Posts Tagged ‘Graham Hancock’

Graham Hancock – A Crank, Possibly, But Definitely No Racist

December 9, 2022

My discipline, archaeology, has been massively going after Graham Hancock this week. Hancock’s ah, um,, ‘maverick thinker’, I suppose you’d say, who’s been presenting a series on Netflix arguing that thousands of years ago there was a highly advanced civilisation that perished in a cataclysm, but passed on its secrets to other ancient civilisations around the world. This has understandably annoyed archaeologists and a number have put up videos, some of them lengthy and quite detailed, disproving him. Hancock’s been promoting this idea for some time now. Going back two decades and more, he had a series on Channel 4 with the title ‘Water World’ or something like it, also arguing that there was a global advanced civilisation, whose monuments have been covered up by a flood, as recorded in the Bible and other ancient religions. Now I’m sure that Hancock is wrong, and the criticisms of his dodgy history and archaeology are right. But I take exception to one of the other accusations levelled at him, which is that he is racist.

This accusation is partly based on his false ascription of the achievements of indigenous cultures around the world to this putative prehistoric civilisation. It denies those people the credit for their achievements. But the accusation is also that it’s similar to the ideas of some bonkers White supremacist groups, who are using Hancock’s ideas to promote themselves. One archaeologist posted a video saying that Hancock should have disavowed the use of his ideas by these fascists. It also criticised him for being friends with Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. There are fair criticisms to be made of both of these men. Peterson’s an arch-conservative and anti-feminist, but hardly a Nazi. Rogan was pushing anti-vax nonsense and is an advocate for some mind-expanding drugs. A few years ago people were accusing him of being a ‘gateway to the Alt-Right’. Possibly, but he also talks to people from the left, who are otherwise denied a platform by the lamestream media. Journalists like Abbie Martin, who talked about Israeli propaganda against the Palestinians and how she found, when she visited the beleaguered Arab nation, that the reality was nothing like the picture painted by the Israeli state. He’s also talked to biologists and journalists exposing the lies of the trans ideology. This is not Alt-Right, no matter what groups like Mermaids, Stonewall, Antifa and the rest say. The people criticising the gender ideology tend to be radical feminists, many from the socialist left. Part of their opposition against it is that it reduces masculinity and femininity to traditional, stereotypical sex roles. One of the feminist vloggers interviewed one of the leading activists against the trans ideology, who was furious that people like her were being presented as right-wing. Another feminist activist criticised Matt Walsh for misrepresenting feminists as uniformly in favour of trans ideology, and then criticising them for it. Rogan gives a voice to people outside the mainstream. Sometimes it’s rubbish, and sometimes it’s immensely valuable. He has also interviewed a number of Black celebs, so again, not a Nazi.

The White supremacist ideas being referred to seem to me to be the Traditionalist ideology of Giulio Evola. Evola was an Italian Fascist and occultist, who was a major ideological influence on the scumbuckets behind the Bologna railway bombing in the 1970s. A fascist group bombed the station, killing and maiming over a hundred people. Evola believed that there was a strongly hierarchical, ‘Aryan’ civilisation in Hyperborea in the arctic, which was responsible for all the subsequent cultural achievements of the civilisations around the world. This is twaddle. But Hancock’s ideas are also similar to those of others, which don’t come from people in the fascist fringe. A couple of years ago I picked up an old book, Colony Earth, which had been published in the 1970s. This claimed that Earth may have been an extraterrestrial colony, whose advanced civilisation was destroyed in a nuclear war. The pyramids may have been fall-out shelters, as were the megalithic tumuli in Britain. It’s an interesting read, but certainly wrong. I think Charles Berlitz, who started the Bermuda Triangle myth, also believed in this, supporting it in one of his books with artefacts from Aztec tombs that look like aircraft. Berlitz is someone else, who I’m fairly certain has absolutely no connection to fascism whatsoever.

And I don’t believe Hancock is either.

When he was travelling the world on his Channel 4 series he was accompanied by his wife, who is Sri Lankan. Now, White supremacists do not, as a rule, marry dark-skinned people from outside Europe. If they do, they’re angrily denounced as ‘race traitors’. In one edition of this earlier series, Hancock reported on the mysterious ruins of ancient city found off the coast of the Bay of Bengal. He was shown talking respectfully to an Indian gent, who told him how such findings tie in with Hindu ideas of the antiquity of civilisation and ancient Indian legends of flooded cities. Again, this isn’t quite behaviour you’d expect from a genuine White supremacist. He also travelled to South and Central America, where he proposed the old theory that the Mayans, Aztecs and other ancient Amerindian civilisations must have learned how to build their pyramids from someone else. I think this was once again ancient Egypt. But who brought that knowledge to the New World? Black Africans. He pointed to an Olmec bas relief of a warrior’s head, and declared its features to be ‘proudly African’. If this is racism, then its Afrocentrism rather than White supremacy. As for the ancient race behind these monuments, Hancock doesn’t say what colour they are. In this, he breaks with some of his predecessors, who say they must have been White because the legends of numerous Amerindian peoples state that vital parts of their culture were brought to them by White gods. Hancock is therefore less racialised in what he says than his predecessors.

I disagree profoundly with Hancock’s ideas, but he has a right to say them like everyone else. And if it piques people interest in these ancient cultures so that they want to find out what they were really like, that’s all to the good. But I do think it’s profoundly wrong to accuse him of racism. That just further cheapens the word and weakens it as a weapon against the real thing.

Video on Archaeology’s Challenge to Enlightenment Accounts of Origins of States and Inequality

December 8, 2022

This is a fascinating video I found on Novara Media’s channel the other day. In it, host Aaron Bastani talks to archaeologist David Wengrow about the origins of the state and the development of social inequality. Wengrow argues that the evidence from archaeology challenges assumptions that prehistoric and preliterate peoples were incapable of rationally deciding for themselves what kind of societies they wished to live in. He gives examples from prehistoric Europe and North and South America to show that ancient and indigenous peoples not only did decide on the kind of societies they wanted, but were perfectly capable of reversing trends in their societies towards authoritarianism. One of the examples of this, which I found truly jaw-dropping, was one of the city states the conquistador Hernan Cortes made alliance with against the Aztecs. Unlike the Aztec empire, that state city was a democratic republic. He also talks about the influence on Enlightenment critiques of western society of a Huron Indian chief in Canada, who was an intelligent conversationalist able to hold his own in conversations about the nature of society to such an extent that French, British and Dutch colonial authorities invited him to dinner to talk this matter over.

Wengrow starts off by stating that modern political theory about the origins of society, as taught in politics courses, is completely divorced from archaeological accounts. The theory is based on the speculations of foundational Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau, who admitted that they were speculating. But these accounts are now taught as fact. Archaeological research, however, is overturning previous ideas about the origins of urban society. For example, it was believed that agriculture and urbanisation were linked and appeared together as part of the Neolithic Revolution. But this is not the case. Excavations of the ancient city of Catalhuyuk in Turkey show that while it was an urban centre, although Wengrow hesitates to call it a city, show that its people were still hunter-gatherers, living by foraging rather than agriculture. And the same is true of the settlement at Amesbury at the time Stonehenge was being built. The people then had given up agriculture, although they retained animal husbandry. It appears they had tried growing crops and then rejected it in favour of foraging.

He then goes on to talk about the Huron Amerindian chief. He inspired a colonist from New France, who had been expelled from the colony, to write a book based on the chief and his dinner conversation when the colonist was penniless in Amsterdam. This became a massive Enlightenment bestseller, and inspired other books by Voltaire and others in which Chinese, Tahitians and other outsiders criticise European society. Wengrow states that the Indian societies surprise western Europeans because they were much less hierarchical than they were, and contact with these societies and the indigenous critics of western civilisation did influence European political philosophy. We easily accept that Europe took over many material products from these nations, but are much less ready to accept the idea that they influenced our ideas, even though the Enlightenment philosophers said that they had.

He also talks about Cahokia, a great pyramid and city state in the Mississippi valley in America. This appears to be another example of a society, in which people rebelled or simply walked away from authority and hierarchy. It was also another indigenous monument that was ascribed to everyone else but the native peoples when it was first discovered, and is now disrespected by having a road driven through it. When it was constructed, the local society seems to have been hierarchical. At the top of the mound is a structure from which all of the city could be viewed. But sometime after its heyday it was abandoned. The traditional reasons are that the climate changed, but Wengrow finds that unconvincing. What seems to have happened instead is that people simply got tired of living in such a society and walked away.

Tenochtitlan, one of the great cities in ancient Mexico, is another example of a strongly hierarchical society that underwent profound social change and became more democratic. Wengrow states that it’s a massive state, and they owe a debt to the French scholar who produced detailed maps of it. When it first emerged, it was hierarchical but then the nature of society changed. People started living in high-quality, single-floor homes. These were so good they were originally thought to be palaces, but now it appears they were villas occupied by ordinary citizens. At some point, the people of Tenochtitlan decided that they wanted a more equal society, to the extent that some scholars believe that there was a revolution.

Then there is the case of the democratic city state Cortes encountered. This really was democratic, as there are accounts of the debates in its assembly. This astonished the conquistadors, as there was very little like it in Europe at the time, except some of the Florentine republics. This all challenges the notion that once society develops to a certain extent and becomes complex, inequality also emerges and is very difficult to challenge or remove. These cases show that indigenous peoples could and did. He also argues that the same may have been true of slavery. The only successful slave revolt that we know of is Toussant L’Ouverture in Haiti. But Wengrow suggests there could have been thousands of other successful slave revolts in prehistory of which we are unaware. Slavery came about, he argues, from the expense of laying out offerings for the dead. In order to leave food and drink for the dead, the bereaved had to have access to the foods themselves and so they became indebted and dependent on the people who owned those resources.

He also talks about the problems in describing some of these urban centres as cities. There are huge sites in the Ukraine, but archaeologists are hesitant about calling them cities with some preferring other terms such as ‘mega-sites’ because they aren’t centralised.

Bastani asks him at one point about the problem of pseudo-archaeology. I think this came up because Graham Hancock is currently fronting a series on Netflix claiming that way back in prehistory there was an advanced society, but that it was destroyed in a global cataclysm. Wengrow states that quite often pseudo-archaeology is based on old and discarded idea, such as Atlantis. The people involved tend not to be anyone who’s ever been on an archaeological dig, and view archaeologists as spending their lives trying to hide some momentous secret from everyone. But it can act as an entry for some people to archaeology, and he doesn’t really like the sneering attitude of some archaeologists towards it.

Wengrow himself is an interesting character. He didn’t want to be an archaeologist originally, but came to it from acting. He also worked in the BBC Arabic service. He decided at one point he wanted to get a degree, applied to the best university he could, Oxford, and sent reams of applications to its various colleges. They turned him down. Then he was told that he should apply for a place on a course that was just being set up. One of the colleges was just setting up an archaeology course, so he did. When it came to the interview, he told the interviewer that he had always wanted to be an archaeologist. At which point she held up all the previous letters he’d written. But they admitted him, and he has now had a career teaching and excavating in places like Egypt.

He states that sometimes the pseudoarchaeology about a period or culture misses the point about what’s really interesting about it. He talks about the idea that the Sphinx was constructed before the pyramids, and admits that it’s actually a reasonable question. But if you go back to the predynastic period a thousand years before the pyramids were built, you come to the burial sites of one of Egypt’s first kings. This is fascinating, although you wouldn’t know it from the dry way it has been discussed in conferences and museums like the Petrie Museum. Excellent though these are, they talk about highly specialised subjects like pot typography which is excruciatingly dull if you want to know the wider picture. The early king’s tomb is composed of room after room of the bodies of the people and occasionally the animals that were slaughtered to accompany the king into the afterlife.

The interview is based on a book Wengrow wrote with a colleague, The Dawn of Everything. Sadly, after spending a decade writing it, the co-author died just a few weeks after its completion. The book has been widely praised, and has even inspired artistic pieces. He talks about a French woman, who composed a piece of music based on it. He regrets he was unable to attend its performance thanks to jet lag coming back from somewhere, but later met the lady when she came to Britain.

I know a little about some of what he’s talking about to have no doubt that he’s absolutely right. One of the seminars in the archaeology department at Bristol, which I attended, was about how cities like Catalhuyuk were established before the appearance of agriculture. One of the huge Neolithic sites in the Ukraine is discussed in the La Rousse Encyclopedia of Archaeology. The great mound of Cahokia is also discussed in a book I bought years ago on North American Indian archaeology. I wasn’t aware that the people of Stonehenge had given up growing crops, nor of the democratic city states in South America and Mexico. This is fascinating stuff.

He’s right about archaeology contradicting the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers about the origins of society, though I’m not sure how much of a problem this is. The philosophers he discusses – Hobbes and Rousseau – were Social Contract theorists. Social Contract theory is the idea that the state and society were set up when men came together to select an authority under whom they would live, so that their lives and property would be protected. Thus the first kings. These princes are the representatives of the people, and so from the 17th century onwards the idea developed that sovereignty lay with the people, who could revoke the power they had delegated to the prince. This was the view of John Locke. However, subsequent philosophers showed that this was just conjecture, and that it could have happened like that as the people at the time were using concepts that only subsequently developed after the foundation of states and kingdoms. I thought Social Contract theory was dead, and he closest it had to a modern advocate was John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. Rawls argued that if people were just disembodied entities wishing to chose the kind of society in which they would care to live, they would choose one that had the maximum freedom and justice for everyone, as that would also include them. Away from centrist politics, the anarchists have been keenly interested in anthropology and those indigenous societies where there is no central authority.

I’m not sure how well some of this would go down with Sargon of Akkad and the Lotus Eaters. They’ve developed an interest in archaeology, recently posting a video discussing Homo Erectus, along with the Norman Conquest and ancient Rome. But Sargon is a huge fan of John Locke and describes himself as a classical liberal. I don’t know whether archaeology’s findings about the origin of early states would contradict his ideas or not.