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Dusting for Fingerprints

Graham Hancock has sold millions of books claiming an advanced civilization left a stunning legacy of culture and high technology. Now we take a critical look at the work of the maverick historian. Part one of two.

 
> Read more about this topic in THE CULT OF ALIEN GODS

Mayan Pyramid at Tikal

The impression we get is of an indirect connection, and perhaps the existence of a third party, whose influence spread to both the Euphrates and the Nile. . . [A] third party whose cultural achievements were passed on independently to Egypt and Mesopotamia would best explain the common features and fundamental differences between the two civilizations.
- Prof. WALTER EMERY, University of London



I: The Origins of Hancock's Interest in the Unorthodox

For generations scholars have puzzled at the strange similarities that ancient monuments seem to bear to one another. So great is the temptation to link the temples and tombs of the forgotten past that an entire subgenre of nonfiction has arisen to extol the theory that Mexico and Egypt were part of a great and ancient global design. By 2001, controversial author Graham Hancock had sold millions of books by asking readers to believe the seemingly impossible: that humanity is a "species with amnesia" which has forgotten the greatest episode in its history, the destruction and near-complete effacement of an antediluvian civilization whose tiny, scattered remnants form the fingerprints of the gods.

Hancock is a soft-spoken Englishman with a soothing voice that bears the culture and learning of the Victorian professors romanticized in too many bad novels and worse films. His hair has begun to gray, and his small, round glasses make him look more learned than his fifty or so years. A journalist by trade, Hancock worked for the renowned newspaper The Economist for many years and wrote several critically-acclaimed books including AIDS: The Deadly Epidemic and Lords of Poverty before making a "life-changing" trip to Ethiopia where he became a convert to a new faith based on a great legacy allegedly handed down from the most ancient times.

Because of his nose for news and a large sum of money from the corrupt government of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, Hancock undertook to write a history of Ethiopia in 1983. Mengistu granted the author free access to any site in the country and asked Hancock to emphasize the ancient cultures of Ethiopia and their achievements. Hancock later wrote in The Sign and the Seal that "I was under no illusions about how the project was viewed by senior figures in the regime." Mengistu wanted to justify his oppressive government and the greatness of Ethiopia to the world. Perhaps to no one's shock, Hancock made a sensational discovery during his stay at the ancient city of Axum, home to Ethiopia's most ancient rulers: the city housed the Ark of the Covenant.

"I did not come to the book with any sense of moral mission," Hancock confessed via his website. "What drew me to it was a journalistic instinct that I had stumbled upon a good story that no-one had yet told properly. I decided to tell that story."

Hancock picked up local rumors and traced them backward in time, delving deeper and deeper into the murky underbelly of African and Jewish histories to produce a convincing, if sometimes speculative, argument that the Ark of the Covenant had been taken from the Temple in Jerusalem to the city of Axum by way of Elephantine, Egypt.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate Hancock's claims about the Ark, but the resulting book, The Sign and the Seal, debuted in 1992 and sold millions of copies. Praised by The Western Morning News for being "as readable as a first-class detective story," the book solidified Hancock's reputation in the realm of "alternative history" - a genre, Hancock says, "that Britain's Guardian newspaper has credited me with inventing." Of course, many other individuals had trod the paths of the unorthodox in times past, but none had sold more books faster than Hancock.

"I began to realize," he said via the internet, "just how many anomalies and enigmas there were in the past which either were not adequately explained by the orthodox theory of history or which could be equally adequately explained by an alternative theory."

It is here that Hancock stopped being a journalist and changed roles, for it was here that he began to formulate an alternative theory to explain the enigmas he previously had been content merely to catalogue.

"I argued that the Ark's powers might have been derived from the forgotten knowledge of a lost civilization."

This powerful revelation in the heart of Africa set the stage for the rest of Hancock's career.

II: Mystery of the Maps

A centuries-long buildup of resistance to a perception of scientism in society produced a flurry of anti-scientific thought in the middle of the twentieth century, something unseen since the Romantic resistance to the Enlightenment a century and a half before. Out of this chaos, a new breed of thought emerged from the post-modern anarchy, a type of romantic view of history championed by Swiss author Erich von Däniken. He argued that extraterrestrials were the true "gods" of ancient times and through their artifice ancient man wrought great marvels. His theories lacked what would conventionally be called "proof," but like any great story, this modern myth took on a life of its own.

By the mid-1990s, a new wave of spirituality, anti-scientism and millennial anxiety conspired to create a large market for anyone who could make a case against established thought. Enter Graham Hancock.

In 1995 Hancock published his seminal work, Fingerprints of the Gods, in which he attempted to show that the end of the last Ice Age saw the demise of a technologically and, more importantly, spiritually advanced civilization whose few survivors carried the light of knowledge and wisdom for 8,000 years before depositing it wholesale in the laps of the Egyptian pharaohs and Bolivian priests. Unlike his disgraced predecessor von Däniken, Hancock attempts to provide solid, if controversial, proof of his claims.

Hancock's most important claims surround evidence in Egypt, but let us start where Hancock does, at the beginning of his "mystery."

The book begins with a dizzying array of ancient maps dating back to the 16th century which apparently show Antarctica long before it was officially discovered in 1818. The most famous of these maps is the Piri Reis map of 1513. Drawn from what Reis, a Turkish admiral, claimed were ancient source maps from the Library of Alexandria, the map seems to show the coast of Queen Maud Land as it appeared beneath the ice. The correlation is at first striking, especially in light of other 16th century maps from such men as Mercator and Oronteus Finaeus showing Antarctica gradually glaciating.

But all is not well. As Hancock critic Paul V. Heinrich points out:

"The accuracy that the Piri Reis Map has results from his source maps' being reconstructed with the assumption that original source maps were accurate and any errors in it came from copying and compilation."

In other words, the only way that these maps perfectly show the Antarctic coastline is if we ignore all the errors as mistakes in copying, despite there being no proof that this is so. If we take the Piri Reis map (famous since the 1950s) at its face, Heinrich says "the Piri Reis Map itself is grossly inaccurate." Nevermind that this was all worked out decades before Hancock when disgraced Prof. Charles Hapgood put forth his theories of ancient sea kings. Hancock uses it anyway. Yet somehow the drawings of Antarctica are a little too good to be entirely coincidental. Antarctica in the Finaeus map shows mountains and rivers beneath the ice, and the depiction of Antarctica, while flawed, does conform to the continent's general shape in a way coincidence is hard-pressed to explain. There may be something to the ancient maps, but there is no proof that they date back to Hancock's date of 10,500 BC. An ambitious 14th century traveller could easily have surveyed the coast of the continent, and mapmakers could have used imagination to fill in the interior, much the way a previous generation populated the North Pole with Hyperboreans.

III: White Gods and Ancient Cities: South America

On the other side of the world, the imposing and austere ruins of Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) stand as mute witnesses to the ravages of time and man. Spanish missionaries stood in horror before the ruins of the city and ordered the idols smashed. Graham Hancock writes that this city was the seat of the Viracocha, the South American civilizer-god described as white of skin and long of beard. This Caucasian, he says, could only have been a memory of a lost white race which colonized South America fifteen millennia ago.

Hancock's evidence is often lacking in solid background. He claims that a carving on the ancient Bolivian city of Tiwanaku depicts a type of elephant extinct since 10,000 BC. How could the ancients who carved that image have known about these elephants if they had not been told of them from time immemorial or carved them when the elephants still walked the earth? Prof. James Bailey offers an answer with Occam's Razor:

"This is a carving of a parrot. It looks like an elephant until you are told that it is a parrot and then it is very obvious that it is a parrot. . . What's more likely, that it's an incongruous, extinct elephant . . . or a more recent carving of an existing, common indigenous species?"

But Hancock says he sees an elephant, and he believes the elephant more likely since he says Tiwanaku is 17,000 years old. He based this number on surveys of the site taken by Prof. Arthur Posnansky in the 1940s. Posnansky based his date on an assumption that Tiwanaku was a solar observatory accurately aligned to the sun. Using an arbitrary point, he determined the sun was 18 degrees off perfect alignment, so therefore the site was laid out when sun and stone aligned, roughly 17,000 years ago.

On January 31, 2001, Discovering Archaeology (now Discover Archaeology) took issue with Hancock six years after he published Fingerprints and three years after the sequel, Heaven's Mirror. Prof. Charles Orser of Illinois State University says that "the only way his assumption makes sense is if we assume the architects of Tiwanaku, working in 15,000 B.C., laid out the site with precision surveying tools comparable to those used in the late 1920s." Orser implies that this technology did not exist, but there is a small problem.

Tiwanaku is one of only three places in the ancient world to use metal I-clamps to join cut blocks together, the others being ancient Egypt and Angkor Wat, Cambodia - both of which figure prominently in Hancock's cosmology. Those I-clamps at Tiwanaku are made of a particular alloy of iron, copper and arsenic that requires a smelter operating at very high temperatures. A scanning electron microscope determined that the clamps were poured into place, necessitating a portable smelter. All this in an area current theory denies an iron age. While Hancock argues baselessly for intervention from outside, at the very least one must concede that Tiwanaku's citizens had a high level of technology.

Orser is unswayed. "The gullible investigator in this detective story has been led down a blind alley by a clever guide, and he has come up empty-handed. Rather than stumbling upon an archaeological mystery, [Hancock] has merely created one."

A spokesperson for Hancock says "current researchers have supported [the] Posansky findings, including the former National Director of Bolivian Archaeology, Dr. Oswaldo Rivera, and the American archaeoastronomer Neil Steede. The article at (sic) Discovering Archaeology conveniently fails to mention this."

Hancock conveniently fails to mention that he himself implied in Heaven's Mirror that Rivera is the "former national director" because of his belief in the unproven antiquity of Tiwanaku.

IV: Black Faces and Ancient Technology: Mexico

Moving up the coast of South America and into the valley of Mexico, the colossal heads of the Olmec cannot fail to draw the attention of the archaeological tourist. Carved from enormous balls of stone, the heads depict helmeted figures with broad noses and thick lips. Like Erich von Däniken before him, Hancock claims that the unique features of the Olmec heads are distinctly African and so prove a trans-oceanic ancient culture. Or does he?

Throughout his writings on the Olmec, Hancock deploys rhetorical questions like "If [a lost civilization] left a legacy of high culture in Egypt and Mesopotamia, why shouldn't it have done so in Central America?" This is a neat way of skirting the need for evidence because Hancock merely raised a question; he did not pose a hypothesis. The same goes for his use of the conditional tense and subjunctive mood to pull off the neat rhetorical effect of saying something without really saying it. For example, Hancock says in Fingerprints that by the Olmec Horizon (c. 1500 B.C.) "it is by no means impossible that these great works preserve the images of peoples from a vanished civilization which embraced several different ethnic groups." Of course, Hancock did not really say that this was the case, only that it could have been.

Hancock claims the Olmec heads date back to the days of the Viracocha (c. 5000 B.C.) because there is no accurate way of dating stone. Therefore Hancock argues that this date must be every bit as accurate as the standard 1500 B.C. date. He is right that there is no way of saying when the stones were carved, only when they were buried in the Mexican jungles and forgotten to history. However, the context of Olmec civilization clearly places their achievements in the 1500 B.C. time-frame, so until the heads can be dated with any certainty, the safest and simplest assumption is that they descend from those who buried them since no other artifact survives from the hypothetical pre-Olmec civilization.

But Hancock uses his rhetorical flourish to turn the fact that the Old and New Worlds both had cultures into a stunning coincidence: "Certain cultures of the Old World and in the New World may both have received a legacy of influence and ideas from a third party at some exceedingly remote date."

Once again where is the solid evidence to back up the "may have?"

Hancock says the proof lies in the 1999 discovery of the Luzia skull, which Brazilian archaeologists claim is Negroid and therefore African. However, any good textbook on biological anthropology clearly says that there is no biological basis for race, and furthermore and ancient skull cannot be assigned a racial group because the "modern" races are cultural myths and not genetic reality.

But that does not deter Hancock from mentioning the Aztec and Mayan cultures where Quetzalcoatl (Kukulkan) the Feathered Serpent was also a white Caucasian. (Later Hancock would claim in The Mars Mystery that this god was actually the remembrance of a disaster which wiped out Martian civilization, but that is another story.) Of course, Hancock failed to mention the ancient American belief that white symbolized the spirit, so therefore gods would by definition be that color.

Hancock then visited Palenque where he viewed Pacal's tomb. Compare Hancock's reaction to Erich von Däniken's thirty years before. Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods: "The structure Pacal reclined in resembled a technological device." Von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods: "Today any child would identify his vehicle as a rocket."

Hancock makes his claim for ancient technology on the basis that the temple's inscriptions "had not yet been fully decoded." However, decades ago Linda Schele et al. deciphered the Mayan language, and the tomb of Pacal contained a description of what it was - a scene of the king traveling to the netherworld. This evidence was ignored.

Hancock claimed in 1995 that there was corroborating evidence for an ancient civilization in Mexico on the basis of Cuernavaca where a step pyramid lay beneath a volcanic lava mantle. Geologists dated the lava to 8,500 years ago. Unfortunately for Hancock, this sensational claim was a mistake and a fraud. The geology was proven wrong, and Hancock had to retract the claim. He never did any actual research into the myth of the ancient temple, reiterating a mistake made by Prof. Charles Hapgood, the same man who advocated the Piri Reis map.

And yet. . . Something about Hancock's view of Mexican civilization rings in part true, because there are occasional glimpses of similarities almost too great to be coincidence - like a ceremony common to Egypt and Mexico where the facial orifices of a corpse are struck open by bent metal rods to free the soul. Beyond any buildings or artifacts, it is the similarity of ideas in ancient civilization that make Hancock's view more palatable than von Däniken's ever was. As a footnote, a group of archaeologists said in 2001 that Roman artifacts found beneath an Aztec ruin were genuine and that Romans must have been to America.
 
In Part Two we examine Hanock's claims about Egypt and Cambodia and hear from Hancock in his own words.

© 2001-2002 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.