Why the Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse proves the need to learn about decoloniality
The recommendation system on Netflix suggested a new documentary series to me and since I love documentaries I almost immediately clicked on playing ‘Ancient Apocalypse’, without having read any context about the series. As usual, I watch something and then at some point start researching it, out of curiosity about what other people think of it. To my surprise, the articles popping up on Google news were titled ‘Archaeologists reveal the white supremacist nonsense behind Netflix’s ‘Ancient Apocalypse’ (Jennifer Sandlin for Boing Boing) , ‘The Ancient Absurdities of Ancient Apocalypse’(Rebecca Onion for Slate), and — the most shocking headline — ‘Ancient Apocalypse is the most dangerous show on Netflix’ (Stuart Heritage for The Guardian).
So far, having watched three episodes, I thought the program was quite interesting. The series is hosted by the investigative journalist — as he calls himself — Graham Hancock, who visits archeological sites all over the world to find commonalities and to piece together the clues that prove the existence of a lost civilization that — according to him — archeological research so far hasn’t found proof of. Hancock who ‘has been on a mission for decades to disrupt ‘big archaeology, as Boing Boing writes, believes that archeologists have a lot of power over what we know about our history and according to him, they use that power to suppress his findings about the existence of an advanced culture. His aim is to challenge the traditional view of human history. He repeatedly mentions in the series how he is ‘enemy number one’ to archeologists and he calls the attitude of mainstream academia ‘extremely defensive, arrogant, and patronizing’ and ‘stopping us from considering another possibility to history’.
At this point, I wasn’t put off by his attitude yet, I actually found it refreshing to see someone putting some critical question marks on a profession like archeology that is also rooted in a Western idea of what science is.
I’ll get to that later, don’t stop reading.
Who is Graham Hancock?
To understand the criticism of archeologists and science journalists, you need to know a bit more about the career of Graham Hancock. Hancock apparently had an ayahuasca experience which was revelatory to him. A TED Talk about that experience (‘The war on consciousness’) got banned from circulation. The TED staff struggled with Hancock’s talk:
“Hancock is a compelling speaker, and some of the questions he raises are absolutely worth raising. For example, most thoughtful scientists and philosophers of science will agree it’s true that science has not moved very far yet in solving the riddle of consciousness. But the specific answers to that riddle proposed by Hancock are so radical and far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking that we think it’s right for us to give these talks a clear health warning and to ask further questions of the speakers.”
Rebecca Onion talks to archeologist John Hoopes who says about Hancock:
“Hancock is coming from a metaphysical place, inspired by Western esoterica. For him, the significance of a lot fo this information is sort of intuitive and is confirmed to him through his personal revelatory experiences. It’s coming from a subjective place, opposite to what science strives to do. He is coming from a position of New Age spirituality, a very real thing in American society”.
“If you research Graham Hancock and look at his books over time, as I have, one of the things that you discover about him is that he self-edits. He doesn’t use the word Atlantis now except very sparingly. He has also edited himself since 1995, when, in Fingerprints of the Gods, he came out and said that it was an ancient white civilization. He no longer says the ‘white’ part in the series. If you pay careful attention, he does talk about ‘heavily bearded Quetzalcoatl’ who arrives, according to myth, to give the gift of knowledge, but he doesn’t mention the other part of that trope, which all of us know about, which is that this visitor supposedly had white skin.
It’s similar to the way that Donald Trump operates. He will get to the edge of something, but he won’t say it, because he knows that his followers already know it. He can say, ‘I didn’t say that,’ and he didn’t say it, but everyone knew what he said because it was already known, right?”
New age and conspirituality
At this point, I start to understand the critical reviews about Ancient Apocalypse and I also start to recognize similarities in Hancock’s approach to what I learned about conspirituality, a term coined in 2011 by Charlotte Ward and David Voas in a paper published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion. Ward defined it as ‘a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews’. Eva Wiseman wrote for The Guardian about how this movement got more popular during the pandemic:
“While the overlap of left-wing, magazine-friendly wellness and far-right conspiracy theories might initially sound surprising, the similarities in cultures, in ways of thinking — the questioning of authority, of alternative medicines, the distrust of institutions– are clear.”
Graham Hancock’s attack on the archeology profession fits in this context. And it is also exactly the critique archeologists have about the presenter as science editor Robin McKie writer for The Guardian in ‘Lost city of Atlantis rises again to fuel a dangerous myth’:
“Archeologists have denounced Ancient Apocalypse on the grounds that it provides little evidence to support its grandiose claims and for promoting conspiracy theories dressed up as science”.
Even though Hancock calls them defensive, arrogant, and patronizing, archeologist Flint Dibbel says:
“We don’t hate Hancock, we simply strongly believe he is wrong”.
In a long Twitter thread, Dibbel sets out the archeology viewpoint regarding the Netflix series. He links previous threads about the racist myth that Africa has an unimportant place in human history, and how pseudoarchaeology (what Hancock is doing according to archeologists) and fake history causes real harm in our society.
The missing link is decoloniality
By this time, I start to get exhausted from reading all the information because Dibbel’s threads also receive critical feedback, and even though I think his points are important, I also realize this way of discussing doesn’t necessarily bring us any further. I’m even more put off by how journalist Stuart Heritage (‘The most dangerous show on Netflix’) assumes that everyone watching ‘Ancient Apolcalypse’ is a conspiracy theorist. It is the typical derogatory way of writing that I see more often in reporting about topics that lean towards conspirituality.
There is space between conspiracy theorists and conspirituality adepts, and supporters of mainstream Western science that has not yet been focused on by (mainstream) journalists. And that space is called decoloniality. The similarity between what conspiracy theorists believe and decoloniality brings forward is the questioning of Western science as the default method for explaining our world. But where conspiracy theorists think that an elite group of people uses its power to cover up important truths for us, decoloniality simply points out how the system we live in has a foundation in colonialism and still produces power structures that keep inequality in place and silence important voices like the ones of indigenous people.
I hope you are still with me here.
The indigenous viewpoint is especially important in this context because ‘Ancient Apocalypse’ is all about interpreting mythical, astrological, and spiritual clues that are much more common in indigenous cultures. The funny thing is, I haven’t seen any indigenous scholars in the series so far. Instead of reaching out to institutions that focus on unraveling indigenous history with indigenous people who are alive now, Hancock rather emphasizes the mysteries we don’t know enough yet about and randomly interprets myths and stories related to the history of the sites, backed with spectacular sound effects. As Dibbel is saying in the article in The Guardian mentioned before:
“They strip indigenous people of their rich heritage and instead give credit to aliens or white people.”
In decoloniality, we know that our very picture of what science is was shaped by the Western European history and the biases of that culture. In ‘Relearning the star stories of indigenous peoples’ (Science Friday), Christie Taylor interviews members of First Nation groups in Canada who share the importance of observing the stars in indigenous culture and an expansive view of what science can be. Indigenous astronomer Annette Lee says:
“As much as there’s this idea that science is all rational, science is immune from culture, that’s simply not true. Science itself is not actually separate from culture. It came from a specific culture, and that’s Western European. Science is something anyone can do, and everyone has done. The process on paper is simple: closely observe the world, test what you learn, and transmit it to future generations. That Indigenous cultures have done so without test tubes doesn’t make them unscientific, just different.”
New Age adepts like Hancock speculate about an apocalypse that might have happened but that we don’t have enough evidence about yet. Some indigenous writers say they have already survived an apocalypse, namely colonialism.
Indigenous stories of the stars and other knowledge from their collective memory have been erased by colonialism and links to the culture have been weakened until this day. The fact that indigenous people believe that all people are connected to the universe and the stars, and that the stars are more than just balls of gas, is something rational journalists don’t give much attention to yet. This sense of connectedness is a unique part of Indigenous science. In Western science, knowledge is often considered separate from the people who discover it, while Indigenous cultures see knowledge as intricately connected to people, as Taylor writes in her article.
It would be good if journalists also start to question Western science from the perspective of decoloniality. Not to undermine science but to expand the idea of what science is. And acknowledge the fact that our Western view of looking at the world really is just one view of many. It’s not about bashing mainstream science as Hancock does, it is looking for a connection between Western knowledge and indigenous wisdom. As long as we don’t increase our reporting on that, the space will be inhabited by conspiracy theorists. Besides that, the derogatory way in which some journalists — like Heritage — report on these topics fuels polarization in our society.
Why does Netflix broadcast this?
Last but not least, why would Netflix support someone like Hancock to produce this series? Critics have already pointed out that the platform’s senior manager of unscripted originals happens to be Hancock’s son. But I think we also need to realize that Netflix is a for-profit company, based on the foundation of Western capitalism. Netflix’s aim is to make money, not to change the world, which means ratings are valued over everything else. Funny enough, I know conspirituality followers who boycott Netflix because it supposedly promotes elite-of-the-world ideas. Again, this back and forth of arguments won’t help us further. Sensation means money, that’s how mainstream media works. Looking at the careful way in which TED responded to Hancock’s TED Talk, I can only hope Netflix adds some context to the series, or even better, gets indigenous people on board to tell their version of science and educate us all on decoloniality.
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