|The woo is out there|
|Aliens did it...|
|...and ran away|
|Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
“”How would it be if we discovered that aliens only stopped by earth to let their kids take a leak?
Ancient assha- *ahem* astronauts are aliens purported to have come to Earth thousands of years ago. Some claim that these aliens form the basis for the mythological gods of ancient cultures. Others suggest that we are descendants of these aliens (sexy aliens!). A few claim that they came, placed random pieces of architecture in random spots, and left, i.e. that structures made of stone such as the pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge, and the Nazca lines were made by a civilization advanced enough to achieve space travel, yet for some reason preferred to use local materials and, apparently, locally available tools such as copper chisels.
If someone presents these arguments to you, they may or may not be persuaded by sensible, rational explanations. While many are simply too firmly set in their cognitive dissonance to budge, some of them can have their minds changed pointing out the gaping holes in the argument. While one's initial instinct is to brush them off as loons, bear in mind that this nonsense has been given an air of legitimacy thanks to garbage on the History Channel masquerading as real science. Try talking about it in a non-attacking way, and being patient. If they still cannot be budged (or accuse you of being one of the "sheeple"), then your efforts are better spent elsewhere.
You might be forgiven for believing that Erich Von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? came up with the theory, but this is demonstrably untrue. The idea was around in the 1950s and much earlier still, but the rise of the Space Race and paperback publishing boosted public interest in the topic. There were a flurry of ancient astronaut themed books in the sixties and seventies, and Von Däniken was nowhere near being the first. He was, and is, however, a brilliant self-promoter and managed to secure several seventies TV shows on the topic. (He is also partly behind the infamous Ancient Aliens TV series much more recently.)
In short, the main result of the ancient astronaut trope in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been to upwardly mobilize sundry con artists, cynical authors and loonies (von Däniken, Scientology) and provide fodder for really stupid shows on the US basic cable History Channel.
Any obscure and/or exotic (at least to the average Westerner) piece of archaeology, history or mythology has been used as evidence for ancient extraterrestrial visitation at some time or other. (Impressive ancient ruins? Aliensdidit! Descriptions of gods or demons coming from the sky? Aliens!) A non-exhaustive list:
- The Giza pyramids and the Sphinx
- Pyramids in general
- Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments in general
- The Nazca lines
- The purported astronomical knowledge of the Dogon people
- Mohenjo-daro, a ruined city cited as evidence of ancient nuclear war
- The Yonaguni Monument, a submerged structure off Japan said to be artificial.
- The Bible, Hindu scriptures, Greek/Japanese/Egyptian etc mythology.
The quest for oddities has its fun moments, such as the carving of an astronaut in the decorations of the New Cathedral in Salamanca (in Spain). The Cathedral was built between the 16th and 18th centuries, but the figure itself was carved by a playful restorator in 1992.
In pop culture
The idea has also been a staple on popular science fiction shows and films since the 1960s such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, Transformers, The Quatermass Experiment, The X Files, Battlestar Galactica (especially the old series), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stargate and numerous others. These have probably helped spread the notion even further than the "non-fictional" works based around the idea.
The original Star Trek series saw the crew of the Enterprise do battle with several entities which pretended to be ancient gods. In one, an alien poses as the Greek god Apollo. This idea was followed through in other incarnations of the franchise.
The original Battlestar Galactica, based partly on Mormon concepts, included Patrick McNee's opening narration:
- There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive, somewhere beyond the heavens ...
However, the idea of ancient astronauts appeared long before all of these in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and his Cthulhu mythos. Cthulhu and the other creatures were giant malevolent space aliens who had landed on Earth millions of years ago and had an influence upon prehistoric human cultures, and had influenced their art and civilisations. Lovecraft died before von Däniken could write his name, and decades before many of his predecessors. Possibly the very first example (even prior to Lovecraft) was an unauthorized sequel to H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds called Edison's Conquest of Mars (c. 1900) where the human protagonists learn the Martians built the Pyramids and thus had previous contact with Earth long ago before their later invasion.
It's hardly ever white cultures who get science and technology from aliens
The core of the Ancient Astronauts hypothesis seems to be "these people were too primitive and stupid to have built these structures." Which, while not necessarily racist, is definitely a case of Chronological snobbery. However, the element of racism can be inferred by further observing that you rarely see an actual Egyptian or Easter Islander claiming that aliens built their monuments, it's almost always a white person claiming it.
Now, to show you that we aren't just rabble-rousers who try to make everything about race, let's look at the various ancient wonders allegedly built by aliens: outside of Europe, we have the Egyptian Pyramids, the Easter Island monuments, the Nazca Lines, Puma Punku, and many others. Inside of Europe, we have... Stonehenge. It's also not like Europe just doesn't have as many architectural wonders, just look at half the shit the Romans built, such as the aqueducts or the invention of concrete. A functional plumbing network powered by nothing more than faint-but-consistent downward sloping for miles built by a civilization that hadn't even invented the plow sounds far more implausible than just a giant pile of neatly-stacked rocks, does it not? So why is it that the pyramids have to have been built by aliens but not the aqueducts?
Ironically, this has the very-likely-unintentional side effect of making it look like the aliens just didn't like white people enough to share their technological wonders with them, for whatever reason. Wonder why that could be?
While the majority of ancient astronaut enthusiasts these days probably only gravitated towards the idea because of pre-existing enthusiasm for SF, New-Age Woo, or even just because of how cool the idea is (and to be fair to them, the construction of most European feats of architecture was simply better documented), it's worth noting that any such theorist who actually is racist will be impaled on a three-pronged Morton's fork once the above information is pointed out to them:
- Option 1: Continue on as before, thus creating the impression that white people weren't interesting enough for aliens to interact with.
- Option 2: Start attributing more European structures to aliens, thus taking their own ancestors' architectural achievements away from them.
- Option 3: Cut the bullhockey with the aliens altogether and acknowledge that ancient brown people were intelligent enough to build the wonders they did.
All that being said, we have to agree that the ancients would be pretty stupid if extraterrestrials gave them antigravity technology and all they used it for was to stack rocks.
The origins of these theories stems from prior 19th century ones by white people who, on discovering very sophisticated ancient structures in the Americas and Africa which predated European contact, claimed they "must" have been created by lost white tribes, not (to them obviously) inferior black Africans and Native Americans. It was considered a credible idea for many decades before being debunked (some holdout racist regimes such as in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) not only claimed this into the 20th century, their view was mandated for archeologists who wanted to study the ancient ruins. These old racist ideas were then "recycled" into having aliens instead of lost white people doing it later (though often the racism remains thinly veiled, e.g. if the aliens are "Nordic" types).
A brief history of ancient astronaut theory
Lost civilisations were a theme of archaeology and literature throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Bestsellers such as Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), a novel centred on the notion of a lost Hebrew colony in southern Africa, and Ignatius L. Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1885) introduced the wider world to the possibility of catastrophism and sunken continents. Helena Blavatsky's work also contained references to ascended spiritual masters, root races, sunken continents and so on. Occasionally spiritualists and mediums of the time would also claim to receive communications from other planets, a theme which continues to this day.
While those are only tangentially related to ancient astronaut theory, Charles Fort's Book of the Damned (1919) is one of the earliest specific mentions of the idea. The book features the Fort's characteristic tongue in cheek (and often satirical) style, so it is unclear whether he himself was a believer in the idea or just "putting it out there". Fort's concept of ancient astronauts is a bit different from von Däniken— he wonders why extraterrestrials would bother to stop here, and if they did, he suspects they would show little interest in us humans. Fort talks of:
- "other worlds and vast structures that pass us by, within a few miles, without the slightest desire to communicate, quite as tramp vessels pass many islands without particularizing one from another[...] How would an Eskimo explain a vessel, sending ashore for coal, which is plentiful upon some Arctic beaches, though of unknown use to the natives, then sailing away, with no interest in the natives?
- "...I accept that, though we're usually avoided, probably for moral reasons, sometimes this earth has been visited by explorers"
The interwar years in the USA saw the rise of pulp magazines and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. H.P. Lovecraft's works of "cosmic horror" stood in sharp contrast to many writers of the period, but he did gain a following, and unlike many writers he was happy for others to use his settings, characters and scenarios in their work. Thus the ancient astronaut idea was being spread in a very low key fashion, although Lovecraft's despairing tone and near-nihilism stood in stark contrast to the wide-eyed optimism of many SF writers of the period.
After the war, the west saw the emergence of early UFOlogy, and the replacement of Christianity with more New Age or Asian spirituality. In the 1950s, several prominent "contactees" claimed they had encountered benign extraterrestrials who had given them information about Earth's past and spiritual evolution. The supposed entities sometimes had names from ancient mythology, and in a strange parallel, the American space program would also name many of its early projects after ancient gods such as Apollo and Thor.
The heyday of the ancient astronaut theory was really the sixties and seventies, although some notable works did appear in the fifties. Among these was Morris K. Jessup's UFOs and the Bible (1956) - Jessup was interested in astronomy and UFOlogy, and had taken part in archaeological digs in Latin America between the wars.
However, the fifties and sixties were more dominated by European works. The Italian Peter Kolosimo wrote several books as early as 1957, but his Timeless Earth (1964) became an international best seller and was translated into several languages. French-language authors included Henri Lhote who proposed prehistoric Saharan rock art depicted close encounters, Bergier and Pauwels' Morning of the Magicians (1960), Robert Charroux's One Hundred Thousand Years of Man's Unknown History (1963) and Misraki's Flying Saucers Through The Ages. A few British authors also published before Von Däniken, such as Brinsley Le Poer Trench, John Michell and W. Raymond Drake who wrote Gods or Spacemen? in 1964.
Although Von Däniken claims he was formulating his ancient astronaut theory throughout his school days, it is clear that many others had already published their books on the subject, long before he came on the scene with Chariots of the Gods? in 1968. As a Swiss German, Von Däniken spoke fluent French from an early age, and as someone who worked in the hotel industry he also knew considerable English. In fact, Robert Charroux took legal action, and Von Däniken was forced to cite his work in later editions of "Chariots". This runs counter to the claims of the Ancient Aliens' series that ancient astronaut theory is largely VD's creation. However, while Kolosimo's bestsellers had already popularised the idea, Von Däniken took it right into the mainstream — he was, and is, a brilliant publicist, and never camera shy. Long before the Ancient Aliens series, he secured several feature films about his work, including an adaptation of Chariots of the Gods? a couple of years after the book, an American TV special In Search of Ancient Astronauts in 1973 hosted by Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock), and Mysteries of the Gods in 1976 hosted by Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. He regularly appeared on German language TV, and several times on Johnny Carson's American chat show.
After Von Däniken's meteoric success, yet more writers flooded the market place with works in the seventies. The imitator was himself being imitated. The eighties saw a wave of attempted debunkings of the idea, and the trend died down somewhat, but it still persisted. Some of the more notable proponents of the idea after "Chariots" include Robert K.G. Temple who wrote on the Dogon tribe of West Africa and Sirius, Blumrich whose book on Ezekiel proved successful, and more notably Zecharia Sitchin the originator of the Annunaki and Nibiru tropes which have proven thoroughly persistent.
Although the publishing boom of the sixties and seventies soon subsided, the idea would become a staple of conspiracy theorists in the nineties, and then in the noughties gained a major series — Ancient Aliens. The History Channel had been struggling for ratings, but Ancient Aliens soon turned those around and became one of its hottest shows. Its distinctive looking presenter Giorgio Tsoukalos would become a major internet meme, and it became a cult program watched by some in earnest, and others in irony. As with previous incarnations, Ancient Aliens has been the subject of much anger and resentment in the academic community, with many trying to debunk it... but failing to destroy the popularity of the idea.
- Ancient Aliens
- Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
- Tower of Babel, depending on interpretation
- Wandjina — an Aboriginal Australian divine being that von Däniken appropriated
- Peter Kolosimo
- Erich von Däniken
- Giorgio A. Tsoukalos
- Zecharia Sitchin
- Lloyd Pye
- Raëlism and many other UFO religions.
- Scientology (not proponents per se, publicly claim to have nothing to do with ancient astronauts. But once you pay them lots of $$$ then you find out about Xenu and aliens being on Earth first)
- Maximillien de Lafayette
- Robert Temple
- Mike Bara
- Courtney Brown
- Theosophy (possibly the originators)
- A Spanish Mystery, Snopes.com
- Close encounters of the racist kind
- Racism is behind outlandish theories about Africa’s ancient architecture
- The Racism Behind Alien Mummy Hoaxes