Graham Hancock, the pseudoarchaeologist/pseudohistorian that wrote the thoroughly debunked Fingerprints of the Gods has a new book coming out in about a month titled America Before: the Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization. Hancock’s shtick has long been that there once existed a “lost civilization” in the world that had some sort of “high technology” (whatever that means).
Naturally, such a civilization left behind zero physical evidence. No material remains at all. As Jason Colavito recently remarked, “a sloth can manage to have its bones preserved for all time, but not a […] single bolt or screw remain” of this mysterious and curiously absent civilization. No remains of their cities or infrastructure is found, yet we can find the remains of the most delicate of all other life in the same alleged period.
So why does Hancock maintain its prior existence is such a certainty? Personally, I suspect it is mostly due to the fact that he makes a comfortable living from selling the mystery to eager consumers—much the way the fishmonger depends on those with a taste for seafood.
But, assuming that he believes at least some of his claims, I’d like to explore what he has planned for his upcoming book in a sort of pre-review by looking over some of the teasers of it listed on his website. I’ve requested a review copy of the book itself, and the publisher agreed to send one, but this will do until I receive it. I’ve a feeling they might not send it out until very close to or after the availability date.
130,000 Year Old North Americans
Very quickly Hancock invokes the fairly recent publication of the Cerutti mastodon site in Nature Letters. This site in California contained mastodon bones that were dated to about 130,000 years ago that had the initial appearance of being cracked open by stone tools. There were even some scattered rocks nearby that were claimed to be the tools.
There are, however, some major problems with the site that are inconsistent with the assumption that there is a cultural explanation which dates to 130,000 years ago. Hancock likes to highlight but one of these, namely that the date is more than 115,000 years older than the currently accepted date of human migration into the Americas.
In spite of his generosity with providing a skeptical perspective, other problems with the Cerutti site are far more significant. Perhaps he’ll provide a good explanation in his book. If these points are easily answered, archaeologists would gladly embrace the possibility that humans—or at least hominids—were present in North America at that time.
The main problem is: where are the butcher marks? The paper featured in Nature Letters speaks nothing of carnivore marks. There are bones that are alleged by the authors to be cracked open to obtain their marrow. But there are no expected butcher marks on the bones. If you’re trying to get to the marrow, it means all the edible parts on the outside of the bone are gone. If you’re a prehistoric hunter and these are the bones of your kill, you’ve cut them off with stone tools.
You might say, “well, maybe these prehistoric people came across the bones, already stripped of their meat by carnivores. They then decided to break open the bones to get at the valuable and nutritious marrow that the carnivores were unable to consume.” This brings us to the second major problem that I see. There are no carnivore marks. When animals eat flesh, they leave very distinctive marks from their teeth or mandibles. Whether the meat was consumed by dire wolves and large cats or simply beetles, there would be gnaw marks.
Recently, Steven Holen, one of the original authors, gave a talk at University of Oklahoma in which he stressed that the bones had no sign of carnivore marks—the expected gnawing at the epiphyses, or ends, of long bones like femurs. When I asked how they explained the lack of either butchery or carnivore marks, his reply was essentially that the 130,000 year old hunters were skilled. His wife, Kathleen, offered that they also may not have ate or butchered all the way to the bone. Keep in mind that no small cutting tools or scrapers were found. The kind that would have been used to cut meat from the very large bones.
This was a mastodon. Not a deer. Not even a buffalo. A mastodon. There would have been more meat than a few people could carry. If they didn’t cut it all off, there would have been a lot still on the bones. Even if they took what they could and actually still had a desire to get to the marrow, the bones that were left would have been several meals for several carnivores. Ranging in size from large dire wolves and saber-toothed cats to flesh-eating beetles. And they all would have left their marks.
There are also questions about the evidence that the stones were used as tools. Or that the fractures in the bones couldn’t have been non-cultural. In fact, since that short paper was published in Nature Letters nearly two years ago, there has been much critique over the conclusions. Not because “orthodox archaeology” is “hiding the truth.” Far from it. Nearly every critical response to the Cerutti authors’ conclusions agrees that if the evidence were were truly there, hominids in North America circa 130 kya would be wonderful and exciting news. But this is the sort of thing that needs to be backed with solid evidence. And, for the Cerutti claims, the data appear specious at best.
Ancient DNA (aDNA)
Hancock has also claimed that:
“Certain tribes of the Amazon rainforest are closely related to Australian Aborigines and to Melanesians from Papua New Guinea. This extraordinary, unexpected and extremely ancient DNA signal is only present in South America and is completely absent in North America and Mesoamerica. It bears witness to something that archaeologists hitherto believed to be impossible – that the technology and skills needed to cross the Pacific Ocean, and successfully resettle a reproductively-viable population, existed more than 13,000 years ago.”http://grahamhancock.com/america-before/
This is a good example of Hancock’s propensity to cherry-pick real scientific data.
It’s true that recent discoveries through ancient DNA (aDNA) studies reveal a genetic link between modern indigenous Australian populations and ancient Amazonians. We have to assume that the reason Hancock is able to tell us about this aDNA connection is because he read the studies that explored it. Or at least read the popular science sources that discussed them. Even if all he read was a story in Science News, he would have known how and where to get the original research.
So why does Hancock leave out or exclude some of the data and conclusions? Specifically, that this is an indication that the populations tested in both Australia and Brazil have common Asian ancestors. This is completely consistent with what anthropologists have been saying about human migration for years. In fact, the cool thing discovered with all the recent aDNA research is that there appear to be migrations into the Americas by at least three separate populations.
“Such secrets of human prehistory, now revealed by cutting-edge science, call for a complete rethink of our understanding of our own remote past and hint at the existence of a lost civilization of the Ice Age.”http://grahamhancock.com/america-before/
The data, in fact, say precisely the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always room for a “rethink” of currently held assumptions in science. But, in this case, not a complete one. Instead, we have some additional pieces of the puzzle of human migration into the Americas and elsewhere in the world. Hancock exhibits true pseudoscientific thinking in that quote. He exalts the science of aDNA as “cutting edge,” but only at the expense of cherry-picking the parts of it he likes to the exclusion of those bits that go against his preconceived conclusion.
Hancock’s general thesis is, in his own words, that “the evidence points to is a shared legacy of knowledge inherited from a much earlier civilization that has been lost to history.” I predict his book will present a mix of scientific fact with specious data followed by speculations. Many speculations. Speculations that he will word as facts—the logical conclusions of his pseudoscientific perspective of the world around him. Rather than marvel at the ingenuity and clever nature of the human species, Hancock can only see an ancient world that has a far more complicated and complex society that created or gave rise to everything we should be congratulating the ancestors of the world’s diverse cultures for sorting out on their own.
References and Further Reading
Ferraro, Joseph V. ; Katie M. Binetti, Logan A. Wiest, Donald Esker,
Lori E. Baker & Steven L. Forman (2018). Contesting early archaeology in California. Nature 544, 479–483 (2017); doi:10.1038/nature22065. (Holen et al immediately follow up with a short rebuttal that seems to say, “Nuh-uh!”)
Saey, Tina hesman (2018) Ancient DNA suggests people settled South America in at least 3 waves. ScienceNews.