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Diving for Answers

Graham Hancock's new book attempts to prove that Ice Age humans had a vibrant, dynamic culture. So what's so controversial about that?


UNDERWORLD / Graham Hancock

British edition:
Michael Joseph / Penguin | ISBN: 0-718-14400-7 | 2002 | 741 pages | GBP 20.00

American edition:
Crown Publishers | ISBN: 1400046122 | October 2002 | $27.50 |

* * *  (out of four)


Let's be clear at the outset: this is not a review of the merits of Graham Hancock's theories. Instead this is a review of the alternative historian's new book Underworld: Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age as a non-fiction entry into that broad-based category of "literature." As such, it's pretty good.

Hancock became famous in the mid-1990s when he proposed that a lost civilization of advanced technology and well-developed science had not only mapped the ancient world but had bequeathed civilization to the prehistoric civilizations of Egypt and the Americas. Now the massive new tome Underworld attempts to provide a factual and maybe even scientific basis for some of his earlier works' core claims. Hancock dived at sites around the world, from the sunken cart-ruts of Malta to the strange stone circles submerged off the coast of Taiwan. To his credit, in this book, unlike earlier works, Hancock gives mainstream archaeologists and geologists a chance to express doubts about his conclusions, though of course the tone of the book understandably favors the author who created it.

But that very quest to keep Underworld grounded in facts gives the book a split personality. On the one hand, it is an effort to provide an alternative history for the end of the Ice Age, one which claims that our ancestors witnessed the great cataclysms that accompanied the melting of the glaciers and recorded those memories in myths, legends and ancient maps. On the other hand, it is a book that tries to highlight anomalous ruins lost beneath the waves, ruins which could be man-made and could be more than 9,000 years old. Hancock manages (mostly) to walk the fine line between geology textbook and historical fantasy, but at times the two intertwining threads don't seem to completely mesh. Especially in the earlier sections about Ice Age geology (and the annoyingly frequent references to LGM -- the Last Glacial Maximum, or greatest extent of the ice), Underworld tends to read more like a refrigerator manual, but it improves as it goes along. The book is strongest when Hancock is talking about himself, his journey of discovery, and how he began to assemble the pieces of the puzzle.

Our intrepid author takes us around the world (except for Egypt and the Americas) to strange places and stranger times. He tells his story in the form of a personal voyage of discovery carried out through a series of dives at underwater ruins. (However, we could do without Hancock's opinions on how diving is like good sex: "if your body and mind are relaxed, you can go on for ever"). He shows us sunken temples and monuments off the coasts of India, Malta and Japan which seem to hint at the prospect that people lived off these coasts when they were still above land. Hancock relies on a series of maps made by Durham University's Dr. Glenn Milne to illustrate that these places were habitable an astonishing 15,000 years ago. Hancock also includes a fascinating, but less than scientific, section on ancient maps and the strange similarity many of them bear to Milne's reconstructions of the world of 10,500 B.C.

Of course, since he is an alternative historian, Hancock must also link the Ice Age to the legend of Atlantis, and he continues his tradition of accusing in each of his books at least one archaeologist of conspiring to cover up evidence of a lost civilization. This time the victim is J.D. Evans, late director of Malta's museums, unconvincingly accused of conspiring to prevent the discovery of Paleolithic evidence on Malta, an island the mainstream believes was first inhabited during the later Neolithic period. But these are minor quibbles with otherwise fine work in linking Malta to the Paleolithic. Hancock also gives us two long sections on India and how its ancient culture connects back in time to prehistoric Indian civilizations, and he provides a coherent (if not always convincing) argument for why the India of today shares much in common with its prehistoric Indus Valley predecessor.

However, after exploring 600 pages worth of India and Malta, the section on Japan feels rushed (even though it is long), and here Hancock loses that precious balance between physical discoveries and armchair speculation. Too much of this section is devoted to mythology and map-mysteries, while the underwater ruins are mostly hinted at. For a book called Underworld, Hancock left out much of his underwater research: "I've said nothing for example about the underwater enigmas of Tenerife [or those] around the Tahitian islands of Raiatea and Huahine [or] of the strange things we saw underwater off the Tongan island of Haapai."

Here I find myself compelled to say a few words about Hancock's thesis because it directly impacts the book as a whole. In fact, this new version of the lost civilization theory is the single largest problem with an otherwise compelling and readable Underworld. Graham Hancock has done the unthinkable: he has effectively abandoned much of his charmingly quirky earlier theory that Paleolithic Ice Age humans were technologically advanced super-men.

Even if we accept every shred of Hancock's evidence without question, he has done nothing more than propose that over the course of the 5,000 years people spent living through the Ice Age meltdown people managed to raise some stone monuments, develop a spiritual system of great complexity, and (most controversially) somehow manage to map the world. While many conservative archaeologists will disagree with at least the last of these things, it is not hard to conceive it possible. Since ancient humans arrived in Australia by boat before 50,000 B.C., it is not that hard to imagine that Ice Age peoples did explore their coast lines, trade maps and information with neighboring groups and produce after thousands of years a decent and close to accurate map of most of the world. If Europeans could do it in two centuries, then Ice Agers could have done it in five millennia.

Hancock's other position, that ancient peoples lived along the coasts that the end of the Ice Age sent underwater is neither new nor original. Hancock claims, however that it is being ignored: "Marine archaeologists have barely begun a systematic survey for possible submerged sites on those flooded lands. Most would regard it as a waste of time even to look." Yet Hancock fails to recognize two important facts. First, that many (if not a majority) of archaeologists would very much like to explore the old coastlines where early humans once lived. Second, the funding is not there because the archaeologists cannot guarantee to financers that they will find anything down there. It is the funding system Hancock should attack, not the archaeologists' integrity.

So what is the bottom line on Underworld? It is an ambitious and largely solid book that makes a compelling case that the areas once occupied by Paleolithic man may hold secrets that we do not yet understand. It is also a book that, while always taking the most extreme view the scientific facts make possible, does not often go beyond published literature. What we have is a work of alternative history that tries so hard to be credible and factual that it comes across at times like the very archaeological literature it aims to replace. But is it worth the money? Without a doubt, this book is well worth the ridiculously low price at which the British are selling it. . .

When writing this review, I discovered that despite the fact that I liked the book I wrote a review that sounded quite negative. I think this is because the book is not what I had expected it to be, and that disconnect between the old Hancockian romantic vision of powerful, advanced Atlanteans and the new theory of map-making hunter-gatherers made the book less fun. I give it three stars, though, because for what it is Underworld is very good. However, with a little more underwater evidence and one more revision, it could be great.


One brief quibble about the physical volume. British publisher Michael Joseph's printing left much to be desired. When reading the book, I found that the ink rubbed off on my hands and left gray patches on the pages. Also, the photographic plates are placed oddly, are (almost) never mentioned in the text, and in one case interrupt a two-page map spread that really needed to be seen side-by-side.

 2002 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.