Pre-Review of ‘America Before’-Graham Hancock’s New Pseudoscience

Image via Wikicommons

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.

Hancock’s Claims

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.

Graham Hancock's new book 'America Before' is due out. Here's a pre-review based on promised content via his webiste.
Artist’s rendering of a mastodon via Wikicommons

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.

Hyperbolic Pseudoscience

Hancock proclaims:

“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.

About Carl Feagans 381 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

11 Comments

  1. I think I will wait to comment after actually reading the whole book.

    In the mean time it may be worth considering the following, published in the NewYork times in 1999.

    “In 1997, Dr. Meltzer was a member of a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists, including some resolute skeptics, who inspected the Monte Verde site, which had been excavated by Dr. Tom D. Dillehay of the University of Kentucky. The visitors took a close look at the stone, wood and bone artifacts, remnants of hide-covered huts and a child’s footprint. These were judged to be clear evidence that humans had reached southern Chile 12,500 years ago, more than a millennium before the first signs of Clovis hunters in North America.”

    https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/110999sci-first-americans.html

    [Edit: copy/paste of the full article removed and replaced with a link after the first paragraph because of copyright]

  2. I hope you don’t mind, but I replaced the majority of that NY Times article with a link to the original article. I left the first paragraph. This is to avoid copyright violations and keep this site within the good graces of fair use.

  3. As far as I’m aware, Graham Hancock doesn’t claim to be a scientist. He claims to be a journalist reporting a story. The article in Nature Letters has a list of scientists claiming that their finding confirms an unidentified species of homo in the Americas. While this does not make it fact, it is difficult to see what Graham Hancock has done wrong here other than to report what actual scientists have claimed in order to tell a story. Isn’t that what a journalist does?

    You even use the header “Hancock’s claims”. But that one isn’t his claim. It is the claim of some scientists (rightly or wrongly). Isn’t that misleading to say they are his?

  4. After reading the NY Times article it may be worth reading an article published in 2017 by Smtithsonian.com. Excerpt and link below:

    “Today, decades later, the Clovis first model has collapsed. Based on dozens of new studies, we now know that pre-Clovis people slaughtered mastodons in Washington State, dined on desert parsley in Oregon, made all-purpose stone tools that were the Ice Age version of X-acto blades in Texas, and slept in sprawling, hide-covered homes in Chile—all between 13,800 and 15,500 years ago, possibly earlier.”

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/jacques-cinq-mars-bluefish-caves-scientific-progress-180962410/

  5. That’s a wonderful article. I think I even linked it on the Archaeology Review Facebook page. But I’m not really sure what it has to do with Graham Hancock’s up-coming book. The article I wrote above was a review of that impending tome of pseudoscience.

  6. Oh, these are definitely Hancock’s claims. This was a review of his up-coming book where he has already teased a few claims. In the review, I’ve taken an opportunity to break these claims down a bit and show how he’s cherry-picking the real science to fit a psuedoscientific narrative–a preconceived conclusion he’s been championing for years. That narrative being that there was some sort of “high civilization” or lost human civilization with “high technology” which disappeared in a cataclysm (along with all trace) that seems to have left behind everything and everyone else.

    So, no. What’s misleading is pretending to be a journalist whilst putting forth a set of pseudoscientific claims that are derived from the cherry-picked and misrepresented work of real science.

  7. Why it’s connected is that Hancock’s ‘America Before’ is not going to suggest that there was a race of technologically super advanced people swarming over (Now) continental America 130,000 years ago.
    What Hancock brings to the table is that the continent was inhabited by anatomically modern humans at this time.
    The Clovis First model, before being rightfully rubbished, was set in stone. Any attempts to challenge it where automatically rejected without consideration – Science finally proved the Clovis ‘Theory’ wrong.
    Graham Handcock suggests that ‘America’ was inhabited long before 12,500 BC by people who hunted with weapons, butchered with tools and understood agriculture and the necessity to organise their meat supply instead of simply slaughtering it to extinction.
    He also suggests that the extinction of Megafauna in North America was the result of huge,inescapable, floods that lasted for a short period of time. – this is certainly backed up by new and fairly indisputable data from Randell Carlson and a whole host of educated scientists – And the cause does seem to point to an extraterrestrial event, and why not?
    For Graham Hancock’s ‘Model’ – Clovis first- presented a huge obstacle. But today we see it was incorrect and Hancock’s early hunch’s had not been unjustified or ludicrous.
    So we have to ask if allot more of Hancock’s proposals are also correct.
    Graham Hancock’s work on ancient history has matured greatly since the early 90’s. I still regard ‘Fingerprints of the Gods’ as a good piece of work. OK it is flawed in places and Graham has changed his views on the cause of the ‘Cataclysmic’ Event at the end of the Ice age, but it does still hold a place on the historical bookshelf. It is full of undisputable facts as well as justified speculation.
    Today Hancock’s theories are painstakingly researched, scientifically analysed, geologically examined and thoroughly documented. Hancock is also now able to put a hell of allot more money into his research.
    I have heard it stated that ‘America Before’ is just an attempt to grasp the attention of an unwitting American audience and make money, but if you look at how Hancock progressed to this stage, you will realise that this is simply incorrect.
    The problem for his adversaries is that Hancock’s gun now has a bullet in the chamber, and when it’s fired it may never stop smoking!
    I’m not sure it’s a good idea to dismiss Hancock next book quite yet.

  8. your website is garbage. you are a closed minded baffoon. it would be hilarious to see you debate Graham.

  9. Thank you for at least reading the site. I genuinely appreciate the time you gave which, given the deep and insightful critique you’ve provided must have been significant. If you’d like to go into more detail with your assessment, I’m always looking for ways to improve. For instance, what points, in particular did you find spoiled or wasteful (garbage) and where, exactly, have I shown myself to be closed minded? I like to think of myself willing to revise my beliefs in the face of evidence. For instance, I used to misspell “buffoon” but then I realized it made me look silly or clownish.

  10. Anonymous – That’s a little harsh! And it’s also why we will never find out whether or not there are inaccuracies in our past History. Even if I don’t agree sometimes, I have allot of respect for Mr Feagans.
    I suggest you find a niche over on “Crazy Corner” of Youtube. – No offence.

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