The Pre-Human Avengers: Archaeology and Marvel’s Avengers of 1,000,000 BC


marvel legacyMarvel Legacy #1

Jason Aaron (Writer), Esad Ribić with Steve McNiven (Artists), Matthew Wilson (Colorist)
Additional Artists: Chris Samnee; Russell Dauterman: Alex Maleev; Ed McGuinness; Stuart Immonen & Wade Von Grawbadger; Pepe Larraz; Jim Cheung; Daniel Acuña; Greg Land & Jay Leisten; Mike Deodato Jr. David Marquez
Marvel Comics
September 27, 2017

When I saw the promotional material introducing Marvel’s Prehistoric Avengers I was super excited. While many comics hint at archaeological settings (an excavation here, a museum where an artifact will give you powers there), rarely is the prehistoric past the setting for a Big Two book. Also I love the flaming mammoth for Ghost Rider—not likely as a mode of transportation, but great regardless. Then I looked at the date they assigned for these Avengers and, well, I don’t mind hyperbole, I promise, but 1,000,000 BC is. Just. Too. Far. It is on the very edge of making sense; you say 10,000 or even 100,000 and I’m there. But at 1 million you are in the territory of “do we call what we evolved from people or are they still not quite similar enough to us for that” and I can’t suspend my disbelief. I will accept a flaming mammoth into my heart, but not one from 1 million years before Christ.  


September 2017 rolls around and the Prehistoric (more like Pre-Humanic) Avengers finally make their debut in Marvel Legacy #1 and the issue managed to introduce even more problems. Rather than be awed by the creativity of prehistory as a plot device, I was annoyed by their incorrect evolutionary timeline, aghast at their use of LiDAR when talking about a modern archaeological excavation, and appalled by the way that the story promotes outdated and racist anthropological ideas. Why does this matter? First off, as the March for Science demonstrated, science is regularly under attack, and as a science that teaches the development of humanity through evolution, archaeology even more so. Secondly, it shouldn’t just be defense contractors that get their science portrayed, let alone accurately, in comics. If Marvel is serious about promoting STEM (and archeology is a United States government recognized STEM field) that should include accurate (or at least an attempts at accurate) portrayals of all STEM fields. Lastly, this matters because the story is relying on or reinforcing outdated (and occasionally racist) ideas about humans, such as the realness of biological race.

So who’s the closest thing to human on Earth at 1 million years ago? Well that would be Homo erectus, with some variation into a few other species who might be in the same family depending on how you much genetic variation you accept within the definition of “species”. These folks are chilling (it’s an ice age) and making fire, which is pretty awesome. Mammoths exist but these are ancestors to the woolly one we see Ghost Rider riding. Bottom line, there is nothing like Homo sapiens for another 800,000 years give or take. The comic does reference some sort of human ancestor on the first few pages (Hooray!) but it’s unclear which one they are trying to depict as it doesn’t seem to draw from any specific facial reconstruction for a human ancestor.

The image on the left is from page 1 of Marvel Legacy #1. The image on the right is a facial reconstruction of a female Homo erectus. reconstruction by John Gurche; photographed by Tim Evanson

None of this information is utilized in the comic and that’s unfortunate because comics, in general, already undercut a lot about what we know about the human past (Kree involvement to make the Inhumans etc.).  Additionally, from a storytelling perspective, it is a disservice to create a thinner fictional past when a wealth of knowledge exists. A creative team that used such information about the realities of prehistory would create a richer story than throwing in some rocks and ambiguous apes. As the tales of these Avengers continue it would be a great chance for the creative team of Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness to collaborate with archaeologists to use the comic arts to illustrate a complex—albeit fictional—prehistory. A chance to do something fun, but also use what we know about the past to give the story a depth goes beyond prehistoric “cavemen” stereotypes.

Page 26 of Marvel Legacy #1, it shows the two archaeologists talking about their big find. Colors by Matthew Wilson

This chance to accurately use science also intersects with Marvel’s claim to promote STEM fields. Well, modern archaeology is presented in the comic but its inclusion unfortunately provided my favorite inaccuracy, the use of LiDAR. This was because they were, soooooooooo close, yet, still wrong. It’s the sort of error that could have been corrected or prevented by Googling or looking up what the Li stood for. In Legacy #1 two archaeologists talk about a LiDAR map showing how deep “the real find” is, eventually uncovering a 1 million year old giant robot. LiDAR is a real thing (it’s really cool) and it stands for Light Detection and Ranging (Light RADAR). It is used for making maps and it can show “depth” by measuring distances from the platform (usually an airplane) the scanner (what shoots lasers) is on using the time it takes an emitted laser to bounce off an object and return to the sensor. However, it cannot show depth underground in the way that the writing suggests. LiDAR is primarily used as an air (or land-based) sensor that models surfaces of objects (buildings or the ground surface), and can go through things like forest canopy. It cannot go through earth because it is light and does not have enough energy to do that.

This is a Lidar-derived image of Marching Bears Mound Group, Effigy Mounds National Monument made by the National Parks Service, US Geological Survey

BUT there is a technology that can penetrate earth in the way they suggest. So the spirit of the scene was correct. They would have needed to use GPR, Ground Penetrating RADAR. While GPR is probably not currently accurate enough to make the maps the archaeologists in the issue we’re discussing, it would be the correct technology to reference, since it is improving in that direction. LiDAR on the other hand, no matter how good it gets, will not be able to measure depth through the ground.

While these factual inaccuracies are problematic or demonstrate missed opportunities they are not as harmful as how these Avengers promote outdated anthropological ideas about race. The comic isn’t clear about what species the characters are, besides Odin and the apes in the first scenes, but let’s assume that they are supposed to be human, aka Homo sapien. Based on that, at 1 million BC according to Marvel, humans have ethnic separations into Asian (Agamotto and Iron Fist), Caucasian (Ghost Rider and Phoenix), African (Black Panther), and Indeterminate (Starbrand). Fine from a non-contextual and shallow “diversity” stand point. Awful for contextual reasons. 1. Because of the association of power with light skin (four of the six characters are light-skinned), which is a colorism issue such as that addressed by Ronald Wimberley with Marvel, and 2. the idea that race goes back at least 1 million years, which supports the outdated 19th century notion of biologically separate “races” that was used to promote white supremacy.  

Both of these, as mentioned earlier, are wrong regarding human evolution. The earliest evidence we have, based on DNA, for light skin as seen in Europeans and East-Asians now is roughly 8,000 years ago. Meaning that for the majority of human existence, most people were dark-skinned or on a “brown” spectrum, including Europeans. So even ignoring the fact that Homo Sapiens don’t exist, an entirely brown cast would have made more sense. It’s also problematic because it also continues to promote an association between light-skin and power in a fictional prehistoric past because four of six human Avengers (who literally have special powers) are light-skinned. We don’t need to project a structurally violent aspect of modern culture onto the past. Secondly, there isn’t evidence to support the existence of the races portrayed by the characters, especially at 1 million BC. Anthropologists understand that the impacts of the social concept of race exist but its biological component, that the races are biologically distinct with minimal gene flow, has been debunked for a long time. Unfortunately, portraying the same racial divisions we see today into the deep past does the opposite. It suggests that we’ve preserved those same divisions for a million years, so much so that they are still recognizable, which suggests a real racial division.

While other scientists probably are annoyed with the way their science is portrayed in comics, many of the technologies and scientific conclusions from biology, physics, and medicine presented in comics are things we are working towards for humanity. They are technologies of the future, going from science fiction to science fact. This is the opposite in the case of historical sciences, like archaeology. The issue’s story and inaccuracies undercut the hard work archaeologists do to uncover and understand the past. By remaking the history of Earth, and of human evolution, you are going from science fact to science fiction. We can’t increase the pace of human evolution because we want to have extra zeros to make our event look more exciting, especially if that comes at the expense of our understanding of science and of other humans. Archaeological information can help all comics craft a better story if creators do due diligence to their subject matter. We as a society know more about science than we did in the 1960s, which means that Marvel does too, so if they continue to sell themselves as STEM promoters, and especially since we’ll be seeing a lot more of these PreHumanic Avengers, they need to use that knowledge to promote the best science (fiction) they can.

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Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipino-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.