Last night, I started watching Ancient Apocalypse, Graham Hancock’s series which seeks to show that there is in our history a forgotten, technologically advanced ice-age civilization, which was destroyed by a cataclysm some time around ten thousand years ago. I didn’t have to look far to find the program. It was listed at the bottom of my television screen as number 2 in the Netflix top 10 in Canada. Clearly, there is significant public interest in the questions that Hancock is asking, and people want to know what he has to say about all this.

I am watching the program as an archaeologist. I will comment on his claims when I think I have something to contribute to the discussion. In this first post, I will explore some of Hancock’s central claims about the past. In future posts, I will evaluate some of the evidence presented in the show in support of those claims.

Ancient Apocalypse

Hancock is surprised that after the last ice age, starting about ten thousand years ago, groups of hunter-gatherers around the world started building large, impressive monuments, such as various pyramids, and eventually created complex societies that spawned the technology that we live with today.

He explains this by suggesting that there was a previous advanced civilization during the ice age, that it was destroyed by a massive cataclysm, and that a few of its survivors, carrying the ancient advanced knowledge of their ancestors, were able to civilize the post-glacial hunter-gatherers.

My first problem with this argument is that it isn’t very satisfying. It has a “first cause” problem. Where do our current advanced post-glacial societies come from? From previous, glacial era civilizations. Where did those more ancient ones come from? How did the first one develop? There is no answer given, and Hancock doesn’t seem eager to search for one. In archaeology, we spend quite a bit of time thinking about how society became what it is today, starting with the first humans.

Second, there are actually very good reasons to suspect that our early post-glacial ancestors actually created the monuments and civilizations we see in the archaeological record, and that they gave us the societies in which we live today. There is good reason to think they did this unaided by advanced ancient teachers (or without ancient aliens, for that matter).

At the end of the last ice age, fully anatomically and mentally (or cognitively) modern humans went through a deglaciation for the very first time. they quickly found themselves in a very different kind of environment from the one in which they had spent the previous sixty thousand years. 

It was warmer and more humid, its coastlines and ecosystems were very different and rapidly changing.  They very rapidly figured out how to domesticate plant and animal species, and they developed complex technological and social solutions to the increased population sizes and densities that could now be supported by the landscape, and in which they started living and organizing themselves.

These brand new humans were unleashed on a new environment full of possibility that was capable of accommodating diverse subsistence strategies and large, often sedentary permanent communities. Humans went to work on this new environment and created what we see in the archaeological record, and everything we have around us right now.

None of this is surprising, and none of it requires ancient advanced civilizations. We can see the growth, the densification, and the complexification of these communities in the archaeological record of the past ten thousand years. What we can’t see is an advanced civilization in the archaeological record of the ice age.

The “new humans in a new environment” explanation is at least as compelling as the “ancient teachers” explanation, and in the current state of our knowledge, more likely to be true. I can’t prove that there was no advanced ice-age civilization, but if it did exist, I am shocked at the complete lack of archaeological evidence it left behind, even if we accept all of Hancock’s claims.

I am also surprised at the selective destructiveness of a cataclysm that wiped it out so completely, while leaving abundant evidence of our hunter-gatherer ancestors all over the landscape in the form of stone tools, butchered bones of extinct animals, cave paintings, carved figurines, and delicate shell ornaments carried or exchanged over hundreds of kilometers. Some of that, at least, wasn’t destroyed, or in some cases, even damaged by the cataclysm.

The other broad claim Hancock makes is that it is surprising, if not impossible, that stories and archaeological forms shared around the world, such as floods and pyramids, developed independently and by coincidence. They have to be the result of a shared message from these ancient teachers who climbed out of the ruins of the post-cataclysm ice-age civilization.

It is in fact very likely that these stories and forms did develop independently, but not by coincidence. Similar humans in similar post-glacial environments, facing similar challenges with similar raw materials, both technological, social, and mental, are in fact likely to develop broadly similar solutions to similar problems.

There aren’t a million ways to produce a large blade out of a cobble of flint, and there aren’t a million ways to get meat off a mammoth carcass. The easiest way to make structure that towers over its surroundings, whether nature is doing it or humans, is to pile stuff up, and the stablest pile is a pyramid. If other methods were tried here and there, they would quickly have given way everywhere, through experimentation and because of the laws of physics, to the simple pyramid.

Many of the flood stories probably do reflect shared experience of natural events. There were rapid, extensive, and sometimes catastrophic floods, sometimes of large regions, all around the world in the wake of deglaciation. 

Conversely, there are other places where deglaciation resulted in land-uplift, because the weight of ice disappeared and released the earth’s crust like a spring. In those places, like in arctic Europe and North America, indigenous traditions tell of the land growing and living, and people spreading out to live on it, instead of recalling deadly floods.

As for the stories of ancient teachers, like Quetzalcoatl, to which Hancock points as cultural memories of ambassadors from a vanished civilization, they also have a much more satisfying explanation. Those who claim authority over others, or who claim to enforce tradition, often point to some external source for that authority, as extra support for themselves. 

Whether these are gods, or ancient heroes, they often come in the form of lawgivers, like the semi-mythical Solon of Athens, for example, whose knowledge and wisdom were claimed to be derived from those of ancient Egypt. Athens relied on the authority of the hero Solon, whose authority relied on that of the ancient priests of Egypt. Double insurance.

I’m not the one who is telling you to do this, those in authority will claim, or enforcing this unwelcome tradition upon you, the ancient law giver set it thus.  The dynamics of human society themselves sometimes explain some of its own features.

So while I can’t prove that Hancock is wrong, I find none of his puzzles require me to believe in an ancient civilization, or even to suspect that there ever was one. I have more pragmatic, better documented answers to his questions. Answers that, in the current state of archaeological knowledge, are likely much closer to the truth.

I don’t mind speculation. I engage in it myself. But when I am at work as an archaeologist, I like to identify speculation as such, and I like to point out alternative explanations that are well documented and better grounded, or that are simply better supported by reasoning.

In the next post, I will evaluate the claim that there are extensive underground chambers at Gunung Padang, and that it is twice as old as most archaeologists would conclude.

6 thoughts on “Ancient Apocalypse archaeology update 1: Do we need to invoke an ancient advanced civilization to explain the past ten thousand years of the archaeological record?

  1. The problem with these shows is all the same. The person always starts with, “I’m going to prove” so and so, and they set out to prove it while ignoring all the evidence against it.

    I didn’t make it 20 minutes into this show until it made me angry at the lack of scholarship and pure conjecture it barfed out.

    It was total nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s