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 wrongly). 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.


Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods, Part II Foam of the Sea: Peru and Bolivia

From early modern maps, we are whisked away to South America. To most of Graham Hancock’s readers, this will be exotic stuff. At school, we learn about Sumeria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, but it is a rare teacher who will spend time on the lesser known civilisations of South America (which, to readers of literature like Fingerprints of the Gods, includes Mexico, which is actually in North America). True, most of his readers will be aware of the Maya (North American, incidentally) and the Inka, but Hancock is about to unleash all manner of unfamiliar names. Little wonder, then, that the material he discusses in Part II may seem impressive and good evidence for a “Lost Civilisation”.

Chapter 4: the Nazca lines

The Nazca Lines, seen from the air, are a jumbled mess (Source)

The Nazca Lines, seen from the air, are a jumbled mess (Source)

As with his discussion of early modern maps, Graham Hancock begins with something that is depressingly familiar to readers of “alternative history”, the lines and symbols that are scattered across the Plain of Nazca, in the Ica region of Perú. The Plain lies some 360 km south-south-east from Lima and is accessible only by road. The lines were rediscovered in 1926 (although Wikipedia says 1927) by Toribio Mejía Xesspe (1896-1983), a Peruvian archaeologist, while hiking in the hills on the edge of the Plain. He presented his discoveries at the International Congress of Americanists in Lima in 1939, but was unable to date or explain them. The contention of Bad Archaeologists that they can only be seen from the air, an assertion probably first made by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in Le Matin des Magiciens (page 247 “visibles seulement d’un avion ou d’un ballon”) is disproved by the very means of their discovery!

Graham Hancock begins the chapter with a beautifully written description of his wonder at flying over the lines: when he writes well, his prose is good. We are soon treated to something that is an ugly feature of his writing, though: his snide dismissal of expert opinion when it does not agree with him. “Experts have pronounced upon the antiquity of Nazca, basing their opinions on fragments of pottery found embedded in the lines and on radiocarbon results from various organic remains unearthed here. The dates conjectured range between 350 BC and AD 600”. Notice how they have “pronounced”, as if this is a statement of authority with no data to back it up, using mere “fragments of pottery” by which they have “conjectured” a date range at which the lines might have been made. If only he had taken note of that little word “conjectured” plastered across the Antarctic continent on Philippe Buache’s map, but I digress…

He generously dismisses the Ancient Astronaut explanation for the lines but soon returns to expert-bashing, complaining that archaeologists “lump both cultures together as ‘the Nazcans’ and depict them as primitive tribesmen who unaccountably developed sophisticated techniques of artistic self-expression, and then vanished from the Peruvian scene”. I do not know of a single archaeologist who would call any ancient people “primitive tribesmen”. We are witnessing another technique typical of the pseudoscientist: the setting up of a straw man rather than engaging with the real hypotheses of archaeologists. It is not the last time he will use it.

The spider geoglyph

The spider geoglyph (Source)

We are told that the astronomer Phyllis Pitluga has identified the geoglyph of a spider as a representation of the constellation we know as Orion and suggests that lines radiating from it “appear to have been set out to track through the ages the changing declinations of the three stars of Orion’s Belt”. Hancock attributes this to a personal communication. Elsewhere, Dr Pitluga is on record as saying that “she doesn’t agree with the notion that these are representations of constellations”. So which version do we believe? Moreover, in his Between the Lines: the Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru (University of Texas Press, 2006), Anthony Aveni has pointed out that she selected only three of fifteen lines emanating from the figure without disclosing the selection criteria: this looks a bit like cherry-picking the data.

Hancock also tells us that the spider has been identified as a member of the Order Ricinulei (although he calls it a genus) by the astronomer Gerald Stanley Hawkins (1928-2003), best known as author of Stonehenge Decoded rather than as an arachnologist. Describing it as “one of the rarest spider genera in the world”, supposedly only found in the Amazon rainforest, he then takes a swipe at orthodox opinion by asking “[h]ow did the supposedly primitive Nazcan artists travel so far from their homeland, crossing the formidable barrier of the Andes, to obtain a specimen?”. According to the British Arachnological Society, Ricinulei is rather more widespread than this, being found in humid parts of Africa, the southern United States, Central America and South America. While the Nazca Plain is not a humid place, the Nazca culture developed a system of irrigation using puquios, underground channels with ojos (eyes) as access points: these sound an ideal habitat for Ricinulei, which inhabit caves as well as leaf mould in rainforests. It would be instructive to find out if any have been found in puquios, many of which still hold flowing water.

More straight lines

More straight lines (Source)

So much for the spider. What about the lines? Hancock marvels at the ability of the Nazca culture to construct lines that run dead straight for more than eight kilometres, “marching like Roman roads across the desert, dropping into dried-out river beds, surmounting rocky outcrops, and never once deviating from true”. He thinks that this precision is hard (but not impossible) to explain and has given the game away in his simile of Roman roads: we know that long-distance alignments were built by Roman engineers using very basic technology that would not have been beyond the capabilities of the Nazca culture.

Graham Hancock closes the chapter much as he opened it, with an eloquent description of flying over the lines. This time, though, he has set the reader up with enough innuendoes about the origins and date of the geoglyphs to be able to treat us to a string of non sequiturs whose sole purpose is to make the lines more mysterious. He quotes Maria Reiche, the foremost expert on the lines as saying that they “give the impression of a cipher-script” and mentions “strange local traditions” that associate them with “the Viracochas”.

Chapter 5: recreating the past from legends


Euhemeros (Source)

We begin a chapter on the “mysteries” of Perú with a statement that underlies so much of the reasoning of “alternative historians” that it could almost form a creed: “[n]o artefacts or monuments, no cities or temples, have endured in recognizable form for longer than the most resilient religious traditions”. Hancock goes on to cite the Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the Hebrew Bible and the Hindu Vedas as “vehicles of knowledge voyaging through time”. This could almost be a manifesto for writers as diverse as Erich von Däniken, Immanuel Velikovsky or Desmond Leslie, who cite ancient myths and legends as evidence for real events in the past. This is technically called euhemerism, after the philosopher Euhemeros (Εὐήμερος), who lived in the late fourth century BCE and who believed that the Greek gods had been real flesh-and-blood people living in the remote past; the myths surrounding them could be interpreted to reveal the history of these very early times. Needless to say, this flies in the face of the modern understanding of the role of myth.

Graham Hancock intends to use the recorded mythology of the Inka (or Inca) state as a means of reconstructing the early history of Perú and interpreting its archaeological remains. We are introduced to the Viracochas, whom Hancock portrays as the founders of Peruvian civilisation. Wiraqocha (also known as Viracocha, Huiracocha, a more Spanish spelling, or Apu Qun Tiqsi Wiraqutra) is indeed the name of the creator god of the Inka, who is credited with creating the sun, moon and stars as well as humanity, by bringing stones to life. His first creatures were giants who somehow offended him, so he sent a flood to destroy them. For his second attempt, he breathed life into smaller stones, creating humans. Eventually, Viracocha walked away, across the Pacific, leaving his creations behind, although some believed that he would return in times of national crisis, much like King Arthur in Britain. In a different version of the legend, the world has passed through five ages: the first age was one where the gods ruled and there was no death; the second was the age when the giants were created; the third age saw the creation humans; the fourth was a warrior age, the time of the civilisations preceding the Inka Empire; the fifth was the Inka Empire, brought to an end by the campaigns of Francisco Pizzaro (1471-1541).

A representation believed to be Wiraqocha from Tiwanaku (Source)

A representation believed to be Wiraqocha from Tiwanaku (Source)

According to Hancock, Wiraqocha means “foam of the sea” and he compares this with the etymology provided by Macrobius for Aphrodite. He does not quote Macrobius directly (the discussion of Aphrodite is in Book III of the Saturnalia), getting the reference second hand from Giorgio de Santillana (1902-1974) and Hertha von Dechend’s (1915-2001) Hamlet’s Mill (Gambit, 1969), a work a pseudoscience claiming to trace all myths back to an original “lost knowledge” that included an understanding of the precession of the equinoxes. Again, we see his reliance on secondary sources rather than doing what any careful scholar would do, which is to return to the original to see if it really says what the secondary source claims it does. Anyway, why rely on Macrobius, a Roman writer of the fifth century CE, when Hesiod’s Theogony (Θεογονία) lines 195-6, written c 700 BCE, provides the earliest authority for Ἀφροδίτην ἀφρογενέα (“foam-born Aphrodite”)? If this is indicative of the depth of research undertaken by Hancock and his team, it should serve as a warning not to trust any of his statements without first checking. It is even unclear why he includes this information, for, as he says, “[n]o doubt it is just a coincidence that the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was born of the sea, received her name because of ‘the foam [aphros] out of which she was formed’”.

Which brings us on to the etymology of Wiraqocha. Despite Hancock’s certainty that it means “foam of the sea”, for which his authority is The Facts on File Encyclopaedia of World Mythology and Legend (Blandford, 1992), there are other explanations for the name. The Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, a more academic source than the Facts on File series, suggests that the name means ‘the lake of creation’. Indeed, in Quechua, wira does not mean “foam” but “fat”, “grease” or “wax”: “foam” is phosoqo. Qocha (or qucha) means “lake” or “pond”. This may appear to be petty nit-picking, but it serves to illustrate Graham Hancock’s methods: present data without indicating that there are interpretations other than those he chooses to vouchsafe to the reader. It also shows how he will use one source as an authority without indicating its limitations or its tendentious nature (although, in this instance, it is the use of a popularising rather than an academic text).

An eighteenth-century depiction of Wiraqocha as a European (Source)

An eighteenth-century depiction of Wiraqocha as a European (Source)

Like many “alternative historians”, Graham Hancock is impressed with the Conquistadores description of Wiraqocha, noting how they described his appearance as similar to depictions of Saint Bartholomew or Saint Thomas. He takes this to mean that Wiraqocha was seen as a bearded “Caucasian”. Some early Spanish chroniclers, including Pedro Cieza de León (c 1520-1554), Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532-1592) and Juan Diaz de Betanzos (1510-1576), attribute the initial lack of hostility shown to the Conquistadors by the Peruvians to the alleged resemblance of the Spanish to Wiraqocha. However, this is now thought to be Spanish propaganda, as none of the legends mentions his allegedly pale skin and there are South American peoples who do cultivate beards, including the Aché of Paraguay. It is worth noting that the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was also depicted with a beard, but according to the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, Quetzalcoatl’s beard was actually part of a mask and was made from feathers. This all suggests that it is unwarranted to assume that an historical Wiraqocha was of European origin, as Hancock insinuates.

Chapter 6: Wiraqocha the civiliser

Discussion of Wiraqocha continues into the next chapter, where his role as the bringer of civilisation—arts, technology, farming and so on—is stressed. In this sense, he performed for the Inka the role that was given by the Egyptians to the god Osiris. These are widespread myth types and are perhaps part of an attempt by ancient peoples to explain the origins of their cultures and to show why their cultures differed from those of their neighbours. The euhemerisation of the character is unnecessary, as a character of this sort is clearly a widespread mythological motif.

Typical Inka masonry in Cuzco

Typical Inka masonry in Cuzco (Source)

At last, though, we are treated to some archaeological observations. First comes Graham Hancock’s impression that “by no means all the so-called Inca masonry could be attributed with any degree of archaeological certainty to the Incas”. But it is no more than that: an impression. He gives no references to back up the statement. Here we see yet another of his techniques that is so far from the scholarship to which he aims: innuendo. This is nothing more than a rhetorical trick, allowing him to counter critics who might bring forward proof that the masonry is indeed to be attributed to the period of the Inka Empire with a simple “But I never said it wasn’t Inka”.

The fortress of Saksaywaman

The fortress of Saksaywaman, high above Cuzco (Source)

The first Inka site that Hancock mentions by name outside Cuzco is Saksaywaman (often spelled, as Hancock does, in a Spanish form as Sacsayhuaman). Accounts of the conquest of Perú show that it functioned as a citadel protecting the city of Cuzco and that its function during the attempted insurrection of Manco Inka was to act as a fortress. There are descriptions of the complex before it was demolished that show that it held store-rooms in a labyrinthine arrangement, had towers and rooms with large windows overlooking the city. The walls are made from andesite blocks that have been cut into irregular but loosely fitting shapes, a typical Inca technique. This, and the fact that they slope in towards the top have ensured that they are highly resistant to earthquake: the destruction of the site has been deliberate and is not the effect of time. The stone blocks were initially shaped by pounding with river pebbles and dragged to the site by rope (and, to forestall accusations that this is all hypothesis, there is a description of a storeroom for building materials by Diego de Trujillo (1505-1575) that mentions these) and finally dressed on site. Sakaywaman is not a mysterious site by any means.

This does not deter Graham Hancock. He uses the rhetorical question with the aplomb of von Däniken: “How had the Incas, or their predecessors, been able to work stone on such a gargantuan scale? How had they cut and shaped these Cyclopean boulders so precisely? How had they transported them tens of miles from distant quarries? By what means had they made walls of them, shuffling the individual blocks around and raising them high above the ground with such apparent ease?”. Throw in a non sequitur (“These people weren’t even supposed to have had the wheel, let alone machinery capable of lifting and manipulating dozens of irregularly shaped 100-ton blocks”) and the innuendo is complete. Hancock is not going to tell you that the answers are already known.

Typical Inka masonry at Saksaywaman (Source)

Typical Inka masonry at Saksaywaman (Source)

The date of the fortress is also dismissed with a curt “[r]adiocarbon was redundant in such circumstances; thermo-luminescence, too, was useless”. This is irrelevant. Hancock seems not to know or not to care that there are other ways of dating masonry. The walls have foundation trenches, which will cut through earlier deposits, will be backfilled with material that (if one is lucky) contains objects contemporary with the construction and the walls will be butted by deposits that formed after the foundation trenches were backfilled. This is very basic stuff. If Hancock does not know it, then he has no right in producing a book criticising the data obtained by archaeology. If he does, then he is deliberately leading the reader astray. I suspect that I know which is the more likely scenario.

There are historically derived dates for the Inca Empire, which have now been tested against radiocarbon chronologies by Anna Adamska as part of her Master’s thesis for the University of Warsaw. The radiocarbon determinations match the historical dates well and suggest that the pre-Imperial phase of Inka culture lasted some 120 to 150 years from c 1275-1425 CE. What Hancock is not going to tell you is that Saksaywaman overlies an earlier structure, whose pottery places it in the Killke culture and which has produced a radiocarbon date (!) of c 1100 CE. Sakaywaman must therefore be later. Garcilaso de la Vega and Juan de Betanzos both attribute its construction to Inka Yupanki, who flourished around 1450 CE. Although Hancock approvingly quotes Garcilaso de la Vega when he describes how a later Inka had attempted and failed  to move blocks on the scale of those used at Saksaywaman, he notably fails to quote him as an authority for the date of the site. This is selective use of historical sources! Never mind, Hancock is going to stick with his manifesto from the start of Chapter 5: cultural myths are “vehicles of knowledge voyaging through time” that apparently trump historical sources and archaeological data.

Chapter 7: Mr Hancock takes the train

One of the best known views on Earth: Machu Pichu in June 2009 (Source)

One of the best known views on Earth: Machu Pikchu in June 2009 (Source)

One has the impression that Hancock is rather fond of Wiraqocha. At least, he keeps mentioning him; now we are told about the flood story associated with him and his appearance in the country of Tiwanaku. But this is not where the train is going (the book has an underlying travelogue theme), so Hancock makes “a mental note to find out more about Lake Titicaca, and the mysterious Tiahuanaco”. Instead, he is off to Machu Pikchu, with long enough to muse about the myths “voyaging through time” on an unspecified type of vehicle.

On arrival at the site, Hancock is impressed by the terraces on Wana Pikchu, the sugarloaf peak that overlooks Machu Pikchu and speculates that perhaps “somebody had been up there and had carefully raked the near-vertical cliffs into a graceful hanging garden which had perhaps in ancient times been planted with bright flowers”. Never mind that these terraces are typical Peruvian cultivation terraces—we don’t want to ruin things for the reader by doing anything so mundane as research into the economy of these people, do we?—and that the site is hardly a representative of “ancient times” when it dates from the reigns of Pachakutiq Inka Yupanki (1438-71) and Tupaq Inka Yupanki (1472-93). By that sort of reckoning, the Tower of London would be practically prehistoric.

Hancock does mention the consensus date of construction, only to dismiss it. Instead, he prefers to use archaeoastronomy and the wildly speculative ideas of the astronomer Rolf Müller (1898-1981), who detected alignments in the site that he claimed dated it to 4000-2000 BCE. At last, Hancock is getting near to the sort of antiquity he wants for the type of masonry found on Inka sites. There is a wonderful dismissal of academic historical methodology and praise for archaeoastronomical ideas in a footnote: “Another scholar, Maria Schulten de D’Ebneth, also worked with mathematical methods (as opposed to historical methods which are heavily speculative and interpretive)”. Hancock appears never to have heard of Garbage In, Garbage Out (GiGo)!

And that’s it for this chapter. No attempt to engage with the archaeology of Machu Pikchu at all; the best he can do is mention the Intiwatana (Intihuatana in its Spanish spelling), the complex carved piece of bedrock probably given its name by Hiram Bingham, discoverer of the site, referring to it as “unusual” as if it were the only one of its kind. Never mind the known cultural context, just bamboozle the reader with unfamiliar terms.

Chapter 8: In which Mr and Mrs Hancock take an aeroplane ride to Bolívia

Lake Titicaca seen from space

Lake Titicaca seen from space; Tiwanaku lies to its south, at thebottom of the picture (Source)

Remembering the mental note he made on the train journey to Machu Pikchu, Graham Hancock now decides to investigate Tiwanaku and Lake Titicaca. The Lake is an unusual place, a lake suspended some 3.8 km above sea level on the Altiplano of the high Andes. Despite Hancock implying that it is saline (he refers to its fauna as “marine”) and was formed by the uplift of the Andes some 100 million years ago trapping a quantity of ocean water, it is a freshwater lake and occupies the bottom of a pull-apart basin that formed during the late Oligocene and Miocene (i.e. around 28.1 to 7.25 million years ago).

What we are reading is a presentation of five bullet points (“mysteries”, Hancock calls them) that contain data designed to make us think that Lake Titicaca has an unknown history. The fossilised sea shells found on the Altiplano are not evidence that this area had a marine ecology during the human past, while the alleged “marine icthyofauna” (here Hancock is quoting Arthur Posnansky (1873-1946), an amateur archaeologist who dated Tiwanaku to c 15,000 BCE: ask yourself why he is not quoting an expert in the ecology of Lake Titicaca) do not appear in available information about the fauna of the lake. These two bullet points are pure innuendo designed to create an impression: their “facts” are either irrelevant to the archaeology of Tiwanaku or are just plain wrong.

Bullet point 3, which Hancock considers mysterious, concerns the evidence for different levels of the lake in the past. There is no mystery: geologists have named and dated these five precursors to Lake Titicaca. Lake Mataro, at an elevation of 3,950 m, appears to be the earliest and perhaps dates from the Late Pliocene (3.6-2.6 million years ago); Lake Cabana, at an elevation of 3,900 m, appears to be Middle Pleistocene in date (1.8 to 0.8 million years ago); Lake Ballivián, at an elevation of 3,860 m, dating from 120,000 to 98,000 BP; Lake Minchin, at an elevation of 3,825 m, dates from 72,000 to 68,000 BP; Lake Tauca, at an elevation 3,815 m, from 18,100 to 14,100 BP. Hancock completely misrepresents these shorelines as evidence that the Andes are still rising and mistakes shorelines from two separate lakes as evidence that the uplift is greater in the north than in the south. For this, he does not quote geologists, but refers instead to Hans Schindler Bellamy’s (1901-1982) Built before the Flood: the Problem of the Tiahuanaco Ruins (Faber & Faber, 1943); Bellamy was a follower of the lunatic ideas of Hanns Hörbiger (1860-1931), for whom the entire universe was made from ice. One suspects that Graham Hancock is not really expecting his readers to follow up on the utterly ridiculous “authorities” for his fatuous assertions.

For point 4, Hancock returns to Arthur Posnansky, whom he cites as providing “irrefutable evidence that the city of Tiahuanaco was once a port, complete with extensive docks, positioned right on the shore of Lake Titicaca”. This is just plain wrong. Tiwanaku did have a port, at Iwawi (or Iwawe), on the current shoreline of Lake Titicaca some 18 km to the west-north-west of the city, with which it was connected by road. This was known in the 1960s, so there is no excuse for Hancock (or his researchers) not to have discovered the fact. Unless, of course, he doesn’t want his readers to know about it, as it would spoil his idea that Tiwanaku was itself a port. Better still, it has been shown that Iwawi was the port by which stones were brought to Tiwanaku for the construction of its monuments. Point 5 merely uses Immanuel Velikovsky’s (1895-1979) completely discredited idea that a relatively recent, catastrophic uplift pushed Tiwanaku above the level of the lake. What Hancock omits from his quote from Earth in Upheaval (Doubleday, 1955) is the contention that the site was pushed the full 3.8 km above sea level after its construction!

Chapter 9: connecting Titicaca with Egypt

A figurine thought to be of Tunupa

A figurine thought to be of Tunupa (Source)

We return to some further musings on Wiraqocha, where he is identified with a minor figure known as Tunupa (or Thunupa), the name of a dormant volcano some 379 km to the south-south-east of Tiwanaku. There seems to be some confusion over Tunupa, as there is a Bolivian myth that makes the volcano female; unless Tunupa had serious hormonal problems, it is difficult to see how she might have possessed a beard. At Ollayantambo, there is a “representation” of Wiraqocha or Tunupa in a rock face, where hollows in the rock form the eyes and mouth (it is unclear if they are natural or artificial) and the nose is formed by a partly carved protruding section; ruins above the face may be the remains of a crown. Locals believe the image to be bearded and represent it as such in drawings of the formation.

According to Paul Richard Steele and Catherine J Allen’s Handbook of Inca Mythology (ABE-CLIO, 2004), Tunupa was the principal god of Aymará speakers (who include the people of the Tiwanaku region) who is today thought to be responsible for lightning and is identified with Santiago; on the other hand, the early seventeenth-century writer Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamayhua attributed the creative acts of Wiraqocha to him, although he later turned people who had offended him to stone, including the citizens of Tiwanaku. Pachacuti identified him with Saint Thomas. The Augustinian Friar Alonso Ramos Gavilán, a contemporary of Pachacuti, identified Tunupa with one of the disciples, although the influence of his religious beliefs may well have influenced this identification. It is only Pedro Cieza de León (1518-1554) who describes Tunupa as white, an essential part of Hancock’s exposition of the character (and one that appears to be quite a sensitive issue to him); as one of the writers of the conquest period, it is possible that he was influenced by the Spanish propaganda that made Wiraqocha a white man.

Graham Hancock draws a parallel between Tunupa and the Egyptian Osiris, quoting Gavilán’s version of the story, in which he is murdered and placed aboard a raft on Lake Titicaca. Blown by the wind, it was swept into the Rio Desaguadero and, eventually, underground. We are once again given two rhetorical questions, designed to make us suspect that the stories have a common origin: “Are such parallels to be dismissed as coincidences? or could there be some underlying connection?”.

A boat made from Totora reeds

A boat made from totora reeds, Lake Titicaca (Source)

This digression into Egyptian mythology has an underlying purpose. This is to introduce the famous totora reed boats of Lake Titicaca that so impressed Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) as being similar to Egyptian papyrus boats that he sailed the Atlantic in a futile attempt to show that Maya culture derived directly from Egypt. His references are all to a single work… yes, Heyerdahl’s The Ra Expeditions (Allen & Unwin, 1970). This is neither good research nor real scholarship. If Hancock wants his ideas taken seriously by academia—and I’m not convinced that he does—then he needs to use the methods of rigorous scholarship that are the norms in academia. Instead, his methods give the impression that he wants to win over (uninformed/poorly-informed) public opinion.

Chapter 10: Tiwanaku explored

A view of Tiwanaku from the top of the Akapana

A view across the Kalasasaya at Tiwanaku from the top of the Akapana (Source)

To read only Graham Hancock’s account of Tiwanaku, one would think that almost no archaeological research has been carried out at the site, that its conventional dating has been arrived at by little more than guesswork and that there are no solid data by which to uncover the history of the site other than the ramblings of Arthur Posnansky. But we are not going to rely on a single source. Instead, we will find out if there is more to Tiwanaku than is presented in Fingerprints of the Gods.

The Templete

The Templete (Source)

Graham Hancock begins with a good description of what he calls the “sunken temple” (in Spanish and in the academic literature, it is usually referred to as the Templete Semisubterráneo) but fails to recognise that it is a typical feature of earlier highland cultures. Similar and earlier examples are found in the cities of Chavín, Qalayu and Pukará and became a standard element of the cities from Tiwanaku’s expansionist period. As ever, he will not tell his readers that there is a cultural context for phenomena he wants to present as unique and mysterious. The centre of the Templete, the floor of which sits two metres below ground level, was occupied by a group of stelae (now mostly missing, apart from the Pachamama, otherwise known as the Bennett Monolith, a 20 tonne stone standing 7.3 m high), which Pedro Cieza de León thought to have been idols. Hancock does not describe the Pachamama, as it stood in La Paz from 1933 to 2002, a symptom of the looting that Tiwanaku suffered in the centuries after its abandonment. Instead, he describes the sandstone Monolito Barbado or Bearded Monolith, thought to represent Wiraqocha Kon-Tiki, “Lord of the Waters”; although it “dominated it [i.e. the Templete], like the conductor of an orchestra”, Hancock seems unaware that the Pachamama would have dwarfed it. Hancock’s idea that the two other surviving stelae were “possibly intended to represent Viracocha’s legendary companions” fails to take into account the fact that there were originally numerous others, long since taken away.

Heads embedded int he wall of the Templete

Heads embedded in the wall of the Templete (Source)

The walls of the Templete are formed from 57 monolithic pillars of red sandstone, with smaller sandstone blocks filling in between them; some 175 limestone heads, all different, are arranged around the walls. Hancock considers these heads the “most striking feature” of the Templete and says that “[t]here were several different (and contradictory) scholarly opinions as to their function”, although he does not reveal what these “scholarly opinions” might be. One plausible suggestion is that the heads represent different ethnic or tribal groups subsumed into the Tiwanaku Empire. These sunken courts were an important element in civic ritual in the culture of Tiwanaku and, here in the heart of the Empire, the portrayal of idealised ethnic types may have been an attempt to draw all together in a symbolic representation of that Empire.

Hancock then turns his attention to the Akapana, a pyramid of South American type, consisting of seven stepped terraces on a base with a complex ground plan, measuring 257 by 197 m and rising to a height of 18 metres. Each walled step shows a different construction technique, the lowest having rusticated stonework and the upper six with ashlar masonry; each wall is a skin containing compacted soil. There is a staircase on the western side, leading to the top of the pyramid; on the uppermost terrace is a cross-shaped sunken courtyard. Originally, the staircase was lined with reliefs depicting the Chachapuma (Man/Puma), which have been removed and can now be seen in the Museo regional de Arqueología de Tiwanaku. The sides of the pyramid are aligned on the cardinal points and it has been suggested that the pyramid was dedicated to solar worship. Hancock is impressed by the alignment on the cardinal points and is reminded of the “pyramids at Giza in Egypt”, although this is about the only feature they share.

A restored section of the Akapana

A restored section of the Akapana (Source)

Climbing to the top, Graham Hancock “realized that the true function of the pyramid was probably never going to be understood”, showing a tremendous pessimism that is not shared by most archaeologists. While we can never recover all the subtleties of a prehistoric culture, with its complex belief systems, legal codes, social relations and so on that are lost to history, we can nevertheless formulate hypotheses about the past and test them against the data. After all, isn’t this what Hancock is claiming to do? A great deal more is known about the Akapana since excavation began under Carlos Ponce Sanginés (1925-2005) than Hancock tells us. Paul Goldstein, for instance, has argued that the Akapana pyramid is the most important feature of the city, with its image recurring in reliefs across the site, as first noted by Posnansky. E Fred Legner has suggested that the Tiwanaku culture had a three-tiered cosmology, with the Templete representing the underworld of fertility gods and the ancestors (Ucu Pacha), while the Akapana and Puma Punku represent the Hanan Pacha (upper world) where the celestial gods reside; humans occupy the central world (Cay Pacha).

Hancock is amazed by the drains of the Akapana. They consist of sandstone channels held together with I-shaped copper clamps, which he compares with cramps used in Egypt, contending that they are “not known to have been employed anywhere else in South America”. Whether they were or not is a question I will leave to those better informed about the archaeology of the continent, although they were certainly used at Ollantaytambo (Perú), some 531 km north-west of Tiwanaku. Metal clamps (although possibly of gold) also seem to have been used in Inka architecture. However, the mention of Egypt is utterly gratuitous and tendentious: Hancock has been at pains to point out supposed resemblances between South American and Egyptian culture (Wiraqocha/Osiris, totora reed boats on Titicaca/papyrus boats on the Nile and the alignment of the Akapana/the alignment of the Giza pyramids) that have no basis in what we know of the archaeology of the two places. His impression that the Akapana is somehow “some kind of arcane ‘device’ or machine” is no more than that: it is an elaborately constructed pyramid, typical of the region, with drains presumably to remove liquids. We are experiencing another of those innuendoes that pepper the book. Without actually claiming anything positive, Hancock is insinuating in our minds that the Akapana is somehow connected with a high technology.

The monumental eastern entrance to the Kalasasaya

The monumental eastern entrance to the Kalasasaya (Source)

Next, he moves on to the Kalasasaya and, in particular, the Puerta del Sol (“Gate of the Sun”). The name Kalasasaya seems to mean “standing stone(s)” (kala means “rock” or “stone”, while saya or sayasta means “standing”) and consists of a platform around 130 by 120 m and around 2 m high. Like the Akapana, it is aligned on the cardinal points, with its long axis pointing west to east; it is entered by steps on the eastern side. Along the northern and southern walls are seven small semi-subterranean rooms. The Puerta del Sol, which was ruinous at the start of the twentieth century, has been reconstructed but is not in its original location; it was clearly once part of a larger structure. He cites Hans Schindler Bellamy and Peter Allan’s The Calendar of Tiahuanaco: the Measuring System of the Oldest Civilization (Faber & Faber, 1956) as an authority for the calendrical nature of the Puerta and suddenly, the chapter ends.

Chapter 11: fish, elephants and Toxodon

The start of this chapter is taken up with a good description of the astronomical phenomenon of the obliquity of the ecliptic. He needs to do this to set the reader up for Arthur Posnansky’s date of 15,000 BCE for the Kalasasaya, which he derived from astronomical alignments. Posnansky’s alignments did not match those of today, so he sought out a date at which they would make sense. Currently, it is around 23.4°, while Posnansky’s calculations require an obliquity of 23.15°. Checking the tables available to him, he discovered that the last time the axial tilt corresponded to this angle was around 15,000 BCE.

Hancock repeats his dismissal of orthodox archaeological opinion, stating that “not a single orthodox historian or archaeologist was prepared to accept such an early origin for Tiahuanaco preferring, as noted in Chapter Eight, to agree on the safe estimate of AD 500”. As I have already noted, this is not a “safe estimate” but a rigorously determined date based on radiocarbon determinations of the stratigraphy of the site. Posnansky’s calculations, on the other hand, depend on establishing alignments between elements of a structure that was ruinous even before he started to survey it. The “high-powered team” of scientists that Posnansky co-opted to check his calculations (Hans Ludendorff (1873-1941), director of the Astronomical Observatory of Potsdam), Friedrich Becker (1900-1981) of the Vatican Observatory, Arnold Kohlschutter (1883-1969) of the University of Bonn and Rolf Müller, whom we have already met) may indeed have verified them, but Hancock remains painfully unaware of the Garbage in, Garbage out maxim.

El Fraile

El Fraile (Source)

We then get descriptions of two of the carved monoliths inside the Kalasasaya. The first, known as El Fraile (“The Friar”), was discovered in 1932 and erected in the south-west corner of the enclosure. It stands some 3 m high, slightly taller than Hancock’s estimate. According to Hancock, his lower garment is made from fish scales, represented by stylised fish heads. I confess that I cannot see these. Instead, there appear to be two alternating symbols, one consisting of a sub-square outline with nothing in the centre, the other, an inverted Y with a cross-bar at the top. The second, I suppose, could be a fish face, but this requires some imagination to see. Similarly, the supposed crustaceans on the belt look to me to be stylised human heads. Perhaps someone with a greater understanding of Tiwanaku art can help me out here…

Nevertheless, Hancock needs these fishy details, which had been “persuasively interpreted by Posnansky as meaning fish in general”, to make the connection with the Mesopotamian Adapa (better known as the Greek Oannes (Ὡάννης), also found as Հովհաննես (Hovhannes) in Armenian). Representations of Adapa in the guise of the Babylonian Uanna or Uan (from which the Greek and Armenian forms derive) show him as a man wearing a fish; this is supported by the story of the Seven Sages (Apkallu), of whom Adapa was the first, as being semi-aquatic demigods who were sent from Dilmun by Enki to teach human beings how to live. We are clearly supposed to remember Wiraqocha in this connection.

The Ponce monolith

The Ponce monolith (Source)

Next, we are given a brief description of the other monolithic statue, this time that known as the Ponce Monolith, after its discoverer, Carlos Ponce Sanginés, who found it in 1957. It is thus not in its original position, like so much else in the mostly reconstructed Kalasasaya. It, too, stands 3 m tall but was carved from andesite. On the basis of excavations in recent years at Pumu Punku, a kilometre to the south-west of the main complex at Tiwanaku, it has been suggested that stonework in andesite pre-dates stonework in sandstone; it is unclear is this distinction can be extended to statuary. The entire statue is covered in symbols and again, although Hancock claims that its lower garment is made from fish scales, they appear to be the same as those on El Fraile.

The Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol (Source)

Finally, we get to the Puerta del Sol, a monolithic doorway around 3 m high and 4 m wide, around 10 tonnes in weight. Hancock seems to be unaware that it is not in its original position, as was Posnansky. He also wants to think of it “as a sort of Arc de Triomphe, though on a much smaller scale”, although it was clearly one part of a larger structure, as shown by the mortise holes on its front and side elevations. It has been speculated that it originally formed part of Puma Punku. It is the frieze that holds Hancock’s attention, with its central character, a representation of Wiraqocha in the form of a god of thunder (he holds a thunderbolt in each hand), weeping for humanity. Either side of Wiraqocha are three rows of eight characters, making 48 in all, consisting of 32 effigies human faces on the top and bottom rows and 16 with a condor’s head on the middle row; all face Wiraqocha.

Why anyone should think this calendrical is beyond me. For a calendar, one needs different symbols for each period being measured. There are only two symbols here, unless one creates a calendar that has periods named “third condor-headed figure on the left of Wiraqocha”, “fourth person, top row, to the right of Wiraqocha”. A more unlikely representation of a calendar is difficult to imagine. Once again, as with the insinuation of a technological purpose for the Akapana, we have talk of “something coldly mathematical, almost machinelike” about the Puerta del Sol. Perhaps it is to someone unfamiliar with the canons of Tiwanaku art…

A supposed elephant carving on the Puerta del Sol

The risible “elephant” on the Puerta del Sol (Source)

On which subject, we have one of Hancock’s favourite rhetorical tricks. Turning to the bottom register of the frieze on the Puerta, he describes how he can discern “a clear carving of an elephant’s head, ears, tusks and trunk”, even though elephants have been extinct in South America for around 12,000 years. On closer inspection, they turned out to be “composed of the heads of two crested condors, placed throat to throat (the crests constituting the ‘ears’ and the upper part of the necks the ‘tusks’)”. This, of course, is how they are seen by conventional archaeologists. However, because Hancock wants them to be elephants (remember that, in his opinion, Tiwanaku dates from a time five thousand years before their extinction), he says that they are indeed meant to depict elephants because “a characteristic visual trick the sculptors of Tiahuanaco had employed again and again in their subtle and otherworldly art had been to use one thing to depict another”. Nevertheless, they resemble elephants only as child-like cartoonish figures: without having the thought “elephant” planted in the mind first, one simply wouldn’t see them. This is probably an indication that they aren’t there at all.

Better than the elusive condor/elephants, Hancock claims that another creature depicted in this bottom register “had been convincingly identified by several observers as Toxodon”, an extinct creature that he says was semi-aquatic. Although this was formerly believed to be the case, current opinion is that its skeletal structure and distribution in arid areas preclude it. Of course, the “several observers” are characters we have met before—Arthur Posnansky, Hans Schindler Bellamy and Peter Allan—whose qualifications to identify extinct species in pre-Columbian South American art are not well established. The relief and the figurine he shows that are claimed to be Toxodon bear little relationship to the reconstruction drawing he also reproduces of the beast.

Identifying two other extinct species—Shelidoterium and Macrauchenia—he concludes that Tiwanaku “was a kind of picture-book from the past, a record of bizarre animals, now deader than the dodo, expressed in everlasting stone”. Those clever Tiwanakis were evidently able to predict which creatures out of all those that inhabit the Altiplano were destined to become extinct after they had abandoned their unfinished site.

Chapter 12: Puma Punka and Aymará

Jumbled masonry at Puma Punku

Chaotically jumbled masonry at Puma Punku (Source)

We are coming to the end of Mr and Mrs Hancock’s South American Odyssey. It feels as if it has been a long (and slightly repetitive) journey, but we’re not quite done. We can’t ignore Puma Punku (“Puma Gate”), another platform that lies around a kilometre to the south-west of the main complex at Tiwanaku. He quotes Posnansky’s ridiculous interpretation of the site as “two artificially dredged docks on either side of: ‘a true and magnificent pier or wharf … where hundreds of ships could at the same time take on and unload their heavy burdens’”. We have already seen that the port of Tiwanaku lay 18 km to the west-north-west, at Iwawi, and that the level of the lake was not this high at any time when Tiwanaku was occupied. Puma Punku is instead a terraced mound resembling a low pyramid with only three steps. A radiocarbon date from the soil fill of the lowest terrace of the structure is 1500 ± 25 bp, which calibrates to 569 ± 21 CE (527-611 CE at 2σ, meaning that there is a 98% chance that the sample falls in that date range), gives us a terminus post quem. This is an important archaeological principle by which a deposit cannot be older than the date of the youngest object in it: in other words, there is a 98% probability that Puma Punku dates from after 527 CE. Other evidence—such as the radiocarbon chronology of Iwawi—shows that the level of Lake Titicaca at this time was much the same as it is today. So Puma Punku is not a port structure.

A reconstruction of Puma Punku

A reconstruction of Puma Punku, based on excavations by the University of Wisconsin in 2002 (Source)

The structure lies in ruins that Posnansky thought had been caused by cataclysmic flooding from Lake Titicaca. This is to ignore the effects of humans, particularly after the Spanish conquest of the Inka Empire, when we know that the site was raided for building stone. We do not know why the site was abandoned, but it was left in an apparently unfinished state. Its massive building blocks, weighing up to 131 tonnes, came from a quarry close to the shore of Lake Titicaca, 10 km away, yet more evidence that the water level was close to that of today.

Hancock then summarises the sophistication of Tiwanaku’s agricultural regime. This is a reasonable, if limited summary of what was known in the early 1990s, although, of course, ongoing research has added more detail. Nevertheless, there are implications that its sophistication is somehow inexplicable, not the result of millennia of experimentation; instead, Hancock suggests that “somebody as yet unidentified by scholarship” brought about an agrarian revolution. This shows an adherence to the Wiraqocha-as-civilisation-bringer type hypothesis for innovation (if we can call it that) rather than the sort of explanation generally preferred by prehistorians: human beings are endlessly inventive and will constantly seek out solutions for the challenges they face.

Next we get an utterly bizarre assertion based on an idea of Ivan Guzman de Rojas (born 1934), a Bolivian research scientist: “that Aymara might be not only very ancient but, significantly, that it might be a ‘made-up’ language”. By contrast, the linguist Martha James Hardman de Bautista has seen affinities with the Jaqaru and Kawki languages, proposing that they should be classified in a new language family that she calls Jaqi (although others have proposed the terms Aru or Aymarán). There really is no mystery here: it is a human language like any other.


This has been a long post, because there is a lot to summarise. The next one in the series will also be long, so don’t expect it any time soon!

However, it has been worthwhile in introducing us to some of Hancock’s techniques. While his descriptive prose is good, it is marred by his obvious dislike of academics, particularly archaeologists. He can be snide in his dismissals of our work, especially when it does not agree with his conclusions. He is prone to the logical fallacy of the straw man, putting into the mouths of archaeologists ridiculous ideas that they have never held so that he can demolish them with ease. Instead, he enjoys citing as authorities people who are writing outside their areas of expertise and will quote secondary sources without checking that the original source said what the later source claims it did. There is a tendency to present only one interpretation of the data as irrefutable while dismissing out of hand the opinions of experts without showing why he considers them wrong; he also has a tendency to rely on only one source of information on a particular subject. He is all too willing to give the impression that a site is mysterious when it has been the subject of intensive research over many years and will claim that answers that have already been found do not exist. His use of quotations is also interesting, in that he will cite sentences from a source that backs up his claims, stopping short where they begin to suggest a different interpretation.

Too often, the writing is impressionistic, giving no data or references to back up his assertions, or he proceeds through a string of non-sequiturs. In this way, he is a master of innuendo, which in his hands becomes a rhetorical trick, allowing him to counter potential critics with a simple “But I never said that” (as he has indeed done since the publication of Fingerprints of the Gods).

His attitude to myths and legends is one that is common to many Bad Archaeologists and it is worth quoting him again on this: “[n]o artefacts or monuments, no cities or temples, have endured in recognizable form for longer than the most resilient religious traditions”. In other words, we can raid religious traditions to provide evidence for real events in the past, a technique known as euhemerism.  He prefers to use archaeoastronomy as a tool for dating sites in the mistaken belief that its mathematical basis makes it somehow more rigorous than archaeology, being apparently unaware of Garbage In, Garbage Out.

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?