British journalist Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse has become a surprise cultural phenomenon since its November 11 release on Netflix. The archaeology-themed series garnered an impressive 24.62 million hours of viewing in its first week of release, landing in the streaming service’s top 10 in 31 countries. It has also sparked unparalleled outrage from archaeologists and journalists, resulting in dozens of think pieces decrying the show’s many false claims and illogical arguments, analyzing its racist implications, and declaring the series everything from “fishy” to the “most dangerous” show on Netflix. “Why has this been allowed?” asked Britain’s The Guardian. The answer to that seemed pretty obvious: Hancock’s son, Sean Hancock, is Netflix’s senior manager for unscripted originals.
Hancock’s show speculates that a crashing comet destroyed Atlantis, or a similar lost civilization, 13,000 years ago in a series of events remembered as the Great Flood. Ancient monuments and wisdom are therefore the legacy of Atlantis’s survivors, not Earth’s diverse peoples and cultures. Explaining all the reasons Hancock is wrong would take a whole book. Fortunately, I’ve written two. Reader, he is wrong.
Ah, but that’s almost beside the point. As hard as it may be to believe, this is much more about contemporary politics than prehistory: Hancock’s show, and the attendant sparring its sudden popularity has spawned, has leapt from its weird pop-paranormal lane into the seething culture wars fomented by an American right wing that’s marching steadfastly into a new zone of high weirdness.
Allow me to explain. Despite his newfound cultural cachet, Hancock’s ideas have been kicking around for a long while—he’s been offering variations on his chosen themes for 30 years. His breakthrough book, 1995’s Fingerprints of the Gods, was a lightly updated version of Ignatius Donnelly’s 1882 crackpot classic Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Hancock’s Netflix series adapts his book Magicians of the Gods, which St. Martin’s published back in 2015. Medieval and ancient writers thousands of years ago offered ideas similar to the ones that Hancock has based his career on. People have sought evidence for these claims since at least the first millennium BCE. A Netflix reality show was never going to do what thousands of years of searching failed to achieve.
The Atlantis myth, in its many forms, has long been associated with racism. Many writers on the subject—including Hancock back in the 1990s—spoke of the “white” skin of the Atlanteans, who were a kind of master race tutoring benighted brown people in the divine art of piling rocks. The Nazis made use of lost civilization fantasies to support their hunt for a vanished Aryan homeland. Andrew Jackson even used a lost prehistoric civilization claim to justify the Indian Removal Act, which ended in the Trail of Tears. But in recent years, Hancock replaced his white Atlanteans with Indigenous ones and has been a vocal proponent of Native rights. That’s not to say Hancock doesn’t have some nasty classist and colonialist ideas. “Think about it: Could those farmers, who archaeologists tell us never built anything bigger than a shack, really have achieved all this?” he asks at a Maltese temple. Elsewhere, he complains hunter-gatherers lacked “ambition”—the “takers” of the Atlantean world.
However, there is a more pressing issue: Ancient Apocalypse sits alongside Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and the so-called “intellectual dark web” in casting doubt on expertise, privileging emotion over evidence, and bending history to ideological ends—in this case, making common cause with the right against academia, science, and the very idea of shared reality. That it did so on one of the biggest media platforms in the world should give us all pause.
“History” isn’t just about what happened in the past. It’s also about whose stories get told and how we think about them. In recent years, we have seen far too many battles over these priorities. Efforts to remove Confederate monuments are only the most obvious. Texas, Florida, and Virginia have all seen skirmishes revolving around Republican efforts to restrict the teaching of history, particularly when it comes to racial and sexual diversity. Conservatives railed against progressive efforts to diversify curriculums. Right-wing anger over The 1619 Project and its reframing of American history around racial injustice remains a regular Fox News talking point.
Like those conservative freak-outs, Ancient Apocalypse is an argument against professional scholarship, specialization, and expertise—and the fear that academia is promoting the wrong kind of social change. Hancock asks us to privilege one millionaire white man’s insistence that greatness comes from a single centralized, proto-Western monoculture over thousands of scholars from hundreds of cultures working to discover diverse global contributions to the human story. It’s no wonder conservatives like him.
In spite of his liberal leanings—his hot take is that Atlantis serves as a warning about environmental stewardship—Hancock is not shy about making use of the right-wing outrage machine to promote himself. He regularly retweets support from sources such as hipster-transphobe du jour Matt Walsh and The Daily Caller and labels his critics “woke.” In his frequent three-hour interviews on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Hancock gripes about how “academics” are trying to censor or cancel him for his wrong ideas. Rogan shows up in Apocalypse to praise Hancock for standing up to elitist liberal academics who refuse his call to substitute feelings for facts. “That automatically makes me enemy number one to archaeologists,” Hancock declares in Apocalypse. He derides scholars and scientists as “so-called experts.” (How much of this is for show is unclear; we exchanged friendly emails years ago, and he generously introduced me to his editor. He also attacked me by name in one of his books. Go figure.)
It’s a message that hits archaeologists and science reporters hard because it plays into the right-wing attacks on “radical” professors and “liberal indoctrination.” In language that Ron DeSantis might draw inspiration from, Hancock delivers long, angry homilies against academia specifically and expertise in general in every episode of his show. Scientists might command the facts, but Hancock can waive them with verbs like “feel” and “believe” because emotion and personal belief are their own form of evidence among the Greek chorus of amateurs and cranks the show presents as sages. It’s probably no coincidence that Jake Angeli, the so-called “QAnon Shaman” who infamously stormed the Capitol in a furry headdress, gave a shout-out to Graham Hancock in a rambling conspiracy video posted online before the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
Let’s be brutally honest: Ancient Apocalypse is not the worst show in its genre, not by a mile. It’s a weird target for a media pile-on. It doesn’t specifically provide much grist for the right-wing culture-war fixations that have gained such cachet in the past few years. The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens is actually a lot worse: It openly platforms grifters and lunatics (as well as celebrity guests like Tucker Carlson), promotes anti-government conspiracies, and pens obsequious love letters to Putin’s Russia. The same network’s Curse of Oak Island uses its Boys’ Life male-bonding veneer to promote Eurocentric historical fantasies ripped from The Da Vinci Code. History’s rivals at the Warner Bros. Discovery network sent movie star Megan Fox to investigate whether ancestral Native Americans were hybrids of humans and Bible giants, and paid comedian Rob Riggle to mouth conspiracy theories about aliens and Atlantis. The company, which also owns CNN, has a whole division dedicated solely to paranormal and speculative programming because it sees the genre as a major moneymaker.
These shows are cheap to make and nobody puts much effort into them. If you listen carefully, you can hear how closely the scripts echo the top Google results for the latest conspiracy. That’s how truly awful content sneaks through so easily. History’s Hunting Hitler falsely identified a photograph of Three Stooges comedian Moe Howard, who was Jewish, as an aging Adolf Hitler to “prove” that Hitler survived World War II. It’s why an Ancient Aliens spin-off praised Jan van Helsing, the pen name of a German author of books combining Nazi mythology and antisemitic conspiracies. It’s why multiple channels have featured self-styled “Treasure Force Commander” Jovan Pulitzer, a Big Lie supporter who worked with Republicans to invalidate votes in Georgia and Arizona with a “technology” he invented to “detect” ballot fraud. He had previously hunted the Ark of the Covenant on the History Channel and the Fountain of Youth on the Science Channel.
This barely scratches the surface of the grifting, falsification, and pandering that has made up cable TV’s “history” shows for more than a decade. Do you want a show to prove the Bible literally true? Search for the Lost Giants has you covered. Want one to prove white Europeans were really the original occupants of the Americas? America Unearthed will do the trick. Worried that Freemasons, Illuminati, Knights Templar, or Deep State Reptilians are manipulating the government? You’ve just described the bulk of the programming available on all of our “science” and “history” channels.
Ancient Apocalypse is positively quaint by comparison with the paranoid, slipshod dreck filling many cable channels. So why the outrage over Hancock? That, sadly, is a sign of our times. Apocalypse aired on Netflix, where elite journalists and academics had it pushed in their faces, with a big banner on their home screens and heavy promotion. All the other garbage airs on basic cable, that déclassé legacy medium. Who would watch that? It’s just TV; it’s not HBO.
Had the elite news media actually paid attention to the Eurocentric, paranoid, anti-intellectual fare its corporate cousins in the entertainment industry aired in the years leading up to Trump, it very well might have better seen MAGA coming. Data on cable TV viewers has repeatedly found that conspiracy cable show viewers are disproportionately white, older, rural, and conservative—and they also watch a lot of Fox News. It’s mutually reinforcing. No wonder Tucker Carlson makes UFO conspiracy shows for Fox’s streamer, and no wonder journalists didn’t notice the “danger” of Atlantis conspiracy theories until a tweedy Brit with a posh program lured them into taking it seriously.
Fantastic stories like Atlantis or ancient aliens have their place—in fiction. They serve as mirrors for ourselves and our society. Atlantis can be a powerful stand-in for the West. It was invented for Plato’s political allegory about hubris and corruption, after all. But myths aren’t science or history. The consequences of mistaking ideology for reality are so obvious that we sometimes become blind to them. No one TV show is going to corrupt the youth or overthrow the government, but dozens of them, on every channel, all pushing anti-intellectual and anti-science conspiracies, can have a powerful and damaging propaganda effect. It’s past time for networks and streamers to exercise better editorial judgment and to stop writing the Book of Genesis for Tucker Carlson’s Revelation.