Position Statement on Carbon-Dating
14 March 2001
When Fingerprints of the Gods was first published in the Spring of 1995, I did not in my wildest dreams imagine that I would see it go on to sell more than three million copies or be translated into 20 languages, or that less than six years later BBC TV's flagship science documentary series, Horizon, would be warning the public about the dangers that the book posed to established history. Previewing the December 2000 broadcast of their one-hour programme "testing" my work, the Horizon team wrote:
"Graham Hancock, best-selling author and television presenter, has a highly controversial view of history. His theory about a mysterious lost civilisation that brought knowledge to other people around the world has attracted such a wide audience that it stands to replace conventional views of the past."
Horizon proceeded to screen a re-cut version of a documentary that they had first shown in November 1999. Then it had been called "Atlantis Reborn". Now it was called "Atlantis Reborn Again" and incorporated a number of changes following the partial upholding by the Broadcasting Standards Commission of complaints of unfairness made by Robert Bauval and myself. The most important change was that the BBC reinstated testimony from both of us, edited out of the November 1999 version, in which we rebutted allegations - effectively of fraud -- that the US astronomer Edwin Krupp had made about Bauval's Orion correlation theory. Previously Krupp's input had been presented as uncontested fact; now it came across more accurately as the quibbling opinion of a single astronomer -- an opinion which is so counter-intuitive that it could only be explained by means of an added graphic.
Other changes which helped to make "Atlantis Reborn" fairer included the removal of an incorrect statement accusing me of claiming that the Khymers of Cambodia had seen the constellation of Draco as a dragon (I had not made that claim). More significantly, where viewers in November 1999 had been wrongly informed that I "ignore" carbon-dating in my analysis of ancient megalithic sites, the newly-sanitised documentary admitted that I do not ignore it and instead reported my position - which is that I do not accept carbon-dating as the sole arbiter for the antiquity of stone monuments because it cannot directly date such monuments (only organic materials found "in association" with the monuments can be dated by C-14).
My academic critics frequently accuse me of dishonestly ignoring carbon-dating results when it suits me to argue that a site may be older than the scholars say it is. For example Garrett Fagan, Assistant Professor of Classics and History at Penn State University in the USA, has attacked me many times both privately and publicly over exactly this issue. He is particularly incensed because my treatment of Tiahuanaco in Fingerprints of the Gods and Heaven's Mirror fails to mention the 29 carbon dates which show the ruined Andean city to have been uninhabited virgin soil before about 3500 years ago and undeveloped on a monumental scale until about 2000 years ago or later. He believes that this series of carbon dates rules out and renders ludicrous any possibility that Tiahuanaco could be as much as 17,000 years old as I speculate in Fingerprints of the Gods.
Readers seeking further information about the 29 Tiahuanaco dates, how they were derived and how they have been assessed should read Sean Hancock's two articles on carbon-dating on the Forum section of this website, and Garrett Fagan's recent posting on www.maat.paradoxdesigns.com/c14.html
It will surprise nobody if Dr Fagan turns out to be correct. He is, after all, merely repeating and reaffirming what most orthodox historians and archaeologists already say about Tiahuanaco -- and I am prepared to accept that there is not a single carbon date from the site earlier than 1500 BC. Indeed I preface my discussion of Tiahuanaco in Fingerprints by warning readers that the orthodox date for the city's florescence could be as late as 500 AD and make it clear that I am about to explore an "alternative chronology. not accepted by the majority of scholars."
Surely it is my right to do that? At Tiahuanaco we have, on the one hand, a fairly unanimous academic opinion, based on 29 C-14 samples, pottery and other "contextual" indicators, that the site is "old, but not that old" - certainly less than 2000 years old as a monumental megalithic city. On the other hand we have the maverick opinion of Arthur Posnansky of the University of La Paz, Bolivia. He carried out extensive excavations at Tiahuanaco between 1900 and 1940 -- before the introduction of carbon-dating and before modern restorations. He also made a careful study of the principal alignments of the site and, after applying the accepted astronomical formula for calculating regular slow changes in the earth's obliquity, he concluded that the very large megalithic corner-stones of the Kalasasaya enclosure were originally set up to mark the points of sunrise and sunset on the winter and summer solstices as far back as 17,000 years ago.
Dr Fagan obviously believes that Posnansky's conclusions about Tiahuanaco are wrong and he is entitled to his view. By the same token, however, nothing on earth obliges me to agree with Fagan's own position -- and, for the record, I do not! The 29 C-14 samples do not, in my opinion, conclusively rule out the possibility of an earlier Tiahuanaco beneath apparently "virgin soil". More digging needs to be done before this can be settled. Meanwhile I see no reason to discount my gut feeling that Posnansky 's hands-on experiences and painstakingly-acquired knowledge of the site over a period of 40 years are worth a lot. I therefore made a clear decision as an author to base Chapters 11 and 12 of Fingerprints of the Gods on Posnansky's hard to find, obscure and massive research study - Tiahuanaco: the Cradle of American Man.
I assert again my right to do that, to present whose work I want - having acknowledged the orthodox view as I most certainly did - without fear of harassment or smear campaigns or accusations of dishonesty about carbon-dating.
This extract from the Horizon transcripts clarifies the principal issues:
Q: What convinces you that the date of the Tiahuanaco site is much, much older than conventional archaeology, as they call it, would accept. What do you think is the convergence of evidence about the Tiahuanaco date?
HANCOCK: I need to answer your question more broadly at first. I think that in the case of many ancient sites around the world the picture of the history of the site is confused by the fact that the site is constantly built on and rebuilt and rebuilt again over long periods of time. The ancient Egyptians had a habit of building temples on the sites of earlier temples. And I think the same thing happened in the Andes as well. A place that had a name or a reputation as a sacred place might be the site for a succession of monuments built by different cultures over long periods of time.
In the case of Tiahuanaco, I think that orthodox archaeology has concentrated more than it perhaps should have on the latest layers of occupation and construction at Tiahuanaco and has not considered the possibility that the origins of the site may be much older than that.
Now the odd thing is that I was quite recently in Bolivia and held a lengthy on-the-record interview with Dr Oswaldo Rivera who was the former Head of Bolivian Archaeology. And what Rivera told me is that his own team's calculations at Tiahuanaco, to his surprise, do tend to support Posnansky's argument - that this site was originally surveyed and set out thousands of years before the date that we thought it was built. And Rivera, unusually amongst academics, is prepared to consider the idea of a much earlier level of civilisation at Tiahuanaco, going back 12,000 years or more, and he points out that we've only excavated about two per cent of that site at present, and we really can't draw firm and final conclusions about Tiahuanaco on the basis of a two per cent excavation.
Q: One thing that's struck me, in fact from what you just said and from reading the book, is that the site has been damaged. Does that cause the alignments you're talking about to be problematic in any way?
HANCOCK: It might do. It might do. What I'm advocating where Tiahuanco is concerned is a much more wide-ranging and open-minded investigation of the origins of that site. I'm not saying that I am absolutely right in claiming that Tiahuanaco may have been founded more than 12,000 years ago. I could be completely wrong. And the fact that the site itself has been used as a quarry for at least the last 150 years by the builders of La Paz and other areas in Bolivia has certainly damaged and devastated that site. But I don't think that should stop us from considering the many mysteries and problems connected with Tiahuanaco.
Q: When you look at a site like Tiahuanaco and evidence about its dating, what significance would a 12,000 year-old-date have for your argument? The confusion I've had from people looking at some of the material is, "does he think this is Atlantis?", "does he think this is the lost civilisation, or is it the product of people from the lost civilisation. How do you use dates of that period in your argument?
HANCOCK: I'm interested in the possibility that the date of particular ancient sites around the world may have been misconceived by orthodox academics. Giza is a classic example. That there may have been masses of activity at that site in 2500 BC but that its possible that elements of the site go back long before that, into a prehistoric period. And it was that same possibility at Tiahuanaco that intrigued me. It is a plain fact not much more than two per cent of the entire area of Tiahuanaco has been excavated so far. And for archaeologists to make a firm and absolute dating of the site on the basis of that two per cent seems to me a bit irresponsible - when there are indications of the site being older than that.
I think what's important to stress about Tiahuanaco is that this is a mysterious site about which very little is known. Minimal archaeology has been done over the years. There's a broad range of opinion about the antiquity of Tiahuanaco within orthodox circles. And certainly, within orthodox circles, I have talked to some archaeologists who do admit the possibility of the site being much older. What I've tried to do is to show people who read my books that the case on Tiahuanaco is not cut and dried, that there is an alternative view, that its possible that mainstream archaeology has got this wrong, and that perhaps much more work with a much more open mind needs to be done on the site before we settle our minds absolutely as to the antiquity of the site.
Q: Are you aware of the amount of carbon-14 dating that has been carried out at Tiahuanaco in recent years?
HANCOCK: There's been a lot of carbon-14 dating carried out at Tiahuanaco. And carbon-14 dating, for me, says that this site was used and occupied at the date that that carbon-14 material comes from. It doesn't mean that the site was necessarily built at that time, or was originally laid out and planned at that time. This could have happened earlier.
Q: Why do you not make that argument in the book? Why do you not refer to carbon-14 in the book?
HANCOCK: I do make the argument in the book [Fingerprints of the Gods]. I do specifically talk about the problem I have with carbon-14 dating, which is that it dates the organic artefact which has been found; it does not conclusively date the site that surrounds that artefact. I do actually make that point quite explicitly in the book. [for reference see pages 54-55 and 134-135, UK paperback edition, 1996]
Q: In the case of a site like Tiahuanaco, what evidence is there of an earlier series of structures in that location?
HANCOCK: The huge megalithic blocks that are sitting around, at Tiahuanaco, seem to me so out of character with later architecture from that area that it suggests to me it belongs to a much earlier era. I think the astronomical indications on the site are intriguing but not conclusive and I think, above all else for me personally, its as much intuition as anything else - the site feels wrong for the date range that is ascribed to it by orthodox archaeologists. It just feels older. Its very difficult to prove anything like this, and I'm not trying to prove it. What I'm trying to do is to raise questions and to say "here is an intriguing and strange place, which we really know very, very little about: we don't really know what language was spoken there; we don't know what religious ideas were practised there; we don't really know what the people looked like who lived there. It just comes down to us out of the blue without its past properly written. And I think what's needed with a place like that, rather than a fixed and determined view to deprive it of all mystery and render it as boring and predictable as possible, I think it would be nice if orthodox scholars approached it with a slightly more generous and a more open attitude, and at least a willingness to be amazed, rather than writing that off at the outset. So I've tried to restore the balance by offering alternative information on Tiahuanaco and reporting the work of others who have suggested that Tiahuanaco may be older. We may be wrong, but I think it's worth investigating this.
Q: But when you look at a technique like carbon-dating it is precisely the blocks, the various structures at Tiahuanaco that are dated using the radiocarbon dating technique.
HANCOCK: Well, it beats me how a block can be dated using radiocarbon. If we look underneath the block and find organic material under the block then we can say that that block was placed on top of that organic material at a particular date - which does not preclude the possibility that the block has been moved around several times and that the temple we have at Tiahuanaco has been constructed and reconstructed again and again over thousands of years. This is perfectly possible and cannot be ruled out by the carbon-dating at all.
Indeed Posnansky's fieldwork at Tiahuanaco uncovered evidence of extensive prehistoric floods that had devastated the plain above Lake Titicaca on which the city stands. As I report in Chapter 12 of Fingerprints of the Gods he speaks of a catastrophe at the end of the last Ice Age:
"caused by seismic movements which resulted in an overflow of waters of Lake Titicaca and in volcanic eruptions. It is also possible that the temporary increase in the level of the lake may have been caused in part by the breaking of bulwarks on some of the lakes further to the north and situated at a greater altitude. thus releasing the waters which descended toward Lake Titicaca in onrushing and unrestrainable torrents."
Cataclysmic breakdown of ice masses that had formed over the Andes before the last glacial maximum 17,000 years ago makes it plausible that gigantic meltwater floods would have devastated the vicinity of Tiahuanaco not just once but several times between 17,000 and 7000 years ago. If there had been any civilisation there during that period, the chances are that very little of it would have remained for archaeologists to pick over today - although big megalithic structures would have been more likely to survive in some sort of order than ordinary buildings and habitations.
With such a scenario in mind, and remembering that the site has also been repeatedly plundered and rearranged by human beings as well as by nature, I certainly am not prepared to give up its megaliths without a fight to the relatively recent dates within which archaeologists wish to enclose them. They may indeed all have been quarried and transported here less than 2000 years ago, as the archaeologists say, but it is also possible that they could belong to the older layer of civilisation in the Andes that is hinted at in so many of the region's ancient myths - myths that the scholars have never satisfactorily explained and that flatly contradict the C-14 picture.
Besides, as I informed Horizon, at least one modern archaeologist with intimate knowledge of Tiahuanaco and years of direct field experience as an excavator there, is prepared to contemplate an age of more than 12,000 years for the original foundation of the site (in strata beneath the layer of "virgin soil" deposited 3500 years ago). This is Oswaldo Rivera, the former Director of Bolivian Archaeology and an acknowledged expert on Tiahuanaco. In 1997, two years after Fingerprints was first published, he told me:
"We are thinking that Tiahuanaco is so much earlier than has been realised before. After 21 years of making excavations and studies in Tiahuanaco I can tell you we are all the days with out mouths open, because Tiahuanaco is incredible, including for the archaeologists working in Tiahuanaco. We are all the days discovering different things. and I am sure we are going to discover the inner part of Tiahuanaco. a sunken Tiahuanaco, underneath the existing one. I think 12 or 21 metres down we have another Tiahuanaco, and it's the sacred Tiahuanaco, the original. I can't tell how old it is. It's a new chapter in the study of Tiahuanaco. We are going to open a new book."
Despite the radiocarbon results from tiny parts of the excavated two per cent of the site, I predict that the idea of an older Tiahuanaco is not going to go away.
The Future Role of Carbon-Dating in My Work
My reservations about radiocarbon will continue to apply to sites that are primarily megalithic and that either demonstrate alignments older than the radiocarbon dates or that contain other anomalous features (such as the precipitation-induced weathering of the Great Sphinx of Giza) that suggest greater antiquity. In general, however, I doubt whether radiocarbon and I will be having too many disagreements in the years ahead. By and large it's a good method when leavened by openness to other evidence and I certainly do not intend ever again to subject myself to the accusation of ignoring it!
14 March 2001