Ancient Apocalypse Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s Sinister
Alex Rome Griffin | Lancaster University
Ancient Apocalypse (ITN Productions, 2022) for Netflix
The term ‘rubbernecking’ is likely one that all of you will understand. It is the act of craning one’s head around to catch sight of something happening at the side of the road. Most of the time, people are trying to glimpse something grizzly, like a crash. We tell ourselves that we are only looking to make sure everyone is okay; that all the passengers escaped unharmed. However, in thinking this, we are lying to ourselves. We are trying to snatch a peek of something to satisfy our darker, often suppressed fascination with the macabre. The term rubbernecking is appropriate for my recent watching of Graham Hancock’s latest foray into archaeology, because Ancient Apocalypse truly is a car crash. I watched it selflessly in the name of writing this article, but I was also morbidly curious to see what Netflix had done with Hancock’s uniquely unhinged take on prehistory.
The premise of Hancock’s theory is as follows: an ancient race of educated and advanced people taught our grunting, cave-dwelling ancestors all the key tenets of civilisation. They taught them agriculture, art, and engineering. This race of advanced ‘unknowns’ was wiped out in some catastrophe, theorised by Hancock as a meteor strike. Before we go into further detail, I’d also like to point out that Hancock’s lost intelligent race is coded as Caucasian. He never explicitly mentions this in Ancient Apocalypse, but his earlier written works are startlingly upfront about the matter. His 1995 work ‘Fingerprints of the Gods’, for example, attributes the monuments constructed by the Inca peoples of South America to white, bearded men. In suggesting this, he draws directly on the debunked work of Ignatius Donnelly, who peddled this racial pseudoscience in his book ‘Atlantis: The Antediluvian World’, published in 1882. This sort of thinking is explicitly racist and strips indigenous peoples of their agency in creating their archaeological footprint and denies them the right to their past. Of course, Hancock suggests that ‘mainstream’ archaeology doesn’t want you to accept this, but that signs of his lost lifeforms are everywhere. If only you ‘sheeple’ would wake up and smell the nonsense.
If I seem sceptical of Hancock’s theories, then that is because I am. He spends the entire series cherry-picking evidence and drawing links between disparate archaeological discoveries, often separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles. The litany of woes demonstrated by Ancient Apocalypse is so great that to list them all would take a very long time indeed and also make for quite a boring review. Rather than dissect the entire series, let’s concentrate on the very first episode, which perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with episodes two through eight.
During this episode, Hancock visits Gunung Padang, a site of great archaeological interest in Indonesia. The site takes the form of a high plateau, the surface of which is littered with columnar basalt – elongated hexagonal rocks, to you and me. These rocks have been arranged by human hands into structures, long since collapsed, but retaining something of their original layout, with walls and divisions still visible. The Indonesian Archaeology Bureau have dated this site to around the second to fifth century CE, but some suggest the site may be as recent as the eighth century CE. Pottery fragments have returned a date of 45 BCE-22 CE.
‘Mainstream archaeologists’ readily accept the structures on the surface of Gunung Padang as megalithic but took a while to do so as the archaeology is complex and the evidence for human occupation, as well as dating, is ephemeral. Hancock suggests that they took so long to reach their conclusions because accepting Gunung Padang as the result of human endeavour would mean accepting his theory. He then really jumps off the deep end and suggests an alternate date of 22,000 BCE – 9,000 BCE. The evidence for this? Hancock turns to work undertaken by geologist and earthquake researcher (note that none of those words is ‘archaeologist’), Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, who co-stars in this episode. Natawidjaja suggests that meters and meters below the surface of the soil, further evidence exists of human occupation, which he has recovered through drilling through the site to extract soil cores. The nature of this evidence is never really explained, except to say that it is ‘datable’ and, through radiocarbon dating, has returned the range suggested above. Danny and Graham theorise that this ‘evidence’ pushes Gunung Padang’s construction back thousands and thousands of years to a time far before any other megalithic structures existed in Indonesia. This, therefore, proves Hancock’s theory that an intelligent and now lost race coexisted with ancient societies in Indonesia and taught them to construct this vast feat of engineering.
What Hancock and Natawidjaja are less keen to explain is that pretty much anything organic could return a radiocarbon date (with mixed reliability), and datable material is not evidence of human culture in and of itself. They also gloss over the fact that so many external factors can affect the isotopes needed for radiocarbon dating and that the range of organic materials from which accurate dates can be obtained is really quite slim. It is so much more complex than just feeding stuff through a machine and blindly accepting whatever dates that machine returns, as Natawidjaja appears to have done. It also must be mentioned that if, by some outside chance, they have found evidence of far older human inhabitation of the site, the people to whom these radiocarbon dates are linked may have had absolutely nothing to with creating any of the megalithic structures visible at the site. It’s like saying that because Roman coins have been dredged from the Thames, then Julius Caesar must have overseen construction of The Shard.
It also needs to be mentioned that Natawidjaja’s research has never been formally published and the reports that are available are really quite shaky, with different date ranges quoted across the publications, despite them all originating from the same investigations. The shoddiness of this work even caught the attention of the Indonesian President, who set up a task force to combat Natawidjaja’s misinformation. Presumably, in the minds of Danny and Graham, the Indonesian government was in on the academic conspiracy.
But wait, there’s more. The pair have a trick up their sleeves. Natawidjaja and his team whip out the ground-penetrating radar, along with a host of other complex-looking remote sensing equipment. After the ‘archaeologists’ have done their stuff, Natawidjaja reveals something extraordinary. Deep below the surface, on roughly the same level as the oldest of the soil cores, three massive chambers exist, connected by slender tunnels. Naturally, this changes everything. Gunung Padang isn’t just any old megalithic site (even if how old is deeply suspect). It’s actually a vast pyramid with interlocking passageways and caverns redolent of those in the Great Pyramid of Giza. This, once again, proves Graham’s (and incidentally Danny’s) theory that Gunung Padang was created by ancient Indonesians under the tutelage of Hancock’s lost race of hyper-intelligent folk, who taught them how to build complex structures.
Let’s break down the remote sensing data a bit. Just like radiocarbon dating, so many factors influence geophysical investigation. Anomalies in the density of the soil and its water content can throw off some sensing methods, such as resistivity (where an electrical current is passed through the ground, and the resistance encountered by this current is then used to map out potential features) and underground rock formations, caves and, again, differing soil conditions, can create a plethora of unusual results when using ground penetrating radar. Anomalies encountered during geophysics cannot be clearly identified without proper excavation, so there’s no way that Danny and Graham can state the existence of man-made chambers and tunnels from remote sensing alone. Archaeologists test the results of geophysics with proper, focused excavation, something that Danny and Graham never seem to get around to. I suspect that these ‘underground structures’ are buried so conveniently deep that no one will ever be able to fully investigate them.
I’ve been quite flippant so far and presented Ancient Apocalypse as half-baked idiocy, touted by prehistory’s favourite court jester. But it’s more than just silly, it’s also deeply sinister. The mental gymnastics are there, but they are subtle. Hancock lures you in by suggesting that mainstream academia has been forced to buy into at least some of his notions by accepting Gunung Padang as a human-made site at all. As mentioned, their initial reluctance was due to the hazy nature of the evidence, which took a while to consolidate. This evidence solely pertains to the surface structures. Hancock nails his pet theory about pyramids and a lost intelligent race to the work of the academic establishment he claims to despise and, in doing so, gives it the veneer of credibility. He presents the jump between the evidencable truth and his truth as short and encourages you take this leap of faith in him, promising to expose all the wonders and conspiracies that academia suppresses, but will be forced to recognise as his ideas gain traction.
He also candidly sets himself up as a radical freethinker by deliberately distancing himself from archaeology. He never claims to be an academic or a trained archaeologist, but positions himself as an investigative journalist who specialises in examining the past. In doing so, he commands an air of knowledgeable authority, but one who is squarely outside the ivory tower of academia. This allows him to speak from a presumed - but entirely false - place of knowledge and throw around ideas and aspersions too maverick for fusty and trammelled scholars. Michael Gove’s comment that ‘people have had quite enough of experts’ springs to mind.
It must also be mentioned that for someone who hates academia so much, Hancock appeals to authority an awful lot. Just about every episode, he wheels out someone with ‘Dr’ in their title, or conjures up some other authority figure that appears to agree with him. Sometimes, as in the case of dear Danny, they are an expert in something entirely unrelated to the problem at hand (not that this is ever made explicit), and their pet theories about the past are pseudoscience quite unrelated to their proper, presumably peer-reviewed research. Other times, however, the person appears to be talking complete sense. This is the case when he interviews Prof. Geoffrey McCafferty from the University of Calgary, a fellow in their department of Archaeology and Anthropology specialising in Mesoamerica. McCafferty engages in discourse on the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico. He discusses the complexities of the site and suggests that far more work is needed to uncover the pyramid’s history, progressive phases of expansion and foundation date. On this last point, he suggests that dating evidence has been, as is often the case, ephemeral.
The tone of discourse presented between McCafferty and Hancock is genial, which makes it outwardly appear as if McCafferty is tacitly agreeing with him. Given McCafferty’s extensive background in researching Mesoamerica, not to mention a few prestigious academic positions, I somewhat doubt that he’s fully on board with Hancock’s idiocy. I wonder if McCafferty was fully briefed on who Hancock was and whether Hancock ever broached his pet theory with him. I also wonder if, through some clever and possibly downright dishonest editing of this interview, McCafferty has been set up to fail. For example, in a slight slip of the tongue, he uses the word ‘mystery’. The scene then cuts, and Hancock suggests that McCafferty’s acceptance that we don’t fully understand the archaeology of the pyramid somehow plays into the idea that academia doesn’t have the answers to the big questions and is thus unable to disprove that the pyramid isn’t the work of Hancock’s lost race. Just something to think about.
Whilst writing this review, something is niggling at me. I can’t shake the feeling that by panning Ancient Apocalypse and outing Hancock as an utter charlatan, I’m doing exactly what he wants me to. Here I am, a PhD student, a member of the academic establishment, tearing my hair out and asserting that the scientific method is the route to answering archaeology’s problems. I think the fact that Hancock has been able to exploit the gulf between academia and popular perceptions of archaeology speaks to a lack of engagement, on the part of universities, with public outreach and accessibility. We do tend to create an echo chamber, where the results of our research are kept behind closed doors and hidden behind paywalls, and people not as clued up as we are then are made to feel as if their engagement in our subject doesn’t matter.
Stuart Heritage, who also reviewed Ancient Apocalypse, points out that Hancock’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast demonstrates his popularity with disaffected alt-truthers, many of whom want answers to their big questions. Many of these fans likely feel deliberately kept from knowledge and have turned to conspiracy theory to explain their exclusion. If the academic establishment was a little more willing to engage with people, rather than just assert our dominance, then we might be able to pre-empt these issues and thus make people like Hancock entirely irrelevant.
Incidentally, I also think that Netflix should be ashamed of itself for giving Hancock a platform and thus furthering his fake credibility by disseminating his hokum on one of the world’s most recognised streaming sites. Heritage also points out that Hancock’s son is the senior manager of unscripted originals for the company. Libel is not a good look, so, like Heritage, I’ll just suggest that this is, much like the basis of Hancock’s theory, a wild coincidence.
Should you watch Ancient Apocalypse? Maybe, maybe not. It’s trash TV of the highest order, but if you want to rubberneck and watch something dark and sinister, then take a look. You’ll be disappointed in the content, but the way Hancock cons you into accepting his mad ramblings is really quite unsettling.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D. (Toronto: Signal, 2023).
Alex Rome Griffin is an AHRC-funded History PhD student working with Lancaster University and the Vindolanda Charitable Trust. His work focuses on reconstructing the religious landscapes of Hadrian’s Wall making use of digital humanities techniques.