Truisms that are (at least mostly) Not True

I have an affinity for the crazy theory.  I know that they can’t all be true, if for the only reason that if all of them were true, we would have no crazy theories to enjoy contemplating.  Our times have a strange character to them, however, for it seems the crackpot plays the role of conservative.  Older views of things look bizarre today.  Before continuing, I should fully disclose that, though I love crazy ideas, I am actually a very boring person.  The reason these two fit together in my life is that today the harebrained idea is sometimes quite conservative and, xpon closer examination, sometimes even obvious.

Take, for example, a variety of truisms in our day.  We say that in football you have to have a great quarterback but . . .  Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, Case Keenum . . . at least one of them will play in the Super Bowl this year.  One can easily envision some coach with a crew-cut from the early 1960’s telling us how it’s a “team game, and not one of you means more than another,” and so on. We have traveled back in time.

History has its truisms as well.  I hear all the time, even from religious conservatives, that America’s religious competition has saved America from going the way of secular Western Europe.*  I have a particular antipathy for this obvious falsehood.  Medieval Europe had very little religious competition, and religion did quite well there.  Religion thrived in ancient Egypt with almost no competition for millennia.  To take the reverse, ancient Babylon had a lot more religious competition and their religion and morals seemed to suffer.  Today France may be nominally Catholic and Sweden nominally Lutheran, but no laws exist forbidding one from becoming Baptist, Methodist, or Buddhist in either place.  At least some religious competition surely exists there today.  This truism about religious competition is actually a far-fetched theory, based on only the most recent evidence.

To get slightly more controversial, we hear all the time how printing serves as one of the great civilizing tools for mankind.  No one questions this truism. But, just look for a moment . . . it seems obvious to me that the 15th century in Europe had a higher degree of civilization than the century after the printing press gained prevalence.  The printing press brought a lot of religious violence and political fragmentation in its wake. We hear too the truism that, “getting a Bible into everyone’s hands” is the key to spiritual health.  But, again, just look . . . it seems clear that the Church did quite well without the printing press for quite some time.  And, to return to an aforementioned truism, the fact that the Bible always tops bestseller lists has not prevented the west from becoming more and more secular over the last two-three centuries.

Maybe civilization and religion actually rely on things far older, far more “tried and true,” for success rather than new technologies–the crackpot as bland conservative strikes again.

I have written before about another one of my least favorite truisms, that of the evolutionary view of history and progress.  The theory basically means that civilization starts small and has run in a more or less unbroken line of progress and advancement.  Though this theory has general acceptance in many textbooks and the minds of men, it is, in fact, a radical, crazy, notion, for it ignores obvious facts.  For one, we know that a complex civilization could collapse more easily, quickly, and completely than a primitive one, due to its inevitable interdependence.  The presence of advancement makes large steps backward more, not less likely, like stock-market bubbles.  For another, we have a universally acknowledged and plain example of the fall of Rome and the subsequent so-called Dark Ages.  Whatever one thinks of the Dark Ages, Italy ca. 100 A.D. had a much higher level of civilization in most respects than Italy ca. 600 A.D.  Still, the prevalence of the evolutionary view makes those who state otherwise seem crazy.

Enter Charles Hapgood, whose book Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings postulates that, based on an examination of certain ancient maps, it appears that an unknown and likely quite ancient civilization developed a geographical and nautical understanding that humanity would not equal until the modern era. Hapgood’s theory joins the voices of Graham Hancock, Jon Anthony West, and other megalithic architecture (such as Gobeckli-Tepe) that argues that pre-historic people not only existed, but existed at a far higher level of civilization than anyone previously imagined.

Unfortunately for the layman like me, Hapgood immerses the book in large amounts of technical terms and technical data.  I think one would need special knowledge of cartography, geography, and math to understand large portions of the book.  Perhaps no other way existed to make his case.  I found myself junping over much of the technical sections but hope I still understood the basic case, which runs like this:

  • In 1929 an unusual map, named, the Piri Re’is, was discovered in the old Imperial Palace of Constantinople, dated the year 1513 A.D. (Moslem reckoning 919).
  • The map was extensive and showed the coast of North America in excellent detail.  This map differed from all other 16th century maps by giving correct longitudes for South America and Africa.  No 16th-century navigator that we know of knew how to calculate longitude except by guesswork.
  • Further investigation showed that Piri Re’is (or basically, Admiral Piri) claimed to copy this map from earlier maps, some of them dating back to (he claimed) the time of Alexander the Great.
  • Even a rough study of this map indicated that it used highly advanced mathematics, including spherical trigonometry, which we do not believe existed in the classical world

So, where did the map come from?

Perhaps Hapgood’s critics are right, and the Greeks knew enough spherical trigonometry to make these maps.  But did they sail across the Atlantic?  No evidence exists for this.  Did the Egyptians or Babylonians have this knowledge?  It appears not, but if they did, they did not sail across the Atlantic to map the coasts of the Americas.  Maybe the Romans in Ptolemy’s time had the knowledge, but again, did not sail across the ocean. Did it come from the medieval period?  But they did not sail much, and no other medieval map exists that compares with the quality of the Piri Re’is.

The best map from the classical period comes from Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria and had access to all of the accumulated knowledge the world knew at the time.  His map shows great skill:


But it cannot compare with the Piri Re’is (although this is only a portion):

And again:

The Portolano Map, of late Medieval/Renaissance origin, is again, very good, but not quite up to snuff, at least in terms of the extent of what it mapped:

The inclusion of Antartica on the Piri Re’is map is particularly noteworthy, as many speculate that it maps landforms that for thousands of years have been covered with ice. In other words, the map seems to have been made before the ice age, and not after.

A few quotes scattered throughout the book from Hapgood illustrate his proposition:

We have discovered that in most cases the errors on the Piri Re’is mapper due to mistakes in the compilation of the world map, presumably in Alexandrian times [that is, the Piri Re’is was discovered in different pieces and put back together not quite accurately], since it appears that Piri Re’is could not himself have put them together at all.  The component maps, coming from a far greater antiquity, were far more accurate.  The Piri Re’is Map appears, therefore, to be evidence of a decline of science from remote antiquity to classical times (p. 39).


For a long time after the voyages of Columbus we find the latitudes of Cuba and Haiti are wrong on most maps.  Almost all the mapmakers put the islands above rather than below the Tropic of Cancer [in contrast to the Piri Re’is] (p. 41).


To sum up, then, this part of the Piri Re’is Map suggests a source map of Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic islands probably drawn originally on some sort of trigonmetric projection adjusted to the curvature of the earth.  By default of any other narrative, we must assign this map’s origin to a pre-Hellenic people.  The trigonometry of the projection suggests the work of Alexandrian geographers, but the evident knowledge of longitude implies a people unknown to us, a people of seafarers with instruments undreamed of by the Greeks, and as far we know, not possessed by the Phoenicians either (p. 49).


The suggestion of a vast antiquity behind the [Piri Re’is] is conveyed by a feature to which Captain Mallery first drew my attention.  He pointed out that the Zeno Map [which very likely had the Piri Re’is as a source map] shows Greenland with no ice caps.  The interior is filled with mountains, and rivers are shown entering the sea, in some cases at the points where glaciers now move through mountains to the coast (p. 152).**


This culture [that made the Piri Re’is] may well have more advanced than Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.  In astronomy, nautical science, mapmaking, it was likely more advanced than any culture before the 18th century of the Christian era.  Not until the 18th century did we begin to send ships to the Arctic or Antarctic regions.  Organized government is indicated [by the map], as many expeditions would be needed to gather the appropriate information to map the area so precisely (p. 193).

Hapgood writes haphazardly and does not always reason in a clear, linear fashion, a trait he shares with his modern fellow believer in pre-historically advanced ancient civilizations, Graham Hancock.  The key I think to both writers lies not in the exactness of their data but in the accumulation of enough “probably’s” to make their case.  I heard most of a conversation between Hancock and Sceptic editor Michael Shermer.  The discussion went nowhere, with Shermer begging for even a small handful absolute, concrete, data points, and Hancock pleading with him to consider the mass of “probably’s,” while admitting in the end that the study of ancient civilizations cannot provide the kind of concrete proof Shermer demanded.

Rather than ask, “Can we be absolutely sure if an ancient, advanced, prehistoric civilization existed,” (obvious answer-“no”), or, is it possible that such a civilization existed (obvious answer–“yes”) we should instead wonder whether we should expect or not expect to find such a civilization.  Is the idea reasonably likely?  Hapgood will likely not convince anyone who needs something along the lines of what Shermer requires.  He may entice others who think it likely that some kind of ancient civilization along the lines of those who like Hancock’s work.

To give Hapgood’s theory a shot, it helps to believe that:

  • The myths and folklore of most every ancient civilization that describe advanced civilizations that experienced thorough destruction (like the Atlantis story) likely have a fundamental truth behind them.
  • Civilization devolves just as much as it evolves, and in fact, devolution may be more prevalent than evolution in civilizations.
  • The flood described in Genesis 6 (and many other ancient religious texts) was substantive, historical in at least some sense, and would have had the power to destroy civilizations very quickly.
  • The absence of evidence would not condemn the case outright, as civilizations have at times experienced a catastrophic loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge (the burning of the library at Alexandria, the collapse of Rome, etc.)

With this in place you might buy what Hapgood sells.  But without these beliefs, his book will likely frustrate readers.  In any case, I don’t find the above propositions crazy.  In fact, I find them rather ordinary.  Folklore and myth are common to all.  Belief in a historical flood of some kind is nothing new, with most ancient civilizations sharing this story.^  We have actual historically undisputed losses of vast amounts of intellectual capital at certain times in the past, such as the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

As I said earlier, despite my inclination towards “crazy” theories, I’m actually a very boring guy.


P.S.–A good friend and a math/science teacher glanced over the basic arguments of the book and found them wanting, and Hapgood’s selection of material suspicious.  He has a better nose for such things than I and his thoughts give me pause.

My friend and I both believe that ancient civilizations tend to be far more advanced then we might think.   Neither one of us believes that the history of civilization always proceeds in a directly linear way, and certainly not in a progressive evolutionary way.  We thus share some crucial assumptions.

My friend thought that Hapgood underestimates the knowledge of ancients.  For example, we know the ancient Phoenicians existed, we know they were great sailors.  It makes much more sense to say that perhaps they made the map and sailed farther than we thought, then to suggest that an unknown civilization of which we know nothing made the map.

My response would be something like, “If we know a lot about the ancients but have no record of them sailing to the Antarctic, it is plausible that they did not do so.  Thus, someone else must have.”

Plus, I confess that I just simply find the idea of advanced pre-historic civilizations fun, satisfying, and enormously entertaining.  Someone could wave such ideas in front of me daily and they would always get me pretty excited.

*One might modify this theory and argue that perhaps in today’s intellectual and cultural climate, one must have religious competition for religion to survive.  This argument has more plausibility.

**Some believe the Zeno Map to be a hoax precisely because of this feature and other “phantom islands” that do not now show themselves above water.  But Hapgood argues that a perfectly plausible explanation exists for this if the Piri Re’is was a source.  Another map, the Ibn Ben Zara Map, has a remarkably accurate depiction of the Aegean.  But it also includes several islands no longer visible.  How to explain this paradox?  How could the map be so accurate in some respects and so false in others?  We can say the map is a hoax or is filled with errors.  But another possibility is that a source map of great antiquity was constructed when these islands stood above sea-level.

^I do not mean to suggest that the Bible is merely historical.  It certainly has metaphysical, “mythological,” symbolic, and theological meaning beyond history.  But I don’t see these categories as exclusive.  What is real is not opposed to what is mystical, symbolic, or spiritual.




2 comments on “Truisms that are (at least mostly) Not True

  1. cadxx says:

    Hi Dave
    I liked your page on Hapgood, it’s been a while since I read it. It took me back to pre-2,000 days when all this good stuff was written. We moved house some six months ago and Hapgood and many others are still in boxes – I must sort them out.
    It was around the year 2,000 that the sceptics took-over. It was a silent invasion followed by much symbolic ‘book burning’ and the destruction of countless useful Wiki pages we will never see again. I doubt that many even realised it had happened – the sheep just followed the new shepard to the slaughter without a whimper. ‘After all, scepticism is science and science makes us feel smart.’ Wee eel no, scepticism is not science as every sceptic has his/her own list of thing they are sceptical about – it’s more an emotional thing.
    I’m afraid I’m not sceptical in any way, if something is too strange I leave it on a back-burner awaiting more evidence. What I don’t do is apologise to the sceptics (as most appear to do these days) for enjoying the things I enjoy.

    • Dave Mathwin says:

      Greetings, and thanks so much for your comments. If you do pull Hapgood out of the boxes and can make sense of the technical details, do let me know!

      I agree with you that one unfortunate trait of some skeptics is that they view ideas that are fun and bizarre as almost inherently suspicious, as if we can reduce everything to hard points of observable data. Wonder and mystery should be part of all academic disciplines, which includes history and of course science as well. There are so many things we may never understand.

      Just to be clear, my friend that disagreed with me about Hapgood is not like this. He routinely blows the minds of his physics students with all kids of weird things, and delights in doing so. His “skepticism” in this case is actually an attack against skepticism in relation to the ancients we know about. So we have much more in common than divides us.

      Many thanks again for reading, and for your thoughts.



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