Review of Underworld
Graham Hancock’s latest book, entitled “Underworld, Flood Kingdoms of the Ice Age”, is a long, but interesting 742 pages and contains many full-page color photographs from his expeditions around the world. His treatise is that the global sea-level rise that accompanied the melting of the continental glaciers at the end of the last ice age flooded over earlier civilizations that were living along the coastlines. Virtually all evidence of these one or more civilizations has now been destroyed, and mankind as a result has “lost” important aspects of its early history. Mainstream archaeologists have typically been arguing against this thesis, saying that we already have discovered enough of who possibly might have existed at that time, and any kind of civilization seems to be ruled out. But Hancock, in his book, takes us to different places around the world to see if he can convince us that evidence may still exist beneath the waves for the remains of one or more of these civilizations.
One of the cruxes of Hancock’s argument is that sea-level rise at the end of the last ice age not only covered large areas, but did so at times in large enough amounts and rapid enough so as to inundate and cover the civilizations almost without warning. To find out what part of the now continental shelves would have been flooded and when, Hancock turns to the computer models of the geophysicist, Glenn Milne. Milne is an international expert at calculating the crustal rebound effects of the earth from having large glaciers melt and having the water be redistributed. This vertical rebound has effected the coastlines positions to varying degrees around the earth after the last ice age. Hancock uses output from Milne’s models to show what various coastlines, according to the model, would have looked like at different points in time over the last 20,000 years. These maps do prove to be useful in different regions for visualizing what the coastline of a particular region may have looked like. They are however, only perhaps slightly better than drawing similar maps using bathymetric contours based on the sea-level rise curves known fairly well from the dating of coral reefs around the world. Hancock acknowledges there are uncertainties in the coastline model calculations, although at many points in the book he seems to have temporarily forgotten this and have inferred too much from them.
To back up his flooding arguments Hancock turns to the studies of glacial geologist John Shaw. Shaw is known amongst the glacial geology community as having proposed that many of the elongated hills, called drumlins, observed in North America were made not from being scoured over by large ice sheets, but from catastrophic flood releases during the glacial melting. Although Shaw has made good arguments to support his case, other recent arguments against it also appear to be viable. Hancock also turns to the work of Paul LaViolette. This is unfortunate. LaViolette is neither a glaciologist nor hydrologist, and his ideas of colossal waves of water moving down the melting ices sheets have no evidence to support them, no backing from the geologic community, and to me at first glance appear to violate basic hydraulic principles. It might be tempting for some people at this point to cry foul, and throw out the baby with the bathwater, but I found some of Hancock’s less sensational arguments to be sound. Hancock also pointed out from the work of Paul Blanchon and John Shaw that the coral record reveals three points in time when sea level rose very rapidly. These points are also identified by other scientists investigating sea level rise. The question is still open as to how rapid sea-level rose across these intervals, but Blanchon and Shaw argue effectively that because the reefs at this point were completely drowned, the rises were several meters in height, and must have occurred with the time-span of weeks or less. The timing of the events can also be correlated with some massive glacial meltwater releases from the North American and European Ice sheets that can be substantiated with other evidence. So after all of Hancock’s arguments, some close to the mark, and others a clear overshoot, the fact still remains that at three points in time over the last 15,000 years, sea level rose rather abruptly by several meters, and these rises could have occurred in time periods as short as a few days. For example, certain parts of the ice sheets were at times in equilibrium with current sea level, and any small rise in sea-level may have triggered a chain reaction causing significant volume of ice to end up in the ocean, displacing the water upward. Today, the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, although only 10% of the total volume of the ice in Antarctica, would cause a 7-meter rise in sea level were it to suddenly calve into the ocean by such a chain reaction (not that this is likely to happen tomorrow).
Hancock also makes an argument that volcanic activity may have increased during this time, but the evidence for this is sketchy. However, most people have not considered the fact that many volcanoes along the coasts have craters near sea level. A rise in sea level of 100 meters since the last glacial maximum would cause some of these volcanoes to receive, at some point in time, an influx of a large volume of water. Such an influx would likely lead to a phreato-magmatic eruption, one of the more violent types of eruptions. Those who would wish the legend of Atlantis to go away may bemoan the fact that one of the sudden sea-level rises occurred about 11,500 years ago, exactly when the accounts from Plato say that Atlantis was destroyed.
Hancock visits and or discusses several possible cites for drowned civilizations. He discusses more briefly two of these, Bimini and the Persian Gulf, and more at length three others, namely India, Malta, and the Japanese Island of Yonaguni. The Bimini Road lies on the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank, and is a shallow submerged set of rows of rocks that look to have been placed there in a very orderly fashion by some intelligence. Investigators have since made arguments that the formation is a natural one. The arguments were convincing enough that few have continued to treat it as a potential artifact of a past civilization. Hancock however, brings back a few of the arguments and questions some of the data put forth by investigators. No smoking gun appears to be present there for either argument, but proof needs to be for those claiming a man-made origin.
The Persian Gulf region is replete with flood myths, and the Sumerians seemed to link their ancestry to the sea, but after Hancock’s discussion we are left realizing only that much investigation still needs to be done in the Gulf itself, and the political situation makes the probability small of this happening anytime soon.
The discussion of Hancock’s trips to India and the flood myths surrounding the culture there was perhaps his most novel contribution in the book. Most of the West is unfamiliar with Indian mythology and the flood stories, some of which sound hauntingly familiar to the ones of Mesopotamian origin. He speaks of two sites in particular that he feels are good candidates for flooded past civilizations. The first is a U-Shaped structure off the coast of Poompuhur in southeastern India. The structure is deep enough to make it unlikely that it was recently submerged by the sea, but questions remain as to its origin. Hancock describes from his dives that there were “lines of masonry” that could be observed, but the murky conditions led only to pictures and film clips that were not quite the quality of a “proof”. The second site was in the Gulf of Cambay, where Hancock cites recent reports from the Indian agency NIOT, who has made sonar soundings of what they show to be some very regular patterns on the sea floor and what they call ruins of an ancient city. Dredging brought up what were said to be many man-made artifacts from the site. Unfortunately, the strong tidal currents make diving at the site very difficult. Critics have also been arguing (I think rather convincingly) that so far no hard evidence exists for the city—only radar images, which others have called shadows or natural features, and many artifacts, none of which appear to be unequivocally man-made. Carbon-14 ages yielded dates of several thousand years old, but those could simply reflect the natural age of the site. A final site is near the first, slightly to the north of Poompuhur, and in the text not necessarily distinguished from the U-shaped structure. Here fisherman told of seeing ruins of buildings beneath the waves where no previous ruins had ever been noted. This now appears to be the best candidate for a new discovery, as a recent expedition by Hancock and crew has uncovered real ruins there.
Malta and its stone temples are the discussion of several chapters. This also appears to have been the first of Hancock’s expeditions that are described in the book. Initial reports of stone structures seen there beneath the waves lured him to the site, but logistical problems made the search anything but easy. In the end we are told of one site where a rectangular archway and room exist, and some straight large grooves in the rock bottom that seem similar to the “cart tracks” observed on shore, but again the smoking gun is missing. His thesis at Malta is only suggesting that those who built the grand stone temples may have been there earlier when sea level was lower, and developed their craft at sites that are now below the waves. Much time was spent discussing the dating of sites around Malta, which for the most part Hancock does not challenge, except for a couple of prehistoric teeth found in one of the caves. In this case he insists there has been some kind of cover up, but to me the point was belabored, as I was not convinced of what difference it would all make in the end.
Another of Hancock’s theories that appears in the book is the idea that some of the old maps that were used by mariners about the time of Columbus had details in them that could not possibly have been known to the sailors of that time. His idea is that some of these features may have been handed down in maps from ancient, now lost, civilizations. I found many of the arguments along these lines weak. It seemed to be a huge jump to go from the fact that we don’t know why they drew some of the maps the way they did, to the suggestion that some ancient maritime civilization handed these down over thousands of years. Especially the comparisons to Milne’s computer-generated coastlines seemed to be overstepping the bounds. Milne’s coastlines have uncertainties associated with them that are much larger than the details Hancock was trying to explain with them. Some of the strange features on the old maps may be able to be accounted the Chinese Admiral Zheng, who sailed at least much of the Indian Ocean about a century before Columbus. Two points made by Hancock were more convincing to me, however—the location of a legendary island called Hy-brasil off the west coast of Ireland, and the knowledge from Marco Polo that Sri Lanka was once attached to India.
The concluding chapters of the book deal with a few sites in the Pacific between Japan and Taiwan, with most of the discussion centered around the Japanese Island of Yonaguni. This to me at first appeared to be just an outcrop below the sea with many flat joint faces with rectangular angles. It brought back to me images from introductory geology classes of outcrops such as those seem of columnar basalt. But Yonaguni is not basalt, it is apparently a highly lithified siltstone. If man-made, one must naturally ask the question what would it have been used for? There seemed to be no obvious answer to this until Hancock pointed out that the ancient Jomon culture of the region was known for altering existing formations and then using them as sites of worship. This makes much more sense. The very odd thing to me about this site is the two tall pillars which are standing on end, and are at 90 degrees to their natural position on the escarpment. I find it very difficult to explain how these could have “fallen” into such a position. Hancock also takes us to dive at a nearby stone circle. Here the arrangement of stones appeared to him to be man-made. A geologist he brings along also has no natural explanation for their arrangements. Hancock also shows us pictures of what appear to be smaller circles of individual stones that look much like some on land in Japan. I think proof of the man-made nature of these smaller circles would raise some very interesting questions. One of these would be: How could such a fragile arrangement of stones have survived a slow sea-level rise with thousands of years of crashing waves inching higher and higher along the coast? One way to have had them preserved would have been to have had global sea-level rise suddenly by several meters over a few days.
Such sites and the questions they bring up suggest to me that there may be things about civilization over the last 15,000 years that we have not yet learned. Hancock does a good job at pointing out some of these possibilities, even if most of the possibilities turn out to be nothing new in the end. But having many false leads is the fate of someone who is trying to think outside the box. Personally, I am glad someone is looking for leads.
U. S. Geological Survey