I became interested in the subject of “lost knowledge” due to several experiences in my life. First, there was my stumbling across cataclysmic theories of history — really, conjectures rather than theories — when I heard of Immanuel Velikovsky in my early teens. Even then, such ideas struck me as science fiction, because the conjectures were quite elaborate while the evidence quite thin. At the same time, I respected the fact that there were people out there who were not necessarily academics, or who were experts in fields other than history, but who nonetheless wrestled with the question of the fate of civilizations and human knowledge.
Many years later, in graduate school, I came across similar ideas of lost, advanced ancient knowledge as I carried out research for my Ph.D. thesis in the history of cartography. In the course of my research, I came across several conjectures about such knowledge: first, there was Charles Hapgood’s belief in an ancient mapping of Antarctica, outlined in his 1966 book, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. Hapgood was no fool: he had studied history, and he had taught college courses in that field and other subjects. His interest in maps was quite genuine, but his speculations, I found, wandered too far afield from the actual evidence. Similarly, I stumbled upon the researchers collectively known as the “Escuela Argentina de Protocartografía”: Paul Gallez, Enrique de Gandía, and Dick Edgar Ibarra Grasso. These writers argued that South America was mapped in its entirety long before the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Enrique de Gandía was a highly respected historian, and his 1942 book entitled Primitivos Navegantes Vascos was the first to articulate the idea that the peninsula of Asia found in Ptolemy’s ancient maps actually was a very early cartographic rendering of South America. Gallez, in turn, was kind enough to carry on an extensive correspondence with me in the early 1990s about these ideas, and I found them intriguing — but as he himself noted, they were conjectural.1 In the end, the evidence for an idea so outside the well-established understanding of Ptolemy’s maps did not strike me as sufficient to change any paradigms.
Later, after the start of my academic career, I came upon other works which spoke of advanced feats in a much more remote past, such as the arguments by René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz for different interpretations of ancient history. Schwaller de Lubicz, although possessing some scientific training, spent much of his time studying the occult, which led to an interest in the temples of Egypt. He spent over a decade in that country, and was the founder of alternative ideas about its early history and culture. Schwaller de Lubicz’s interpretations, expressed in his 1958 book, Le Roi de la Théocratie Pharaonique, influenced more recent writers such as John Anthony West. West argued — without strong evidence — that the Sphinx is many thousands of years older than the date claimed by traditional archaeology. Then there were the works of Graham Hancock, which made related arguments, but on a much broader scale. His 1995 book, Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization, speculated that early cultures such as those of ancient Egypt and Central America descended from a highly advanced civilization that had existed thousands of years before them.
My impression was then — and continues to be now — that such interpretations are fantasy, although at the same time having the capacity to compel readers to think about history in ways that transcend academic conventions. More particularly, over many years of examining these ideas, I came to understand several key points: First of all, looking at alternative models of history is important, since our current model is just that — a model. In addition, the pitfall of most of these modern writers on “alternative history”, such as Hapgood and Hancock, was that they drew too many conclusions from too little evidence. Finally — at the same time, in fact — there was a great deal of interesting evidence floating around that was being ignored, misrepresented, or not thoroughly analyzed in academic works. I realized that a different approach was needed. The debates go around and around because the same evidence, such as the famous Sphinx, can be examined and interpreted in so many different ways.
This book works with a different kind of evidence — early texts — to see how writers from Plato to Chaucer wrestled with the nature of technology and technological knowledge that might have been found then lost across the vast span of human existence. Instead of going back and forth on the same piece of evidence — that peculiar Sphinx — this book presents interesting evidence in an organized, systematic way, something that many of the speculative writers, and even some academic historians, fail to do. This book, indeed, is more about assembling evidence and providing some analysis than making any kind of far-reaching claims.
Another vitally important factor that shaped the initial conception of this book was a particular realization concerning the nature of knowledge transmission. Having grown up in the contemporary West, my model of knowledge transmission was always a formal one — I, like millions of others in the modern world, had gained much of my knowledge through schooling, didactic instruction, textbooks, and so on. Even in my youth, however, I began to realize that a great deal of knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation through other, non-formal means — apprenticeships, tutors, or just simple observation and participation.2 As a teenager I had learned, for example, to fix bicycles by working at a shop, not through the study of any book on the subject. When I went as an undergraduate to Sri Lanka as part of a project, I was exposed for the first time to whole sectors of a society that were not “literate” in the modern sense of the word — but that managed to have perfectly well-organized lives, with ample knowledge of the environment around them. They had gained that knowledge informally — through experience and active learning — but also quite soundly.
Many years later, in Ghana, I was exposed to the same phenomenon, and put together a clearer picture of how in these societies knowledge about everything from agriculture to astronomy was transmitted over the centuries without any of the modern “apparatus” to do so. Not long after graduate school, I heard the writer William Irwin Thompson speak about the same topic, and became intrigued by his suggestion that non-literate peoples use the vehicles of myth and folktale to preserve and transmit their culture’s essential knowledge about the natural world and how to survive in it.
Finally, all this was brought home by a very personal experience: having a child. Again, being a product of modern, North American culture, even before our child was born, my wife and I were inundated with gifts of “how to” books on child-rearing. So much reading to do! But as a historian I realized, of course, that for millennia there had been no such books, and yet men and women across many cultures had managed to raise children successfully. It became clear to me that the ancient methods of knowledge transmission must have been rather sophisticated, because the amount of knowledge just to have a child and raise that child is quite significant. Yet for all of human history, there were individuals and societies who had such knowledge, and well-established non-literate means of passing it on from generation to generation.
A great deal of knowledge concerning various crafts and technologies was also passed down through the centuries without a literate setting. One writer, in a work on the complex geometrical designs in early Islamic architecture, states:
[I]t seems that Western critics have seriously underestimated the ability of native craftsmen to retain large amounts of empirical knowledge on pattern designs and construction in the absence of any understanding of the theoretical background which a professional mathematician might bring to bear on these problems.3
This concept of a much more traditional, “organic” mode of knowledge transmission is important to the historian because it means that one must look at myths and other kinds of stories and narratives in a new way, since those were the bearers of knowledge for far longer than our present methods of formal pedagogy, textbooks, and instruction manuals.
Finally, what is really needed is a look at the question of “lost knowledge” from a broader perspective — what is it that we are really talking about here? Are we talking about the possibility of a completely new model of history? Perhaps one approach is to think about how human knowledge really works over the vast reaches of time. What one finds is that it can be a rather complex matter: knowledge — even rather sophisticated technological knowledge — often was discovered, then lost, and then re-discovered.
But at the same time, there was technological knowledge that was not really “discovered” at all, but — rather oddly — speculated upon by all kinds of early cultures, from the ancient Greeks to the remote Ainu people. Delving into this history means becoming immersed in the histories, literature, and folklore of these cultures. The result is this book: a journey into “lost knowledge” as it manifests itself over the vast reaches of time, the millennia that saw human beings both build technologically sophisticated societies and ponder their rise and fall.
See the discussion in William A.R. Richardson, “South America on Maps before Columbus? Martellus’s ‘Dragon’s Tail’ Peninsula”, Imago Mundi 55 (2003): 25–37.
A seminal work on this subject is David Turnbull, Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2003). For recent specialized research on this subject see, for example, Jamshid J. Tehrani and Felix Riede, “Toward an Archaeology of Pedagogy: Learning, Teaching and the Generation of Material Culture Traditions”, World Archaeology 40.3 (2008): 316–331.
See p. 182 of A.J. Lee, “Islamic Star Patterns”, Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture 4 (1987): 182–197; also note John Noble Wilford, “In Medieval Architecture, Signs of Advanced Math”, The New York Times (27 February 2007), F2, comprising a brief summary of Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, “Decagonal and Quasi-Crystalline Tilings in Medieval Islamic Architecture”, Science 315.5815 (23 February 2007): 1106–1110.