The writer who found supermen in Antarctica

... and made a fortune. Andy Beckett meets a best-selling author who lives for adventure
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GRAHAM HANCOCK thinks the pyramids were built by an ancient race of supermen who lived on a lost continent in the Atlantic.

Around 10,500BC, this continent slid south in a geological catastrophe, until it iced over at the South Pole and became Antarctica.

Some of the supermen fled, taking their technological sophistication to Egypt and South America. There they built the massive monoliths we know today, incorporating a warning that a similar catastrophe - this time on a world scale - will strike again. In 17 years.

Hancock's thoughts are collected in a thick book with gold lettering on the cover which has been in the hardback Top 10 since its publication in April.

Fingerprints of the Gods has sold 60,000 copies at pounds 16.99 each and has received surprising reviews from the Times ("inspiring") and the Literary Review ("one of the intellectual landmarks of this decade").

Last week the Daily Mail serialized off-cuts from Hancock's equally fast-selling previous book, The Sign and The Seal, which claims to trace the Ark of the Covenant to a small church in Ethiopia.

Hancock, who is 44 and has been described as "Sir Kenneth Clarke on magic mushrooms", seems fairly sensible in person, at first.

"All I'm doing is putting forward another theory about the pyramids," he says, sweating in his black jeans in his agent's office above Covent Garden.

"I'm not saying I'm Galileo or Copernicus - I'm just a reporter. People working all around the world are finding problems [about the pyramids] which are not explained by the conventional theory ... The reason that the book has worked is because it has put between two covers all the latest breakthroughs."

Fingerprints of the Gods contains a bibliography of 150 titles, a detailed critique of orthodox Egyptology ("lemming behaviour"), and some shrewdly-included adventure yarns about Hancock's research trips.

"It's very easy in this line of work to be mistaken for a complete crank," says Hancock carefully. Mentioning "apparent structures on Mars", he adds quickly: "I'm 99 per cent sure they are wind-produced."

But then, just as the book does, he warms up. "There is something rather sensational about this book," he says. He starts to stare: "This book represents the most coherent case in more than 100 years for the existence of a lost civilization. There was an older past which isn't being represented at all, and is highly relevant to understanding who we are and why we're so mixed up and confused about who we are."

Hancock is off now, gesticulating, voice rising, refusing to rule out the existence of UFOs in passing, then warning: "The whole picture of our past may be wrong ... It doesn't worry me in the least if people want to call me a crank. My position is one of open-mindedness ... I think I'm the luckiest man in the world."

Before he became the luckiest man in the world, Hancock used to write for the Economist. In the Seventies he had an apparently conventional career as a journalist and development worker in East Africa, writing articles on local politics for the magazine and helping out in famine- prone parts of Somalia. He became editor of the development journal New Internationalist in the early Eighties.

Then, in an abrupt switch, he started working for the Somali dictator Siad Barre. "A strong leadership was the only way that peace and stability could be guaranteed," he says.

He set up a company to publish government-approved coffee table books about Somalia as a multi-racial paradise. "I was on very friendly personal terms with Siad Barre."

Editors back in England were less impressed: a favourable profile of the dictator for the Independent became controversial when it was discovered that, in Hancock's words, "various aspects of my trip [to Somalia] were facilitated by the regime."

Hancock admits that he "definitely made a mistake" by establishing these links, and others to Mengistu, the Ethiopian dictator. But they gave him the ability to switch from journalism to books. He could travel the region with official contacts and impunity.

He wrote a book about the 1984 Ethiopian famine, and then a fierce attack on the UN's aid agencies, Lords Of Poverty. The official aid process, he said, was "primarily a mechanism for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries."

In 1989, Hancock stopped working for his particular rich dictator to concentrate on investigating a story he had heard about the Ark of the Convenant.

Taking inspiration from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hancock bribed and scrambled after his quarry, found its resting place, and wrote The Sign And The Seal. That he never saw the Ark - he claims Ethiopian guards blocked his way - did not dent sales when the book came out in 1992: readers only found this out on page 512.

Hancock's work has yet to thrill the Egyptologists, however. "Another one of those," sighs Vivian Davies, Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum, who refuses to comment further. He hasn't read the book, or heard of Hancock, and nor have any of his fellow "lemmings".

Hancock, who is entirely self-taught, sees this as intellectual persecution: "I am reminded by the academic reaction to these ideas of the atmosphere of the Spanish Inquisition, which is that certain ideas must not be contemplated."

Yet Hancock seems to be doing well enough out of them, riding the wave that started with Erich Van Daniken's Chariots Of The Gods in the Sixties and which now carries dozens of bestsellers about UFO abductions, Atlantis and every other earthly mystery. "There's a curious mood in the air at the moment, shared by large numbers of people, that the old picture isn't satisfactory," he says.

Dr Geoffrey Scobie, a social psychologist at Glasgow University, is sceptical: "We've moved away from the logical, the scientific. We are looking for explanations that satisfy us emotionally."

But how strongly held are Hancock's ideas really? Is he going to head to Antarctica to find his supermen? "It's absolutely not practical," he says, losing his fervour suddenly. And what about the end of the world coming in 2012? "I'm not saying the end of the world is nigh ... I'm saying there is an enormous body of tradition and knowledge which says that it may be ...''