analysis of the entire book in 1996 is being brought back to me: the book is boring!

Nevertheless, I am persevering with this. My analysis of Part III (part 2) will appear eventually.

Is pseudoarchaeology racist?

The Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound (Ohio, USA) (Source)

A common observation made by critics of Bad Archaeologists is that so many of their ideas have an underlying and unspoken racist assumption: the benighted savages of distant continents and ancient times could not possibly have been responsible for the remarkable ruined structures found in their lands. Thus the walls of Puma Punku (Perú), the pyramids of Giza (Egypt), the Great Enclosure of Zimbabwe or the Serpent Mound of Ohio (USA) must have been built (or at the very least designed) by outsiders, whether they came from a more “advanced” (but nevertheless contemporary and known) civilisation, a lost continent or outer space. And if those responsible were human, they are usually described in terms that leave us in no doubt that they were white-skinned.

Sometimes, mythology is used to justify these ideas. Bad Archaeologists are very fond of stories about Wiracocha in South America, for instance. We are told that he was a tall bearded man with white skin who came from overseas to bring civilisation to the Andean peoples before departing across the sea. What they fail to reveal is the source of these legends: accounts by the Spanish Conquistadores who used them to justify their conquests and to show the conquered people that a previous visitor from elsewhere had brought them nothing but good. The subtext is plain and it ought to come as no surprise that versions of the stories collected by more recent anthropologists and folklorists do not have the details that make Wiracocha appear to have European characteristics.


Print by Nicolas de Larmessin depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa

Print by Nicolas de Larmessin I (c 1638-1694) depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa (Source)

The case of Zimbabwe is well known. For many years, the British colonial government of Southern Rhodesia equivocated over the interpretation of archaeological evidence at the Great Enclosure, permitting a huge amount of damage to be done to the surviving archaeological deposits in the hunt for exotic artefacts that would prove its exogenous origins. Scraps of pottery from the Arab world were held up as evidence for outsiders and, when the colonial government made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, forming the state of Rhodesia, it became official government policy that the Great Enclosure was not built by the local Bantu-speaking peoples. Of course they were wrong and, on achieving independence and majority rule in 1980, the new state proudly named itself after its most famous archaeological monument. As a symbol of the Mwenemutapa (Monomotapa) kingdom, Great Zimbabwe provides an impressive witness to this powerful African trading state.

Occasionally, the racism has been even more overt. The work of the Ahnenerbe, the antiquarian wing of Heinrich Himmler’s SS, was designed to find evidence showing that the ancient Germans were responsible for just about every advance in human technology and society. Their particular brand of racism had little appeal outside Germany, unsurprisingly, and seems to have had little long-term effect on pseudoarchaeology. Only those on the far right will admit to a belief in such overtly racist attitudes.

Overt racism in von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods? (Prophet der Vergangenheit)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken's Signs of the Gods (1979)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods (1979)

It was thus with growing shock that I read Chapter 2 (“Man Outsmarts Nature”) of Erich von Däniken’s (1979) Signs of the Gods. I had given up reading his books after According to the Evidence: my proof of man’s extraterrestrial origins (Beweise), published in 1977. In that book, large parts of Chariots of the Gods? were rehashed and I had the impression that I was reading the early draft of that book, which is widely suspected of being rewritten by Wilhelm Roggersdorf (real name Wilhelm “Utz” Uttermann (1912-1991)). If these passages really had come from the first draft of Chariots?, I could understand why the commissioning editors at Econ-Verlag wanted it rewritten: they are appalling! The publication of this book in 1977 came after many of the bits of “evidence” used in Chariots of the Gods? had been thoroughly debunked, yet here was von Däniken recycling them after admitting in interviews that they were not what he claimed.

It was the cover of Signs of the Gods? that drew me to it in a second-hand bookshop, which is a view inside a Maltese temple. The book contains an entire chapter devoted to Malta (Chapter 3: “Malta—a Paradise of Unsolved Puzzles”) and, as I know something about Maltese prehistory and its amazing temple complexes, decided that I would find out how von Däniken had misrepresented them. That was the least of my problems with the book.

Instead, it was the discussion, beginning on page 58 of the English translation, of the “race” to which “our ancestors—let’s call them Adam and Eve” belonged. Straight away we are plunged into absurdities:

  • The evolutionists say that man descends from monkeys. Yet who has ever seen a white monkey? Or a dark ape with curly hair such as the black race has?”;
  • …I am not concerned with comparisons within the major races, but only with solving the problem of how the first major races originated”;
  • Were the extraterrestrials able to opt between different races from the beginning? Did they endow different human groups with different abilities to survive in different climatic and geographical conditions?
  • Today it is assumed that primitive men had dark skins.
  • Was the black race a failure and did the extraterrestrials change the genetic code by gene surgery and then programme a white or a yellow race?
  • Nearly all negroes are musical: they have rhythm in their blood.
  • I quite understand that I am playing with dynamite if I ask whether the extraterrestrials ‘allotted’ specific tasks to the basic races from the very beginning, i.e. programmed them with special abilities.
  • I am not a racialist… Yet my thirst for knowledge enables me to ignore the taboo on asking racial questions simply because it is untimely and dangerous… why are we like we are?
    Once this basic question is accepted, we cannot and should not avoid the explosive sequel: is there a chosen race?

This is noxious stuff, no matter how much von Däniken may plead “I am not a racialist”! He is clearly aware that he is transgressing the bounds of good taste and manners, but presses on under the pretence of courageously asking what others dare not. This is a typical ploy not just of racists but of any person who holds extreme views. We have all, unfortunately, encountered the sort of person who begins a statement with “I’m not racist, but…”. Erich von Däniken’s racism is quite obvious from his naïve (stupid and offensive) premise that “the black race” was a failed first attempt at creating humans.

Other authors in this genre are perhaps more canny. They realise that such obvious racism will offend and alienate a significant part of their readership, who, for the most part, consist of reasonably educated and generally non-racist readers. Instead, they will point to the peasant economies of the peoples whose monuments thy wish to promote as mysterious, moving on to the idea that because there are insufficient numbers of people and they have a low level of technological achievement, the ancestors of people living by these monuments today cannot possibly have been responsible for their construction.

Why racism?

In part, this is a reflection of the discredited view that human history follows a linear progression from technologically unsophisticated to sophisticated; only the destruction of a civilisation can lead to the loss of a highly-developed technology. This is not the view of mainstream archaeologists, who understand that complex societies can collapse for a variety of reasons. This sort of systems collapse will impact on many, if not most or all aspects of society. A highly organised state system that is able to manœuvre large numbers of people for construction projects can disappear almost overnight. Bad Archaeologists are unwilling to do the background research into the societies that produced the monuments they present as mysterious, so either they do not appreciate the evidence for ancient complex societies or they deliberately withhold this evidence from their readers. What is more pernicious, though, is that while they can accept that locals (Greeks, Romans and so on) were responsible for the ancient monuments of Europe, they are unwilling to countenance the same explanation for people on other continents, especially Africa and South America.

We saw in last week’s critique of Part II of Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods that he is very keen to make the representatives of his “Lost Civilisation” (Wiraqocha in this instance) white skinned. Hancock does not appear to be in the least bit racist, but his insistence on the “white” skins of his civilisers leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially when the evidence that these folk heroes and gods were white skinned is dubious. Erich von Däniken, by contrast, is in a wholly different league. The racism he expressed in 1979 is obvious, despite his denials, and is a great deal more offensive. However, I feel that the differences are of degree and of self-awareness: Hancock’s implicit racism comes across as naïve, whereas von Däniken’s knowing racism appears nasty.

What is particularly worrying is that the ideas of these authors (and others in the same genre) have been put to use by the political far right, for whom the supposed superiority of the “white race” is a given. Never mind that definitions of “race” are complex and highly contested. There is no consensus on whether “race” is a biological given or a social construct; most biologists, though, recognise that human genetic diversity does not cover those aspects that are traditionally associated with racial characteristics. Race has been characterised as an artefact. By contrast, Bad Archaeologists feed the view that “race” is determined by genetics, uncomplicated and obvious. They are as scientifically illiterate in human biology as they are in archaeology.