Consider This: Taking a closer look at pseudoarchaeology

Identifying misinformation in the popular docuseries Ancient Apocalypse.

André Costopoulos, Vice-Provost and Dean of Students

Netflix recently released Ancient Apocalypse, Graham Hancock’s eight-hour video pitch for the idea that there was an advanced civilization during that last ice age, and (spoiler) that it was wiped out by a cataclysm twelve thousand years ago. He argues that survivors of that civilization taught their advanced knowledge to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who went on to create our current societies. For a while, Ancient Apocalypse was the top documentary on Netflix. Maybe it still is. Clearly, there is significant public interest in the questions that Hancock is asking, and people want to know what he has to say about all this.

The Netflix blurb announces: “What if everything we know about prehistoric humans is wrong? Journalist Graham Hancock visits archeological sites around the world to uncover whether a civilization far more advanced than we ever believed possible existed thousands of years ago.”

Let’s take those two sentences one by one and look at them from an archaeological perspective. Predictably, the pitch begins with one of the two iconic questions of pseudoarchaeology: “What if?” The other is “is it possible?”, and it could just as well have been used here.

The body of the question deals with the not quite false, or at least the very remotely possible, although highly improbable. It is a fact that everything we claim to know about the past is probably not quite true. Some of what we think we know is truer than some of the rest, and some is as close as we’re going to get, given the archaeological evidence currently available to us, or maybe ever available to us.

There is a certain sense in which everything we know about the human past is false, because we can’t be positively certain about any of it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything valuable about the past, or that we don’t have a valid and true understanding of large parts of it, at some scale or other, which is what Hancock’s question implies. 

Some of what we suspect about the past is very, very solidly supported. There are other large parts of the human past for which we have only the slightest, most high-level understanding. As an archaeologist, I try to be very clear about that.

In the current state of my knowledge of the human past, I have a moral certainty (a probability so low that there is no room for reasonable doubt) that there was no advanced ice age civilization like the one for which Hancock claims to have evidence.

A cataclysm that destroyed such a civilization, so recently, and leaving no archaeologically visible trace of it, would have had to utterly transform the entire planet, and we just don’t observe that in the geological record, nevermind the archaeological. Not to mention that it doesn’t seem to have destroyed all evidence of our ice-age hunter-gatherer ancestor, plenty of which we find all over the landscape.

Note that I am always at pains to say “in the current state of my knowledge.” Contrary to what Hancock will say, scientists generally find the unexpected much more compelling and interesting than the expected. I am always open to, and even looking for, evidence contrary to what I believe. That’s what my entire career is based on. If I always found what I expect, there would be no reason for me to do research.

Now, let’s get a bit more subtle about Hancock’s question. I think he’s unintentionally asking a really interesting question. What does it mean to be an advanced civilization? Material technology is one thing, and it takes a while to develop. Unfortunately, it’s what we mostly find in the archaeological record, so its level of development and sophistication tends to colour our appraisal of our ancestors.

When we say there was no advanced civilization twelve thousand years ago, we generally mean that we don’t see a technology like ours in the archaeological record of that period.

Sure, the Romans didn’t have digital computers (although they may have come up with a few quite impressive analogue ones), and people on the Eurasian steppe thirty-five thousand years ago didn’t have cell phones to coordinate their hunts, but what does that really tell us about the state of advancement or sophistication of their societies?

For longer than many of us imagine, humans have had very complex and finely crafted stories and myths that describe and explain the world around us. As early as maybe fifty thousand years ago, we developed material and other forms of expression that speak about those stories and about our relationship with our world.

We have had complex, and even complicated kinship and land-tenure systems that regulate the relationships between us. These systems are dynamic, adaptive – we put agency into them, and use them strategically, even as they develop under external constraints from our environment and from our own mental and cognitive makeup.

These are just a few achievements among many that speak to the complexity, the richness, and the texture of the human past. Yes, human society has been advanced in the past to a degree that many of us never even suspect, or even wonder about. Our ancestors at the height of the last ice age didn’t fly around in airplanes, but they were just like us in many other ways, all over the world.

While I can’t prove that Hancock is wrong, I find none of his puzzles require me to believe in an ancient advanced technological civilization, or even to suspect that there ever was one. I have more pragmatic, better documented answers to his questions. Answers that, in the current state of archaeological knowledge, are likely much closer to the truth.

I don’t mind speculation. I engage in it myself. But when I am at work as an archaeologist, I like to identify speculation as such, and I like to point out alternative explanations that are well documented and better grounded, or that are simply better supported by reasoning.

Archaeology is an invitation to explore the richness, the texture of the human past, and to learn about ourselves. Even if we limit ourselves to the evidence actually available to us, instead of verging into the pseudoarchaeological, there is unexpected wonder in the past, there is surprise, and there are reflections of us, as we are now, in all our complexity and our advancement. No need to make it up, it’s all there. Just ask, we’re happy to share the wealth.

A version of this article originally appeared on André's blog ArcheoThoughts. Visit the blog to read André's full breakdown of Ancient Apocalypse.

André Costopoulos, Vice-Provost, Dean of Students

About André 

André Costopoulos is Vice-provost and Dean of Students at the University of Alberta.