Reality Check

Saving yourself from pseudoscience

In Search of Ancient ETs?

Did the Pilgrims come from another galaxy?

Did the Pilgrims actually come from beyond the stars?  A recent episode of South Park skewered The History Channel for their promotion of fantastical "alternative history" with a parody on the effects of "Ancient Aliens," a series that revives the ancient astronaut folklore most commonly associated with the publications, movies, and defunct theme park of Erich von Däniken.  The desire to attribute the accomplishments of ancient peoples to extraterrestrials may be a manifestation of unarticulated fears: 1) Fear of the complexity of understanding an ancient as it has been revealed by scientific archaeology, not Bible-based mythology, and 2) fear that non-white peoples were actually capable of great technological and cultural feats formerly attributed only to the superior "white" races of Europe and the Middle East. The history of Ancient Aliens can be traced to fantasy fiction and sensationalized documentaries that allayed anxieties by creating a new mythology for our times.

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In an article titled Charioteer of the Gods and subsequent books, author Jason Colavito has traced the history of the ancient astronaut theories in von Däniken's work to none other than fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose short stories in the Cthulhu Mythos-written in the 1920s and 1930s. "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928), using the trope of a discovered text, suggested that ancient "cyclopean" ruins on islands in the South Pacific were testimony to the existence of rubbery, tentacled "Old Ones"-slippery beings revered as gods that had come to Earth from beyond the stars.  As Colavito has documented, Lovecraft's work was revived in the 1960s in the French magazine Planète ("The Planet"), edited by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, for an audience that was fascinated by American pulp fiction of the early 20th century.

Italian journalist Peter Kolosimo's book Il pianeta sconosciuto ("The Unknown Planet," 1959) whetted an interest in alternative theories for ancient "mysteries" as  Pauwels and Bergier wove together theories about ancient astronauts, a hollow earth, and secret Nazi conspiracies in Le matin des magiciens (1960), published three years later in the United Kingdom as The Dawn of Magic and in the U.S. as The Morning of the Magicians.  A German edition titled Aufbruch ins dritte Jahrtausend ("Departure into the Third Millennium"), also published in 1963, may have been what inspired von Däniken to spin a personal narrative of discovery based on his round-the-world travel.  An English translation of Erich von Däniken's  Errierungen an die ZunkunftUngelöste Rätsel der Vergangenheit (1968) was published in English Chariots of the Gods? Memories of the Future-Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1969).  Released in England, Canada, and the U.S. in 1969, von Däniken's work was a popular selection in book clubs.

A version of the German documentary "Erinnerungen an die Zukunft" (1970), re-edited with a new script and narration by Rod Serling, creator of "The Twilight Zone," was released in the U.S. as the popular made-for-TV documentary "In Search of Ancient Astronauts" (1973).  It was followed two years later by John Landsberg's films "In Search of Ancient Mysteries" (for television) and "The Outer Space Connection" (in theaters), also with Serling's narration.  (These were among Serling's last films, since he died in 1975).  These served as pilots for the successful "In Search of..." TV series (1976-82), narrated by Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek" fame, which explored issues of the paranormal along with other examples of pseudoscience presented as genuine "mysteries."  By the beginning of the 1980s, von Däniken's multi-million bestsellers and the TV documentaries has firmly fixed ancient astronaut folklore within contemporary mythology.

What do archaeologists make of these theories?  Not much.  All of the "mysteries" that have been popularized by this work have been debunked.  Decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing has made it clear that the "Maya astronaut" depicted on a limestone slab in a pyramid at Palenque, Chiapas is actually K'inich Janaab' Pakal, an ancient ajaw (king) dating to the 7th century, and the slab represents an allegorical depiction of his death.  The giant stone balls of southern Costa Rica are monuments carved using available stone grinding technology, probably not laser beams.  Experiments by professional architects such as Jean-Pierre Protzen and amateur aficionados of "forgotten technology" such as retired carpenter Wally Wallington have demonstrated how huge megalithic monuments could have been easily moved and erected without the use of high-tech anti-gravity devices.

However, understanding these phenomena is not as simple as saying "gods did it" or even "ETs did it."  It requires getting into the nitty-gritty of archaeological methods, world prehistory, and details of what we actually know about ancient cultures.  Yes, that means doing some homework!  (And not by reading more sensational literature...)  It also requires entertaining the notion that ancient peoples who looked very different from the "white" culture heros of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Bible could have accomplished great things without outside help.  It may be that latter that makes some people anxious and provokes denial, especially when considering the role that European cultures may have played in destroying those cultures-as the Pilgrims and their descendants did those of their Native American hosts.  Those are the stories--painful as they are to hear--that TV documentaries should tell more competely and more truthfully.

 

 

John W. Hoopes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Kansas whose principal focus is archaeology with a special emphasis on Costa Rica.

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