I sense that something is changing in the realm of “alternative” history. Since 2009, Ancient Aliens has pretty much dominated the genre, making the ancient astronaut “theory” the most popular of the pseudo-historical claims in the media. But since the program’s move to H2 last year, and the subsequently smaller audience, it seems like emphasis is shifting away from ancient astronauts. Four years was a good run, nearly matching the 1973-1978 high water mark for the first go-round after the In Search of Ancient Astronauts TV documentary. Instead, it seems that “alternative archaeology,” specifically diffusionism, is making a comeback.
I wish I could quantify this, but it’s very difficult to generate hard data to capture the zeitgeist. The best I can do at the moment is to note a few data points. First, according to data described on the Facebook page of Continuum Films, the production company behind H2’s diffusionist program America Unearthed, that program is now H2’s highest rated show, besting Ancient Aliens. (Nielsen does not make this data available because H2 programs do not rank in the Friday top 100, meaning that they have fewer viewers than the 11 AM TNT rerun of Supernatural.) This could be for a number of reasons, though, including the greater number of viewers available at 10 PM, when Unearthed airs, versus 9 PM when Aliens is on; as well as the marked decline in quality in Ancient Aliens this season, which has taken to rehashing old material, often point-for-point.
But looking at my own website’s incoming traffic data, I’ve also noticed a shift from “ancient alien” search terms (those involving ancient astronaut writers or including alien-themed keywords) to diffusionist search terms, including those related to America Unearthed. My three most viewed pages are now discussions of diffusionism, for the first time besting discussions of ancient astronauts.
I wonder if the Maya apocalypse had anything to do with this. It’s too soon to be able to see it reflected clearly in the data, but Ancient Aliens and Erich von Däniken were relentless over the past few years in claiming that “the aliens” were going to return on December 21 (or 23), 2012. (Giorgio Tsoukalos was an exception to the enthusiasm.) The aliens didn’t return, and I do wonder if the dawning realization that the world wasn’t ending as promised affected attitudes. Certainly the reduction of ancient astronautics into jokes about Tsoukalos’ hair, Childress’s nasal whine, and befuddled young starlets’ love of both Ancient Aliens and Tsoukalos did no favors.
As happened in the 1990s, “alternative archaeology” (i.e. diffusionism) succeeds ancient astronauts in the public mind because it seems by comparison much more sober and plausible. Surely, it makes more sense to imagine Phoenician travelers, Atlanteans, or what-have-you rather than alien gods beaming down from the stars.
But as I’ve learned, “ancient alien” believers are much less dedicated to their cause than supporters of alternative archaeology. This is because alternative archaeology is rarely just about exploring the possibility of trans-oceanic travel. (The exceptions are the hyper-diffusionists, who imagine everyone went everywhere, mostly because they think science is an anti-truth conspiracy.) Instead, it is frequently part of a conscious or unconscious desire to appropriate the past in support of one’s own identity or ideology. The clearest example is the way the exact same evidence is brought out to support Afrocentrism and an explicitly “white” lost civilization (Atlantis, Mu, or an unnamed super-civilization). By the same token, the need to delegitimize Native American claims to indigenous status has led to impassioned beliefs in everything from a lost “white” race of Mound Builders to Atlantean, Irish, Phoenician, Roman, Norse, etc. colonies in the continental United States—anyone, as long as they aren’t brown-skinned.
Often, these imagined colonies have a direct ethnic connection to the people defending them, and taken as a whole they are quite clearly an attempt to bolster cultural identity for cultural groups whose history on the land is very thin. Having a precedent that one’s ancestors used to live here means that therefore one “belongs” on the land. Is it really a coincidence that “Norse” adventurers just happened to leave behind artifacts primarily where later Scandinavian immigrants settled? Or that “Irish” adventurers left behind their artifacts and “writing” where Irish and Scots-Irish immigrants lived in large concentrations?
Ethnic pride works in more than one direction, of course. The Danish writer Carl Rafn was quick to attribute most of the mysteries of the New World to Scandinavians, and Olof Rudbeck convinced himself that Atlantis was “really” Sweden, specifically his hometown of Uppsala! Over in Russia, Anatoly Fomenko rewrote all of history to show that Russia was at the center of all time and space, and I have received dozens of messages from Georgia (the country, not the state) trying to convince me that Greek mythology and language was actually a development from prehistoric Georgia. Needless to say, such ethnocentric claims often fail to extend beyond their own country's borders.
I also note that believers bend over backwards to create plausible scenarios where European boats could travel to prehistoric America, but few seem at all interested in whether Pacific cultures with documented sea-faring prowess, like the Polynesians, came to the Americas. And this despite the fact that scientists have actually been studying the real possibility of this Pacific diffusionism! But there is no cultural value to be gained from this for most alternative believers because Polynesians have no cultural connection to their own personal ethnic heritage. It’s not racism in that it’s not driven by an inherent hatred of non-white peoples, but it is a bias in favor of peoples one can claim as one’s own ancestors.
This is why the first thing the ancient Greeks did when they colonized a new land was to imagine which of their ancestral heroes had first visited and claimed it, and it is why the intensity of belief in ethnic-exclusive alternative “artifacts” like the “Norse” Kensington Rune Stone burns so much more fiercely than the relatively mild belief in Atlanteans or aliens.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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