Isn’t it all just harmless fun? Comets striking the earth, cataclysmic floods, a surviving vanguard of wise sages who taught ordinary people science, architecture, and astronomy; a warning from the deep past, encoded in otherwise mysterious monuments, about some similar catastrophe in the future? I am talking about Ancient Apocalypse, which Netflix calls a “docuseries,” but the Society for American Archaeology, in a long letter of complaint, has requested be reclassified as “science fiction.” In fact, the series invokes a strangely rigid and unimaginative world, one in which early humanity’s most striking architectural achievements—from the megalithic temples of prehistoric Malta to the huge geometric earthworks of Poverty Point, La.—must all be subject to a single interpretation. One message, one explanation, one decipherer: journalist Graham Hancock.
I’m a professor of archaeology, so this series is not made for me but explicitly against me. According to Hancock, my chosen career makes me part of an elite establishment, whose interest lies in suppressing what he has discovered. It’s true that archaeology, like other academic fields, has its elites—dynasties, even. But as the first in my family to obtain any sort of higher education, I’ve never felt part of them. To arrive at his conclusions, Hancock didn’t go through the kind of long, demanding training required to become an archaeologist. According to his fans, he skipped the line straight to Indiana Jones status. According to detractors, he is a charlatan. And that, I suggest, is what this series is really about: one man, and his struggle to tell the truth against an establishment that will stop at nothing to stop him. Less Alien than Enemy of the State—but with low stakes, because the worst thing that happens to the lone hero of Ancient Apocalypse is that he gets mildly peeved, in a rather cultivated, English way. Over a period of decades, Hancock has developed this form of self-victimization into a successful publishing strategy, supplying millions with stories that appeal to the underdog, and—as others have already pointed out—to the conspiracy theorist within each of us. For those fascinated by the remote human past, but who do not come from generations of college graduates (as a teenager, I was one of them), he also offers a point of entry to topics and places that can otherwise seem arcane and inaccessible. And there is really no point in denying this.
Ancient Apocalypse sets a trap for people like me. In it, archaeologists are portrayed not just as suppressors of the truth but also as inveterate snobs and dogmatists, who refuse to engage with the questions ordinary people are interested in. In response, the archaeologist’s function is presumably to take on the role of “the establishment,” debunking Hancock, smugly overturning his bizarre chronological schemes; reminding his fans that the theories he expounds—as well as robbing Indigenous peoples of their proud and rightful heritage—are simply rehashed ideas about the lost civilization of Atlantis, discredited more than a century ago. That’s how the publicity trap is supposed to work. At the risk of falling into it, I want to offer a different perspective.
First, I think we have to ask how those particular spaces of speculation—into which a figure like Hancock steps—first opened up. Dig deep enough, and you will find that they opened from within the discipline of archaeology itself, not from outside it. Take the example of Egypt. The study of Egypt “before the pharaohs” was pioneered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a British archaeologist called William Matthew Flinders Petrie, familiar to generations of students as “the father of archaeological science.” Petrie was also a eugenicist, who believed in the improvement of society through selective “breeding-out” of intellectually inferior races. While revealing evidence for the foundations of ancient Egypt, he attributed it on biometric grounds to a “New Race” of invaders from outside Africa, opening a space of the imagination that has since come to be filled by all manner of theories about the “alien” architects of ancient civilizations. It started with the “race science” that is part and parcel of archaeology’s own problematic history. Where does it end?
Ancient Apocalypse invites its audience to learn from a forgotten past, but watching Hancock in conversation about his docuseries, I found myself instead wondering what the real lesson was supposed to be. Speaking recently on The Joe Rogan Experience, Hancock speculates (at 6:25) that granite blocks in the tomb of Khufu—sealed high inside the structure of the Great Pyramid at Giza—were lifted into place by acoustic levitation: “priests chanting as these huge blocks were lifted into the air,” by the force of sound alone. Leaving physics aside, I tried to picture the kind of society we are being asked to imagine here. I tried to envisage a vanguard of priests, assembled on the floodplain of the Nile, chanting in unison as the granite blocks rise high above the ground—as if by magic—floating into place around the tomb of a divine overlord. I also pictured the awe of the stupid, gawking masses as the scene unfolds. Momentarily, I allowed myself to wonder what it might be like to see it all brought to life with elaborate camera shots and CGI, streaming on Netflix. Wouldn’t that be fun?
While obviously absurd in every last one of its details, the image is familiar in its outlines. It conjures a world in which intelligence is not a property of individuals acting in society but rather a quality possessed to varying degrees by specific “peoples.” It gives voice to a theory of human difference that today doesn’t always dare utter the name “race”—but retains all the key ingredients of a racial theory. It asks us to imagine past human societies divided into two tiers: one superior, one inferior; one wise, one ignorant; one comprising noble (or sage-like) rulers, the other servile commoners. In short, it is a picture based on a specific form of nostalgia: the desire to be dominated by “natural” masters.
At its most tame, Ancient Apocalypse simply reinforces a deeply conservative understanding of human history. Conservative, yes, because despite Hancock’s claim to challenge every orthodoxy going, his ideas—like those of Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, Erich von Däniken, and other so-called “pseudo-archaeologists”—rest on a baseline assumption that technology should always be advancing in linear fashion, from primitive simplicity to modern complexity. Only against that baseline expectation can startling monuments like the earthworks of Poverty Point or the megalithic temples at Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey appear as “anomalies” or “mysteries” in the first place. In that sense, Hancock’s ideas actually draw sustenance from mainstream theories of social evolution that dominated archaeology and anthropology for much of the 20th century (note his evocation of “simple hunter-gatherers” to describe the great mass of early humanity, outside the vanguard). Albeit in extremely different ways, both approaches—the alternative and the mainstream—have stubbornly, systematically refused to accord past human actors the capacity for social imagination and self-determination, in the absence of overlords.
In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, my recent book with the late anthropologist David Graeber, we call this “the myth of the stupid savage” (as opposed to the more familiar “noble” one). We refer here to all those many and varied accounts of human history that pay lip service to the psychic unity of humankind, but at the same time portray our remote ancestors as drifting haplessly from dispersed, egalitarian forager bands to centralized, hierarchical states. In our book we show how recent findings in archaeology and anthropology reveal a radically different picture of the societies labeled “pre-modern.” It includes myriad examples of such groups consciously, collectively transforming their worlds—often on a prodigious scale—without being press-ganged by a stratum of overlords, or forced along by environmental dictates, or waves of migration. The real history of ordinary people turns out to be extraordinary.
Public reception of The Dawn of Everything, which entered the New York Times bestseller list just below Will Smith’s autobiography, not to mention the private responses I receive almost daily from readers, suggests to me that pseudo-archaeologists—and perhaps also a good number of real archaeologists, not to mention Netflix—may have severely underestimated the person in the street. Reflecting on Hancock’s theory about the construction of the Great Pyramid, I’m reminded of an old poem by Bertolt Brecht, which my Viennese grandmother, the daughter of a lifelong socialist and union man, taught me. It’s called “Questions From a Worker Who Reads”:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished,
did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.