“Things keep getting older.” —Graham Hancock
Recently Ezekiel73 and I were discussing research into alternative views of human history—specifically I think we were discussing Graham Hancock’s latest book America Before—and he asked me why I thought there was such push back and emotional reactivity around ideas like Hancock's (and related ones). It’s a great question because it’s not obvious, superficially anyway, why there would be such vitriol against these ideas. So why all the haters? I’ll offer some thoughts, starting with some more mundane ones and then leading eventually so potentially some very esoteric possibilities at play.
The first area to explore is that of the work of Thomas Kuhn on paradigm shifts in science. Kuhn has many (psuedo)supporters and detractors but very few actually remember what he did (and didn’t) say. So what was Kuhn’s actual argument?
Kuhn explored the difference between “normal” science and revolutionary science. Kuhn’s interest was in periods of revolutionary science which are rarer moments in the history of science (normal here meaning non-revolutionary science).
Typically science works in the following manner...
Initially there is an existing scientific paradigm. That paradigm involves methods and procedures for generating data as well as an interpretive framework for understanding the data generated by those procedures.
Kuhn rightly pointed out that most experiments exist based on the premises of the existing paradigm. In other words most science is about extending the implications of an existing paradigm. Which isn’t by the way a fruitless effort or “a bad thing”. Plenty of powerful, illuminating science has not been paradigm shifting and that’s not a slight on that work. It’s simply worth nothing that is what is practically going on.
Revolutionary science by contrast only occurs under a number of very specific conditions. First an experiment must (repeatedly) generate data that is profoundly inconsistent and contradictory to the expected results based on the existing paradigm. Second that data must be placed within a new theoretical framework which has to eventually win out as the new dominant paradigm (method + interpretive theory) in its field. A true paradigm shift for Kuhn requires both changed methods and data as well as a new interpretive theory. (Incidentally, most “paradigm change” people completely miss the first of those and just think that changing a mental model creates paradigm change which it does not.)
Max Planck’s black body radiation study is a perfect illustration of this dynamic. Planck’s initial findings did not fit his theoretical assumptions, which were based on the existing paradigm of classical Newtonian physics. Planck responded by redoing the test to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake in the lab. The results came out the same. Then he checked his equipment, reran it (same results). Then he proceeded to question whether he had made an error in the design of the experiment itself. He realized he had not.
What he was left with was the dissonance of the data not fitting the theory and yet the data being true data. This dissonance began to take a serious personal psychological toil on Planck. So in what he termed an “act of despair” he let go of his assumptions, based as they were on the paradigm of classical Newtonian physics, which brought forward a clearer understanding of the data (i.e. Planck’s constant). It violated classical physics and opened the door for quantum theory as an entirely different paradigm of physics.
The history of science is filled with these moments where the emotions and the choices of individual scientists have massive ramifications. Kuhn studied the history of science and showed conclusively that politics, human emotions and choices, as well as cultural trends have all influenced the actual reality of science. That idea seems like a no-brainer but it was itself revolutionary insofar as the entire scientific establishment adheres to a philosophy in which the scientific method somehow inoculates scientists from being human and everything that comes with being human.
Kuhn simply pointed out humans do science and therefore to act as if the scientific method descended from the Platonic archetypal realm without history or cultural influence or human psychological imprinting is profoundly naive.
Planck’s work and later quantum mechanics did not totally destroy Newtonian physics. Many aspects of Newtonian physics remain—it is simply understood from a quantum mechanical perspective that Newtonian physics does not apply to the subatomic realm. Quantum theory contextualized Newtonian classical physics. Quantum mechanics shows where Newtonian physics is correct and where it is not.
This same trend applies across the various scientific disciplines, including as we’ll see, in archaeology. That is every paradigm therefore reveals certain phenomena but also shows its own limitations. These limitations overtime typically become ideological, when they are treated as“neutral” or unexplained forces without their own causative history. An example would be gravity within Newton's classical paradigm of physics. Newton describes the effects of gravity but he can not describe what gravity is–he simply has to treat at as an existing context in which everything is transpiring.
But the key point here is the way in which ideology can exist within scientific theories themselves. In revealing this Kuhn’s work flung wide the door to the study of the cultural, psychological, political and economic implications of science. In particular Kuhn explored how all these forces factored into whether a new paradigm (as interpretive theory) would get a hearing.
Kuhn was not saying science is reducible to political, social, cultural, military, religious, and/or economic factors, but he was clear that science could never be wholly extracted from them either. In other words, Kuhn was not—contrary to some of his later claimed disciples as well as his critics—a cultural relativist. Kuhn was not arguing that science is simply some Western cultural production that can’t be judged as inherently superior or inferior to other modes of cultural production and knowledge making. Kuhn did see science as progressing in objective understanding. He was simply making the point that science is done by humans and therefore intrinsically involves humans and consequently involves humans things necessarily. Things like power, politics, culture, and the like.
So to review: paradigm shifts involve changed methods & data + changed interpretive structure. The larger scale adoption of the new (revolutionary) interpretive schema is significantly influenced by non-scientific factors in the wider sphere of human relations. And lastly each new paradigm reveals or discloses and makes sense of certain phenomena while also having limits/boundaries and those often become places of uncritical assumptions and even ideology.
The understanding of human history is in such a paradigm shifting moment. That is, new information, an incredible amount of it in fact, comes forward by the day that does not fit within the mainstream existing archaeological worldview. This anomalous archaeological data is akin to the results of Max Planck’s black body radiation experiment. An preeminent example of such data would be the discovery of the temple complex of Gobekli Tepe in Southeastern Turkey.
Gobekli Tepe is about 12,000 years old (10,000 BCE). This makes it older than agriculture (which is thought to begin around 10,000 years ago). The entirety of archaeological history has assumed—wrongly it turns out—that agriculture must come first which creates diversification and stratification of society which then allows for the creation of various professional trades classes (e.g., stonemasons) who could then construct temples. In contrast, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies were assumed to be relatively hierarchy-free living in small, nomadic bands, which would not allow (it was thought) for such specialization. (I’ve covered my own thoughts on matriarchy and matrilinealism and it’s potential insights into contemporary justice issues here).
Gobekli Tepe is a gigantic deconstruction of that entire theoretical edifice.
Another piece of paradigm-busting evidence would include things like Robert Schoch and John Anthony West’s research showing evidence of major rainfall and water erosion at the site of The Sphinx which did not have such rainfall for thousands of years prior to when mainstream archaeology claims The Sphinx was built.
Or what about Denisovan artifact work with drilling 60-70,000 years old!!!?
Or Canadian research Jacques Cinq-Mars who discovered evidence of human remains in Bluefish Caves in The Yukon dating to 24,000 years ago. Previous archaeological theory assumed that all humans had come to North America across the Bering Land Bridge during the last ice age. Cinq-Mars’ discovery showed that was not the case. He did his original research in the 1980s and was basically blackballed in academia for it and falsely accused of incompetence or malfeasance in his research because his work fundamentally undermined the then dominant Clovis theory of the peopling of The Americas (proving Kuhn’s point yet again).
I could keep going. Every day there are new discoveries of more ancient human remains, new human species (like the Denisovans). As Hancock says, things keep getting older.
Hancock has said repeatedly that he thinks the mainstream archaeological story of human origins is valid after the rise of agriculture. Where it needs to be fundamentally re-thought he argues is what comes before. In this regard, Hancock is supporting a point of Kuhn’s—namely that the later scientific paradigm (“revolutions”) re-incorporate much of the older paradigms but in a new context.
The lines get blurry quickly however because, as Kuhn wisely pointed out, “scientific” arguments between various competing theories are often sociological, political, philosophical, economic, class, and racial clashes masquerading as (purely) scientific rational ones. But those debates never recognize those unconscious biases because to do so would undermine the entire rhetorical power of scientific materialism and will lead to a quick excommunication from the magisterium of science.
For example, one of the main reasons that North American archaeology was so committed to a view of The Americas being only lightly inhabited by spread out, nomadic hunter-gathering tribes without (supposedly) high sophisticated culture, is that it created a “scientific” (read: ideological) justification for European colonialism. If instead there was much more significant population numbers with advanced astro-theology and mound work for example, which we now know was the case, then the horrors of colonialism run that much deeper. (As many have pointed out, modernity does not have any room for grief. It’s not a supposedly “productive” emotion.)
Add to that the work of Dr. Gregory Little whose shown that the spiritual practices and astronomical alignments of the American mound builder cultures amazingly mirror those of ancient Egyptians and now a whole other can of worms is opened: namely the possibilities of much more extensive and pervasive maritime travel in the ancient world, both potentially across the Atlantic as well across the Pacific between say Polynesia and The Americas (think Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki expedition).
While we’re discussing The Atlantic what about the Bimini Road and the increasing evidence of that being a prime candidate for Atlantis?
The more these new pieces of evidence pile up the more it threatens the existing paradigm. As Kuhn showed, with an existing paradigm comes control of academic departments, as well as funding grants. Careers, prestige, position within the academic hierarchy all depend on the preeminence of certain paradigms over others. Question the paradigm and it can destroy a would be scholar’s academic career before it really gets off the ground. We should not be surprised therefore when the folks who first come forward to popularize this work are often marginalized figures in academia and/or the media.
Not only are there political consequences to paradigm shifts, there are deep philosophical ones at play as well.
Randall Carlson, among many others, have pointed out how little weight modern human archaeology has given to the reality of catastrophism, particularly concerning the Younger Dryas and the last glacial maximum.
Hancock points out that during the last Ice Age there was a landmass the size of China and Europe above water now flooded since the glaciers melted. (Think about that for a second!)
Catastrophism both geologically and cosmically (i.e. Velikovsky) pose a threat to aspects of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwin was heavily influenced by notions of gradualism and uniformitarianism which were then dominant in 19th century scientific reflection. These were ideas passed over from Newton’s theory in physics and applied to geology, biology, and yes the newly developing science of archaeology. Uniformitarianism states that everything happens in uniform, smooth processes. Gradualism held that progress and change took place in small, regular periods of slow progressive uptake.
By the time 20th century physics rolled around these ideas of uniformitarianism and gradualism were debunked in that domain. Chaos theory, dissipative structures (Prigione) and complexity sciences all came along to point out that change is not smooth or linear or gradual or uniform in expression. Stephen Jay Gould caused a mass stir for arguing that biological evolution worked the same way with periods of relative uniformity “punctuated” by periods of intense volatility and massive change in rapid order.
The same applies on the human scale of culture building, history, and technological development. Catastrophism and mutation is part of the game.
Mainstream archaeology is still heavily wedded to the political and philosophical belief system of gradualism and progressivism. Archaeology is still stuck in the 19th century in other words. 21st century tools in archaeology--e.g. new ground-penetrating radar technologies--are bringing forth new data creating a paradigm clash between the current technology and new data versus the old model of interpretation.
Archaeology philosophically and conceptually hasn’t caught up to mathematics, physics, complexity and systems theories. Those graduatlist and uniformitarian 19th century views were, as noted, the mainstream views when archaeology as an organized scientific discipline came on the scene. They are part of the “genetic roots” of archaeology if you like.
A paradigm shift in archaeology wouldn’t just involve a change in an understanding of some of the aspects of human history but rather of the philosophy of humanity, of human, history and arguably of nature itself.
In other words the consternation over things like punctuated equilibrium and catastrophism occurs because those dynamics point I believe in a general direction towards a philosophy of vitalism—that is, that nature is conscious and alive (as well as potentially possessed of certain forms of intelligence). Names like Bergson, and Whitehead come immediately to mind. See also earlier pieces on that subject by me and by Ezekiel73.
Economic markets go through periods of general quiet followed by high volatility returning to periods of low volatility to high and back again. What if there were some deeper physics at play that worked through biological systems, human systems, and physical systems? (Joseph Farrell speculates on precisely this possibility by the way). If so, it would be very difficult, if not essentially impossible, to suggest that some such fractal meta-patterns at all those scales can be snugly fit into an atomistic, materialistic framework. Those dynamics might point towards some sort of “geist” or “telos” in nature which could reveal the limited hangout that is science. It might pull back the curtain to reveal that science is really a form of alchemy and hermeticism.
As it relates to the changed notion not just of human history but our contemporary understanding of the value of human history, here too a paradigm shift is called forth by this new evidence. While there’s much made of postmodern turns in archaeology (and relatedly in anthropology and cultural studies), as Frederic Jameson pointed out (as noted in my earlier piece on Jacques Derrida), postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism. It’s a kind of a faux-paradigm shift, not a true or genuine one I would argue.
So mainstream archaeology is either upholding modernist views with a lot of overhang of colonialism and Western imperialism and/or it’s upholding postmodern “cultural diversity” models while leaving in tact domination culture. (More on that in a second). The work coming forward in these thinkers undercuts both those theoretical frameworks in significant and thoroughgoing ways.
As the philosopher Hans Gadamer eloquently argued any study of human history occurs through the worldview of the present time. When those present filters are not conscious they warp our understanding of the past.
The progressivist mindset whereby the ancients were supposedly primitives and now we modern enlightened beings live in some era of rationality profoundly obscures our view of the past. But the past itself is coming back like a ghost, haunting progressivism. It’s not just that our present views shape our views of the past (though that certainly is the case), it’s also that the past can change our present understanding of ourselves.
Here I believe we come to some of the potentially more esoteric layers of why there is such a fight to prevent a fundamental re-think of our ancient past. That will be the subject the subsequent article in this series.
But to conclude this one, recall that for a paradigm shift to occur two things are needed: new evidence (achieved through new technological means) and a new worldview that better frames and makes sense of the new data.
Researchers and writers like Carlson, Hancock, Collins, Little, and a whole host of others have already taken the leap to accepting the new data and are now trying to figure out a new worldview that makes better sense of that data. This aim is what most of the critiques of these thinkers fail to grasp—the development of the new framework takes time. But the dam has already burst on the older paradigm and those whose academic prestige, posting, and identity are dependent on that old order not crumbling and consequently are holding on with a death grip as it continues to slide through fingers like so much sand. There can and should be vigorous debate and arguments about how best to interpret this new arising data. That’s very healthy and necessary but first the new data has to be accepted as truer than the outmoded worldviews.
A paradigm shift is a kind of death, and as many have pointed out, contemporary society does not do grief and mourning very well at all. It tends to hold on to the bitter end, but it’s only a matter of time at this point in my view as more as new technologies and methods bring more evidence to light and more and more courageous scholars and researchers come forward offering more creative and elegant (and accurate) stories of our past.