November will see the release of Ancient Apocalypse, another in a long line of high visibility, mainstream media productions that can only be classified as pseudoarchaeology. This time, Graham Hancock, of America Before an Fingerprints of the Gods fame, is in the driver’s seat.

The title is reminiscent of the Ancient Aliens, another popular pseudoarchaeology series, just as Fingerprints of the Gods of reminiscent of Chariots of the Gods, the title of the grand-parent of the current crop of pseudoarchaeology.

The Netflix blurb announces: “What if everything we know about prehistoric humans is wrong? Journalist Graham Hancock visits archeological sites around the world to uncover whether a civilization far more advanced than we ever believed possible existed thousands of years ago.”

Let’s take those two sentences one by one and look at them from an archaeological perspective. Predictably, the pitch begins with one of the two iconic questions of pseudoarchaeology: “What if?” The other is “is it possible?”, and it could just as well have been used here.

As per usual for pseudoarchaeology, the body of the question deals with the not quite false, or at least the very remotely possible, although highly improbable. It is a fact that everything we claim to know about the past is probably not quite true. Some of what we think we know is truer than some of the rest, and some is as close as we’re going to get, given the archaeological evidence currently available to us, or maybe ever available to us.

There is a certain sense in which everything we know about the human past is false, inasmuch as we can’t positively be certain about any of it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything valuable about the past, or that we don’t have a valid and true understanding of large parts of it, at some scale or other, which is what Hancock’s question implies. Some of what we suspect about the past is very, very solidly supported.

There are other large parts of the human past for which we have only the slightest, most high-level understanding, and as an archaeologist, I try to be very clear about that.

The second sentence in the blurb gets more specific and much vaguer at the same time. Again, true to pseudoarchaeological form, is could begin either with “what if,” or with “is it possible” that there is some unknown advanced civilization from thousands of years ago.

By which I think Hancock probably means an industrial, information age society like the one we live in, with computers, jet planes, and bioengineering, or perhaps like the ones we imagine for our own future. Whether that’s what he means or not, that is likely what most of his audience pictures.

Let’s start with the obvious answer, and then we will qualify it. In the current state of my knowledge of the human past, I have a moral certainty (a probability so low that there is no room for reasonable doubt) that there is no such a civilization, especially not in the time frame that Hancock has claimed elsewhere, which is around twelve thousand years ago, after the last glaciation.

A cataclysm that destroyed such a civilization, on the scale of ours, so recently, and leaving no archaeologically visible trace of it, would have had to utterly transform the entire planet, and we just don’t observe that in the geological record, nevermind the archaeological.

Note that I am always at pains to say “in the current state of my knowledge”. Because contrary to what Hancock and other pseudoscientists will say, scientists generally find the unexpected much more compelling and interesting than the expected. I am always open to, and even looking for, evidence contrary to what I believe. That’s what my entire career is based on. If I always found what I expect, there would be no reason for me to do research.

Now, let’s get a bit more subtle about Hancock’s question. I think he’s unintentionally asking a really interesting question. What does it mean to be an advanced civilization? Material technology is one thing, and it takes a while to develop. Unfortunately, it’s what we mostly find in the archaeological record, so its level of development and sophistication tends to colour our appraisal of our ancestors.

When we say there was no advanced civilization twelve thousand years ago, we mean generally mean that we don’t see a technology like ours in the archaeological record of that period.

Sure, the Romans didn’t have digital computers (although they may have come up with a few simple analogue ones), and people on the Eurasian steppe thirty-five thousand years ago didn’t have cell phones to coordinate their hunts, but what does that really tell us about the state of advancement or sophistication of their societies?

For longer than many of us imagine, humans have had very complex and finely crafted stories and myths that describe and explain the world around us. As early as maybe fifty thousand years ago, we developed material and other forms of expression that speak about those stories and about our relationship with our world.

We have had complex, and even complicated kinship and land-tenure systems that regulate the relationships between us. These systems are dynamic, adaptive, we put agency into them, and use them strategically, even as they develop under external constraints from our environment and from our own mental and cognitive makeup.

These are just a few achievements among many that speak to the complexity, the richness, and the texture of the human past. Yes, human society has been advanced in the past to a degree that many of us never even suspect, or even wonder about.

Archaeology is an invitation to explore that richness, that texture, and to learn about ourselves. Even if we limit ourselves to the evidence actually available to us, instead of verging into the pseudoarchaeological, there is unexpected wonder in the past, there is surprise, and there are reflections of us, as we are now, in all our complexity and our advancement. No need to make it up, it’s all there. Just ask, we’re happy to share the wealth.

8 thoughts on “Buckle up, Graham Hancock has a new pseudoarchaeology series on Netflix

  1. Excerpt nowhere in any of the 8 episodes, not even once, does he suggest or imply that the civilization he is speculating on had advanced technology like ours. He references astronomy, stone-cutting tools, agriculture and sufficient structural engineering knowledge to build monoliths and other large structures. How about actually, you know, watching the show before criticizing its premise? Your argument would also be a lot stronger if you can refute specific claims he makes like the Younger Dryas impact theory or the carbon dating of remnants at structures that seems to indicate they are about 12,800 years old.


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