Archaeologist David Wengrow pushes back against Ancient Apocalypse—and urges us to consider the power of everyday people

I've previously written about the Netflix show Ancient Apocalypse, and I'm back for more! This time, it's to share a terrific article published this week in The Nation titled "Apocalypse No! Pseudo-Archaeology, Ancient Tech-Lords, and Ordinary People: Why the Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse is worth taking seriously. Hint: It's not the science." It's written by David Wengrow, a professor of comparative archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. 

In the article, Wengrow first points out that Graham Hancock, star of Netflix's Ancient Apocalypse, isn't the first to speculate about how 'ancient civilizations' could have built such amazing structures and societies. Despite Hancock's assertion that he's the victim of 'big archaeology,' some of these claims have come from those located within the profession. Wengrow provides us with the example of Egypt and the speculations of late 19th-early 20th century British archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Wengrow explains:

Petrie was also a eugenicist, who believed in the improvement of society through selective "breeding-out" of intellectually inferior races. While revealing evidence for the foundations of ancient Egypt, he attributed it on biometric grounds to a "New Race" of invaders from outside Africa, opening a space of the imagination that has since come to be filled by all manner of theories about the "alien" architects of ancient civilizations. It started with the "race science" that is part and parcel of archaeology's own problematic history. Where does it end?

Skepticism about "primitive societies" being able to create complex structures and societies, then, was never limited to 'outsiders' like Hancock. It is, in many ways, baked into the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology.

Wengrow also argues that despite how utterly fanciful and downright bizarre Graham Hancock's vision of the ancient world sometimes is, it's ultimately a racist vision. And make no mistake, Graham paints some unbelievable pictures of ancient worlds. Wengrow writes:

Speaking recently on The Joe Rogan Experience, Hancock speculates (at 6:25) that granite blocks in the tomb of Khufu—sealed high inside the structure of the Great Pyramid at Giza—were lifted into place by acoustic levitation: "priests chanting as these huge blocks were lifted into the air," by the force of sound alone. Leaving physics aside, I tried to picture the kind of society we are being asked to imagine here. I tried to envisage a vanguard of priests, assembled on the floodplain of the Nile, chanting in unison as the granite blocks rise high above the ground—as if by magic—floating into place around the tomb of a divine overlord. I also pictured the awe of the stupid, gawking masses as the scene unfolds. 

How is this racist? Wengrow explains:

It conjures a world in which intelligence is not a property of individuals acting in society but rather a quality possessed to varying degrees by specific "peoples." It gives voice to a theory of human difference that today doesn't always dare utter the name "race"—but retains all the key ingredients of a racial theory. It asks us to imagine past human societies divided into two tiers: one superior, one inferior; one wise, one ignorant; one comprising noble (or sage-like) rulers, the other servile commoners. In short, it is a picture based on a specific form of nostalgia: the desire to be dominated by "natural" masters.

In the end, this perspective is grounded in the belief that humans, including their technologies, always progress in linear fashion, from "primitive simplicity to modern complexity." This way of viewing the world is a hallmark of Enlightenment thinking that, as Jamelle Bouie explains, "created modern race thinking" and posited racial hierarchies.

Bouie asserts that we are, in fact, still living "in a world shaped by Enlightenment ideas of race and white supremacy."

Wengrow explains how this works in the vision of Hancock's Ancient Apocalypse, and in theories about social evolution that have had a profound impact on the academic disciplines of archaeology and anthropology:

Only against that baseline expectation can startling monuments like the earthworks of Poverty Point or the megalithic temples at Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey appear as "anomalies" or "mysteries" in the first place. In that sense, Hancock's ideas actually draw sustenance from mainstream theories of social evolution that dominated archaeology and anthropology for much of the 20th century (note his evocation of "simple hunter-gatherers" to describe the great mass of early humanity, outside the vanguard). Albeit in extremely different ways, both approaches—the alternative and the mainstream—have stubbornly, systematically refused to accord past human actors the capacity for social imagination and self-determination, in the absence of overlords.

Wengrow ends his essay with the idea that Graham Hancock and others like him—who forward the idea that the only way sophisticated ancient structures and civilizations could have been created was through 'wise ancients' spreading their superior knowledge—facilitate what Wengrow and his colleague David Graeber call "the myth of the stupid savage."

Seeing the world through this lens, which portrays "our remote ancestors as drifting haplessly from dispersed, egalitarian forager bands to centralized, hierarchical states," discounts the actual knowledge of those who came before us. To counter this perspective, Wengrew and Graeber, in their recent book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, present recent research in archaeology and anthropology demonstrating everyday, ordinary "pre-modern" groups of people "consciously, collectively transforming their worlds—often on a prodigious scale—without being press-ganged by a stratum of overlords, or forced along by environmental dictates, or waves of migration."

To hear moreThe Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, here's a great video from Democracy Now! featuring Amy Goodman interviewing David Wengrow.