Lands of the lost

Recently, I finished reading Fingerprints of the Gods. I picked it up because I found the premise interesting, and because the mainstream media made such a big deal about author Graham Hancock getting a Netflix miniseries to showcase his unorthodox theories. I went into the book hoping there would be something tangible about those theories. Unfortunately, there isn’t.

Time of ice

The basic outline of the book is this: What if an advanced civilization existed before all known historical ones, and imparted some of its wisdom to those later civilizations as a way of outliving its own demise?

Put like that, it’s an intriguing proposition, one that has cropped up in many places over the past three decades. The Stargate franchise—one of my favorites, I must admit—is based largely on Hancock’s ideas, along with those of noted crackpots like Erich von Daniken. Chrono Trigger, widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time, uses the concept as a major plot point. Plenty of novels, especially in fantasy genres, suppose an ancient "builder" race or culture whose fingerprints are left within the world in some fashion.

It was this last point that piqued my interest, because my Otherworld series revolves around exactly this. And I even unknowingly used some of Hancock’s hypotheses for that. The timing of my ancients leaving Earth for their second world matches that of his ancients’ final collapse. The connection of archaeoastronomy as a way of leading to their knowledge arises in my books. Even using the prehistoric Mesoamericans as the catalyst wasn’t an original idea of mine; in my case, however, I did it so I wouldn’t have to deal with the logistics of the characters traveling to another continent.

Some of the questions Hancock asks are ones that need to be asked. It’s clear that ancient historical cultures the world over have some common themes which arise in their earliest mythology. Note, though, that these aren’t the specific ones he lists. The flood of Noah and Gilgamesh is entirely different from those of cultures beyond the Fertile Crescent and Asia Minor, for example, because it most likely stems from oral traditions of the breaking of the Bosporus, which led to a massive expansion of the Black Sea. Celts, to take one instance, would instead have a flood myth pointing to the flooding of what is now the Dogger Bank; peoples of New Guinea might have one relating to the inundation of the Sunda region; American Indian myths may have preserved echoes of the flooding of Beringia; and so on.

While the details Hancock tries to use don’t always work, the broad strokes of his supposition have merit. There are definitely astronomical alignments in many prehistoric structures, and some of them are downright anachronistic. Too many indigenous American cultures have myths about people who most definitely are not Amerind. (And now I’m wondering if Kennewick Man was a half-breed. I may need to incorporate that into a book…)

The possibility can’t yet be ruled out that cultures with technology more advanced than their direct successors did exist in the past. We know that Dark Ages happen, after all. We have historical records of two in the West (the familiar medieval Dark Age beginning c. 500 AD and the Greek Dark Age that started c. 1200 BC), and we’re very likely on the threshold of what might one day be termed the Progressive Dark Age.

With the cataclysmic end of the Ice Age and the catastrophic Younger Dryas cold snap, which now seems likely to be caused by at least one asteroid impact, there’s a very good impetus for the "breaking the chain" effect that leads to a Dark Age, one that would erase most traces of such an advanced civilization.

Habeas corpus

Of course, the biggest problem with such a theory is the lack of evidence. Even worse, Hancock, like most unorthodox scholars, argues from an "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" line of thought. Which is fine, but it’s not science. Science is about making testable and falsifiable predictions about the world. It’s not simply throwing out what-ifs and demanding that the establishment debunk them.

The onus is on those who make alternative theories, and this is where Hancock fails miserably. Rarely in the book does he offer any hard evidence in favor of his conjecture. Instead, he most often uses the "beyond the scope of this book" cop-out (to give him credit, that does make him exactly like any orthodox academic) or takes a disputed data point as proof that, since the establishment can’t explain it, that must mean he’s right. It’s traditional crackpottery, and that’s unfortunate. I would’ve liked a better accounting of the actual evidence.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of the book is the author’s insistence on taking myths at face value. We know that mythology is absolutely false—the Greek gods don’t exist, for example—but that it can often hide clues to historical facts.

To me, one of the most interesting examples of this is also one of the most recent: the finding in 2020 of evidence pointing to an impact or airburst event near the shore of the Dead Sea sometime around 1600 BC. This event apparently not only destroyed a town in such a violent event that it vaporized human flesh, but it also scattered salt from the sea over such a wide region that it literally salted the earth. And the only reference, oral or written, to this disaster is as a metaphor, in the Jewish fable of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Myths, then, can be useful to historians and archaeologists, but they’re certainly not a primary source. The nameless town on the shore of the Dead Sea wasn’t wiped out by a capricious deity’s skewed sense of justice, but by a natural, if rare, disaster. Similarly, references in Egyptian texts of gods who ruled as kings doesn’t literally mean that their gods existed. Because they didn’t.

In the same vein, Hancock focuses too much on numerological coincidences, assuming that they must have some deeper meaning. But the simple fact is that many cultures could independently hit upon the idea of dividing the sky into 360 degrees. It’s a highly composite number, after all, and close enough to the number of days in the year that it wouldn’t be a huge leap. That the timeworn faces of the Giza pyramids are currently in certain geometric ratios doesn’t mean that they always were, or that they were intended to be, or that they were intended to be as a message from ten thousand years ago.

Again, the burden of proof falls on the one making the more outlandish claims. Most importantly, if there did exist an ancient civilization with enough scientific and technological advancement to pose as gods around the world, there should be evidence of their existence. Direct, physical evidence. An industrial civilization puts out tons upon tons of waste. It requires natural resources, including some that are finite. The more people who supposedly lived in this Quaternary Atlantis, the more likely we would have stumbled upon one’s remains by now.

Even more than this, the scope of Hancock’s conjecture is absurdly small. He draws most of his conclusions from three data points: Egypt, Peru, and Central America. Really, that’s more like two and a half, because there were prehistoric connections between the two halves of the Americas—potatoes and corn had to travel somehow. Rarely does he point to India, where Dravidians mangled the myths of the Yamnaya into the Vedas. China, which became literate around the same time as Egypt, is almost never mentioned. Did the ancients just not bother with them? What about Stonehenge, which is at least as impressive, in terms of the necessary engineering, as the Pyramids?

Conclusion

I liked the book. Don’t get me wrong on that. It had some thought-provoking moments, and it makes for good novel fodder. I’ll definitely have to make a mention of Viracocha in an Otherworld story at some point.

As a scientific endeavor, or even as an introduction to an unorthodox theory, it’s almost useless. There are too many questions, too few answers, and too much moralizing. There’s also a strain of romanticism, which is common to a lot of people who study archaeological findings but aren’t themselves archaeologists. At many points, Hancock denigrates modern society while upholding his supposed lost civilization as a Golden Age of humanity. You know, exactly like Plato and Francis Bacon did.

That said, it’s worth a read if only to see what not to do. In a time where real science is under attack, and pseudoscience is given preferential treatment in society, government, and media, it’s important to know that asking questions is the first step. Finding evidence to support your assertions is the next, and it’s necessary if you want to advance our collective knowledge.