There are few people that raise the ire of ‘skeptical’ archaeologists than Graham Hancock. That’s a shame, because Hancock is the best writer in the world on archaeology.
Let me clarify (for the archaeologists who just choked on their coffee). Whether or not you agree with his assumptions and conclusions about the evidence, Graham Hancock makes the presentation of that evidence – the detail of archaeological investigations and minutiae of history – a joy to explore. And that is certainly the case once again in his latest book, America Before: The Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization (Amazon US / Amazon UK).
America Before once again showcases the fact that Hancock’s books are built upon two very important pillars. Firstly, his work ethic when it comes to research: from spending months learning about the topic through reading and talking to people, to getting his feet on the ground and traveling the globe. And secondly, in his abundant writing talent (no doubt the result of being both naturally blessed, and also doing the hard yards in journalism for many years to refine that talent).
It would be interesting to see the result if archaeologists instead embraced him as a champion for the field – with the caveat or framing that he is most often representing the rebels and outliers that challenge orthodoxy – and bring much more interest and goodwill to archaeology, as well as a jumping off point for those interested in more ‘orthodox’ ideas (indeed, I know that a number of skeptical archaeologists were originally inspired by Hancock).
On the flipside, I think Graham Hancock’s audience could perhaps benefit from the opposite approach – that is, being more critical of what is written in his books. Hancock’s mission – which I personally believe is important – is to act as an activist for non-orthodox theories, to highlight and promote some of the more prominent challenges to the status quo that, if correct, might ultimately rewrite all of our understanding of human history. But a natural consequence of taking that role is that Hancock is going to be covering many theories and ideas that ultimately will be proven to be wrong. And America Before will in all likelihood contain a number of those.
So, having said all that, what are the topics covered in America Before, and is it a worthwhile read?
Exploring the ancient Americas, and beyond
America Before, as the title itself suggests, very much concentrates on the (possibly) ‘lost’ history of the ‘New World’ – the Americas, both North and South.
And as the subtitle also suggests, Hancock frames the book very much as the next logical step in his multi-decade ‘search for a lost civilization’ that started with his bestselling Fingerprints of the Gods back in 1995. As he says in the introduction:
Everyone has and does their own ‘thing’, and my own thing, over more than quarter of a century of travels and research, has been a quest for a lost civilization of remote prehistory — an advanced civilization utterly destroyed at the end of the Ice Age and somewhat akin to fabled Atlantis.
Plato, in the oldest-surviving written source of the Atlantis tradition, describes it as an island “larger than Libya and Asia put together” situated far to the west of Europe across the Atlantic Ocean. Hitherto I’d resisted that obvious clue which I knew had already been pursued with unconvincing results by a number of researchers during the past century. As the solid evidence that archaeologists had gotten America’s Ice Age prehistory badly wrong began to accumulate in folders on my desktop, however, and with new research reports continuing to pour in, I couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of the location favored by Plato. I had considered other possibilities, as readers of my previous books know, but I had to admit that an immense island lying far to the west of Europe across the Atlantic Ocean does sound a lot like America.
I therefore decided to reopen this cold case. I would begin by gathering together the most important strands of the new evidence from the Americas. I would set these strands in order. And then I would investigate them thoroughly to see if there might be a big picture hidden among the details scattered across thousands of scientific papers in fields varying from archaeology to genetics, astronomy to climatology, agronomy to ethnology, and geology to paleontology.
Hancock’s almost-600 page ‘report’ on his investigation of this ‘cold case’ runs to 30 chapters broken down into eight parts:
Manitou: The Mystery of Serpent Mound
New World? The Mystery of the First Americans
Genes: The Mystery in DNA
Memes: The Amazon Mystery
Stuff Just Keeps Getting Older: The Mystery of the Primeval Mounds
Equipped for Journeying: The Mystery of Death
Apocalypse Then: The Mystery of the Cataclysm
Survive! The Mystery of the Invisible Man
As you can see from those titles, that’s a whole lot of mystery to unpack! I’m not going to discuss all the topics covered in detail here – half the pleasure of a Graham Hancock book is going on the journey with him – but will quickly summarise below the focus of each part of the book.
The book opens with Graham (and ever-present traveling companion, his lovely wife Santha) visiting Serpent Mound in Ohio, a well-known, massive ancient earthwork shaped like a snake. This part features both Hancock’s biggest strength, his descriptive scene setting that immerses the reader within the exotic location they are visiting, and weakness: the inclusion of some fairly (in my opinion) tenuous alternative theories.
Part two takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture of the orthodox history of the peopling of the Americas – and how archaeologists have got it wrong, with dates constantly being pushed back. It’s a strong area for Hancock to dive into in depth – he has often been criticized by archaeologists for his re-dating of various monuments, but the evidence shows that archaeologists have consistently underestimated the antiquity of human presence in the Americas. While some archaeologists might suggest ‘this is how science works’, it also shows that science regularly gets it wrong, often due to rigid power structures and resistance to new theories. And Hancock takes full advantage of this criticism, by covering the controversial ‘Cerutti mastodon’ discovery which would push human presence in the Americas back by roughly 100,000 years!
Part three of America Before sees Hancock depart America and head to Siberia – he’s on the trail of the mysterious archaic humans knowns as the Denisovans. Hancock talks about both how the Denisovans seemed to have some advanced (at least for the time) technology, as evidenced by a stone bracelet with what appear to be drill holes in it, and how traces of their influence can be found in the DNA of indigenous people in both the New World and in Australasia.
Part four sees Hancock return to the Americas, but this time to the Amazon. He looks into stories about lost cities and advanced civilizations in the region (e.g. El Dorado), as well as once again focusing on how archaeologists can get it very wrong, and present their incorrect assumptions as fact to the rest of the world. In this case, by looking at influential Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Betty Meggers and her view that no pre-Columbian Amazonian settlement could have been as populated or sophisticated as those stories suggested – an opinion that “for a long while served as the sole acceptable reference frame through which the prehistory of the Amazon would be understood.” He then looks in detail at some exciting new discoveries related to archaeology in South America that we covered here on the Grail, including the discovery of henge-like geoglyphs across the Amazon (perhaps the most fascinating topic in the book for me) and genetic links between indigenous Australians and Amazonians.
Part five of the book moves north again, taking an in-depth look at the ‘mound-builder’ culture in North America, with Hancock visiting ‘Monk’s Mound’ in Cahokia and a number of other amazing ancient monuments. I have to confess that some of the discussion of alignments in this section felt a bit tedious and some of the assumptions perhaps too forced (there’s always that feeling that if you draw enough lines from various points, you’re going to find something that lines up), and these chapters were one of the few times that reading the book felt like an effort.
Part six takes a sudden hard left from archaeology, at least initially, with Hancock describing how – first during his travels researching the book, then a few months later at home – he almost died after suffering serious medical issues. After a short discussion of the possibility that our consciousness might survive physical death, he then segues back ‘on-topic’ by comparing how some ancient American beliefs about death and the afterlife parallel those of ancient Egypt, such as the constellation of Orion being linked with those topics.
Part seven of America Before returns to a topic covered in his previous book, Magicians of the Gods – the scientific controversy surrounding the ‘Younger Dryas’ period at the end of the last Ice Age, and the possibility that it was caused by an extraterrestrial impact event (a topic we’ve covered multiple times here at the Grail – see the links in this article). It’s a fascinating topic, and though I’m quite familiar with a lot of it I still found this section of the book to be excellent reading (though, considering it touches on two of my favourite topics – lost history and space science – that’s perhaps to be expected!)
The final part of the book then attempts to synthesize all of this information- and other pieces of evidence, such as the anomalous maps Hancock discussed back in Fingerprints of the Gods – to perhaps detect the fingerprint of, not a god, but a lost civilization that may have influenced cultures across the globe before the (alleged) cataclysm at the end of the last Ice Age wiped much of its traces from the planet. Hancock here suggests a scenario – “pure speculation” in his own words – in which this advanced civilization saw the apocalypse coming, and so spread knowledge to those best-suited to surviving the aftermath, the hunter-gatherer societies:
My bet is the planners would have seen from the outset that the superior survival skills of hunter-gatherer populations might potentially make them the inheritors of the earth in the event of a true planetary cataclysm. An important strand of any contingency plan, therefore, would have been to establish connections with hunter-gatherers, to teach them, to learn from them, and in so doing to ensure that these populations were willing and able—if called upon—to offer refuge to the “gods” of the lost civilization.
Bringing it all together
Overall, America Before is – as with all Graham Hancock books – an enjoyable and enlightening read, a fascinating journey to mysterious sites around the globe while also being educated about archaeological and historical discoveries and theories (both orthodox and fringe). For all the criticism levelled at Hancock, I’m not sure there’s anyone else out there reaching the general public with information about the use of DNA and stratigraphy in archaeology, the impact of viruses in virgin populations, and so on!
As for how much of it Hancock has got ‘right’, it’s difficult for me to say as a layman. As with his previous books, I come away with the feeling that the truth lies somewhere between the theories put forward in America Before and the conservative, though still-evolving, ideas of orthodox archaeology (and geology etc). I do think that over the decades, Hancock has shifted his work to a more scientific basis, citing more data and science rather than mostly myths and speculative theories. And he does certainly seem to regularly be ‘ahead of the curve’ on controversial theories that gain more and more traction and acceptance afterward, from megalithic culture dating back much further than previously assumed (e.g. Gobekli Tepe), to archaeological discoveries being hidden beneath the rising waters after the end of the Ice Age, and more recently to the Younger Dryas impact theory.
At times I do cringe at his sometimes ferocious attacks on orthodox archaeology – though, given the treatment he has received himself, it’s somewhat understandable. I hope though that his readers understand that, rather than archaeologists in general being ‘bad people’, that his antipathy is mostly aimed at those “dominant individuals, with a prestigious position” within the profession, who “can delay the progress of knowledge for decades but ultimately cannot stop the buildup of contrary evidence and opinions that will lead to a new paradigm” – even if he sometimes, perhaps lazily, generalises simply to ‘archaeologists’.
When, I wonder, will archaeologists…learn the lessons that their own profession has repeatedly taught – namely that the next turn of the excavator’s spade can change everything? So little of the surface area of our planet has been subjected to any kind of archaeological investigation at all that it would be more logical to regard every major conclusion reached by this discipline as provisional.
In this respect I think genuine archaeologists actually share a common bond with Graham Hancock – a passion for discovery and learning new things about humanity and its history. And while others might not agree, I believe this, more than anything, is a complementary relationship, with each keeping the other ‘honest’: Hancock by pushing forward new ideas that challenge the orthodoxy (and the current historical paradigm), archaeologists by pushing Hancock to present evidence rather than simple speculation.
Bertrand Russell once said, “science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.” I feel that Graham Hancock, once again with America Before, is adding some imagination to archaeological science, and perhaps cracking open new doors to discovery.