The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

American Atlantis

In 1552, the historian Francisco López de Gómara became one of the first to suggest that the American continents were in fact Atlantis. America was, he said, greater than Africa and Asia combined, and the peoples of Mexico even called water “atl,” the very name of Atlantis, in memory of the sunken capital of ancient times. Nearly five centuries later, the new book America Before opens with its author, Graham Hancock, telling readers that after decades of ignoring the “obvious clue” of Atlantis because of the stigma attached to Atlantis research, he had come to believe that Atlantis “does sound a lot like America” (xiv).

America Before (book cover)

America Before is the story of Hancock’s search for proof that Atlantis—or a civilization so similar as to be identical in all but name—flourished in the Americas prior to the end of the last Ice Age. His new book is handsomely produced by St. Martin’s in the United States and Coronet in the U.K., well written and copiously illustrated.

In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal (1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas.

But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work. Although Hancock remains a formidable writer capable of compelling narrative set-pieces, his recent books have lacked something of the spirit of adventure. Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation and the casual assumption that most readers will already be familiar with his earlier volumes, which he references frequently with the clear expectation that readers have read and largely agreed with them.

This led Magicians of the Gods (2015) to seem somewhat disjointed to those unfamiliar with Fingerprints, and America Before plunges the reader headlong into a web of assumptions and conclusions that don’t always have clear lines of evidence leading to them. In just the first few pages, Hancock dismisses the consensus view of the peopling of the Americas without ever quite explaining it, and he attacks “the materialist-reductionist mind-set of Western science” with the assumption that his readers are familiar with the philosophy of science, or at least angry enough at scientists to nod in agreement. His writing is much angrier even than in Magicians, with a greater number of charged asides attacking science and celebrating the spiritual over the material. His attacks on archaeology are much louder than in earlier books and in places distract from or even overwhelm his putative argument.

I say this with regret because I have genuinely enjoyed reading Hancock’s earlier books, even if I disagreed with their conclusions. My differences with Hancock are with his ideas, not with the man. In fact, and for full disclosure, Hancock read the manuscript for my own forthcoming book on a similar topic to America Before (the myth of the Mound Builders) and kindly recommended it to his editor, though my book ultimately ended up with another publisher. America Before is divided into eight somewhat loosely connected parts, which we will consider in turn.

1. Manitou: The Mystery of the Serpent Mound

The first part of the book focuses on Ohio’s famed Serpent Mound, an earthwork whose origins are still debated. While that debate largely focuses on whether it was the work of the Adena culture (1000–200 BCE) or the Fort Ancient culture (1000–1750 CE), Hancock zeroes in on its seeming astronomical alignment to the summer solstice sunset to speculate that it may be 13,000 years old. The reasons are complex, but the short version is that in 1987 some scholars argued that the earthwork was aligned at an azimuth of 302°. However, the solstice sunset took place at an azimuth of 300° and five minutes. The sun last set at that angle around 11,000 BCE. Ergo…. The assumption of perfect accuracy creates an illogical result. But even if the argument were sound, Hancock chooses to frame it instead around his own outrage that archaeologists won’t accept the date, blasting thirty-year-old journal articles for what he sees as unwarranted sarcasm. He neglects to note that excavations at the site have not turned up any evidence for 13,000-year-old mound builders. He does concede, however, that later research revised the solstice alignment from 302° to 300°, rendering the whole point moot.

Hancock describes the various efforts to understand Serpent Mound as attempts to create “doctrine,” rather than what they were—arguments among specialists that represented the best conclusions based on evidence then known. As the evidence improved, the conclusions changed. This is, for Hancock, “an Orwellian scene” whereby older hypotheses are “disappeared” as new ones, better supported by evidence, take their place. He calls the hypothesis that the Fort Ancient built the mound—a hypothesis later superseded by new and better evidence for an Adena construction followed by a Fort Ancient renovation—“a fairy-tale castle of speculation” (27) and claims that archaeologists like Brad Lepper merely wave “a magic wand” to fit sites into a very short chronology. Hancock tends to view scientific conclusions from available evidence as definitive dogmas, even though the nature of science is provisional and new evidence can and does demand new conclusions.

To this end, Hancock speculates that because snakes shed their skin, the mound’s serpentine shape could suggest that it may date from the Ice Age with periods of rebuilding every few centuries. No evidence supports this claim, but Hancock says none is needed, for it is possible that the Adena simply carted away the whole of the original mound (!) and rebuilt it from scratch, leaving no trace of the first mound. “Why not?” he asks.

Well, for one thing, people leave evidence of their presence, and no evidence suggests a mound dating back 13,000 years. The wholesale removal of an earlier monument, besides being impractical, would have left some trace behind to show it had occurred.

A digital GIS map of Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound, created by Timothy A. Price and Nichole I. Stump in March of 2002.

A digital GIS map of Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound, created by Timothy A. Price and Nichole I. Stump in March of 2002. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Hancock adds that after the mound’s supposed Ice Age origin, it was first rebuilt in 5000 BCE. He bases this on the work of Ross Hamilton, author of Mystery of the Serpent Mound (2001), who claims that the Serpent Mound is a perfect image of the constellation Draco as it appeared in that year. Any undulating shape will bear a resemblance to Draco, and it is not beyond possibility that the constellation was intended. However, there is no evidence that the date of 5000 BCE was targeted, or that that Native peoples of Ohio recognized the same set of stars that we call Draco, especially since the constellations didn’t take their modern form until the Greeks modified Babylonian astronomy around 500 BCE, many thousands of years after the supposed 5000 BCE construction date. While it is true that many cultures depict the circumpolar stars as a serpent, it is by no means universal, despite Hancock’s efforts to suggest otherwise. The early Arabs, for example, saw it as two hyenas attacking a camel. Under the influence of Greek classics, Draco appeared in its serpentine form in later Arabic treatises, from which Hancock falsely implies an independent origin.

Hancock doesn’t flinch when Hamilton tells him, without evidence, that the Serpent Mound once featured a giant glowing crystal atop the head of the snake. The warrant for this is a Cherokee legend about the snake Uktena and the giant crystal Ulûñsû′tĭ, which sat on its head and could give a warrior the ability to perform magic. The story has no known connection to the Serpent Mound, geographically or temporally, and for good measure, the magic crystal story given in the book Hamilton cited when speaking to Hancock—James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1900)—doesn’t match the description he gave Hancock, who apparently did not check. Hamilton claims that crystal emitted light that “sullied the meridian beams of the sun” and, after being lost, plunged Earth into darkness. Mooney said the stone was originally on the head of a great snake, which used it to dazzle its prey, but it became a hunting talisman that remained in a cave, requiring blood sacrifices. If it failed to receive them, it exploded from the cave in a streak of flame and attacked its owner or a member of the owner’s family.

Hamilton gives Hancock what he says is a passage from Mooney’s book, quoted above, about sullying the sun, but the quotation doesn’t appear in that book. I traced the source, which Hamilton slightly misquoted. It’s from James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775), where Adair’s native informants said that giant rattlesnakes had “bewitching” crystals on their heads to dazzle their prey. Such a stone sends out light that “repels” and “sullies the meridian beams of the sun,” meaning it was brighter than the sun at noon (Latin: meridianus, or midday). For what it’s worth, the Cherokee story placed the Uktena in North Carolina, and similar stories about diamonds on the heads of serpents can be found from the Carolinas to the Great Lakes, but are typically associated with subterranean or subaqueous areas, very different from the location of the Serpent Mound. Nor does the Serpent Mound have the horns of the horned serpent of most versions of the legend. The Dakota version, the Unkéhi, is sometimes identified with unearthed Ice Age megafauna fossils—an easy point that Hancock’s failure to check facts costs him in his effort to link the Serpent Mound to the Ice Age.

I don’t mean to harp on this small point at such length, but it is characteristic of the faults in America Before that Hancock assumes that accurately relating what biased, confused, or mistaken sources claim is tantamount to turning their claims into facts, and he doesn’t fact-check his informants, even on easily confirmed points like whether a book says what the informant claims it says. His argument doesn’t live or die on which book Hamilton cites, but the accumulation of small errors like these across hundreds of pages gradually undercuts the idea that these mistaken facts, taken in toto, rewrite history.

Hamilton, incidentally, “does not deny” that Native Americans built the Serpent Mound but holds that they did so with the same mathematical and astronomical wisdom also inherited by Stonehenge from a lost civilization. It’s catnip to Hancock, who, in his usual way, reports the claims as Hamilton’s opinion and chooses not to probe too far into the facts behind Hamilton’s speculation.

2. New World? The Mystery of the First Americans

The second section of the book offers Hancock’s continued implication that a conspiracy exists to suppress the truth about American prehistory. In this section he alleges that academia as a whole has decreed that no evidence of humans in the Americas should be accepted if it predates about 15,000 years ago. To this end, he describes the controversy over the Cerutti mastodon, a set of bones found at a construction site in San Diego in 2017 that a team of researchers claimed in Nature1 bore evidence of having been butchered by an unknown hominin species 130,000 years ago—older than any other accepted evidence for humans in the Americas by a factor of nearly ten. The discovery was controversial from the first, not least because the evidence was ambiguous at best, and the fractures on the bones did not resemble typical butchering by known ancient human groups. As America Before went to press, a new analysis in the journal PaleoAmerica concluded that the damage to the bones had been caused by the action of construction equipment operating above the site where the bones were discovered,2 thus effectively refuting one of Hancock’s most important pieces of evidence.

As dramatic as this episode might be, Hancock places it on a continuum of what he sees as angry and hostile academics refusing to accept the truth. He presents a timeline of what he sees as dogmatic reactionaries steadfastly trying to suppress the antiquity of people in the Americas. He says that in the early 1900s, it was accepted that American Indians arrived 4,000 years before. Then, after being “forced” to accept evidence of the Clovis culture dating back to around 13,000 BCE, dogmatic scientists refused to accept evidence for pre-Clovis cultures and now refuse to accept the Cerutti mastodon. He punctuates this discussion with a selection of quotations designed to make it appear that academics are irrationally and emotionally invested in preserving a “young” America paradigm. Among these incidents are his own experiences being called a crackpot and having scientists refuse to speak with him.

Here, though, Hancock is not entirely wrong. The question of the peopling of the Americas is one where acrimony runs high and evidence is bitterly contested. Even now, decades after a blue-ribbon panel agreed that there was evidence of a human occupation at Monte Verde, Chile prior to the accepted date of the Clovis culture, there are still some advocates for a Clovis-first paradigm. The arguments on each side are beyond the scope of this review except to note that the Clovis-First paradigm is not terribly old, having been proposed in the 1960s, nor did it last all that long. Monte Verde’s status as a pre-Clovis site has generally been accepted since 1997, when an influential report in American Antiquity by seven experts unanimously endorsed findings by Tom Dillehay about its age. Even before, there were arguments for a pre-Clovis arrival in the Americas. Hancock’s description of the controversy, while perhaps somewhat unkind, is accurate, even in describing the angry reactions of those who supported Clovis-First in the face of a growing number of suspected pre-Clovis sites.

Unfortunately, Hancock takes it too far by hanging his hopes on the Cerutti mastodon, which even before the recent PaleoAmerica article was already extremely controversial. He dismisses the controversy as the “whines and quibbles of the skeptics.” As with many other instances, Hancock’s views are shaped less by the facts than by the personalities involved. Having been flattered that Cerutti investigator Thomas Demérér agreed to speak with him about the discovery, he finds himself trusting Demérér’s conclusions largely uncritically because Demérér, a paleontologist, shares with him a sense of aggrievement that archaeologists did not embrace his conclusions enthusiastically. In response to a previous claim that construction equipment was responsible for the bones’ breakage, Demérér argues that the spiral-shaped breaks on the bones appeared to have been made when the bones were fresh and could only be made with tools, and Hancock says he will not “try the reader’s patience” by explaining this in detail. Unbeknownst to Hancock, a 2017 Quaternary International article reported just such fractures in mammoth bones as the result of heavy machinery.3 Unfortunately, more research will be needed to resolve the dispute, but both Occam’s razor and lack of any supporting evidence beyond the Cerutti site strongly suggest Hancock would have been wise to be more cautious. Instead, he and Demérér commiserate about how archaeologists are not open-minded and don’t examine 100,000-year-old or older deposits in America for evidence of human presence. Archaeologists everywhere, they agree, may simply have missed 130,000 years of evidence through dogmatic blindness.

Fortified by this, Hancock takes readers on a tour of various sites claimed to be older than the Clovis horizon, sometimes by tens of thousands of years. The evidence varies in quality, and each is subject to important debates in archaeological journals—though not to the point of inducing “posttraumatic shock following the collapse of the Clovis First doctrine,” as Hancock puts it (124). Hancock hopes that by listing every suspected pre-Clovis site, no matter how tenuous, the cumulative weight will create a circumstantial case for a 100,000 or more years of human occupation in the Americas. The question, however, is to what purpose he introduces these claims. Even accepting the most extreme pre-Clovis arguments, the presence of humans implies nothing about the existence of a lost Atlantis-like civilization. For example, Aboriginal Australians have been present Down Under for 50,000 years or more, but their traditional way of life did not include Atlantis-style cities.

3. Genes: The Mystery in DNA

The recent discovery of a few bone fragments in the Denisova cave in Russia attributed to a new species of hominin and the suggestion that this species interbred with Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans set off cries of joy among those who speculate about lost civilizations. Although the fragments are very small and come from only a handful of individuals, speculators like Andrew Collins have already imagined the Denisovans as the Giants of the Book of Genesis. Both he and the Travel Channel series Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox have depicted the Denisovans as having colonized the Americas, where they butchered the Cerutti mastodon, with Fox suggesting that Native Americans are actually interspecies hybrids and giants.

Hancock, too, finds solace in the Denisovans, though he is more circumspect in how he intends to employ them. The discovery of a stone bracelet in the Denisova cave that could be as much as 40,000 to 70,000 years old leads Hancock to feel a sense of “intimate” connection with this extinct hominin, but as interesting as the sparse and fragmentary evidence for Denisovan culture is, it has no bearing on the question of whether a lost civilization existed in Ice Age America, some 30,000 to 60,000 years later.

Replica of a Denisovan finger bone fragment, originally found in Denisova Cave in 2008

Replica of a Denisovan finger bone fragment, originally found in Denisova Cave in 2008, at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium. Credit: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Hancock traces Denisovan DNA to the indigenous peoples of Melanesia and Australia, who have a small percentage of Denisovan DNA. A similar concentration of Denisovan DNA also exists in isolated Amazonian tribes. The scientists who discovered this fact concluded that Amazonian tribes were the descendants of a small founder population, originally from Central Asia, and retained their distinctive DNA profile because of the extreme isolation of the Amazon. The most parsimonious conclusion is that the Americas received more than one influx of peoples from Asia over time. Hancock feels archaeologists do not welcome this suggestion, though I was taught about the potential for multiple migrations in my introductory archaeology class in college two decades ago. The question remains controversial, but Hancock overstates the resistance to new evidence and suggests a dogmatic “official” narrative that doesn’t really exist.

There is much that could be discussed about the implications of a second founding population and why it remains in evidence only in the Amazon, but Hancock’s description of this information being “tacked on to the mongrel pedigree of the First Americans” to avoid “inconvenient” facts manages to use insensitive language to support intemperate analysis in service of what is, essentially, a conspiracy theory. The data, incidentally, are only a few years old—published in 2015—so the implications have not made their way through all of the scientific models. Hancock’s anger stems from his upset that scientific consensus changes more slowly than the popular press’s publishing cycle, and initial findings require further analysis and confirmation before major changes occur. Indeed, he mischaracterizes archaeology as “an intensely conservative and territorial scholarly community, resistant to change” (124), even though the evidence he cites is from scholarly journals and the paradigms he rails against were consensus conclusions for a few decades at most. There is a tendency among men of a certain age to envision the consensus narratives of midcentury school textbooks as a static and unchanging dogma, but those narratives were then only a few years old, and changing times have yielded changing results. Compare discussions of the peopling of the Americas from the 1910s, the 1960s, and the 2010s and you will see that there is no static dogma, but continued improvement and refinement in light of new evidence.

Hancock wishes to argue that the lack of clear evidence for how the same genetic information (which he mischaracterizes as Australian, though it is anciently ancestral Asian) ended up in both Australia and the Amazon allows room for Aboriginal Australians to have sailed to the Amazon, perhaps during the Ice Age. He suggests that this was the result of an Atlantis-like civilization launching “‘outreach programs’ to hunter-gatherer tribes” or even eugenics-style programs to resettle peoples from different global populations. He admits this is speculation but considers it no better and no worse than the hypotheses offered by scientists. However, the research he cites does not support this claim since the scholarly literature indicates that the Amazonian DNA findings are not consistent with a relatively recent trans-Pacific migration but must have been present in the founding populations.

4. Memes: The Amazon Mystery

In search of what Hancock has come to see as the genetic legacy of a lost civilization’s “outreach program,” he next explores why the “skeptical” in academia denied the existence of “technologically advanced” lost cities in the Amazon rainforest. Hancock is slippery with the term “technologically advanced,” which changes from use to use but refers in general to societies with metalworking capability. He must know, however, that his readers imagine something out of science fiction.

The question of lost Amazon cities is an old one. During the Contact period, the Spanish reported encountering large settlements with impressive populations, and these stories became mixed with (and helped inspire) myths such as that of El Dorado and the Roman-style lost city described in Brazil’s “Manuscript 512” of 1753 that inspired Percy Fawcett to hunt the Lost City of Z. However, disease brought by the Spanish devastated the Amazon populations, killing up to 99% of inhabitants, and the rainforest soon consumed the visible remains of the cities’ wooden structures. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, no evidence of the cities reported by the Spanish seemed to exist, leading most scholars to conclude that they were mythical. But a reappraisal began in the 1990s, and around the turn of the millennium, physical evidence of their existence and extent started to come to light, reported in the scientific journals. That was two decades ago, but Hancock is intent on raging against the scholars of midcentury, most of whom are dead, for what he sees as a conspiracy to deny the achievements of Amazonian natives out of an arrogant belief that indigenous peoples must necessarily be primitive. It is an odd position for an author whose argument is that civilization is the gift of Atlanteans he identified 12 times as “white” or “white gods” in his 1995 book Fingerprints of the Gods. To put this into perspective, more has changed in our understanding of Amazonian prehistory between 1995 and today, thanks to new research and new evidence than has changed between Fingerprints of the Gods and America Before over the same period. Indeed, Hancock even refers readers back to debunked chapters of Fingerprints in this latest book, knowing full well that they contain mistakes and errors, many critical. Which one is less open to change?

To that end, the heart of Hancock’s confusion can be summarized in a single paragraph out of the book’s 500+ pages, one in which Hancock doesn’t realize that he has literally described the actual workings of archaeology under the guise of fighting the fantasy of dogma:

When, I wonder, will archaeologists take to heart the old dictum that absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence, and learn the lessons that their own profession has repeatedly taught—namely that the next turn of the excavator’s spade can change everything? So little of the surface area of our planet has been subjected to any kind of archaeological investigation at all that it would be more logical to regard every major conclusion reached by this discipline as provisional—particularly when we are dealing with a period as remote, as tumultuous, and as little understood as the Ice Age. (153, boldface in original)

Much of the section in which Hancock explores South America and Central America for signs of pre-Clovis occupations is written to make archaeologists look blinkered for having based provisional conclusions on the evidence known at the time. A more charitable reading of the exact same evidence that Hancock provides is that new evidence remains subject to investigation and confirmation, and as new evidence comes to light, provisional conclusions change. This is exactly what Hancock says he wants to see, but he is upset that the process, which can take years or even decades depending on the strength of the evidence and the magnitude of the conclusions, is not happening as quickly or as cleanly as he would like. This, however, is not an argument for a lost civilization but rather an emotional appeal designed to obscure the fact that not a scrap of evidence for his Atlantis-style civilization exists.

He counters this by stating that the possibility that Australians crossed the Pacific to South America implies “a civilization capable of great oceanic voyages” (159). But this is rhetorical sleight of hand. Here the word civilization does the heavy lifting of implying something akin to the Atlantis of science fiction, when we know from historical examples like the Polynesian voyages across the Pacific that vast cities, massive populations, and European-style technology were simply not required. Willpower, boats, and simple navigation equipment will suffice. The fact that Hancock suggests European contact killed 99% of the people of the Amazon is sufficient to demonstrate that the Amazon civilization did not have contact with the Old World in historical times, or else they would have been dead long before.

Weirdly enough, in next claiming that the mounds built in the Amazon followed geometrical principles, Hancock acknowledges that geometry is a human universal and each culture employs it according to their own principles. Despite this concession, he then nonsensically repeats that a logically unnecessary lost civilization must be behind it all anyway. Similarly, a catalog of “curiosities” that he himself admits prove nothing exists simply to be suggestive. In one case, for example, a ditch in the Amazon is a square aligned to the cardinal directions and similar in size to the square base of the Great Pyramid and perhaps of the same age. Hancock admits this proves nothing, but he clearly wants the reader to think something else. He explicitly makes no claims about global ancient sites of similar age, like Stonehenge, but offers the “suggestion” that Atlantis (in all but name) gave a love of math and regular geometric shapes to people around the world. The great thing about suggestions is that they require no proof, and Hancock’s own concessions undercut the necessity of Atlantis to explain what he admits to be universal. To that end, consider his interesting discussion of Rego Grande, an astronomically aligned megalithic site in the northern Amazon. No lost civilization is needed to explain why people might raise stones to mark important calendar dates. The equinoxes and solstices are evident to any observer, and the site itself is believed to be only 500 to 2,000 years old, far too young to be the direct legacy of Atlantis.

Hancock asks the modern “rational” Western reader to put aside the corruption and materialism of the West and understand the world through shamanic voyages to another dimension of pure form, where knowledge of subjects such as geometric shapes and the harmony of sky and ground flows from the spiritual force animating the universe.

The subsequent discussion of geoglyphs and earthworks in the Amazon is an occasion for more bellyaching about “Western scientists” reducing the spiritual to the material and dismissing earthworks as “ritual” spaces without understanding them. Nevertheless, he praises a pair of Finnish researchers for bringing some indigenous people to the earthworks to offer their perspectives. I had to laugh when Hancock lavishes these researchers with praise after the indigenous people told the researchers that they had no idea what the earthworks were for but suspected that they might have been ritual spaces or enchanted. It is literally the same conclusion Hancock harangues Western scholars for reaching, but when it comes from the mouths of someone other than a scientist, it is suddenly a revelation from the depths of time.

Hancock ends his section on memes by asking the modern “rational” Western reader to put aside the corruption and materialism of the West and understand the world through shamanic voyages to another dimension of pure form, where knowledge of subjects such as geometric shapes and the harmony of sky and ground flows from the spiritual force animating the universe. He devotes a long section to his pet subject, the hallucinogen ayahuasca, through which shamans believe that they engage with the spirit world and with which he has himself experimented.

He does not initially attempt to explain the tension between his two views. If his “memes” can be delivered from the spiritual realm, then a lost civilization is not necessary for their appearance around the world. And if a lost civilization had to deliver these “memes,” then it seems that the spirit world is not as powerful or as pervasive as Hancock suggests. Only much later in the book does Hancock seem to become aware of this problem. “The notion that human agents were behind the spread of the system,” he writes, “is not contradicted by this suggestion” of spiritual communication (349). He speculates that a (superfluous) elite would have traveled the world spreading the faith and using “plant allies” to convert the natives. It’s possible, but unnecessary, given his premises.

5. Stuff Just Keeps on Getting Older: The Mystery of the Primeval Mounds

At the dawn of archaeology as a scientific discipline, belief in Noah’s Flood was still widespread, and that put an artificial constraint on the story of human history. Following that belief, the whole history of the world as we know it played out from the time of the Flood around 3000 BCE or so to the present. The antediluvians were all destroyed and their works washed away, except, perhaps for a few select monuments, such as the Great Pyramid, if myths and legends could be believed. As a result, the foundational narratives of history had a bias toward the recent to fit everything into a short chronology. The story of archaeology since then has been a slow but steady pushing of the boundaries further and further back, but each new discovery has required firm evidence to expand the timeline. Hancock has no patience for the gradual work of science and wonders why it has taken so long to find the oldest evidence of various facets of culture. For one thing, the oldest layers are buried deepest. They also tend to be the least well-preserved.

In the fifth section of the book, Hancock reviews various sites built by a range of North American mound-building cultures, especially the Mississippians with their monumental center at Cahokia. He speculates that they may have had a direct or indirect connection to the Amazon and shared mound-building techniques and astronomical knowledge. Contact between different peoples of the Americas has long been the subject of archaeological speculation, though typically the proposed connections are indirect, for example that Mexican and/or Andean cultures served as centers of networks that extended far beyond the territory they controlled directly. However, direct evidence for contact between the eastern U.S. and Mexico is sparse, at best, and with South America non-existent. (The western United States is a different case altogether.) Transfers of crops, iconography, etc. are more likely to have moved between neighboring groups in a daisy chain rather than by evangelization from a far-off center. What any of this has to do with Atlantis is unclear, since the Mississippian culture lasted from 800 to 1600 CE, more than 10,000 years after Hancock claims his quasi-Atlantis flourished. If the Mississippians were the inheritors of Atlantean wisdom, why not the Romans, the Byzantines, the Habsburgs? Or the Han or the Ming dynasties? The implication, of course, is that this ancient memory exists in people who are noble savages of a sort, exotic exemplars of a purer way of life, one in harmony with the earth and in opposition to the sophistry and sin of the West. It is an inverted orientalism.

Hancock traces mound building in the United States back to Poverty Point, a mound site dating back to 1700 BCE, and back still further to an earlier mound building phase before 2700 BCE. He takes time to complain that such standard archaeological methods as seriation and stylistic analysis are invalid because modern people have a wide variety of objects, so ancient people might just as well have created according to their fancy. Anyone who has ever looked at a picture of clothing from the 1970s and laughed ought to understand that styles change over time, even among us moderns, in ways that can be used to identify people and objects in time.

But to the point about mounds: Hancock argues that three disconnected periods of mound-building in 2700 BCE, 1700 BCE, and then from the Adena period around 300 BCE forward, were not the result of independent efforts to build monuments and to mark solar and lunar phenomena but were the result of the deliberate transmission of ancient astronomical and architectural wisdom, which laid dormant among secret preservers of knowledge for a thousand years at a time. He hangs this on the conclusions of archaeologist John E. Clark, who posits a secret group of knowledge-keepers, but he neglects to tell readers that Clark is a Mormon who operates from the position that the Book of Mormon is an accurate account of American prehistory. The same data could equally well be explained by later peoples studying older mounds and taking inspiration from them, without a secret cult of astronomer-priests sitting in pristine silence for a millennium.

6. Equipped for Journeying: The Mystery of Death

In the sixth section of the book, Hancock describes his own brush with death following a medical crisis in 2017, and he explains that his near-death experience was the culmination of a move away from youthful atheism toward a New Age/neo-pagan spirituality that had begun in the 1990s. His spiritual journey is intimately entwined with his conclusions about ancient history because he sees profound and imminent truths in Egyptian funerary texts that relate directly to his own experiences, and he therefore views other cultures’ explorations of death through this lens. He suggests that Mississippians shared the same beliefs about life after death as the Egyptians and that both inherited them from his Atlantis. He bases this on the fact that Moundeville’s iconography includes a hand-and-eye symbol thought to represent part of the modern constellation of Orion, which the Egyptians also recognized as Osiris. In both cultures, these bright stars—among the most prominent in the night sky—were associated with death. The two cultures, however, saw the stars differently. Egypt saw Orion as an upright man, but the successors to the Mississippians said it was an arm.

Much of this section of the book is given over to cherry-picked parallels between ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs and a range of myths, legends, and practices from a variety of Native American groups with the goal of suggesting an underlying connection across the thousands of miles and more than four thousand years that separate Egypt’s Old Kingdom from the end of the Mississippian culture. How convincing you find the comparisons will depend on how greatly you feel Atlantis had to be responsible for such commonplace ideas as seeing the Milky Way as a spiritually charged celestial phenomenon or imagining demons destroying the souls of the unworthy. If you think artistic depictions of bird-men could only be a secret connection to Horus, or that affording special status to dwarves is too unusual to be coincidental, then you might be convinced, though it would mean you were unfamiliar with other cultures that did the same. If you agree that no one could have the idea of symbolizing the human soul as a bird without Atlantis, then you would stand in awe, though it is one of the most common metaphors for the soul around the world, found in Europe and India, not just Egypt and America. In one particularly ridiculous parallel, Hancock notes that Egyptian astronomer-priests and Pawnee astronomer-chiefs both wore clothes sewn with star-shapes. It would seem a rather obvious fashion choice for an astronomer; Neil DeGrasse Tyson often wears ties with similar patterns, but that doesn’t make him a secret recipient of Atlantean knowledge. Hancock draws bits and pieces from a wide range of Native American cultures across a continent and over centuries to compare to particular expressions of Egyptian culture. It gives a lot of latitude to pick and choose similarities. Earlier generations found similar false “connections” to ancient Israel, on equally flimsy grounds.

Plate XXXV from Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Great Serpent in Adams County, Ohio (1948). Credit: Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis

Plate XXXV from Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Great Serpent in Adams County, Ohio (1948). Credit: Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis Wikimedia Commons [PUBLIC DOMAIN]

At one point, Hancock points to a fanciful Victorian reconstruction of the Pizha or Piasa (“panther”) painted at Alton, Illinois, as evidence of a connection to Egypt’s underworld serpent myths. This creature, representing the underwater panther of mythology, is a mishmash of various animals, with deer antlers, eagle talons, a serpentine body, etc. The drawing, however, was not based on life when made in the 1880s but on the memories of elderly residents who recalled seeing the destroyed original in their youths. It is inauthentic and of questionable accuracy. Hancock thinks it might be of a kind with Egypt’s Sphinx because 19th century ethnologists recorded stories of the monster having a human head. But in terms of its combination of animal parts, it is closer in form and in spirit to the Chinese dragon than to Egypt’s Sphinx—which Hancock allegedly doesn’t think had a human head originally, if his 1990s books are to be believed. (He speculated then that someone had re-carved a lion head.) Hancock makes much hay of a feline-inspired sculpture of an underwater panther posing similarly to the Sphinx, but it’s a cat. Cat statues, modeled from life, tend to look alike, whether a lion or a mountain lion served as the model.

Nevertheless, Hancock feels that there is a connection. He concedes that there was no contact between the Americas and the Old World for 12,000 years, so he therefore concludes that both regions inherited a cosmic faith of stars and geometry from Atlantis or from the spirit world.

7. Apocalypse Then: The Mystery of the Cataclysm

The penultimate section of the book revisits material first presented in Magicians of the Gods about the controversial claim that a series of meteors and/or comets hit North America at the end of the last Ice Age, for as many as 21 years, creating massive climate disruptions and sparking a conflagration of wildfires that burned up to 10% of the Earth’s surface and unleashing devastating global floods remembered as Noah’s Deluge. The so-called Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, named for the geological period in which it allegedly occurred, has a small and dedicated team of researchers who advocate for it in scholarly journals, and a much larger contingent of paleontologists, archaeologists, and geologists who dispute the evidence on numerous grounds.

A review of Hancock’s book cannot do justice to the complexity of the debate over the existence or non-existence of the impact event(s), but it is another case where Hancock favors the minority view and accuses the mainstream of dogmatic rejection of new knowledge. Regardless, the comet question doesn’t seem directly relevant to Hancock’s thesis since the reality of the comet proves nothing about the existence of Atlantis. Imagine for a moment that the comet really did hit. Why would that tell us anything about whether Atlantis was real? Hancock directs his readers back to Magicians of the Gods, but that doesn’t strengthen the claim. Even if the entire comet impact hypothesis were true, and even if it inspired the myth of the Great Flood, it would still prove nothing about life before the Flood.

It does, however, provoke Hancock to new levels of typographical outrage. America Before already suffered from the use of loud boldface for emphasis instead of standard italics, but in the closing sections of the book, Hancock is occasionally reduced to ALL CAPS and sometimes BOLDFACE ALL CAPS to adequately convey his anger at scientists for what he considers to be vast institutional prejudices against unusual ideas, bordering on a conspiracy directed by… well, he never really says. Governments? Universities? Wealthy industrialists? The best I can figure is that the conspiracy is supposed to have formed organically from hidebound academic old-timers who used their influence to silence younger colleagues under threat of funding cuts or tenure denial, all in pursuit of never admitting to being wrong. Their successors keep the flame out of institutional inertia and a culture of intimidation, or as Hancock puts it, fear. He devotes seven pages to gossiping about mean things scientists said to each other about the comet hypothesis—evidence, he claims, of a coordinated effort to suppress the truth. Were it that coordinated, so much of the sniping would not have been done in the open, nor would heterodox claims have made it into the pages of the academic journals Hancock cites.

8. Survive! The Mystery of the Invisible Man

As the book nears its close, Hancock argues that the comet cataclysm destroyed his lost civilization, wiping out all traces of it down to the last screw and bolt, except, of course, for the teachers who traveled around the world spreading the gospel of hallucinogenic plants, stargazing, mounds of earth, and geometry. To this point, he claims that glacial runoff from the comet’s incineration of the ice sheets covering North America could have destroyed every trace of civilization, though how animal bones survived but not a single stone or metal tool, or a single indisputably human-carved block of stone is beyond me. This is challenging to say the least, but I will also note that the dates involved have been sliding over time. Plato placed the end of Atlantis at c. 9600 BCE, having flourished for some unknown time before that. Hancock originally placed his lost civilization in 10,450 BCE (later rounded to 10,500) in Fingerprints and geared his entire analysis of the astronomy of antiquity to that specific year. By Magicians he had adjusted the date to 10,800 BCE with a final civilizational collapse in 9600 BCE to match Atlantis. But the comet impact hypothesis keeps refining the dates, and now in America Before the 21-year impact event is hypothesized to have occurred for ten years on either side of the very specific year of 10,803 BCE. It may seem like a minor rounding error, but Hancock’s thesis hinges on ancient monuments being precision-aligned to specific years. Ancient alignments can’t be both incredibly precise and targeted to the wrong year.

This lost civilization, he says, was roughly equivalent to Napoleonic Europe in terms of its technological development, but operated under “opaque” principles that modern people cannot understand. It had something of a Star Trek-style Prime Directive that prevented it from sharing its technology with less-developed peoples, but Hancock speculates that they gave the Clovis people their distinctive fluted projectile points as a mark of their favor. He wonders if other American cultures turned against the Clovis people after the comet hit and killed off the Atlanteans because they were “too close” to the “gods” from Atlantis who were blamed for the disaster. There is no way to evaluate this statement except as a fantasy. “This is a serious question,” Hancock responds, “not a frivolous question, and we may anticipate the skeptical response” (439).

Doing my job for me, though poorly, Hancock wrongly claims that skeptics would expect to see “skeletons of more advanced people” alongside Clovis remains were his claim true. I am not sure what an “advanced” skeleton would look like, but this is no more the case than believing American skeletons should be found in China because the Chinese wear Nike shoes. At any rate, Hancock notes that only one Clovis skeleton is known to science, so into the void he posits that we may imagine any people we wish, including Atlanteans. If the Clovis people could leave behind no bodies save one, then Atlantis might similarly have vanished, he says. But the Clovis people left behind tens of thousands of stone tools and fluted points, while Atlantis is represented by exactly nothing. Even if their bones turned to dust, where are their stones and their metals? Where is the pollen from their crops, the evidence of domestication of plants at that remote date?

Hancock admits that skeptics like me acted “reasonably” in claiming that the existence of a cataclysm implies nothing about the existence of a lost civilization. Hancock says that this book is his response to the challenge of locating the homeland of the lost civilization, i.e., Atlantis. He places it directly under the comet impact site to claim it evaporated, but he also imagines that Atlantis “manipulated forces unknown to modern science,” so their technology would be invisible to archaeologists even if they were to find it (472). This, he speculates, would be something akin to the “transmutation” of elements to transform matter and included psi powers such as telepathy and remote viewing, as well as telekinesis, which allowed them to build megalithic structures with their minds. In true pseudoscientific fashion, Hancock places these into consideration as possibilities to explore and triumphantly tells readers that this is speculation that “I will not attempt to prove here or support with evidence” (475), though he wishes readers to imagine the potential for it to be true.

There is little to say about a fantasy absent evidence, and also no reason to believe this freeform speculation. Hancock holds out hope that investigating a “spiritual” ancient civilization possessed of psychic powers will overturn Abrahamic “monopolies” on faith and secular “materialist” science in favor of his preferred New Age neo-paganism. He concludes with a warning that failing to heed the lessons of the lost civilization’s downfall, especially in light of the excesses and damaging environmental effects of industrial capitalism, will lead to our own civilization’s potential collapse, a theme he has repeatedly struck for more than 20 years.

The most interesting aspect of America Before is not the repetition of themes and ideas from earlier books, but the differences. The “evidence” Hancock cited in previous volumes specified that the bearers of the lost civilization were the “white gods” cited as civilizing culture-heroes in Mesoamerican and Andean legends (as manipulated by Spanish missionaries), and he originally placed the lost civilization in the whitest (in color) place on Earth, Antarctica. But after decades of criticism that such claims (and their intendent corollary that Native peoples could not develop culture on their own) were racist, now he has done a volte-face and speculates that his lost civilization was ethnically Native American, populated by a people who have been subject to one of the world’s most devastating physical and cultural genocides. He rightly devotes space to decrying the Euro-American efforts to eradicate Native culture and forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the American mainstream.

Hancock’s liberal social instincts yield an admirable defense of Native cultures, but by the end of the book they tip his argument toward the Noble Savage stereotype of the indigenous. Like many New Agers who vaunt the indigenous and the non-Western over Western modernity, Hancock imagines non-Western cultures as the source of pure teachings, a more “natural” way of life, and methods to live in harmony with the forces of nature. Even his lost civilization is now, at its core, a collection of Noble Savages, so ethereal in their greatness that they simply used their minds to create their trash-free, ecologically balanced cities—cities that could vanish into the ether because they had no polluting or corrupting ties to the messy world of matter.

In the end, America Before is similar to the lost civilization Hancock imagines—a hodgepodge of half-remembered stories tying together impressionistic collections of facts that never quite add up to a coherent whole. Hancock is in many ways an artist rather than a scholar, and he lets innuendo and impression do the hard work of turning his cabinet of curiosities into an argument. In artistic terms, America Before is a bit like an Impressionist painting hung among the pre-Raphaelites and passing itself off as a photograph. It may be interesting and emotional and occasionally beautiful, but it is not realistic. END

About the Author

Jason Colavito is an author, editor, and blogger who writes about the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction. His new book on the Mound Builder myth and its impact on Native American cultures and United States history will be published next year by the University of Oklahoma Press.

  1. Holen, S. R. et al. 2017. “A 130,000-Year-Old Archaeological Site 1 in Southern California, USA,” Nature, 544, 479–483.
  2. Ferrell, P. M. 2019. “The Cerutti Mastodon Site Reinterpreted with Reference to Freeway Construction Plans and Methods,” PaleoAmerica, DOI: 10.1080/20555563.2019.1589663
  3. Haynes, G. 2017. “Taphonomy of the Inglewood Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)(Maryland, USA): Green-Bone Fracturing of Fossil Bones,” Quaternary International, 445, 171–183.

This article was published on April 20, 2019.


7 responses to “American Atlantis”

  1. Wade Tarzia says:

    Excellent review and discussion of this permutation of alternative or ‘cult’ archaeology.

  2. gleaner63 says:

    Ron Kirksey: at the very least, if you are going to pass judgement on a book, you ought to at least *read* it. Otherwise, it appears that you just want to live in an echo chamber. What would it hurt to just read Hancock’s stuff?

  3. gleaner63 says:

    ..yep, name calling (charlatan); part of the hyper-skeptics standard arsenal….

  4. Mike says:

    A very well thought out and well presented critical appraisal of the charlatans work.

  5. Ron Kirksey says:

    In the mid-1990s I spent a day with archaeologist Brad Lepper (mentioned in the book and review) while putting together a story on the surge of interest in ancient Ohio Valley people. Lepper was a careful scientist but also an innovation thinker.
    We visited several “effigy mounds” — mounds sculptured to represent animals encountered by the native people. The Serpent Mound remains the most impressive, and Brad was working on a theory of its origin. The timeline fit for the mound to have been built around 1066 C.E. That date is mentioned in ancient written texts from other cultures as a year of a highly visible comet in the night skies. The comet also was seen as an omen of the Norman invasion of England that year.
    Lepper posed a simple explanation for the Serpent Mound. As you see from the illustrations, the mound not only represents a snake, but a snake with an egg in its mouth. Or, what a comet might have looked like to the ancients, who had no other frame of reference.
    No need for the New Age complicated, circular arguments. Ancient Ohioans, an observant and inventive people, simply could have seen something they didn’t understand and represented it in art.
    I don’t read Hancock, but if he wants to actually teach lessons to prevent the collapse of civilization he should quit devaluing science. We don’t need any more deniers of scientific fact, now matter how clever they are.

  6. Pauk Berg says:

    So now that I posted the comment above, the “Recommended by Amazon” changed to Hancock (a movie), 4 Ice Age movies, and an e-book called :The Earth Bull”. So this was just an Amazon advertising ad-on using keywords, and not a Skeptic promotion. Sorry. But still, why not list some resources at the bottom of the article. We can never have too many resources.

  7. Paul Berg says:

    Good article. In high school, I loved reading Von Daniken and Hancock and underlining the errors and writing refutations in the margins (the books became more underline and scribble than text). The librarian disapproved, even though I used pencil. But why were these books even in a school library? Of course, now we get into censorship, broadness of education, etc., etc. Sigh.
    I do, however, have an objection to promoting the sale of the book (or as Hancock might say, the SALE of THE BOOK! Recommended by Amazon!) underneath the article. Why promote it at all? This is not a censorship issue. Or why not also list some other skeptical books as resources? (I wish the school library had had some.)

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