Underworld

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A Review of Underworld
By Duncan Edlin

Since completing Fingerprints of the Gods (FOTG) in 1994, Graham Hancock has experienced unrivalled popular success writing on the origins of human civilisation. Hancock has argued passionately for the possibility that there may be a lost chapter in human history and that archaeologists refuse to consider this possibility. Hence only those working outside of the academic system are sufficiently open-minded to investigate it.

The central thesis behind Hancock's work is that advanced human civilisation(s) existed prior to the end of the last ice age. These culture(s) were destroyed by cataclysmic events (floods, volcanic activity, earthquakes etc.) and the survivors passed on their knowledge and experience to the emerging ancient civilisations that we are more familiar with. In other words all known ancient civilisations are in some way indebted to one or more still unidentified lost civilisation(s). Hancock believes that the rising floodwaters at the end of the last ice age submerged the ancient coastlines and as a consequence have hidden evidence of the emerging human cultures and civilisations that were developing along them at this time. Since writing FOTG Hancock has learnt to scuba dive and with the support of his publishers he has set out in Underworld to investigate underwater sites that he considers evidence of the lost kingdoms of the last ice age.

It is noticeable in Underworld that Hancock has altered his style from that adopted in his earlier books. Although Underworld is written in the same journalistic travelogue fashion some of the more romantic, wistful speculation has been lost and rather surprisingly Hancock has begun to display a degree of impartiality to his own ideas that was entirely absent in FOTG. Hancock also deserves credit for providing some balance in Underworld. One good example being the dives he undertook in Japan with the German geologist Dr Wolf Wichmann where views concerning both the natural and artificial arguments for Yonaguni and Kerama are presented. However the downside to this is that Underworld is not as fascinating, as entertaining or as enjoyable to read as FOTG. This may be because FOTG was much larger than life and at times wildly outrageous in its claims whereas Underworld tries to be a more academic and serious proposal. It certainly appears that Hancock has decided that Underworld should contain his most advanced arguments in the hope that the book will be taken more seriously than some of his earlier work has been.

Underworld is a long book (741 pages) and so depending upon your point of view it provides either excellent value for money or as I found it an exhausting and at times depressing read. Underworld could have easily been edited to half the length and still contained all the appropriate information for the reader. I found it depressing because despite the change in style and Hancock's renewed openness to criticism he was again repeating the same errors of judgement and poor research that had categorised FOTG. Hancock has omitted the mention of the 'precise' and 'symbolic' star alignments that encode the date 10,500 BC. However he is still convinced that myths constitute reliable historical evidence and that some old maps depict coastlines as they looked at the end of the ice age rather than as they look now or at the time that they were drawn.

Many of Hancock's arguments to support his main contention of the existence of a lost civilisation are based on any similarities he can find between two disparate and distinct cultures. For example in Underworld we are asked to compare photographs of stone artefacts that were found in Malta and Japan. The photos depict identical 'comma-shaped' beads. However, given the scope of Hancock's investigation in which all ancient cultures around the world are considered it is not surprising that some similarities between their artefacts, language or mythology can be found. To argue convincingly that diffusion from a common source has occurred Hancock should show that there are multiple common factors between the cultures that he is comparing and he should also indicate that he has seriously compared these cultures by contrasting any similarities he finds with any differences that exist. Instead Hancock merely lists whatever common similarities he can find with the perceived aim of illustrating that all human culture has been influenced by a single origin. Hancock cannot really fail in this endeavour as all humans have emerged from a common ancestor. We are all essentially similar to one another and so regardless of our recent geographical origins we all tend to think and act similarly. So when two or more ancient cultures make similar shaped beads, build walls in a similar style, share similar mythological tales or use words with a similar sound it is possible they may have diffused from a fairly recent common origin. However, it is also quite likely that these similarities may be purely coincidental.

In the first part of Underworld, Initiation, Hancock introduces each of the underwater sites that he has dived whilst compiling the book. The science of inundation mapping is explained and the work of Dr Glenn Milne of Durham University is also introduced. Milne has developed sophisticated computer software that can generate maps of the world's coastlines at any specific time. The maps provided by Milne are used throughout Underworld to illustrate the specific times at which the underwater sites Hancock visits were inundated. However, the inundation maps produced by Milne's computer software can only depict the effect of the rising flood waters as the glacial ice sheets melted and hence they are unable to account for the effects of any localised seismic activity which may have affected sea levels.

Hancock has devoted 2 large parts of Underworld to India, a country that holds many fond memories for the author after having spent some of his childhood living there. His affection for the country and its culture are apparent, however Hancock's inability to distinguish between Indian history and mythology make this section a minefield for people such as myself who know next to nothing about either of them. Perhaps the most positive aspect of Hancock's writing is his ability to introduce ancient cultures to a wider audience which otherwise may never read about them. However this also means that Hancock can utilise historical sources that may not necessarily be as reliable or as accurate as we might expect them to be. Historical perspectives are after all open to interpretation and so it is almost impossible to determine the reliability of a source without any prior experience of the subject area. Two of Hancock's sources on India, Frawley and Rajaram, share the opinion that the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures, were originally compiled much earlier than archaeologists and linguists think. They believe that India's history is much older than any known civilisation and that the bias of western archaeologists, particularly the colonial British, has prevented India's true history from being revealed. Hancock appears to agree with their revision of Indian history and so amongst other things we're told that the Aryan invasion didn't occur, that the Vedas is littered with oceanic references and that the path of the ancient Sarasvati river (a river that has significance in the Vedas) has been determined by satellite images. There may well be truth to their historical revisionism but the importance and significance attached to these events appeared to me to be religiously motivated and certainly analogous to verifying the antiquity and reliability of the bible as a historical document. There is a wider academic debate concerning these ideas that Hancock conveniently omits from Underworld and it may prove worthwhile to consider the views of the Harvard professor, Dr Michael Witzel for some balance here. Particularly as Rajaram has already propagated fraud to suit his historical needs by 'creating' images of a Harappan horse [1].

In India (2), Hancock puts forward his hypothesis that the Indian-Sarasvati civilisation extends further back into prehistory than the 9,000 years that archaeologists currently consider (p205). The original coastal civilisation was destroyed by floods at the end of the last ice age and the survivors from this went on to establish villages, practise a 'proto-Vedic' religion and spoke an early form of Sanskrit. The experience of the flood "led them to create a sparse, utilitarian and ascetic new world". Hancock goes on to speculate that "the real leadership of the new communities remained vested down the generations in the brotherhood of sages whose forefathers had escaped the deluge.... ...it was the policies set by these great rishis in pursuit of that objective - rather than in response to economic or other material forces - that shaped the steady, peaceful, modest material development of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation."

Hancock, like many of us, would like to think of a time in history when human society was closer to nature, when we were less obsessed by materialism and more in tune with our spirituality. It may well be comforting to think of such a golden age and to employ the past to idealise our own priorities so that we might lead more fulfilling lives. However if there is not any evidence with which to verify this golden age in history then this will only ever serve as an allegorical tale and not a genuine portrait of what pre-historical life may have truly been like.

Hancock goes onto state that "Nothing in it [his hypothesis] contradicted the archaeological evidence". That is except for the fact that none of the available archaeological evidence in anyway supports his contention. However Hancock assures us that to prove this hypothesis all he needs do is "find ruins more than 9000 years old underwater on India's continental shelf". Hancock continues in this section to develop arguments for the great antiquity of underwater sites at Dwarka, Poompuhar and Mahabalipuram. Although it is only at the underwater U-shaped structure at Poompuhar that Hancock comes close to revealing a truly ancient site. However, Sundaresh, a NIO archaeologist and Hancock's diving partner at the site, whilst conceding that the structure may be man-made states "Maybe the structures are not that old [10,000 years] at all. Maybe there has been some great land subsidence here that we do not know of, or erosion of the coast by the sea." Unfortunately for Hancock this possibility is sufficient to counter any of his arguments for dating a site on the basis of inundation mapping alone.

The most entertaining side of Hancock comes to the fore in Chapter 10 'The Mystery of the Red Hill'. Here we are told "There is even a tradition in the Bhagvata Purana that the greatest sages 'range over the world in the guise of mad persons' whilst imparting wisdom". Although I couldn't tell whether this was a case of sound advice or an example of self-deprecating humour by Hancock.

We are also reminded of the coincidental precessional significance encoded by Ankor Wat and Giza being exactly 72 degrees of longitude apart. In addition Arunachela, the sacred mountain of Tamil Nadu and location of "one of the five most important temples of Siva in all of India" is 24 degrees west of Angkor and 48 degrees east of Giza (1/3 and 2/3 of the 72 degrees separating the 2 sites). Hancock's supposition continues:

Same symbolism in all three places. Same gnostic quest for immortality. Same use of precessional numbers in their architecture and their myths. And there are 48 degrees of longitude between Giza and Arunachela, 24 degrees between Arunachela and Angkor, and 72 degrees between Giza and Angkor. Coincidence? Design? Take your pick.

Presumably the precessional significance of the position of the four other important temples of Siva was not this astounding. Besides which, what is significant in being located two thirds of the distance between Giza and Angkor Wat? Would it also be significant to be located 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 5/8, 15/16s of this distance? Imposing the constraints of our own worldview upon the symbolism and cultures of three distinct ancient cultures merely highlights the limits of our own personal bias. Where Hancock perceives astounding, incredible similarities others with a more rational perspective see only the limits of a large square peg being forced into a small round hole.

The fact is that astounding, incredible patterns of coincidence do occur. For instance if we compare the World Cup winners in reverse order from 1982 with the winners from 1982 to the present:

1982 Italy1982 Italy
1978 Argentina1986 Argentina
1974 W. Germany1990 Germany
1970 Brazil1994 Brazil
1966 England (hosts)1998 France (hosts)
1962 Brazil2002 Brazil

Furthermore in both 1962 and 2002 England knocked Argentina out in the qualifying stage and then went on to lose to Brazil in the quarterfinals. Surely this extraordinary series of coincidences qualifies as outrageously significant as any perceived coincidence that Hancock has ever presented in his books? Yet how many of us would seriously conclude that the pattern of recent World Cup history is a consequence of design rather than coincidence? This pattern has been produced purely by chance (there are simply too many independent factors responsible for determining a sporting contest), yet if we were to look more deeply we would surely find more coincidences or occurrences of World Cup history being repeated. The chances of all these combined events occurring are remotely improbable and yet recent history indicates that they have already happened.

Hancock's thesis concerning the lost civilisation can only be proven or disproven on the basis of new underwater, artificial sites being discovered. At Dwarka and Mahabalipuram the ruins are too recent to support the contention of an ancient lost civilisation although this doesn't stop Hancock from speculating that the underwater ruins at Mahabalipuram date to 5,000 years ago (as opposed to 1,300 years). At Poompuhar the U-shaped structure could be artificial but whether it can be dated reliably by the rise in sea level is another matter. At the end of the section on India Hancock reveals another, more recent, underwater discovery made in the Gulf of Cambay. Here scientists from the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) have obtained sidescan sonar images of the seabed, which give tantalising glimpses of geometrical shapes. The range of these shapes, which extend as far as 9km on 2 separate locations, has been used to support a claim that they are the remains of two ancient cities, which were submerged when the gulf was flooded. Despite the likely possibility that the site may have been submerged by an earthquake Hancock continues to date the underwater site (to at least 7,700 years ago) on the basis of the inundation maps produced by Milne. Due to the tidal currents prevalent in the bay neither of these sites can be examined by diving, additionally visibility on the seabed is zero. As a consequence NIOT have retrieved some samples from the seabed using a grab to trawl the mud.

Photographs of some of the objects retrieved from the site indicate that a large number of mostly stone artefacts have been found. Whilst any object is likely to deteriorate significantly following 7,000 years on the seabed Hancock's use of the labels "jewellery" and "tools" appeared to me to be more a case of wishful thinking. Their archaeological value would be almost impossible to determine considering that their stratigraphic context is entirely absent and that because they have been retrieved from an estuary bed they could easily have been dropped by passing ships or merely drifted into the site by the fast flowing currents. However Hancock considers the finds "spectacular" and he wastes no time in speculating about them - leaping to the judgement that they are "typically 'pre-Harappan'" and also deciding that they confirm that the underwater structures "were large scale human settlements before their inundation". Despite these claims being based entirely on side scan sonar images of the seabed Hancock claims these represent a "city", an "enormous metropolis" or an "extensive urban complex". Indeed as far as Hancock is concerned "It was the Holy Grail, all over again".

It is possible that there are other more reasonable explanations for the geometrical formations on the seabed. They may well be artificial and yet not constitute the ruins of a city, they could be the ruins of a city and yet date from relatively recent times following seismic activity but they could also be completely natural formations or even artefacts of the imaging process itself. The recovered stone artefacts may also be typical of stone artefacts discovered from any estuary bed, an issue which has been covered in an article by Paul Heinrich [2]. To my, admittedly untrained eyes, none of them looked particularly astounding. The fact that the site cannot be dived, or excavated properly due to the limits of visibility means that any claim could be made for it without any serious investigation ever being conducted.

Hancock's venture to Malta does not get off to a good start after he receives a tip concerning an underwater megalithic temple between 7 and 25m underwater off the northeast coast. The discovery was made by Hubert Zeitlmair but due to the involvement of the 'Palaeo-Astronaut Society' even Hancock suspects the story is a joke. Indeed Hancock's search for the site alongside Zeitlmair, a sight impaired German who is unable to dive and Shaun and Kurt Arrigo, the Maltese brothers who had dived at and photographed the site proves troublesome. Zeitlmair was sure the site was 3km from the shore at Sliema whilst Shaun Arrigo remains certain it was only 1km. So despite conducting a number of dives off the Maltese coast with the help of the Arrigo brothers and Zeitlmair Hancock eventually concedes defeat in the search for the temple that Zeitlmair had discovered.

In Malta Hancock's research is primarily based on the work of local alternative historians. The majority of the alternative 'facts' and arguments being lifted from the pages of Malta: Echoes of Plato's island by Anton Mifsud, Simon Mifsud, Chris Agius Sultana and Charles Savona Ventura, Dossier Malta: Evidence for the Magdelenian by Anton Mifsud and Simon Mifsud and Facets of Maltese Prehistory by Anton Mifsud and Charles Savona Ventura. The Mifsuds make several claims for Maltese prehistory. They argue that the Maltese islands were inhabited by human beings in the Palaeolithic 15-18,000 years ago (archaeologists have supposed that the first humans arrived in Malta ca 6,000 BC). A great flood destroyed the island ca 2,200 BC thus ending the Maltese temple building culture and inspiring Plato's tale. The human remains at the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni were deposited not from ritual burial but by the action of floodwaters. The painting of a bison-bull in the Hypogeum is Palaeolithic and was "removed at the express directive of the Director of Museums". Two taurodont human teeth found in a natural cave at Ghar Dalam are Palaeolithic. The Mifsuds also allege that Malta's Museum of Archaeology had misrepresented evidence to show that these teeth were Neolithic.

Hancock picks up on the serious allegations made by the Mifsuds and concludes (p. 425) that orthodox archaeologists "had done no justice at all to the possibility - no, the certainty - of a human presence here (Malta) during the Palaeolithic". A great deal of the Mifsuds' (and also Hancock's) case is based on the age of these taurodont teeth and the story of their analysis is covered in considerable detail. The Mifsuds went so far as to photograph pages of the records of the chemical analysis of the teeth from the Natural History Museum in London. They allege that 2 layers of ink are visible where values for the nitrogen content of the teeth were altered from 0.8% to 1.85% to create a false Neolithic chronology for the teeth. Hancock, to his credit, considers other more reasonable possibilities such as the possibility that more than one test was conducted and that the values may have been altered to show more accurate data. Hancock also goes onto make contact with the Natural History Museum and discovers that the page that the Mifsuds had photographed has since gone missing. In an e-mail from Dr Louise Humphrey (at the Natural History Museum) we also discover:

...one letter, dated 17 June 1955, gives the analytical result for Ma.2 (1.85% N). Dr Mifsud's claim (e.g., page 96 of his book) that Dr Oakley deliberately and fraudulently altered this result is evidently erroneous.

I should reiterate that each of the analytical techniques used to investigate the samples from Malta between 1952 and 1969 can yield anomalous or ambiguous results... Dr Oakley had many years of experience working with these techniques and was probably better qualified than anybody to interpret the results and identify anomalies."

Fluorine, uranium and nitrogen tests have fallen into disuse because more reliable and accurate dating techniques are now available.

Carbon 14 tests would be able to settle this issue once and for all; however, the Maltese authorities are resolutely opposed to conducting this analysis. Even so it is apparent that if Hancock considers that we are unable to date these teeth reliably to the Neolithic (on the basis of the tests conducted in the 1950s and 1960s) we surely cannot use the same data sources and be certain that they date to the Palaeolithic! It is possible that Malta was inhabited by Palaeolithic man even though there is not any unequivocal evidence to support this contention. However the leap of faith required to conclude, as Hancock does, that these Palaeolithic people developed a megalithic temple building culture on Malta is rather illogical.

In FOTG Hancock revived the 40 year-old work of Charles Hapgood concerning the Piri Reis map and its supposed portrayal of the coastline of Antarctica. Hancock liked this because the map was drawn in the 16th century and Antarctica was not actually discovered until the 19th century. In FOTG Hancock adopted Hapgood's explanation, which was that early mapmakers had copied ancient maps, long since lost, that were drawn by an ancient seafaring civilisation that had mysteriously vanished. The fingerprints of their existence being recorded as the remnants of still 'undiscovered' coastlines that had been passed down and copied by mapmakers over the ages. The much simpler explanation, which is found on the notes that accompany the Piri Reis map is that the Argentinean coastline was continued as a Southern oriented shore. In Underworld Hancock revives this tradition and devotes an entire section to the study of old maps and their resemblance with the coastlines both during and at the end of the last ice age. Incredibly Hancock discovers numerous old maps that depict islands and coastlines as they looked at the end of the last ice age. I was however singularly unimpressed by this section and thought the similarities that Hancock raised to be more a case of wishful thinking than careful analysis. At least as far as I was concerned none of the maps that Hancock discusses resembles the ice age coastlines any more than their modern day coastlines and unfortunately the quality of the images in Underworld made it difficult to make a suitable comparison.

As stated earlier Hancock's case rests on the discovery of underwater sites, which are indicative of advanced culture and which can be dated to the end of the last ice age. In the tradition of any good entertainer Hancock saves his best evidence to last and so as far as I was concerned the section on Japan, Taiwan, China proved to be the most interesting. My opinion on this may however be influenced by the quality of the photographs from the underwater sites that Hancock investigated at Yonaguni and Kerama. A good picture it is said saves a thousand words and Hancock's presentations of evidence from Dwarka, Cambay and Poompuhar suffered from the murky, turbid waters off the Indian coast. Unfortunately there are not any underwater photographs from Cambay due to the poor visibility and the dangers imposed on diving there due to the strong underwater currents. At Kerama and Yonaguni though we are afforded the luxury of being able to view these underwater anomalies in crystal clear waters.

Much has already been said and written about Yonaguni since its discovery in the early 1990s and the debate over its formation is sure to continue for some time to come. There are those that are sure that it is entirely artificial such as Dr Kimura at the University of Ryukyus in Okinawa although Kimura does not date the inundation of Yonaguni to the end of the last ice age. There are those who consider it can be explained mostly by natural processes but who also feel that certain parts of the structure have been modified by human hands such as Dr Schoch at Boston University. Finally there are the complete skeptics such as Dr Wichmann who consider it to be entirely natural. It was therefore somewhat of a surprise to see Hancock devote time and space in Underworld to cover all of these views. My own opinion is that Yonaguni is a natural feature and I am still unable to ascertain what the monument could be if it is artificial. Hancock suggests that it may have constituted a monument with strong religious significance to the ancient Japanese who are known to have venerated similar stone monuments (although none of them are on the same scale as Yonaguni).

The underwater stone circle at Kerama is even more intriguing and this was made clearer by Wichmann's inability to explain the formation on the basis of any known geological processes. It is also plausible that the tradition amongst the Jomon to create stone circles is truly ancient and extends back into the depths of their distant history. However it is simply not possible to conclude that Kerama or Yonaguni were fashioned by human hands and so until definitive and dateable evidence of direct human influence can be retrieved I will remain astounded at the power of nature.

This review has covered most of the material that I considered interesting in Underworld. As stated earlier it is a long book and surely took a considerable amount of time for Hancock to compile. But despite its length I found it difficult to understand exactly what Hancock was proposing happened at the end of the last ice age. I also got the impression that Hancock was similarly confused as he offered several distinctly vague hypotheses. Before reading this book I had hoped I would develop a clear and unambiguous impression of Hancock's thesis however despite having read through the 700+ pages of Underworld I don't consider myself any the wiser.

One example of Hancock's confusion in Underworld can be illustrated by his expressed opinions concerning Atlantis. Initially Hancock claims that he is not actually looking for Plato's Atlantis. On p.74 he states "I'm not trying to 'find' Atlantis, or even to guess where it might have been located - if it ever existed at all - since it is well known that such enquiries lead to madness". However he goes onto state on p.354 "I happened to be one of those who believed in taking Plato as literally as possible - if I was going to take him seriously at all - but I recognized the validity of other approaches". If Hancock is not looking for Atlantis then why should he take Plato's tale seriously? To Hancock at least the distinction between the search for Atlantis and the search for the lost civilisation is important even though 'Atlantis' is simply another name for the lost civilisation. My understanding of these contradictory statements is that Hancock doesn't want the 'lunatic fringe' label that Atlantis seekers attract but that he also doesn't want to drop any of the arguments from the lost civilisation armoury.

Underworld is well ordered in some respects with separate distinct sections devoted to specific locations (India, Malta, Japan) however I thought it haphazard and poorly constructed within these sections. Hancock often jumps from one subject to another and back again within a chapter. A style that may have been adopted to increase the interest of the reader but which invariably left me confused and annoyed. However the fundamental problem with Underworld is symptomatic of Hancock's written legacy. Hancock begins from his conclusion and 'cherry picks' evidence that conforms whilst ignoring anything that contradicts it. This may be an acceptable style of composition in journalism and Hancock often retorts to criticism of his ideas with the claim that he is "only a journalist". However by adopting such a stance he cannot also maintain the pretence that his ideas should be considered seriously as scientific proposals.

It would seem that Hancock wants his books to be considered seriously, and he appears genuinely bewildered by the reaction his ideas get from scholars, yet he also seems to have systematically failed to understand why his ideas of hyperdiffusionism are so readily dismissed. The simple fact is that there is no requirement for an ancient lost civilisation to instigate the development of civilisation around the world. Different cultures and civilisations began independently of one another in different locations and in different eras, a fact that contradicts and undermines the contention that civilisation is a legacy. Hancock is keen to indicate that where civilisation did develop it involved sudden, rapid expansion, which could only have happened if knowledge was passed on from an existing civilisation. However Hancock's description that civilisation developed 'suddenly' in Egypt and Mesopotamia belies the fact that hundreds and thousands of years of development superseded this rapid growth.

One of the most significant problems for the lost civilisation hypothesis is the development of agriculture, which is supported by a wealth of archaeological and genetic evidence. If Hancock considers that the evidence he has presented in Underworld is sufficient to instigate a paradigm shift in the way in which we view history it is critically important that the paradigm he proposes explains ALL the evidence and not just a few selected anomalies. Hence Hancock should be able to account for why agriculture developed in different locations and at different times in the world's history. An excellent review of the history of domestication and the effect it has contributed to the development of civilisation has been proposed by Jared Diamond [3]. Unfortunately I cannot see how the influence of a lost ice age civilisation could account for this and hence it is only by ignoring what is known about the development of civilisation that Hancock's views of hyperdiffusionism can ever be considered feasible.

Consequently I didn't find anything in Underworld that necessitated the need to re-evaluate our current understanding of prehistory. Hancock to his credit does contribute some positive attributes to the subject, for example by introducing cultures that some of us would otherwise not necessarily read about but this is unfortunately negated by his one track, dogmatic interpretation of the past. As long as Hancock focuses solely on mysterious anomalies whilst ignoring the wealth of evidence that supports orthodox models of the development of civilisation his ideas are unfortunately destined to be ignored.


Notes:

  1. Witzel, M. The Vedic Piltdown Horse
  2. Heinrich, P. Artifacts or Geofacts? Alternative Interpretations of Items from the Gulf of Cambay.
  3. Diamond, J. (2002) Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication. Nature 418, 700 - 707

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