Ten thoughts on weird revisionist history -- inspired by a book that claims Antarctica was mapped by ancient civilizations before it was covered by ice:
1. Why read the occasional book by a seeming crackpot, you ask? Well, much as I value epistemological caution and having hard scientific evidence before making claims, there is something to be said for limbering up our dogmatic, narrative-preserving brains by hearing out a truly fringey view once in a while -- and at least getting a feel for how internally coherent and plausible-sounding it might be.
After all, I already think we live in a world in which people mistakenly believe religion, government, and most health reporting are helpful (the evidence that eating lots of vegetables is good for you isn’t even all that strong, yet in nutrition science, that’s roughly the pinnacle of trusted, evidence-based advice).
People recognize the past is filled with silly beliefs, but so few really take to heart the idea that their own favorite present-day beliefs might be wrong -- yes, even the ones you thought made you so goddam intellectually superior to everyone else. Just how different might the real world be if some of the fringe folk turn out to be right? Do you dare to wonder?
2. This exploratory attitude need not cause us to dismiss all we think we know about the past. Some things seem nearly certain and solid: Seasons end on Game of Thrones, and Magna Carta, arguably the first document to limit the power of government, turns 800 today.
3. By contrast, it is only the twentieth anniversary of British author Graham Hancock’s highly speculative book Fingerprints of the Gods, recommended to me by a fellow performer at one of those Electoral Dysfunction onstage political panels (which I’ll appear in again on Saturday, July 18, 7pm at the PIT in NYC).
You might not think there’d be much to learn from a book making the bizarre argument that the Earth’s surface periodically comes loose from its interior and slips around a bit, like a loose orange peel, causing Antarctica, for instance, to relocate from balmy to freezing climes as recently as a few tens of thousands of years ago.
But just as one can learn a great deal about how truly weird some lights in the sky are from UFO buffs -- even if it turns out those lights are meteorological/plasmoid or military rather than Martian -- one can learn things from Hancock’s thesis that leave unavoidably weird questions, even if one doesn’t adopt his whole worldview.
It appears pretty convincingly to be the case, for instance, that centuries-ago mapmakers inherited even older maps that depict the mountains and valleys of Antarctica accurately -- even though modern European culture only began exploring Antarctica 200 years ago, believe it or not, and even though as long as our society has been aware of Antarctica, its mountains and valleys have been hidden to all but the best-equipped scientists by thick ice sheets.
Are the ancient maps just lucky guesses? Were there mapmakers many tens of thousands of years ago, suggesting civilization rises and falls more spectacularly and over longer spans of time than we normally assume? Or was Antarctica somehow located in a warmer spot 10,000 years ago?
4. Before we assume trustworthy scientists and historians have all that worked out already, keep in mind that ABC News was no doubt relying on real, credentialed scientists eight years ago when it predicted New York City would be underwater by June 2015 due to global warming (for out of towners wondering: it is not). Humanity can be very wrong about some very big-picture facts.
5. I say the science-oriented skeptic must keep an open mind but am not for a moment saying this should cause us to abandon science for even less-scientific pictures of the world, such as the Muslim/animist views that inspired Malaysians to arrest tourists there recently for bearing their breasts on a sacred mountain and thus being blamed by locals for an earthquake. We should not punish breasts or blame them for earthquakes.
6. Nor do I think we should willy-nilly accept on an equal footing with science every oddball theory such as the claim by great DC Comics artist Neal Adams that the Earth -- not the universe but the Earth all by itself -- is gradually expanding, and adding mass to boot, in a process covered up by dogmatic mainstream geologists.
7. Indeed, as a DC Comics fan, I have to question whether we should even accept the revisionist claim being made in current issues of Justice League that the Anti-Monitor was once an “anti-god” known as Mobius. That’s not how I remember it! Does the goddess Pandora know about any of this?
8. Since they’ve discovered a tomb in Mexico known as the “abode of the gods” filled with decorative mercury, maybe we should be worried that the real ancient gods were time-traveling liquid-metal Terminators -- but I suppose all that will be sorted out in Terminator 5 in a few weeks, probably with results as damaging for the timestream as current issues of Justice League.
9. If you want some real history in your comics and have wearied of all the endless revisions of the timestream in superhero and sci-fi stories, you might want to check out Alan Moore’s current comics miniseries Providence, telling the (grim) life story of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. He would’ve appreciated bizarre, pseudo-scientific claims about Antarctica.
10. But to get back to the Fingerprints of the Gods hypothesis: it strikes me that if Hancock has been driven to strange speculations, it might be in part because he is unwilling to abandon a powerful dogma of our own day. Maybe climate naturally varies more drastically than we realize and Antarctica really did see some warm, iceless days within written memory. I don’t know. And I’m certainly not saying that in order to boost oil company profits or anything that fussily mainstream. On the contrary, I’m saying it because the occasional anomaly like those iceless maps won’t go away.
Of course, all the water frozen in Antarctica wouldn’t just go away if melted either, so if Hancock were right we’d still have to ask why the oceans weren’t all fifty or so feet deeper everywhere else on those maps. So maybe their depiction of Antarctica was just luck. But I don’t know. I don’t know.