In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
When I was eleven, we lived in an English Tudor on Bluff Road in Glencoe, Illinois. One day, three strange men (two young, one old) knocked on the door. Their last name was Frank. They said they’d lived in this house before us, not for weeks but decades. For twenty years, this had been their house. They’d grown up here. Though I knew the house was old, it never occurred to me until then that someone else had lived in these rooms, that even my own room was not entirely my own. The youngest of the men, whose room would become mine, showed me the place on a brick wall hidden by ivy where he’d carved his name. “Bobby Frank, 1972.” It had been there all along. And I never even knew it.
That is the condition of the human race: we have woken to life with no idea how we got here, where that is or what happened before. Nor do we think much about it. Not because we are incurious, but because we do not know how much we don’t know.
What is a conspiracy?
It’s a truth that’s been kept from us. It can be a secret but it can also be the answer to a question we’ve not yet asked.
Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, but life has existed on this planet for 3.5 billion. That leaves 3,495,888,000 pre-human years unaccounted for—more than enough time for the rise and fall of not one but several pre-human industrial civilizations. Same screen, different show. Same field, different team. An alien race with alien technology, alien vehicles, alien folklore, and alien fears, beneath the familiar sky. There’d be no evidence of such bygone civilizations, built objects and industry lasting no more than a few hundred thousand years. After a few million, with plate tectonics at work, what is on the surface, including the earth itself, will be at the bottom of the sea and the bottom will have become the mountain peaks. The oldest place on the earth’s surface—a stretch of Israel’s Negev Desert—is just over a million years old, nothing on a geological clock.
The result of this is one of my favorite conspiracy theories, though it’s not a conspiracy in the conventional sense, a conspiracy usually being a secret kept by a nefarious elite. In this case, the secret, which belongs to the earth itself, has been kept from all of humanity, which believes it has done the only real thinking and the only real building on this planet, as it once believed the earth was at the center of the universe.
Called the Silurian Hypothesis, the theory was written in 2018 by Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute, and Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. Schmidt had been studying distant planets for hints of climate change, “hyperthermals,” the sort of quick temperature rises that might indicate the moment a civilization industrialized. It would suggest the presence of a species advanced enough to turn on the lights. Such a jump, perhaps resulting from a release of carbon, might be the only evidence that any race, including our own, will leave behind. Not the pyramids, not the skyscrapers, not Styrofoam, not Shakespeare—in the end, we will be known only by a change in the rock that marked the start of the Anthropocene.
It was logical for Schmidt and Frank to turn their attention from the upper to the under, from the cosmos to our own earth. Why look for alien life there when we might find it here, removed not by miles but years. There was indeed a mysterious jump in surface heat; 55 million years ago, global temperatures rose from 9 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Called the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, it left the same sort of geological evidence that will be left by our current carbon binge. There may have been other jumps, but we wouldn’t know it, as the geologic record only goes back so far. (We live in a compactor, where all things are crushed, recycled, and returned as new.) A meteor could’ve caused the Thermal Maximum, or it could’ve been the eruption of a monster volcano, the sort that presently smolders beneath the Atlantic. Or it could have been caused by the awakening of an ancient civilization, which rose like we rose, then fell as we will. That could be the fate of all advanced species, a rise and fall that flows as naturally as the change of seasons. Such a universe is ironic, continually creating characters whose technology brings on the very end they’re trying to avoid.
When Schmidt and Frank searched, they found a single forerunner to their idea of deep time. It came not from science, but from science fiction. At this level of conjecture, there’s little difference. It was an episode of Dr. Who, in which the time traveler visits an ancient species of advanced, long-extinct lizard people who’d achieved technological mastery 450 million years before modern man. The lizards were called Silurians, hence the Silurian Hypotheses.
It’s not really a new idea. Ancient mystical texts hint at earlier creation, the life that preceded the Garden, prequels to Genesis. These incarnations are not reported in the Bible because they are none of your goddamn business, but the evidence is everywhere. Some students of conspiracy believe there was a time when lizard people shared the earth with modern men, the older race dying as the younger emerged from the forest. The last of the lizards were worshipped as gods; these were the deities of ancient India and Greece. The technology—weapons and machines—created miracles. You can see the lizard kings in carvings from Mesopotamia, the oldest historical records, where humans bow before reptile men. You find them again in the Torah, where they appear as Nephilim, the so-called watchers—“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days and also afterward when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them,” according to Genesis, “they were the heroes of old, men of renown”—which no priest, minister, or rabbi can properly explain. Just ask a clergyman and see for yourself. (I asked my rabbi.) There is some weird shit in the Bible.
According to a kabbalah-besotted friend, this world is God’s seventh creation, which explains dinosaur bones and other fossils. “The evidence is everywhere,” he told me one night. “They can say a meteor wiped out the past, but what is a meteor? God.” Some believe there are still Silurians walking the earth, holdovers who share their technology with a hidden elite—possibly Freemasons, possibly Jews. Some pseudoscientists speak of an atomic blast that took place in India 10,000 years ago. It might’ve been a natural phenomenon, or might’ve been the war that wiped out the Silurians or drove them off the earth. A website called Vedic Knowledge reported evidence “of an atomic blast dating back thousands of years. It destroyed most of the buildings and probably a half-million people in Rajasthan, India. One researcher estimates that the bomb used was about the size of the ones dropped on Japan in 1945.”
This ancient catastrophe, which some take as evidence of an ancient nuclear war, shows up in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic, with the appearance of “a single projectile charged with all the power in the Universe … An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as 10,000 suns, rose in all its splendor … it was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death which reduced to ashes an entire race.”
It’s heartbreaking—the fact that, as we face the nightmare of climate change, some of us have read our own perilous present back into the geological past and have come to see even our apocalypse as unremarkable, something that’s been experienced before and was inevitable from the start. It’s thrilling, too, the idea of a pre-human industrial civilization. It means we don’t know anything: who we are, or where, or even the history of our own home.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.