Apocalypse now or later

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 1995, 12:00am

Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock Heinemann $289 PROPHETS are rarely honoured in their own lifetime so if the gods really have screwed things up for us then in some dark, benighted future we will recite the words of this book and worship Graham Hancock.

The name of the game is predict the next apocalypse. Hancock, former East African correspondent for that most restrained and rational of publications The Economist, is a frequent traveller to the shores of controversy.

In his last book, like some latter-day Indiana Jones, he claimed to have discovered the Ark of the Covenant. His conclusions this time, if true, have more worrying implications than mere proof of the existence of God.

One of the things that makes this book refreshing, at least at first, is that Hancock is not afraid to ask awkward questions. He starts with ancient maps which seem, bizarrely, to chart the coastline of Antarctica as it would have appeared before it was covered in ice.

He then looks at the ancient civilisations of America and Egypt, who worshipped gods that came from the sea. He looks at ancient myths from around the world, many of which seem to include, as if by design, the numbers required to make sophisticated astronomical calculations.

Hancock then takes a long look at the pyramids at Giza in Egypt. If no artefact or inscription has been found inside these pyramids, and if there are very few scientific tests that can date stone and rock, he asks, then how do we know when the pyramids were built?Why is it that the Great Pyramid at Giza is built to face exactly due east? Why is it possible to calculate the value of pi from the pyramid's dimensions, a monument officially built 2,000 years before Greek mathematicians first measured the circle? Hancock's theory now becomes clear: that there once existed an advanced civilisation, a sea-faring people, on the continent of Antarctica. That civilisation was virtually destroyed by cataclysmic changes in the weather, but it left behind huge monuments as a mathematical puzzle to be unlocked by future civilisations when they had rediscovered the knowledge.

It is an unsettling theory: humans have not progressed continuously, he claims, but instead received a severe setback from which they have taken perhaps 10,000 years to recover.

That theory is far-fetched but not hopelessly irrational. Hancock points to scientists studying plants and animals frozen in ice in Siberia who conclude the climate there lurched suddenly around 15,000 years ago. Ancient statues from Mexico suggest some people crossed the Atlantic at least 2,000 years before Columbus. It is impossible to know for sure. The treasury of knowledge of the ancient Americans was lost in an orgy of destruction by the Spanish.

It would be easy to scoff at this, until we remember that before Darwin, and for decades afterwards, Christians believed the world was created in 4004 BC; that before Schliemann, people thought the ancient city of Troy was just a myth created by Homer; and that before the 1950s the theory of continental drift was entertained only by the most radical of geologists.

The world is an ancient and mysterious place, and many of the cornerstones of our knowledge may prove one day to have been just good guesses. Hancock should have left it there. He should have spoken to respected astronomers, archaeologists, geologists, historians, architects and engineers. Their professional discipline would have underpinned his theory and given us an indication of how probable it was.

Instead he goes much further than the evidence warrants. It is a fault that pervades the entire book. He finds a scrap of history, accepts only one extreme reading of it and excludes all other plausible interpretations. He then moves on to another scrap and repeats the process. Supposition in one chapter becomes proven fact in the next.

He seizes on a routine alignment of the planets that will take place on May 5, 2000, and speculates ferociously whether this will cause the surface of the Earth to slip suddenly, plunging us all into another ice age.

But as speculators of a different sort would agree, it is always best to hedge your bets. Hancock therefore delves into the ancient calendar of the Mayan civilisation of Central America to provide us with an alternative date for the apocalypse, in this case December 23, 2012.

The ancients, Hancock concludes, were trying to warn us about the impending disaster. He never seems to ask himself commonsense questions such as, if the ancient Americans were so great at predictions, why did they not predict the arrival of the Spanish who killed them? Hancock's book has all the makings of a 'cult classic'': a far-fetched apocalypse scenario, with a veneer of truth, preached by a guru who alone has the power to decipher ancient signs while the world pours scorn.

By writing a big book full of long words and half-digested ideas, Hancock gives his ramblings an air of science and reason they do not deserve. The power this will exert on credulous minds as these dates draw near can only be guessed. But, no doubt, we have not heard the last of Hancock and his vision of the future.