Why Graham Hancock thinks everything we know about human prehistory is wrong

'I’ve always gone against the mainstream': Graham Hancock - Netflix
'I’ve always gone against the mainstream': Graham Hancock - Netflix

I’ve been talking to Graham Hancock for all of about 30 seconds when he first brings up the vastly ancient prehistoric structures that litter our world.

We’re speaking over Zoom. Graham (he insists on first names) is in rural Massachusetts to visit his son and grandchildren. I tell him that I was actually in his neck of the woods a year ago. We’re making small talk. New England is a spooky corner of the world, especially in the autumn: H.P. Lovecraft country, all those boggy forests and stony hillsides. I like it. Graham agrees.

“Interestingly,” he says, “when you get into the deep woods, there’s lots of structures, lots of megalithic structures, which the mainstream describe as root cellars built during the colonial era. But I have my doubts.”

Graham Hancock believes that we are “a species with amnesia.” Ours is not the first advanced, globe-straddling civilisation to have existed on this planet: there was another in the very distant past, now completely lost. 12,800 years ago, he says, this society was destroyed in a natural cataclysm called the Younger Dryas. The planet had been slowly emerging from its Ice Age, but global temperatures suddenly plummeted in a brief period of extreme climate change, and the survivors fanned out across the earth to pass on their secrets to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Usually, this cooling is attributed to natural cycles, but some maintain it was a result of a gigantic extraterrestrial collision.

Either way, Hancock believes the Younger Dryas civilisation was the origin of agriculture, architecture, and many of the world’s myths. Its messengers were remembered as gods or giants – Prometheus, Quetzalcoatl. They inspired the legend of Atlantis. And you can still see the monuments their visits inspired, like the Great Sphinx of Giza or the Cuicuilco pyramid in Mexico, which Graham believes are much, much older than the scientific consensus allows.

He’s put forward these ideas in a dozen bestselling books, multiple appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and now a Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse. But Graham Hancock didn’t come into the world talking about pyramids and apocalypses. His first book, in 1985, was a study of famine in Ethiopia. This was followed by Lords of Poverty, a searing critique of the humanitarian aid industry, arguing that it enriched an international bureaucrat class while further impoverishing the world's poor. He was a fixture on the British left, reporting from Africa for The Economist and quoting Marx in the pages of the New Internationalist. But by the early 1990s, he was writing about ancient artefacts instead.

This seems like a strange turn, but Graham doesn’t think his outlook has changed too much. “I’ve always been a contrarian,” he tells me. “I’ve always gone against the mainstream... Back in the Eighties, criticising foreign aid was like criticising motherhood. That’s still what I’m doing, except my focus has shifted from current affairs and politics to the ancient world.”

He had his first encounter with that ancient world while covering the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. “It was in Ethiopia that I first stumbled upon an ancient world story that intrigued me, and that was the Ethiopian claim to possess the lost Ark of the Covenant.” Graham had a hunch that they might be telling the truth. So for a while he lived a kind of double life, still filing stories about food policy while also trying to chase down the Holy of Holies, until he turned his side project into an unexpectedly successful book.

This is the short version of the story. Actually talking to Graham Hancock is like facing a genial whirlwind. As he describes his transition from Left-wing journalist to one-man crusade against the archaeological establishment, he also drags in the Great Pyramid (“It’s aligned to within three sixtieths of a single degree of true north... no body of any Egyptian pharaoh has ever been found inside any Egyptian pyramid”), human origins (“Anatomically modern humans learned many skills from Neanderthals”), the ram-headed god Khnum, and the Piri Reis map, a 16th-century document he believes encodes secret knowledge from the last Ice Age.

Graham Hancock with archaeologist Professor Necmi Karul, lead excavator of the 11,600-year-old site of Karahan Tepe in Turkey - Santha Faiia
Graham Hancock with archaeologist Professor Necmi Karul, lead excavator of the 11,600-year-old site of Karahan Tepe in Turkey - Santha Faiia

“My main wish,” Graham says of his new Netflix series, “is that you did not find it boring.” It would be hard to find him boring. Still, his is not my favourite reinterpretation of world history.

There’s the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which argues that the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries AD simply never happened. Unlike Hancock’s theory, this one substantially rewrites a very familiar history: there was never a Charlemagne, or an early Middle Ages; the whole thing was concocted by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, and we're actually currently living in the year 1725.

But little can top Anatoly Fomenko’s New Chronology thesis. A Soviet mathematician, Fomenko believed that he had uncovered numerical patterns hidden in history. A historical text might describe an Egyptian pharaoh who reigned for five years, followed by one who reigned for 17, followed by one who reigned for 30, and another text might describe a sequence of Roman emperors with the exact same pattern. Fomenko decided that these were actually the same people. The ancient kingdom of Israel was the same place as Pharaonic Egypt and the Byzantine Empire: historians had simply taken different accounts of the same events and arranged them sequentially in time. In Fomenko’s version, Jesus Christ was born in Crimea, and crucified on a hill in Istanbul around the year 1185.

The Graham Hancock account is less audacious. His lost Ice Age civilisation is advanced, but not too advanced. They might have solved the longitude problem, but they didn’t necessarily have metal tools. “I don't make outrageous claims like microchips or building spaceships or flying to the moon.” He intensely dislikes the people who do make such claims; whenever he talks about them, his usual affability vanishes. “I’m so pissed at the f---ing ancient-aliens lobby. They’ve turned this entire field into a laughing stock.”

The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre and the small Pyramid of Mycerinus
The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre and the small Pyramid of Mycerinus

When I try to press him on what his primordial society was actually like, he’s unusually reticent. He doesn’t want to speculate; he just follows the evidence. I mention that some fringe theorists (following writers like Riane Eisler, or the Lithuanian anthropologist Marija Gimbutas) have claimed this lost civilisation was a peaceful, matriarchal, “partnership” society, as opposed to the violent, acquisitive “dominator” societies that followed, and which we’re still living in today. “That’s a very reasonable point,” says Graham, and then he immediately segues into talking about megalithic sites in Turkey.

Is any of what he says actually true? We know that there have been lost civilisations in history. Five thousand years ago, there was the Harappan civilisation in the Indus Valley, which had indoor plumbing, complex sewage systems, and huge public buildings. Eventually all its cities were abandoned, for reasons we can’t adequately explain. It also had something that looks a lot like writing: plenty of inscriptions survive, but we have no way of translating them. We’re sitting on hundreds of messages from the very distant past, the words of their gods or the deeds of their kings, never to be understood.

It’s also true that new discoveries keep changing the official history. In 1995, archaeologists in Turkey uncovered Göbekli Tepe, a series of circular enclosures featuring enormous stone pillars decorated with animal forms, some 7,000 years older than Stonehenge. The people who built it were hunter-gatherers; Stone Age societies were clearly capable of much more than we previously thought. The conventional account of our deep past – in which small nomadic bands gradually turned into settled farmers, before eventually building cities with complex societies and monumental architecture – is almost certainly wrong.

But that doesn’t mean Graham’s alternate account is therefore true. In his Netflix show he travels the world, dropping in on various ancient structures, and concluding that they all date back to the Younger Dryas, usually based on these monuments’ supposed astronomical alignments. (So at one point, he draws a line through an ancient Native American mound and finds that it’s pointed directly at “true astronomical north.”) Academics find his theories implausible. He says they just stick the label “pseudohistory” on anything they can’t refute. But I have to say, I'm not fully convinced either.

After mainlining four episodes in a single day, I step outside onto a busy London street. The sun, perfectly framed along its length, stares me blindingly in the face. Unbidden, the gentle voice of Graham Hancock starts speaking in my brain. “The mainstream establishment would have you believe that the Euston Road only dates back to the 18th century. But this magnificent megastructure, over a mile long, is meticulously aligned to the setting sun. Is this coincidence? Or could it have been the work of a much older civilisation – and might it hold a warning for our future?”

Graham Hancock’s theories are a new myth for the 21st century: even if it’s all completely false, there’s still something captivating in his message. Our world is spinning faster into collapse, but it is not the first. Other people have stepped into the same darkening future. We are not alone.

“Bottom line, I don’t claim I’m right,” Graham says. “My role has been to explore an extraordinary possibility.” Maybe it’s useful to keep a few extraordinary ideas around.

Ancient Apocalypse is streaming on Netflix now