Website essay 78: 17 April 2019
Every now and then I read something that changes my thinking, or fascinates me, so that I go on to more and more reading in the area. One of my sons gave me a book to read, saying that I might find it interesting. The book, Fingerprints of the Gods, is by Graham Hancock, not a scientist or an historian, and plainly almost an obsessive. More about the book shortly.
Thirty or more years ago I became interested in the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, of which Plato is the early historian, and read a book about the ancient island of Thera, today’s Santorini, which exploded volcanically. The thirty-metre tsunami that followed probably ended the Minoan Civilisation. The area is still the most volcanically active region in the Eastern Mediterranean. At about the same time I read Dennis Wheatley’s They Found Atlantis, a page-turner of the day, though it was first published in 1936.
Mr Hancock is not at all interested in Atlantis, for there are only two page references to it in the nearly 600 pages in his book. But he is most interested in another myth, familiar to us all through the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark. He shows, quite convincingly in my judgment, that these deluge stories are universal, even in ‘far-off’ Australia. They are all set in an ancient time, long before the eras of the narrators, which Hancock calls ‘historic times’. They have much the same story-line: the gods are angry, and decide to exterminate mankind, all but one good man and his lady, who are told to build a boat, or a secure place high up, and wait for the floods to recede. They are instructed to take with them a small sample of living creatures so that the eco-system can start multiplying again (why did you bring the mosquito, Noah?), and they do that too.
We know that at the end of the last Ice Age the ice lay two miles thick above New York, and there were comparably large glaciations across Europe and Asia. We even had small glaciers here in Australia. The last Ice Age was a completely global event that reached its maximum size about 17,000 years ago, having started its accumulation much earlier, perhaps 60,000 years ago. The Glacial Maximum was followed by seven thousand years of deglaciation, ending around 10,000 years ago, which is, not at all coincidentally, the beginning of the period of agriculture and human settlement in villages, the start of our modern human civilisation.
Hancock makes two important points, or perhaps it would be better to say that he reminded me of two important points made by others. The first is that the process of deglaciation was comparatively rapid. Just think about it: two vertical miles of ice disappearing in a few thousand years — disappearing altogether. The earth began to rebound. The melting was accompanied by all sorts of other climatic events, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, unexpected floods. For example, an early period of melting produced a vast lake in North America, known as Lake Agassiz. The size of this lake was equivalent to the present Black Sea. It waxed and waned, but eventually its ice-wall collapsed and a vast flood swept over adjacent lands.
Second, though rapid, and like Lake Agassiz, the melting had its own staccato history. While the Bible pictures Noah and the Ark as a single event, it is much more likely that there were dozens of comparable events, and humanity had to live through them. They must have been terrible times in which to live. And the worst, it seems, was the two thousand years between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago, the last flick of the glacial tail. Now comes the spooky part.
One of the enduring puzzles of the Egyptian civilisation is how a scattered group of riverside dwellers in the Nile delta were able to design and build the three colossal structures known as the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the frowning Sphinx, very close by. That mystery has deepened as new techniques have disclosed that the pyramids are part of an astronomical observatory. Where did the maths and physics come from? The dimensions of the biggest Pyramid (of Cheops, the name I learned when studying Egyptian history) are astonishingly correct, to a tolerance that we would find hard to match today. Further mystery: it is as though the ancient Egyptians came into being already equipped with such knowledge, because there are no preceding structures that show the patient learning by trial and error that usually accompanies technological changes. Mystery upon mystery: after the great pyramids there are no more. Succeeding ‘monuments’, if that is what they were, are wholly inferior in design and accomplishment. Why did the Egyptians suddenly lose their skills in this art form?
Hancock says, confidently, that the great pyramids were built very much earlier, and he puts the timing at about 11,000 years ago, and by another race altogether, one wiped out by the last destructive period referred to above. Whoops! You don’t like it? Its boldness worries me, too. Others have posited a group of extra-terrestrials. Conventional Egyptology will have no part of it. The pyramids are named after the Pharaohs who are thought to have commissioned them during their reigns, and that’s that. Hmm. The mysteries remain, I think.
Hancock wheels in the Sphinx, so to speak, which was carved out of the bedrock in a single piece. Its face has been obliterated, and its surface has been affected by wind — and sand, cry the Egyptologists! No, says a geologist. The striations in the rock are vertical, and were caused by water, not sand. The Sphinx is surrounded by sand, and the wind will fill up the cavity from which it was hewn in the space of a decade or two. A lot of rain must have descended on the head of the Sphinx. The Egyptians kept excellent records of the weather of the Nile over a very long period. There was no such rainfall in historic times. Bradford puts the last likely deluge in the 11,000 year-ago-period. So there you are. A lovely set of mysteries, and all to do with the most recent and destructive climate change humanity has known.
So where does Hancock think the older civilisation came from? Antarctica. Yep, before it was completely covered by ice several thousand years ago. And he has a lovely piece of quasi evidence, the Piri Reis map,drawn in the early sixteenth century by a Turkish admiral and cartographer. It purports to show a chunk of Antarctica as it was before the ice. And a recent study of the land-mass below the present-day ice, using techniques that were not available until recently, suggests that the Piri Reis map is pretty right. Where did the Turkish cartographer get those data from? He didn’t say, and we don’t know. Another mystery.
Well, there you are. I’m taking no sides in this battle. But I am prepared to say that Hancock’s book raises mysteries that are simply not yet explained to anyone’s satisfaction, unless they are ‘believers’. I leave it you, the interested readers, to sort out your own views. Hancock has written other books in this genre, and there is a new one coming out — perhaps it’s already out: The Message of the Sphinx. As I said at the beginning, he’s something of an obsessive.
Finally, I have come to understand that there are puzzles that are not solvable today, and may not be solvable for a long time. I accept that. It is a mistake to think that we know everything that is important. We know what we know today. Our descendants fifty years ahead, in 2069, will very likely know a great deal more, and perhaps puzzle at our ignorance.