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Challenging the consensus
on 10 February 2004
Archaeologists have been pushing back the date of humanity's first attempts at agriculture and the civilization that follows it. An inexplicable commonality is seen in agriculture emerging in distant places at nearly the same time. Self-confessed - sorry, self-adulatory - Graham Hancock thinks there's an answer for that chronological similarity. He contends agriculture, and civilization reach even further back in time than evidence found in places like Iran or Turkey suggests. He thinks the legends and mythologies of India, Malta and South America point to a multitude of "Atlantis-like" urbanised cultures that have disappeared from view - under water.
"Underworld" is a collation of ancient legends, old maps, submerged evidence and innovative thinking that gives humanity much deeper roots than previously thought. Hancock dives into the world's offshore depths, trolls through a wealth of mythologies, views unusual and unexplained artefacts and comes up with a challenge to consensus archaeology. Was there a global sprinking of advanced civilizations at the end of the last Ice Age? Did the melting ice caps drown more than the various land bridges that connected the British Isles with Europe, Sri Lanka with India and Alaska with Siberia? If Hancock is correct, and he is not to be dismissed lightly, humanity achieved far greater social complexity during the glacial advances than just living in caves wrapped in bear skins. What appears to be a near simultaneous emergence of agriculture, he argues, is in reality what we see left over from much older societies.
Hancock has made dives in many of the sites revealed by fishermen, archaeologists and others, recording finds on video and still camera and maps. The images are impressive, as are the numbers of potential sites. Utilising computer generated maps of the sea's rise after the Great Meltdown of the glaciers, he shows the logic of his thesis with compelling evidence. He's careful to note where the data seems firm as well as lacking. Where lacking, he urges more scientific attention to these places.
Although he justifiably spends most of the account on locations in India, where in some places the sea has invaded over 700 kilometres since the last Last Glacial Maximum, his relation of Japanese sites makes the most compelling reading. There, some of the longest-lived legends indicate Japan's oldest settlers, the Jomon, preceded the West in the establishment of agriculture and settled communities. Where scholars once held these people were "simple hunter-gatherers", Hancock sees evidence of rice growing nearly twelve thousand years old. Temple styles found today are duplicated in undersea sites, in some places nearby as if the sea simply pushed the people and their culture inland. These people may have followed the "Black Current" across the Pacific to establish settlements along the western coast of South America.
Hancock is careful to separate the known from the speculative, and not all of the speculations are his. Scholars in the places he visits are contributers to this innovative idea. So many sites and such commonality of legend add up to a highly plausible notion. Regrettably, even while crediting these researchers with empirical methods, Hancock is a bit too full of himself. Long passages of his problems, illness, fright from daring pilots cruising mountain passes permeate the book. By restricting himself to the scholars, their evidence coupled with his own and other researchers’ ideas, he could have made this account less tedious while recounting adventures and exploration. Even the computer-generated maps are often repeated unnecessarily. He raises serious questions which deserve serious study. Hancock makes a compelling introduction, but we await a less self-indulgent approach. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]