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

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

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

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


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

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

An example of Paracas Necropolis Culture embroidery

An example of Paracas Necropolis Culture embroidery (Source)

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

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

The beginning of the controversy

A foetal mummy, illustrated by Rivero and Tschudi

A foetal mummy, illustrated by Rivero and Tschudi

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

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

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

Enter Lloyd Pye

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

Where did he choose to send the samples? To some prestigious university department, well known for its work on ancient DNA? No. Instead, he chose to send them to Lloyd Pye (1946-2013), a crank who believed in ancient astronauts, the extraterrestrial origins of humanity and, worst of all, touted the “Starchild Skull” as an alien/human hybrid. Why? This suggests that, far from being a dispassionate researcher, Brien Foerster has a preconceived agenda and it’s one that involves aliens. Although his original page lists his affiliation as “University of Victoria, Biological Sciences, Department Member”, his association with the university is as a graduate, not a member of faculty. [Update 11 April 2015: he has a new page that more honestly describes him as an undergraduate.]

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

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

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

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

It gets worse

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

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

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

A Paracas Necropolis Culture skull with hair

A Paracas Necropolis Culture skull with hair (Source)

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

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

The hominin evolutionary tree, as understood in 2014

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

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

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

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

Assessing the claim

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

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

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

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

Update 20 February 2014

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


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

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

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

Chapter 13: those bloodthirsty Maya!

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

El Castillo, Chichen Itzá

El Castillo, Chichen Itzá (Source)

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

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

A chacmool from Chichen Itzá

A chacmool from Chichen Itzá (Source)

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

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

Altar 5 at La Venta

Altar 5 at La Venta (Source)

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

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

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

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

The Piedra del Sol

The Piedra del Sol (Source)

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

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

Chapter 14: the Wiraqocha of the north?

Quetzalcoatl in human form

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

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

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

Fair Gods and Stone Faces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A page from the Book of Chilam Balam

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

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

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

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

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

Pyramid B at Tula

Pyramid B at Tula (Source)

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

The statues on Pyramid B at Tollan

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

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

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

Summary so far

This is taking me a long time to get through. In part, this is a reflection of my scanty knowledge of Mesoamerican mythology, which underpins so much of these two chapters. That same lack of in-depth knowledge made this the most convincing section of the book when I first read it (although it didn’t convince me that Hancock’s arguments are correct, it did make me wonder how reliable our knowledge of the origin of Mesoamerican civilisation is, quite 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.

Is pseudoarchaeology racist?

The Great Serpent Mound

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

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

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


Print by Nicolas de Larmessin depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why racism?

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

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

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

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.