Television

The Ancient Absurdities of Ancient Apocalypse

A Netflix show for “free thinkers” promotes a whole lot of bunk. It’s hugely popular.

Journalist Graham Hancock, wearing a white shirt, stands on top of a rock formation at sunrise.
Netflix

Netflix’s new hit Ancient Apocalypse is an odd duck: a docuseries filmed in many gorgeous and historic locations (Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, … uh, Ohio) that advances a provocative thesis aimed furiously at a single academic discipline. The argument is essentially this: The authorities who study human prehistory are ignoring—or covering up—the true foundations of the world as we know it today. And the consequences could be catastrophic.

Graham Hancock, the journalist who hosts the series, returns again and again to his anger at this state of affairs and his status as an outsider to “mainstream archaeology,” his assessment of how terrible “mainstream archaeology” is about accepting new theories, and his insistence that there’s all this evidence out there but “mainstream archaeologists” just won’t look for it. His bitter disposition, I’m sure, accounts for some of the interest in this show. Hancock, a fascinating figure with an interesting past as a left-leaning foreign correspondent, has for decades been elaborating variations on this thinking: Humans, as he says in the docuseries, have “amnesia” about our past. An “advanced” society that existed around 12,000 years ago was extinguished when the climate changed drastically in a period scientists call the Younger Dryas. Before dying out completely, this civilization sent out emissaries to the corners of the world, spreading knowledge, including building techniques that can be found in use at many ancient sites, and sparking the creation of mythologies that are oddly similar the world over. It’s important for us to think about this history, Hancock adds, because we also face impending cataclysm. It is a warning.

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Scientists, Hancock says, don’t want to believe any of this because they don’t like to think about mythology or astronomy, both of which he often uses to prove his points. Coming to terms with this paradigm shift would also rock the foundations of their discipline. Hancock, scientists say, doesn’t understand how eagerly they’d leap at this evidence if it really existed, in an empirical and reproducible form. (As archaeologist Carl Feagans writes in a review of Ancient Apocalypse, “Every single archaeologist I know would be elated to discover any previously unknown civilization of the Ice Age. Or any age for that matter.”)

One of the oddest aspects of Ancient Apocalypse is how largely absent these nasty mainstream archaeologists are from its run time. Joe Rogan, who has had Hancock on his podcast multiple times, makes a few appearances, lauding Hancock’s free-thinking ways. The other talking heads are either pro-Hancock or edited to look that way. Michael Shermer, of Skeptic magazine, who debated Hancock on Rogan’s show in 2017, merits a 20-second appearance in which he manages to get across one single argument against Hancock’s theory: “If this civilization existed, where are their trash heaps, where are their homes, where are their stone tools or metal tools, where is the writing?” That’s it—then back to Hancock, the “just asking questions,” the rancor.

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John Hoopes, an archaeologist at the University of Kansas, is one of the mainstream archaeologist naysayers of the kind Hancock targets without naming. Hoopes has often written about the history of alternative and pseudoarchaeology, and about Hancock himself; his Twitter feed has been full, over the past week, with conversation between academic archaeologists about the specific claims in Ancient Apocalypse.

I called him to ask what people who aren’t up to speed with Hancock’s work should know if they watch this show. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rebecca Onion: What can you say about the difference between the way academic archaeology approaches evidence and how Graham Hancock does?

John Hoopes: Graham Hancock is not and does not want to be seen as a scientist or a historian. He is coming from a metaphysical place. He’s inspired by Western esoterica. For him, the significance of a lot of this information is sort of intuitive and is confirmed to him through his personal revelatory experiences.

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There’s a TEDx presentation he did back in 2013, called “The War on Consciousness,” in which he explained that he had been smoking cannabis daily for 25 years and finally stopped using it because he had an ayahuasca experience and found that it was a more meaningful and revelatory experience than his daily use of cannabis. [This TEDx talk sparked controversy within the TED organization after it went up on YouTube, described here.] So, if it seems like, in watching the show, his perspective has been influenced by drugs, it’s because it has.

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It’s important to understand that it’s coming from a very subjective place. It’s kind of the opposite of what science strives to do. It’s coming from his personal conviction of what reality and the truth are. Problem is, he often frames it in such a way that people think he’s presenting something scientific when he’s not. But once you realize that he’s got a metaphysical goal, not a scientific one, it’s easier to place.

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He says throughout Ancient Apocalypse that he doesn’t want to be thought of as a scientist but an “investigative journalist.”

Something that you would know, as a journalist, is that he is doing the opposite of what journalists have been accused of, which is both-sidesing things. He is definitely one-sidesing this. He’s not even trying to present alternative interpretations, or what the experts disagree on, or any information that contradicts what his own personal subjective belief is. And in that respect, it’s much more like religious discourse. He’s coming from a position of New Age spirituality, which is not something we recognize as a formal religion, but it is a very real thing in American society.

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It feels like the anger toward what Hancock calls “mainstream archaeology” in Ancient Apocalypse is intense. In the episode on Serpent Mound, near where I live in Ohio, he had himself filmed standing in the parking lot, outside the closed gates, reading the email from the people who manage the site and who declined to allow the project to be filmed there because of Hancock’s association with it. The music behind that scene is so dramatic. Has this animosity toward the mainstream always been part of his work?

Yes, and this is what authors in alternative archaeology have done since the 19th century, when the Theosophical Society was founded. One of the founders, Helena Blavatsky, goes on and on about the scientists and the establishment. Hancock draws from that literature of 100 years ago or more; that’s been present in his work since at least his book Fingerprints of the Gods, which is from 1995.

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Something else that I noticed is that in the second episode, there’s an archaeologist named Geoffrey McCafferty, the one who gives Graham Hancock a tour of the Cholula pyramid in Mexico. Geoff is a former graduate student of mine. I’ve known him since 1988. He’s an amazing archaeologist, and Geoff has, for as long as I’ve known him, for over 30 years, been absolutely passionate about Cholula. If you pay careful attention to how they edited what he was saying in the second episode, his enthusiasm for Cholula is actually kind of shifted into what seems like an enthusiasm for what Hancock is saying.

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Here’s something else that happens in the second episode. The first person he talks to is Geoff, on this tour of Cholula, but the second person who he talks to, who takes him to a couple of different sites? This is a guy named Marco Vigato, who last year published a book on the lost continent of Atlantis called The Empires of Atlantis, which is one of the most white supremacist, racist books that I have ever seen. He’s not an archaeologist; he’s not a historian. He’s sort of an entrepreneur who has been able to get some permits to work at archaeological sites in Mexico. You could not have a more stark contrast between Geoff McCafferty, who is a highly respected qualified archaeologist, and Marco Vigato, who is basically a hack who writes very bizarre things, including this Atlantis book.

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In reading up on him, I saw that Hancock once was a bit more explicit about the idea that these figures, who supposedly spread across the world to disseminate their ideas as their own civilization was dying, were white. In this series, that’s not part of things. Has he adjusted the way he presents this?

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If you research Graham Hancock and look at his books over time, as I have, one of the things that you discover about him is that he self-edits. He doesn’t use the word Atlantis now except very sparingly. He has also edited himself since 1995, when, in Fingerprints of the Gods, he came out and said that it was an ancient white civilization. He no longer says the “white” part in the series. If you pay careful attention, he does talk about “heavily bearded Quetzalcoatl” who arrives, according to myth, to give the gift of knowledge, but he doesn’t mention the other part of that trope, which all of us know about, which is that this visitor supposedly had white skin.

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It’s similar to the way that Donald Trump operates. He will get to the edge of something, but he won’t say it, because he knows that his followers already know it. He can say, “I didn’t say that,” and he didn’t say it, but everyone knew what he said because it was already known, right?

What’s interesting to me about this series getting super popular on Netflix is that I’m not sure what percentage of the people who are watching it know that the theory of Atlantis used to be, or sometimes still is, that kind of a theory. I think I can imagine the answer to this question: What are the stakes of this show being popular on Netflix for what our sense of what science is? It’s just more disinformation, more distrust of expertise. But what would you say are the stakes for archaeology?  

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The biggest stakes right now in the United States are what happens to academic archaeology if university administrators and students and alumni begin demanding that departments of anthropology and archaeology at the university support this line of thinking.

I’ve got an interesting little story to tell you. The only time that the provost of the University of Kansas has come to talk to me in my office without an appointment of any kind was to tell me that he really wished that I would remove a negative review that I had written about a book on Atlantis on Amazon. He explained that there was an alumnus supporter of the university who had brought it to his attention. I think the author had also threatened a lawsuit on the basis of a turn of phrase I had used in the review. I removed it. The only time I’ve ever removed a review, out of deference to the provost of the university. Somebody effectively applied pressure to the provost of the university to the point where he came and spoke to a faculty member and told them to self-censor.

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It’d be difficult to address each claim related to each site, one by one, in this interview, but if people want to read more on each of these matters, where should they go?

Oddly enough—and I know journalists might bristle at what I say—Wikipedia is the very best source. It’s maintained by nerds, and archaeology Wikipedia is maintained by archaeology nerds, and the articles on it are good! I have a feeling they’ll get even better because of this series, because people will want to make sure the information is in there for viewers who may be Googling it.

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