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.

Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods, Part I: misunderstanding early modern cartography

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

Graham Hancock begins his quest for the beginning and the end with that old chestnut of alternative archaeologists: the Piri Re‘is map of 1513. Quoting a letter from Charles Hapgood’s Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (Chilton Books, 1966), he accepts the opinion of Harold Z Ohlmeyer (1919-2010), a United States Air Force Colonel in the 8th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron, that the map depicts West Africa, South America and the coast of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica. This is a contentious assertion, as we will see, but it is Ohlmeyer’s statement that the Antarctic coast is depicted as it would appear free from ice that forms the starting point for Hancock’s analysis.

To Hancock, the apparent depiction of Queen Maud Land raised a number of questions. He focuses on what he considers the six key facts of the case. Firstly, there is no question that the Piri Re‘is map is anything other than a genuine manuscript map of 1513. Secondly, that it shows precisely those landmasses that Colonel Ohlmeyer claimed it does. Thirdly, that Piri could not have known of Queen Maud Land from his contemporaries, as Antarctica had not yet been discovered (its official discovery date of 1818 may be too late, but probably not that much too late). Fourthly, there is the puzzle that Queen Maud Land is shown as free from ice; Hancock claims that the last time this could have happened was around 4000 BCE. Fifth, he claims that although the earliest date at which the coast could have been mapped is impossible to determine, but that it “may have remained in a stable, unglaciated condition for at least 9000 years before the spreading ice-cap swallowed it”. Finally, he correctly points out that we do not know of any civilisation that could have mapped the coastline in the period at which he claims it was ice free.

This, then, is what Hancock considered the smoking gun that would set him off on his quest. The entire premise of Fingerprints of the Gods proceeds from the assumption that his six key facts are all equally factual and not open to dispute.

Hancock’s six facts about the Piri Re‘is map

Firstly, Hancock is quite right to stress the genuineness of the map. Rediscovered in 1929, the map was instantly famous, not least because it claimed that one of its sources was a map produced by the Genoese explorer Cristoforo Colombo (better known in the English-speaking world as Christopher Columbus), whose own maps are notoriously lost. Here was the earliest surviving map of his barely twenty-year-old discoveries and of those who followed in his wake. In his day, Piri was a renowned cartographer and the maps that were known before 1929 are beautiful accomplishments. No-one could raise any serious objections to the map.

A satellite view of Antarctica with sea ice removed

A satellite view of Antarctica with sea ice removed: Queen Maud Land is the bulge at the top

However, we are on more dubious ground when it comes to determining what parts of the world the map actually depicts. West Africa and the Iberian Peninsula are clear enough; it is what Piri calls “the western region” that is less clear. His listing of sources for this map show that he was reliant on a single source, a copy of the map created by (or at least attributed to) Columbus. Whereas he combined a number of maps to produce his clearly recognisable coastlines of Africa and Iberia, he was reliant on the accuracy of the sole map at his disposal for the depiction of the New World.

It is unfortunate that Hancock did not do further research into the map, preferring to rely on Charles Hapgood’s ideas about its accuracy and assessment of what it shows of “the western region”. He might for instance, have consulted works that deal with the texts on the map, which show placenames that can be identified today and which describe the climate and fauna of the newly discovered regions. Gregory McIntosh, in his The Piri Reis Map of 1513 (University of Georgia Press, 2000) castigates Hapgood and others for failing to take note of the placenames and basing the conclusions merely on the resemblance of stretches of coastline to those on modern maps. This is not a legitimate way to investigate any historical document. The placenames alone are enough to show that the most southerly place depicted on the map is Puerto San Julián in Argentina.

However, Hancock accepts Charles Hapgood’s identifications of places uncritically and assumes that the bottom of the map shows Queen Maud Land. He is correct in the assumption that Piri could not have learned of Antarctica from his contemporaries but as the map does not show it, this “fact” can be struck from the list. Given that Queen Maud Land is not depicted, the ice-free nature of the coastline ought not to worry us. Nevertheless, is Hancock correct in his dating of a period when Queen Maud Land might have been without ice at a time when human mariners (not the aliens of Erich von Däniken) might have mapped it?

Numerous ice cores have been taken from the Antarctic ice that show the continent to have been covered by a fully developed ice cap from 40,000 to 6,000 BP. Between 21,000 and 16,000 BP there was a maximum development of the ice cap, corresponding to the height of the Devensian glaciation in Britain, with no exposure of coastlines after the glacial maximum. Indeed, it is evident that Antarctica was last completely ice-free over 34,000,000 years ago, long before the evolution of the genus Homo, let alone modern humans. There is thus no human civilisation that could have mapped an ice-free coast.

Chapter 2: the other maps

Hancock does not stop with Piri Re‘is’s map, even though, as we have seen, it does not show what he thinks it shows (or, perhaps, wants it to show). Following Hapgood, he turns to other early modern maps that show an Anatarctic continent. In this, he relies entirely on Hapgood, even for data on the climatic history of the continent that by the 1990s was hopelessly out of date: all but three of the thirty-three footnotes for this chapter are to pages in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. This is merely giving the outward signs of scholarliness, not real scholarship.

The Orontius Finaeus map (Hapgood and his followers always spell the name Oronteus)

The Orontius Finaeus map (Hapgood and his followers always spell the name Oronteus)

We are introduced to the Orontius Finaeus Delphinus map of 1531, with its enormous TERRA AVSTRALIS REcenter inuenta sed nondū plene cognita. As with the Piri Re’is map, he ignores the legend written across the landmass that is (conveniently?) illegible on the small reproduction of the map in his book. In English, it says “The southern land recently discovered but not yet fully known”. Does this allow for the possibility that Finaeus was copying an older map of an ice-free Antarctica? It certainly doesn’t read that way. Yet Hapgood, followed by Hancock, was impressed by the depiction of rivers and estuaries emptying into the Ross Sea. Naïvely, Hancock says that “[t]he unmistakable implication of these features is that there was no ice on the Ross Sea or its coasts when the source maps used by Oronteus Finaeus were made”. Clearly, in his world, no early modern mapmaker ever filled in details of unexplored areas with invented details, not even on a continent “not yet fully known”.

And what were these source maps that Finaeus failed to mention? If Hancock (or Hapgood before him) had bothered to read (or have translated) the text at the centre bottom of the map, he’d have seen that Finaeus specifically says that he is depicting Prouintias, Insulas, Maria, Flumina, Montes, hactenus non uisa, neque Ptolomeo, neque Eudoxo, neque Eratosteni, aut Macrobio cognita, sed que in tenebris in hunc usque diem iacuerunt (“Provinces, Islands, Seas, Rivers, Mountains not seen up to now, known neither by Ptolemy, nor Eudoxus, nor Eratosthenes or Macrobius, but which had lain in shadows up to the present day”). In other words, these are recent discoveries of which the ancients knew nothing: there were no source maps.

The Mercator World Map

The Mercator World map, showing a vastly oversized Terra Australis (Source)

Hancock (following Hapgood, as ever) next turns to Gerhard Kremer (better known as Gerhardus Mercator), whose Atlas of 1569 includes Finaeus’s map of Terra Australis. He used Finaeus’s map as the basis for his own depictions of the continent but incorporated more recent discoveries. Thus, Tierra Del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, is shown as a northern promontory of Terra Australis; the promontory south of Iaua minor (Java) appears to be Arnhem Land (Australia), drawn too far to the west; another promontory, south of Noua Guinea (New Guinea) is the Cape York Peninsula (Australia). Mercator is incorporating recently discovered lands that he hypothesises to be part of a massive continent at the south pole necessary to balance the land area of the northern hemisphere and keep the earth upright. Again, despite Hapgood’s confident assertion that “Mercator had at his disposal source maps other than those used by Oronteus Finaeus”, there is no evidence whatsoever that these maps ever existed.

Philippe Buache's Carte des Terres Australes (second version, c 1757) (Source)

Philippe Buache’s Carte des Terres Australes (second version, c 1757, from the Library of Congress)

The fourth map is the most recent: that of Philippe Buache. Once again, we are faced with the author’s unwillingness actually to engage with the map itself. The map contains a lot of text and the words conjecturée (conjectured) and soupçonnée (suspected) appear a number of times on the southern continent. Of greatest interest, though, is the lengthy account of Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier’s (1704-1786) voyage to the south, which lasted from 19 July 1738 to 24 June 1739. This instantly undermines the date of 1737 that Hancock gives for the publication of the map; indeed, the map itself contains the publication date of 5 September 1739. Of course, the mistake was originally made by Charles Hapgood: Hancock (or his researchers) simply copied this error without checking.

Hapgood made a great deal of the fact that the version of the map he consulted in the Library of Congress shows the Antarctic continent to be composed of two separate landmasses, with a sea between them. Never mind that it is labelled MER GLAICIALE Conjecturée (“Conjectured Glacial Sea”): Hapgood assumed that it shows the continent free from ice. Yet we know why Philippe Buache depicted this sea. This version of the map seems to be a second edition, issued c 1757 (although the publication date is not altered on it), bringing his ideas about the southern continent into line with his more recent hypotheses about it, as published in 1761 in Considérations géographiques sur les terres australes et antarctiques. He had concluded (wrongly, as it turned out) that the icebergs seen by Bouvet de Lozier in 1738-9 must derive from sea ice, like those in the Arctic Ocean rather than from glacial ice, like those of the North Atlantic. He therefore decided to add a conjectural sea across the pole to account for them.

Buache's original version of the map (1739) is much more vague about the size and shape of the Antarctic continent

Buache’s original version of the map (1739) is much more vague about the size and shape of the Antarctic continent

However, in the first edition of the map (which neither Hancock nor Hapgood reproduce), there is no Glacial Sea. Instead, the Antarctic continent is depicted as a single landmass. The inclusion of Nouvelle Zelande (New Zealand) as a northern promontory of the continent as well as Bouvet de Lozier’s Cap de la Circoncision (actually an island, now named Bouvet Island after its unwitting discoverer) and a cape attributed to an observation of Amerigo Vespucci that seems to correspond in position to the South Sandwich Islands show that Buache’s sources were not ancient maps but early modern voyages of discovery. His depiction of lands to the south-west of Tierra del Fuego and the south of Cape Horn that correspond to no known islands shows that some of the observations on which he relied were inaccurate. It is worth pointing out that those parts of the continent for which he relied on reported discoveries have coastlines shaded pink: the remainder, which accounts for more than 90% of the outline, is all conjectural.

Hancock's comparison of Mercator's, Orontius Finaeus's and Philippe Buache's maps of Terra Australis with the results of the 1957-8 seismic data: hardly impressive!

Hancock’s comparison of Mercator’s, Orontius Finaeus’s and Philippe Buache’s maps of Terra Australis with the results of the 1957-8 seismic data: hardly impressive!

The contention first put forward by Hapgood and repeated eagerly by Hancock that these four maps not only show the Antarctic free from ice but also match the discoveries of the sub-glacial topography of Antarctica as determined by surveys during the International Geophysical Year (actually 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958) is incapable of proof. For a start, the “coast-line” determined at that time shows where current sea level would be if the ice were suddenly to be removed. This ignores several factors. Firstly, the contour corresponding to modern sea level is that of a landmass experiencing isostatic depression. In other words, the weight of the ice cap is pushing down on the continental plate on which Antarctica sits, submerging the contour that would correspond to its coastline before the formation of the ice. Remove the ice and the continent would “bounce” back up as a result of isostatic uplift; this is a well known phenomenon and can be observed in those parts of the northern hemisphere that were depressed under the expanded Arctic ice cap during the Pleistocene Ice Age, where it is still ongoing. Secondly, Hancock uses data from the 1950s as a basis for comparison with the early modern maps. This is because he is reliant entirely on Hapgood for his data: he has done no further research into the question. More recent maps show a subglacial topography substantially different from that in his figure on page 21 of the first paperback edition. Worse, there is little correspondence between the 1950s data and the historic maps that Hapgood claims to be so accurate.

A more recent view of the sub-glacial topography of Antarctica

A more recent view of the sub-glacial topography of Antarctica (Source)

Chapter 3: maunderings on longitude

In the final chapter of Part I, Graham Hancock is impressed—rightly, in my opinion—with the relative accuracy with which Piri Re’is placed South America to the west of Africa: his assessment of the width of the South Atlantic Ocean was very good. The data about the north coast of South America is distorted by Columbus’s preconceptions, so that Cuba is depicted as part of the western landmass; indeed, so paranoid was Columbus about not having discovered a quick route to East Asia, that he forced his crew to sign affidavits to the effect that Cuba was an Asian peninsula, a belief he held until his death: so much for the glorious discoverer of a New World!

Edward Wright's map "for sailing to the Isles of Azores"

Edward Wright’s map “for sailing to the Isles of Azores” (c 1595), covered in rhumb lines (Source)

Hancock manages to persuade himself that the only means of determining longitude is by using a chronometer. As the first chronometer was developed by John Harrison (1693-1776) in the eighteenth century, he cannot understand how Piri (and other early cartographers) were able to draw accurate maps. The answer, of course, is one that had been widely used since antiquity: triangulation. Piri’s map is cover by rhumb lines radiating from compass-like symbols in the ocean. Such lines depict navigational aids that could be used to estimate longitude to within a reasonable degree of tolerance, so long as the sailor was able to estimate speed and bearing. The problem of calculating longitude was well known in the medieval world (indeed, it was an element in Columbus’s delusion that Cuba was a hitherto unknown Asian promontory) but the technique of sailing by the rhumb was good enough to enable reasonably accurate maps to be drawn up. Far from being evidence for “lost mathematicians”, these maps show how the ingenuity of late medieval and early modern mariners enabled them to produce workable maps of the known world.

Thus ends Part I, with something of a damp squib. Moreover, the idea that these maps present a puzzle that needs to be solved—the depiction of an ice-free Antarctica—is false. The premise of Graham Hancock’s entire “quest” is equally false. I could stop the analysis of Fingerprints of the Gods here, but the loyal Hancockite could insist that even if the maps don’t show what Hancock claims they show, his other evidence could instead point to the existence of a “Lost Civilisation”: it wouldn’t be the first time that correct conclusions have been reached by starting out from a false premise. There are some interesting parallels with Chariots of the Gods? that I want to explore…

Conclusion: “The Mystery of the Maps” demystified

One of the most obvious observations about Part I of Fingerprints of the Gods is that Graham Hancock is completely reliant on Charles Hapgood’s untenable views about early modern maps. He (or his researchers) have either not consulted any scholarly works on the history of cartography, of which there are plenty, or have chosen not to mention their conclusions about these maps. We are faced with an inexcusable ignorance about how to conduct adequate research into the past, a naïve belief that it is possible to rely on only one interpretation of the evidence, a failure to establish an hypothesis by showing how his own explains the data better than existing hypotheses or a deliberate suppression of evidence that undermines his hypothesis. Of course, it could well be a combination of these. In any case, the result is that Part I of Hancock’s book is not a scholarly examination of early modern maps, but one that is tendentious whilst trying to give the impression of scholarship to an unsuspecting readership whom he hopes will see the work as well researched because of all those footnotes.

As an aside, one has to feel sorry for Colonel Ohlmeyer who, by all accounts, was a model USAF officer, a pleasure to serve under and a generally good human being: a Google search for him currently returns over 5600 hits, almost all of which refer to the letter he sent Charles Hapgood in 1960. Surely his memory deserves better than this.

Graham Hancock and the ‘Lost Civilisation’

Holiday reading

Fingerprints of the Gods, paperback edition 1996

Fingerprints of the Gods, paperback edition 1996

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

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

The Great Sphinx at Giza in 1988

The Great Sphinx at Giza in 1988

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

Fingerprints of the Gods

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

Fingerprints of the Gods, second edition 2001

Fingerprints of the Gods, second edition 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘lost civilisation’ does not stand up to scrutiny

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

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

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

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

Old maps, the Americas and Antarctica

Maps of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries are a favourite source of information for fringe writers, who use them to make a wide variety of claims. To Erich von Däniken, for instance, they are evidence for a survey of the Earth from space, carried out by extraterrestrials, while for Graham Hancock, they are evidence for an ancient sea-faring civilisation, lost beneath the sea after the melting of glacial ice at the end of the Pleistocene. These writers focus on a relatively small number of such maps, those of Piri Re‘is and Orontius Finaeus being the most used, whilst ignoring others of the same age. All these maps are alleged to show anomalous knowledge for the dates at which they were drawn: the west coast of South America, Antarctica (with or, more frequently, without its ice sheet), the Strait of Magellan and other “impossible” details. This appears to be solid evidence, so why do mainstream historians and archaeologists ignore it?

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

The Piri Re‘is map

The most widely used of these maps is a manuscript map produced in 1513 CE by Hacı Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, better known as Piri Re‘is (“Admiral Piri”, although most of these writers seem not to understand that Re‘is is a title, not a surname). It was drawn on camel-skin parchment and is one surviving part of an originally larger set of maps depicting the known world. Since its rediscovery by the German theologian, Gustav Adolf Deissmann (1866–1937) in the Topkapı Sarayı Museum in 1929, it has been an important source of claims that there were much older maps showing the world in great detail, including places unknown in the early sixteenth century CE. Much of the detail in these claims derives not from scholarly studies of the map but from the work of Charles Hapgood (1904-1982), a geography teacher at Keene State College (whose status is often inflated to ‘professor’ through a misunderstanding of American usage of the term).

The inspiration behind Hapgood’s work was a radio discussion on 26 August 1956 between Arlington Humphrey Mallery (1877-1968), an engineer then working for the US Navy Hydrographic Office, Rev Daniel L Linehan SJ (1904-1987), director and chief seismologist of the Weston Observatory at Boston College, and Rev Francis Heyden (1907-1991), director of the Georgetown University Observatory. Mallery, something of a student of the history of cartography and an amateur archaeologist, had formed the view that the bays and islands depicted at the bottom of Piri’s map were hidden beneath the ice of Queen Maud Land (Antarctica). After reading a transcript of the broadcast, Hapgood contacted Mallery and, having obtained a copy of the map, set his students to work examining it.

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s account of the investigation, in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966) is tedious to anyone, like me, with little or no interest or ability in maths. He detected the use of a grid on late medieval portolan charts and suggested that a similar grid was used by Piri; he conjectured that it was based on Syene (Aswan, Egypt) and that similar grids were used on other early medieval maps. This may have been a correct deduction (although it appears not to be generally accepted by historians of cartography, who believe that portolans were based on compass directions), but it is the next stage of Hapgood’s analysis where the claims made for the map go way beyond the evidence.

Hapgood started with the belief that the Piri Re‘is map was an accurate depiction of South America and part of Antarctica but when close analysis showed that it was not accurate in any projection he and his students applied to it, had to come up with a reason why it contained errors. Given that Piri stated that he had used “about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi” and that some of them were “drawn in the days of Alexander”, Hapgood conjectured that Piri’s map (or its sources) had wrongly combined numerous earlier sources of varying scale, orientation and projection. In this way, small sections of coastline were drawn accurately but each section had to be looked at in isolation. Worse, some parts of the coastline were missing (so that the Strait of Magellan was not depicted, for instance) and some were duplicated. In this way, Hapgood and his students could rescue Piri’s map from any suggestion of inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, Hapgood has misunderstood what Piri says about the sources for his map. Here is Piri’s note in full:

This section shows how this map was drawn. In this century, there is no map like this in anyone’s possession: the hand of this poor man has drawn it and now it is assembled from about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi (these are charts drawn in the days of Alexander, Lord of the Two Horns, which show the inhabited quarter of the world). The Arabs name these charts Caferiye. I have compiled it from eight Caferiyes of that kind, one Arab map of India, from the maps recently drawn by four Portuguese that show the countries of India, Sindh and China drawn geometrically, and also from a map drawn by Columbus in the western region. The present form was achieved by reducing all these maps to a single scale so that this map is as correct and reliable for the Seven Seas as the map of our own countries is considered accurate and reliable by sailors.

It is quite clear from this that Piri’s only source for the “western region” was a map he attributed to Columbus. The Mappae Mundidrawn in the days of Alexander” were not charts 1800 years old when Piri acquired them but maps based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographical Guide (Γεωγραφικὴ Ύφήγησις, more commonly known as the Geography), which had become the standard for accurate mapping in the Arab world and in Christian Europe after a text was brought from Constantinople in 1400. Rather than dating from “the days of Alexander”, the original work dated from c 150 CE and although the only copy that Maximos Planoudes (Μάξιμος Πλανούδης, c 1260-c 1305) was able to locate in Constantinople in 1295 had lost its maps, the tenth-century al-Masʿūdī (أبو الحسن علي بن الحسين بن علي المسعودي, Abu al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī al-Masʿūdī c 896-956) was familiar with a copy that may have retained them. These maps dealt with only those parts of the world known to Ptolemy; Piri used more recent maps to update them.

What this means is that Hapgood’s attempt to rescue his hypothesis is just plain wrong: Piri is absolutely explicit that his only source for the “western region” was a chart he believed to have been compiled by Christopher Columbus. Piri may or may not have been correct in this belief, but either way, his sole source for the western continent was a map deriving from the voyages to the New World by European explorers after 1492. Had there been earlier maps available to him, we would have to explain why he did not mention them as sources.

What about Antarctica?

So, why did Piri show a land apparently south of the South Atlantic? Is this evidence for an early discovery of Antarctica? Alas, no. The authority of Arlington H Mallery is not quite what it seems: although fringe writers tend to refer to him as an expert on historic maps and an archaeologist, with the implication that his work for the US Navy’s Hydrographic Office was connected with cartography, this is not correct. He was a civil engineer and inventor of a swivelling head block transfer bridge for transferring railway trucks to and from canal barges that is still known as the Mallery Type. He was an enthusiast for old maps and his archaeological opinions were a long way from the mainstream. In 1951, he published Lost America: The Story of the Pre-Columbian Iron Age in America, in which he argued that there was an Iron Age in North America, inaugurated by Viking settlers. He was, to put it bluntly, a crank.

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

We can dismiss Mallery as an authority, but does this mean that Hapgood was also wrong to identify the land at the bottom (south) of the map as Antarctica? To see it as such, one must ignore the placenames written in this area, as transcribed in Ayşe Afet İnan’s The Oldest Map of America, Drawn by Pirî Reis (1954, Ankara). They include Rio de laplata, San Matias, Porto Deseado and Porto San julean. These are clearly the Río de la Plata, Golfo San Matías, Puerto Deseado and Puerto San Julián. In other words, this is a depiction of the coast of Argentina, twisted through 90° to fit onto the parchment! There is no depiction of Antarctica here.

Hapgood brought a series of maps – principally those of Orontius Finaeus (1494-1555), Hadji Ahmed and Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) – to bear on the question of knowledge of an Antarctic continent at a much earlier date than is usually believed. The maps he used are superficially impressive: they depict a continent that somewhat resembles what we now know to be the shape of Antractica, albeit one much larger than the real continent. In particular, they lack the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s most prominent and characteristic coastal feature.

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531: note that Terra Australis (the supposed Antarctic continent) is recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita (“recently discovered but not yet fully known”) and appears to include the northern coast of Australia

Those who get excited by these supposed maps of Antarctica that pre-date its discovery take the maps as if they exist in a vacuum. They completely ignore books and papers written by the cartographers themselves, which often explain the methods they used. Piri was a careful scholar who listed his sources; they ignore the fact that those who depicted a southern continent did so on the basis of speculation about the balance of land in the two hemispheres; they fail to read the captions on the maps that make it clear that certain elements are conjectured or recently discovered.

There is nothing in these early modern maps, then, that needs explanation. We understand a lot about the context of their production and often have the very words of those who made them. We know their sources and, much of the time, the voyages of discovery that enabled Arabs and Europeans to chart previously unknown coastlines. These maps are interesting for what they show and also for what they do not: the Piri Re’is map, for instance, does not show inland details as it was made by sailors as a navigation aid, quite different from von Däniken’s idea that it was copied from an ancient aerial survey. The real mystery is why so many fringe writers continue to promote them.