Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse – A Review of Episode One

I decided to take a moment to review Graham Hancock’s Netflix documentary since I know how much he appreciates my work and since I finished watching season 2 of Warrior Nun (which, thus far, seems more realistic than Hancock’s first episode).

If I decide to review the entire season, I’ll do it in eight parts. One for each episode. I probably will since I don’t find Hancock difficult to watch in the way I do mockumentaries like “Ancient Aliens,” though I do prefer Josh Gates to Hancock. Gates at least seems genuinely enthusiastic and tries to inject some humor and travelogue style to his shows.

Big Bad Academia

Right out of the gate, Hancock leads with a derision of academia noting its “defensive, arrogant, and patronizing attitude” which he believes stifles exploration and discovery. Or, more precisely, the exploration and discovery of that which he’s already concluded to be true, which is: an “advanced human civilization much older than our own” existed in prehistoric times.

Academics are humans. As such, they can be as defensive, arrogant, and patronizing as the next person. Perhaps even as much as Hancock himself. As I look back to the notes I took with that derision, it struck me that he projected that derision toward what he refers to as “mainstream archaeology” throughout the episode.

Mainstream Archaeology?

There is no “mainstream” in archaeology. Such a descriptor implies that there are one or more other, alternative, archaeologies. There aren’t. One is either doing scientific archaeology or one isn’t. There is no alternative archaeology just like there is no alternative geology or alternative astronomy or alternative physics. I suppose Hancock is trying to invoke an “alternative archaeology” in the way pseudoscience has invoked an “alternative medicine.” But the same applies in medicine: it’s either scientific or it isn’t. “Alternative medicines” that actually work and are effective are simply called “medicine.”

What Makes Hancock’s Civilization Advanced?

I don’t know.

He never says in episode one. I suppose he might be saving the reveal for a later episode—maybe the end of the last episode. But I doubt it. I suspect this is something he might rather not be pinned down on. Did his civilization have airplanes? Spaceships? Some sort of automobile? Or were they just horse and buggy advanced?

Ostensibly they are “more advanced than hunter-gatherers” (whatever this might mean). I say this since he points out that they existed at the same time—at least in his mind palace. It seems that Hancock believes since modern hunter-gatherer societies exist while we go on, tossing our coke bottles from airplanes at them, that this is the way it was prior to the Ice Age.

Montage from The Gods Must Be Crazy, C.A.T. Films 1980.

Gunung Padang

The main topic and primary site of the first episode is a small mountain in Indonesia called Gunung Padang. It was initially described by Dutch geologist R.D. M. Verbeek in 1891 as upright columns arranged in four terraces. Gunung Padang was later recorded in 1941 by NJ Krom, a Dutch researcher, and he described the pillars as being similar to Shaivite lingas found in Hindu temples and thought it was likely a burial site. Perhaps completely ignored after the 1940s, local farmers in 1979 came upon it and interest in the site was renewed.

The construction of the site involved using naturally occurring columnar joints–basaltic columns of cooled lava flows that look like curious hexagonal “logs.” Vulcanologist Sutikno Bronto notes that, contrary to the claims of sensationalists, the site isn’t a giant pyramid, rather it’s a small, man-made complex on top of an ancient volcano.

The man-made portion consists of rectangular courtyards arranged on terraces. A fifth terrace was discovered in 1981 and archaeological studies of the 1990s revealed that the basalt columns were quarried from a short distance to the north. Excavations in 2002 explored the idea that this was a burial site as suggested by Krom, but no evidence was found to support that hypothesis. Current conclusions are that the site is an early type of punden berundak, an ancestral worship site constructed with buildings on artificially stepped terraces.

Gunung Padang. Photo WikiCommons.

Utterly Confounded

In first episode of Ancient Apocalypse, Hancock says Gunung Padang “utterly confounds ‘mainstream archaeologists’ because it calls into question everything they’ve taught us about the prehistory of humanity.”

So we’re supposed to be completely and without qualification surprised or confused by Gunung Padang, which is what it means to be “utterly confounded.”

I clearly didn’t get that memo. Hancock’s overly dramatic vernacular aside, I do find Gunung Padang interesting. But I’m far more interested in sites that have a potential to provide us with meaningful data. And far more interested in putting resources into sites that are potentially more ephemeral. Those sites we might soon lose to climate change because of ice melt or ocean level increases.

Gunung Padang, which means literally means “field mountain” (Hancock says it means “mountain of light” or “mountain of enlightenment”) is a mountain. An extinct volcano to be precise. With stone blocks as the primary features. It’s not going anywhere.

Side note: if you turn on the Indonesian subtitles Hancock say’s, at around 5:12, the following:

Ini Gunung Padang. Nama itu berarti “gunung cahaya” atau “gunung pencerahan”

That made me chuckle a bit. If they called it “mountain of light/enlightenment” why not “Gunung Cahaya/Pencerahan?” I’m sure Hancock probably has it right and I’m just missing some nuance of Indonesian. A language I don’t speak.

What About the Dates?

But it’s also difficult to date. Ali Akbar, an archaeologists featured in this episode, put the “First Cultural Layer around 500 BC, while the Second Layer Culture is 5200 BC or 7200 years ago.” Also featured by Hancock was Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a geologist with even more extreme dates at up to 24,000 years ago.

The site of Gunung Padang is a difficult one to date. I’ve yet to see an excavation report, though this is probably because the work done since 2012 is still being processed and what little is available might only be in Indonesian (though I’m happy to have those as well). I did not see in episode 1 where either Akbar or Natawidjaja mention what the samples were. Nor have I read it anywhere. And I have some of the work for each of them.

Gunung Padang as a site, is consistent with the punden berundak form found at other sites which date generally between 500 BCE to 500 CE (possibly 1000 CE on the upper end). If Gunung Padang is an early form of punden berundak, then it stands to reason it could be somewhat earlier than 500 BCE, which is where Akbar puts it with a set of samples.

From there, I’m skeptical. And so should anyone be.

That doesn’t mean we cannot be hopeful, however. I truly hope that the “Second Layer Culture” dates that Akbar has of 5200 BCE are solid! That would indeed be very exciting! And it would create a cause to re-evaluate what is known about human migration in the islands of Southeast Asia.

Those Mean Skeptics

If I’m skeptical yet hopeful for Akbar’s Second Layer Culture dates, I’m not at all hopeful for Natawidjaja’s claim of 24,000 years. Sure, it would be a wonderful discovery. But it has far too many holes in it as even an hypothesis to be taken more seriously than Horton’s Land of Who in a mote of dust on a dandelion bloom.

Hancock calls the samples that date to 24,000 years ago as “organic materials clearly associated with structural elements.”

Clearly to whom? He doesn’t show the samples. He doesn’t describe the samples. He doesn’t even say what the “structural elements” are. This is called hand waving and it’s something Hancock is especially good at.

Hancock is quick to note how unaccepting and dismissive archaeologists are to his search for a lost civilization, but only shows part of the story. He cherry-picks the bits that support the conclusions he showed up with and ignores the rest.

Think about this for a moment. When you watch episode 1, you’ll see he is elated to speak with Ali Akbar and Danny Hilman Natawidjaja. An archaeologist and a geologist. Academics. Both of them. Hancock appears to crave validation from academics but is resentful when critiqued by them. So he only shows the ones that share the message he wants to promote. No counter idea or counter notion is entertained.

The irony is, if he had gone that extra step and explored what some of the criticisms are with Gunung Padang dates and architectural assumptions, he would have come off as thoughtful and careful. But that dilutes his conclusion. And it’s the conclusion he begins with that is selling books, videos, and public engagements.

Nationalist Archaeology?

There is subtext tot he Gunung Padang story that wasn’t even suggested by Hancock or his favored academics. One of nationalist archaeology that isn’t all that dissimilar from what we can see happening with the so-called “Bosnian pyramid” in Visoko, Bosnia.

Some of the clues to nationalist archaeology, which is a form of pseudoarchaeology, come in the form of comparisons to things like “the pyramids of Egypt.” Natawidjaja was very quick to call the volcano a “pyramid” with “chambers” and “stepped sides.” Hancock was quick to point out that even Akbar’s “Second Culture Layer” was comparable in age to Caral in Peru (ca. 2600 BCE). Hancock calls this “older” than pyramids of Egypt, but the Djoser pyramid was constructed in 2670 BCE, making them contemporaneous.

The interesting thing here is importance placed on significance. People are naturally entertained or at least made curious by things that are “the oldest/biggest/largest/fastest/etc.” This is why we have a Guinness Book of World Records and why soldiers get medals and ribbons.

And this is why nations like to have notable places in history. It legitimizes the nation, provides national moral, promotes patriotism and national pride–all things that reduce government opposition and increase tourism.

The excavations that began in 2012 at Gunung Padung were well-funded but rushed and performed without proper research questions, personnel, and methods. This was according to Indonesian scientists who objected to the way Natwidjaja and others went about their work. By 2014, Gunung Padang was named a National Site Area by the Indonesian Education and Culture Ministry.

The 2012-2014 excavations were, at one point, called “Operation to Honor the Red and White,” referring to the colors of the Indonesian flag and there was an intention to use 500 volunteers to push a fast, mass excavation. Overall, there was poor documentation of the stratigraphy, poor documentation of moved columnar joints, unnecessary site destruction, and a budget from the government that left other, more pressing projects without.

Nationalist politics fueled poor methodology and results were affected. To paraphrase Dian Sulistyowati and Aldo Foe, invoking Dynastic Egypt and other cultural sites of the world that are wholly unrelated to Gunung Padang and the pre-classic monumental architecture of West Java says more about nationalistic politics than it does the pursuit of knowledge and truth of human history. To quote them directly: “the construction of Gunung Padang as a national myth thus relies on the authenticity of other myths.”

Conclusions

Hancock leaves Gunung Padang and opines about how scholars somehow don’t “get to grips with […] how the Ice Age was a very special time when the world was very different” and “the Earth didn’t look the same.”

I think he truly believes this is something that those in fields of science related to archaeology and geology don’t get but he does. And yet, it’s their names on the hundreds of thousands of papers, books, and syllabi related to the Pleistocene, the Ice Age, and the climatic, geologic, and archaeological changes since then.

Hancock shared again his conclusion which is that hunter-gatherers of Sundaland shared their soon-to-be underwater continent with “an advanced civilization.” Whatever that means. And he rambled on about how global myths of floods at different periods and with different cultures around the world mean they’re all talking about the same event. Never mind that these are generally agricultural and early-agricultural societies in flood plains.

The most ignorant thing Hancock said in the entire episode, however, was:

The way archaeology works, there is going to continue to be huge resistance to new evidence, and that’s really problematic. Science should be open to new evidence.

He really thinks this is the way archaeology works and that science isn’t open to new evidence. And I’m not being unkind by calling it “ignorant.” If you think about it for just a moment, and consider that there are quite a few archaeological journals. And in those journals are research papers and reports, each presenting new evidence–often for sites where new methods or techniques are allowing for fresh data. Or better methods are allowing old data to be refined. If you consider all this, you have to admit that archaeologists are all about new data and that science is open to new evidence.

The real problem with Hancock’s ignorance is his arrogance. It’s clear that either he craves validation from professionals in the field of archaeology and history or he just wants to be seen as the victim in a scenario where he’s “just asking questions” and “just a journalist looking for answers” while he ambles along that journey, picking only the cherries that are sweet enough to support the conclusion already in his other hand.

About Carl Feagans 384 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.

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