Thursday 18 April 2024

Hancock and Dibble: Public Archaeology versus Amateurish Theorising and gaslighting


This evening I suspect I was not alone in spending four hours of my time watching a debate moderated (by Joe Rogan) between popular writer Graham Hancock and the archaeologist Flint Dibble about Hancock's theories presented in the popular 2022 Netflix series "Ancient Apocalypse" [henceforth AA]. Here's the synopsis of the series from the Wikipedia article on the series: 

In the series, Hancock argues that an advanced ice age civilization was destroyed in a cataclysm, but that its survivors introduced agriculture, monumental architecture and astronomy to hunter-gatherers around the world. He attempts to show how several ancient monuments are evidence of this, and claims that archaeologists are ignoring or covering up this alleged evidence. [...]

He builds the narrative around the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, which attributes climate change between "12900 and 12800 years ago" at the end of the Pleistocene to a massive impact with something falling out of the sky (meteor, comet). 

Dibble had been one of the archaeologists critical of AA and like another one (who refused the invitation) was challenged by Hancock to a public recorded debate. Dibble has previously written very sensibly (among other things) on pseudoarchaeology and I was interested to see what happened. To be honest, I was expecting it to be a trainwreck, and it could so easily have been - Hancock was trying very hard. 

Dibble starts off really well with "what is archaeology" with quite a striking artefact to break the ice.. but more than that as it immediately addresses the "looks-like" approach of pseudoarchaeology (and indeed portable antiquities collection/antiquitism) and draws attention to CONTEXT. A really clever opener. 

The second slide (went over Hancock's head, it later transpired) showed survey data, making the point how much data we have - but also (and this is what GH missed) that archaeology is not just about excavating. Slide three mentions looting (big plus from me there....) and the fragility of the record. This leads into him giving a quick summary of GH's theories, and how he proposes to test them. His whole introductory talk (despite dumb interruptions from Rogan which we could have done without) was really well-prepared, succinct and to the point.

Hancock began his presentation with likening the "lost civilisation I am thinking of" as "like a black hole in space [..] something missing in the story of our past" - like he's decided a priori that it is something that "should be there" even if we cannot see it and it is somehow necesary in order to describe how various peoples around the world got the impetus to be civilised.

In order to demonstrate his assertion that nasty old archaeology (as a whole) has a closed mind to new innovative ideas (like his) he evokes the dispute over the 'Clovis First' model of the peopling of the Americas. He mentions two sites and two archaeologists who allegedly "had their lives destroyed" by their colleagues' refusal to believe their interpretation of the evidence for pre-Clovis migrations into the Americas (read: US). This was Jaques Cinq-Mars (Bluefish Cave) and Tom Dillehay (Monte Verde, Chile). Hancock's sarcasm about the number of times that "Clovis First:" was "debunked", but based not on the specialist literature, but the ssensationalist treatment of the popular science press and National Geographic is a little bit cringeworthy. As Dibble says archaeology's "Clovis police" that Hancock claims really should be seen as a tiny fraction of lithics specialists in one country being a*holes". I can confirm the point he makes that in archaeology (like in banking, teaching, corporations etc. etc.,) you will find that there are people are a*holes.  [in my experience, in lithics studies ...oh yes! That's before you get to some of the archaeologists who support metal detectorists...].

Hancock then complains about the SAA ("of which Flint is a member") writing to Netflix about the way the series depicts archaeology. But, what else is a professional body to do when a media company airs a programe that so misrepresents their discipline like this? What are professional bodies for? I'd be disappointed if they did not - where was the CIfA? 

He then talks about the Sahara desert where "a little work has been done" and how a lost civilisation there "could have been missed"... how would archaeologists know if they excavated so little of it? So, he missed the point about survey... (really embarrassing pestering for an answer to his question, before getting patronising, then spouting some bollocks about an ancient (15th cent) map showing a Green Sahara and it allegedly matching some radar of ancient watercourses). I myself have translated a huge book reporting on a multidisciplinary Polish-US project in that desert, Flint Dibble's Dad did a lot of work there. I've written a paper on one aspect of the archaeology, Hancock's feeble evidence-free  "could have been" really fails to convince. Above all, we know a lot about the environment of the place before the Lower Dryas and it does not relate to the sort of "civilisation" that Hancock apparently (in his books and TV series) imagines existed in the Ice Age. But Hancock still thinks there might be something there. But "might be" is not supporting evidence for his thesis.

He then switches triumphantly to Amazonia, another big area that he says archaeologists have don next to no fieldwork - as they have "excavated" so little of it. And hey... there are "geoglyphs that archaeologists did not know anything about" - he's been there, discovered some of his own... so there could be a large civilisation in Amazonia - huge area. What he actually "forgot" to say is the site he mentions visiting with some archaeologists - almost "discovering" ... were discovered by an archaeological survey (that word again) in the 1970s [Ondemar Days, under the National Archaeological Research of the Amazon Basin Programme] and has been on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2015. They also are a lot later than pre-Dryas, between approximately 200 BC - 1300 AD. But he still thinks they cannot rule out the possibility that a lost civilisation could be hidden there. But "can't be ruled out' is NOT evidence of this "Lost Civilisation".

Hancock then talks about how much continental shelf was once above water during the Ice Age that is now under the sea. He notes that survey work (that word again) has been done but that it is "absurd" to say that "enough has been done to rule out the possibility...." you get the drift. 

He then represents himself and his wife Santha Faiia as intrepid sub-aqua explorers all over the world ("what we did was that we followed up local accounts of underwater structures, from fishermen, local divers..."). He then shows photos they took in Nan Madol on the island of Ponope. You can look that up in Wikipedia how "lost" that was, and how the remains relate chronologically to the Lower Dryas. There has been an archaeological survey of the underwater remains by Dr. Arthur Saxe in 1978-9 before Mr Hancock got there. Most significantly, Nan Madol was one of the sites James Churchward identified as being part of the lost continent of Mu, starting in his famous 1926 book The Lost Continent of Mu Motherland of Man.

          Yonaguni 3d scan -clearly like no building on earth         

Another place they've been diving is Yonaguni Monument, a well-known underwater rock formation that was discovered in the mid-1980s near Yonaguni Island, Japan ("Japan's Atlantis"). This, he says ":Looks like" a weird wonky pyramid/mastaba. I think it looks like a heavily-jointed rock.

 He also shows a submerged circular stone structure off the Kerama islands near Okinawa Japan that "looks like" a man-made megalithic stone circle (he says). [looks like exfoliation to me].

He then shows other blurry underwater holiday photos of "sites" in Taiwan, India, and several other pieces of rock he says "look like" they are artificailly carved. It is, he says, "absurd" to treat them as anything else. If he can "find" them, he asks, why can't the archaeologists? But then what are they evidence of? If you excavated these buildings, what would you find? 

Hancock did not discover these sites, places like the Yonaguni outcrop of jointed rock appear in a plethora of popular pseudoarchaeological books produced since the late 1960s, well exemplified by the writings of Erich von Daniken (but not started by him). They are part of the the Standard Pseudoarchaeology Packet. Many of these site have been examined by specialists and pronouncements made on them, placing them in a wider context, and those conclusions published... Writers like Hancock get their stories from ignoring the ones that explain why they are natural formations that coincidentally resemble something else (like the clouds that look like Elvis, or Santa). They do this by not reading the literature (preferring popular science magazines and the writings of ortther pseudoracheology writers) and them cherry picking - ignoring the dozen or so geologists who say the Bimini road is not a road but an outcrop, but finding one guy who has some geological qualification who says "looks like" a road [to nowhere]. Are they really unaware of the other texts and other arguments? How can they claim to have done "30 years research into this" and NOT to be? What do we understand by the word "research" anyway?

In the programme there is then a long and tiring series of rather unstructured "what if"s (Gunung Padang, Piri Reis map, Bimini Road, Sphinx alignment, Orion's belt-pyramids and such-other crap - the Standard Pseudoarchaeology Packet). 

This section was marred by an overlong and regrettable ad-personam "he said..." by Hancock aimed at Dibble (who at this point- but only - did not defend himself too well)  [goes througfh to here]. 

Part of the reason for this failure is that Hancock, despite the kind of approach to studying the past that he embodies having been labelled "pseudoarchaeology" a long time ago, apparently has never gone to the trouble to actually research (that word again) what that mweans,and what is meant by that. To an archaeologist, like Dibble, it is obvious why there should be a prefix differentiating "archaeology" and "something that people think looks like archaeology but is not". This is why I think he dropped the ball a bit when Hancock was questioning whether it is "racist" to claim that indiginous communities could not make civilizational progress on their own without outside help. From our side, this seems so obvious. It is less obvious to some arrogant amateur that thinks he has all the answers (and it is that the experts are all completely wrong, and it ("obviously") was a Lost Civilisation  that helped the native work out how to plant a seed, or whatever). Moreover, one who has not done the reading of the many clearly-written texts in the public domain about this (good ones here, here, here, briefly here for example). Dibble instead of allowing Hancock's self-centred whining, trying to make it all about him, should have just referred that "researcher" to the general discussion  (in fact going back at least to the Moundbuilder hypothesis). The points made about AA need to be seen in that wider contet, Dibble does see that, Hancock can't. Hence the rather jarring results slap bang in the middle of the Joe Rogan experience. The moderator here is less than useless.  

Dibble later goes on to make a masterful presentation of the actual archaeological evidence from the Ice Age. He works systematically (not by cherry picking) to show the fallacy of Hancock's claim that we do not have "enough evidence". In fact, as he demonstrates, we have a goodly amount of archaeological information and environmental data - and none of it points to the co-existence of the hunter-gatherer communities that the evidence clearly demonstrates with any lost "higher coivilization" of the nature that Hancock claims. Dibble packs a lot in, he questions the numerical mumbo-jumbo that is supposed to show that this "Lost Civilisation" knew astronomy before the Lower Dryas. Dibble's specialisation is prehistoric foodways, and here his presentation was spell-bindingly constructed (at last all that crap from archaeology 101 all those years ago about a hard and brittle rachis on seeds made some sense). Joe Rogan kept asking dumb questions - not clear if he was the one confused or whether he thought it would help the audience understand if he kept interrupting instead of listening. Dibble however kept his cool and goodnatured approach throughout, admirably. And kept up the pace. I think his students are very lucky, his classes are probably very useful, thought provoking and informative. 

It is obvious that Flint Dibble had put a LOT of work into reading what Hancock was proposing, and had then systematically set about answering the points made. I think he probably devoted several weeks to preparing this presentation. I do not know if Hancock noticed that. He had not done his opponent the same courtesy. Instead of engaging with what archaeology has said about the Ice Age, Hancock concentrated on trying to show what a "black hole" it was where nobody had done any work that comes up to his (Hancock's ) standards.

I hope that Dibble's hard work preparing the script and slides of his presentation will result in him producing a book in exactly the same tone on the same topic. I would not address it to Hancock fans per se (from the commonts on social media wherever the Joe Rogan interview is mentioned, it is clear that his the more vociferous part of his audience are mostly composed of empowered social inadequates out to troll academe). I  would address it to the general viewer whose curiosity was piqued and genuinely wants to find out more, and whether what Hancock presents is in any way plausible.  

But I think there was one very clear outcome of this whole thing. Like Von Danniken before him, Hancock challenges the archaeologists to show where what he proposes is wrong, and affecting to be a genuine researcher really interested in finding out the truth (lot of talk from Hancock about "my truth"). Fine. But what happens when they do? 

Throughout the whole talk, Mr Hancock was shifting the goalposts and  gaslighting ("I have never said that.... show me where I do"). But there was the most egregious example of that ever in this talk. So Dibble comes alonmg with a whole load of evidence about foodways: "in the Ice Age this is what food production looked like, and this is how we know" and we get on to agriculture. Dibble knows about this, Hancock can not have failed to realise this. So what does he do? 

Hancock: "there was this civilisation [...] " changes his story. 

Surely the whole reason for believing there was an ancient Ice Age civilization is to explain why things like "pyramids" "monumental architecture [Gobeli]" "agriculture" and other things - including [allegedly] amazingly sophisticated  astronomical knpowledge" were so "suddenly" spread all over the world [but just the brown-skinned bits, Stonehenge was not one of them] after the [alleged] Lower Dryas catastrophe that wiped out that Lost Civilization so severely that it became lost, ready for the great celebrity Graham Hancock to discover. 

In the middle of this debate, Hancock changes the story, shifts the goalposts. No pyramids, it was not highly advanced, no "it's you saying that, not me" (really?). But they DID have a "highly advanced knowledge of astronomy that was able to explore and map the world" "had a knowledge of longitude" [in c 13000 BP ... what for?]. "A very small number of survivors" [of the postulated catastrophe] "settled among hunter-gatherers, as we would today" [...]"benefitted from their knowledge and exchanged  knowledge with them" [of longitude, yeah?]. "I am not saying they introduced agricultural products to those people, I am not saying they brought agriculture to those people ". "I am saying they helped nurture the idea (sic) of agriculture amongst those people".

First of all there are a number of books and a TV series enshrining what he says about what the refugees from the allegedly destroyed Lost Alleged Civilisation introduced to the people they came in contact with. That's why the series went on about really-really ancient pseudo-pyramids [Guunang], monumental buildings [temples of Malta] and so on. What he is NOW saying is that this little community of survivors brought to erstwhile backward outside communities nothing but a few high-faluting ideas about cosmology and geography rather than anything practical. 

This is where he really is in la-la land. We actually know a lot about hunter-gatherers and how they fit into the environment. Hancock uses his imagination, so we can use ours. In a remote bit of forest there is a band of hunter gatherers, they have their territory. The group knows how to exploit the resources of that environment all year round, in a more-or-less sustainable way. The group is of the size it is because that is the carrying load of the particular bit of territory they exploit. Along comes a group of idiot migrants who know nothing about any of this, they ask the group to feed them, to let them stay, to let them share in the resources of the territory. There has just been a global catastrophe, the whole ecostystem has been affected, and these people come waltzing in expecting food and some tips how to compete with those already hard-pressed to survive? Do they let them in? Why would they when they have what they need, and ZERO interest in learning about the constellations and longitude. What if these people come in with their new ideas and different ways, will that not challenge the way things have been done by our grandfathers and our grandfathers' grandfathers? Why would this band of hunter gatherers welcome these aliens into their number if it threatens culture change? That is precisely why the Fearful Right today deplores migrants coming in "putting pressure on our little island home in their little boats" and voted for a self-harnm Brexit. We rememeber Roanoke, some colonists came to North America, ran out of food, wanted the natives to feed them... the natives killed them all. 

Basically, how could these migrants "nurture the idea of agriculture" if they were not themselvesd agriculturalists? Why would the locals need their ideas nurtured by outsiders if neither of them were agriculturalists? Hancock's theory simply falls flat on its face.  

What I find interesting is the comments of Hancock fan-boys under any mention of this debate on social media. In tone (and articulacy) they are exact parallels to the way a lot of metal detectorists write about archaeology and archaeologists. What is the root of this phenomenon?  

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