Wednesday, March 18, 2009


So, I love to read books on history and pre-history. And I love to read books which challenge the reigning paradigms, like Bernal's BLACK ATHENA or Rudgley's THE LOST CIVILIZATIONS OF THE STONE AGE. And I love to read things that are way out there, leaving credibility behind. When I was younger, I loved the works of Thor Heyerdahl (KON-TIKI, AKU AKU, THE RA EXPEDITIONS), who insisted ancient people were a lot smarter than we gave them credit for; it's one of my great regrets that I never wrote him a fan letter, although I did meet someone who knew him (Tolkien's secretary, the late Joy Hill, who had a model of the RA he'd given her on her mantleplace). And at one point I devoured the works of Erich von Daniken (CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, &c), who I always thought was better at posing the questions than in answering them. I actually did write to von Daniken once, when I was working on a junior high science fair project based on his work, and he v. kindly replied, sending me three slides of images I'd asked about.

Nowadays I read more history than pseudohistory, but I find both a great source of ideas for D&D adventures and Call of Cthulhu scenarios (STANDING STONE was full of Neolithic relics, while the current CoC adventure I'm running draws on everything from medieval monastic history in the west of England to THE MABINOGION).

Sometimes it can be great fun to juxtapose a reputable and an iconoclastic work: Andrew Robinson's LOST LANGUAGES (fascinating & informative) with Steven Roger Fischer's GLYPH-BREAKER (interesting but utterly unreliable), the current issue of SKEPTIC (smug, self-certain, & self-satisfied) with a recent FORTEAN TIMES (minds a little too open to all the world's wonders), concurrent issues of BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY (credible) and ANCIENT AMERICA (credulous).*

All of which is a way of leading up saying that I've just finished working my way slowly through Graham Hancock's FINGERPRINTS OF THE GODS. (#II.2775)** I was only dimly aware of Hancock and had not read his work before; now I find he's someone I would have loved reading when I was fifteen. He hits on all the right spots -- the Piri Reis maps, Titicaca, Nazca, Teotihuacan, the Olmecs, Tula, the Maya, Quetzalcoatl -- before shifting his focus in the second half from South and Central America to Egypt, his main focus for the rest of the book. In fact, he follows so closely in Von Daniken's footsteps that it's shameful for him not to give E.v.D. any credit in his own book: Hancock is careful never to mention the name, despite von Daniken's obviously being one of his major sources. He's similarly shy about Heyerdahl, who he quotes three times but is careful not to mention in the main text, only in the endnotes.

In brief, Hancock's thesis is this: there's plenty of evidence scattered around the world of a previous civilization compatible to our own existed in the distant past (say about 12,000 years ago). He concludes that the lost continent of Atlantis is known to us today as Antarctica, it having previously been further north (think the climate of Cape Town or Tierra del Fuego) before having been suddenly shifted 2000 miles towards the pole at the time of the last Ice Age. The survivors of that civilization planted clues in several places around the world so future folk would know of them and be warned that the same thing could happen again (Hancock, writing in 1995, predicts the year 2000 as a likely time for our civilization to be catastrophically upset, when the weight of the ice caps causes the earth's outer crust to slide across the planet's mantle). I don't know why he ignores Sumer, and the Indus Valley, and China, or even the pueblos, but his argument that the Sphinx is fantastically old (not 4500 years old, as Egyptologists think, but more like 12,000 years old) resonates with Lovecraft's Houdini story -- I hadn't realized that HPL had done his homework and was on solid theoretical ground by turn-of-the-last century standards in considering possible the ideas that (a) the Sphinx was already old when the pyramids were built [a forged stele from 500 BC said so], (b) the Sphinx once had a different, not necessarily human face, & (c) there might be caves or some other hollows beneath it. I also didn't know that the Sphinx isn't built by their stacking stones together, like the pyramids, but is a single piece of solid rock carved by their taking away all the stone around it, leaving it still attached to the bedrock beneath and surrounded by its own pit, rather like the Rock-cut Churches of Ethiopa.

Is Hancock convincing? In a word: no. Too many leaps of faith, too much special pleading, too many vaguely re-wording things to make them fit his case (e.g., he presents the Norse account of Ragnorak as their record of what happened in the distant past, like Noah's Flood, ignoring the fact that for the Norse it was v. specifically a prediction about the future). His numerology is particularly unconvincing, even for numerology (where the bar is pretty low). But he describes a lot of fascinating places, and revisits a lot of debunked science from the 19th and early 20th century that's good to know about. There are plenty of interesting ideas to be mined from his work (e.g., the point near the end when he calls for excavations in Antarctica to search for the massive ruins of a lost civilization -- we all know how that turned out in AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS).

For a much more down-to-earth book that argues that 'civilization' -- in the sense of people making fire, living in little villages, growing crops, with a few domesticated animals, weaving, pottery, and perhaps even a simple system of a few recognizable symbols as a kind of ur-writing, and trade-routes stretching hundreds if not thousands of miles -- existed much earlier than is generally thought, see Richard Rudgley's THE LOST CIVILIZATIONS OF THE STONE AGE, which keeps to probability and hence makes a much better case.

--John R.

*the current issue has a piece arguing that Kenniwick Man is not an Amerind but a member of the Lost Tribe of Norden -- except that they forget to tell us what 'the Lost Tribe of Norden' might be, a phrase unknown to Wikipedia and even Google!

**many thanks, Rich, for the extended loan

No comments: