As many readers know, the modern ancient astronaut and alternative history craze can be traced back to the work Ignatius Donnelly, whose influential Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) was the foundational text for alternative interpretations of history. But Donnelly was following in a long tradition of scholars who speculated about alternative origins for civilization.
The very earliest attempt to connect the Old and New Worlds via the lost continent of Atlantis occurred in 1552, when Spanish historian Francisco López de Gómara wrote in his Historia general de las Indias that America was Atlantis, and the proof could be found in the use of the syllable "atl" in both the works of Plato and ancient Mexico.
So far as I can tell, this ur-source for the Atlantis-in-America myth has never been translated. Here is the passage and a rough translation. My Spanish is not terribly great, so anyone who is fluent in sixteenth-century Spanish, please do let me know how better to translate this passage. [Update: Thanks to Felipe for correcting my translation! The corrected translation is below.]
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a catastrophist who believed, like Immanuel Velikovsky, that ancient history was defined by a collision of earth with a comet? No? In 1787, at the opening of Franklin College in Lancaster, PA, Franklin reportedly told the following to a French writer as he attempted to explain what became of the mysterious race of lost white people who built the grand earthworks of North America:
For more than a century following the publication of this passage in 1801, historians cited it as fact, including in James Parton's famous Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (1864). The only trouble is, Franklin never said it.
The French author, Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, was a serial plagiarist who invented not just Franklin's speech, cobbled together from other authors' work, but Franklin's entire trip to Lancaster. He was actually at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. This incident became yet another in the parade of pseudohistory and false fact masquerading as truth. Sadly, most scholars simply accepted the story as true, and many took elaborate steps to justify their belief when difficulties--like Franklin's presence in Philadelphia and absence from Lancaster--made belief difficult.
It took until 1947 for someone (in this case Perry G. Adams) to do the research needed to conclusively debunk the lie and the mountains of post hoc justifications used to prop it up. How did he do it? He read the sources Crèvecoeur plagiarized and showed how they were stolen, word-for-word and altered to fabricate Franklin's speech. The clincher? The source, a letter by a Jonathan Heart, wasn't written until 1791 or published until 1797. Franklin couldn't have copied what didn't exist prior to his death, nor could Heart have copied Franklin since the "speech," supposedly a private conversation, was only published in 1801. The only solution: Crèvecoeur faked the whole thing. While Heart's letter and Franklin's speech about American history were virtually identical, there was one difference: the passage about the comet. That, apparently, was Crèvecoeur's own unique take on ancient history.
Since it's Easter, I'm not really in the mood to spend too much time on ancient astronauts today. Instead, let me recommend a classic Skeptical Inquirer article debunking a 1974 claim that an ancient Chinese inscription documented space travel in Bronze Age China. Here's the key lines:
Be sure to read the whole piece to see just how slipshod the scholarship at the April 1974 meeting of the Ancient Astronaut Society was. Things have not improved since then.
As an Italian-American, I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride in the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, so it is somewhat personally insulting to hear that one of history’s greatest geniuses was nothing but a puppet of the aliens who gave him all his ideas. This is profoundly disgusting and an insult to the very idea of human imagination, made worse coming as it does almost 560 years to the day since his April 15, 1452 birth. Oh, and by the way Ancient Aliens title-writers, his name was Leonardo. “Da Vinci” is a descriptor, not a surname. Didn’t the aliens tell you that?
To be quite honest, this episode was pretty boring for most of its run. There was a larger than usual amount of truth in this episode, relying heavily on real scholars and actual facts and insistent repetition of a few ideas time and again. There isn’t much to talk about on the crazy alien front until near the very end.
This morning the Washington Post ran a review of a collection of century-old science fiction novellas by the relatively unknown Franco-Belgian SF novelist J.-H. de Ronsy (actually a pair of brothers writing under one name*). One of the three novellas making up the collection Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind (Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction) is called "The Xipéhuz" (1887) and concerns the appearance in pre-Sumerian Mesopotamia of mysterious extraterrestrial beings composed of energy and communicating through light.
I had never heard of these ancient astronauts prior to today's review, and it appears that the story has only rarely appeared in English, primarily in a 1970s edition and the current Wesleyan one. Obviously, the Lovecraftian echoes in the description made me eager to find out more.
Fortunately for all of us, the Theosophists found the story a good fit for their weird theory that SF authors were channeling Theosophical truth subconsciously from a parallel universe, so in 1903 they produced a detailed précis of the novella, which I have posted here.
The anticipation of Lovecraft's many and varied monsters--Yog Sothoth and the Great Race come first to mind--is obvious. But the idea of a ring of beings godlike in their power anticipates, too, what we have learned about Gobekli Tepe, whose rings of standing stones were meant as stylized depictions of the gods. Surely ancient people really did stand amidst circles of "gods" (i.e., the stones) and imagine themselves communing with the world beyond worlds.
What is perhaps most amazing of all is that the novella displays infinitely more imagination than anything the ancient astronaut theorists have come up with.
* Just to make it more fun, after 1909 they started writing separately as J.-H. Rosny "aine" (senior) and "jeune" (junior).
In the seventeenth century, it was common to imagine that the Native Americans were the descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In the highly influential 1650 pamphlet Jewes in America, the Rev. Thomas Thorowgood explained some of the reasons why. His reasoning is a very early example of the "principle of looks like" used by Atlantis theorists and ancient astronaut theorists down to this very day. Here's a sample:
Newsweek had an interesting cover story from Andrew Sullivan this week about the way politicians and pastors have misused the New Testament to justify claims Jesus would never have supported. I don’t usually get into religious matters on my blog except when it comes down to clear claims about what ancient texts do or don’t say. I previously wrote, for example, about the First Amendment and the Ten Commandments. But the Newsweek piece’s sidebar had a particularly fatuous claim from Joel Osteen, the “smiling pastor,” who believes in the so-called Gospel of Wealth that bothered me immensely.
This seems to be a textual claim about what the Bible does or does not say. I’m sure Osteen has a good reason for what he says (though he couldn’t articulate it to Katie Couric a decade ago when she asked him where the Bible says God makes people rich), but doesn’t this contradict the very words of the Christ Osteen claims to serve?
One of the claims that recurs in the ancient astronaut theory is the idea that artistic depictions of gods or humans wearing helmets are evidence that aliens wearing space suits descended to earth in prehistoric times. How this squares with claims that aliens also had sex with earth women, I can't hazard to guess--usually space suit prevent that sort of congress. At any rate, images like these are used to "prove" aliens with NASA-style spacesuits walked the ancient earth:
One of the old standards of alternative archaeology is the claim that Old World peoples colonized the New World in remote antiquity. In the nineteenth century proof of such claims became a much prized commodity, for it supported actions by North American governments, including that of then-British Canada to deprive Native Americans of their traditional lands, since the Natives were therefore not "native" but mere usurpers who had taken over Old World (read: white) settlements.
Below is an article I discovered in the October 1832 number of Britain's Gentleman's Magazine reporting on the alleged proof that the Phoenicians had colonized Mexico. Note that the article asks us to take on faith that the word of titled European nobility puts his claims of conveniently vanished evidence above suspicion.
I was genuinely surprised by a statement appearing in a LiveScience article about a recent study that found American conservatives have lost faith in science over the past four decades. In the 1970s, around half of all conservatives had a great deal of trust in science, while today only around a third of conservatives trust science. Liberals and moderates maintained a fairly steady trust level, at around 47% and 42% respectively. The findings appeared in the American Sociological Review in an article authored by UNC researcher Gordon Gaulet.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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