The scholar of Indo-European myth Bruce Lincoln wrote an informative book in 1992 called Discourse and the Structure of Society in which he argued that myths “can be, and have been, employed as effective instruments not only for the replication of established social forms … but more broadly for the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of society itself.” For Lincoln, myth can serve as the vehicle whereby societies experiencing crisis can justify the practical changes needed to overcome crisis or to provide the sanction of history and the divine to maintain existing social hierarchies in the face of crisis.
In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan offered a similar thought, though in less academic language: “Whenever out ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flames gutters. It’s little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
I bring this up because I am disturbed by the weird change that has taken place in Ancient Aliens and now America Unearthed. I have written several times about how Ancient Aliens seems to be advocating a neo-pagan religion, complete with a spiritual dimension akin to heaven where worshipers will be rewarded with eternal bliss. Now, America Unearthed host Scott Wolter is going in quest of the Holy Grail, which he believes is the secret set of descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In looking for a physical dimension to the Christian mysteries, this “holy bloodline myth” (which is not unique to Wolter, of course) seems of a piece with ancient astronaut theorists’ yearning desire to make material the immaterial, to make gods into men, to give religion a physical foundation. In turn, such a yearning seems closely related to the idea that in a world where science represents the commonly accepted language of truth, the spiritual must be cast in the guise (if not the methods) of science—the same impulse behind Intelligent Design. It does, however, seem to be a bit of a step down for religion and the old faith in the transcendent.
This has nothing to do with the search for archaeological evidence for or against one particular alternative claim but rather how a multitude of claims, for which there is at very best ambiguous evidence, are sown together into an alternative worldview, one that rivals the mainstream and seems to serve a purpose beyond mere archaeological inquiry.
This also has clear parallels with what anthropology calls “revitalization movements,” conscious efforts on the part of a culture under stress to restructure society. One of the best known examples is that of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, who in the years around 1800 preached a new religion in the guise of resurrecting traditional Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) values. His faith was particularly appealing because in a time when the Iroquois were under pressure from white Americans to adopt Euro-American culture and had lost their traditional lands to white settlers, Handsome Lake emphasized a strong, indigenous identity—but he did so by adopting and adapting the values of Christianity. He eventually descended into literal witch-hunting, accusing his followers right and left of being witches. A similar movement in those years among white Americans in search of a new national identity after the break from Britain gave rise to the lost white race theorists, culminating in Mormonism, with its recreated past of lost white mound builders who were the lost tribes of Israel come to America—a new, non-English but still “white” past. In both cases, the revivalist groups recreated the past to help negotiate the tricky politics and sociology of Euro-American settlement in lands once occupied by non-Euro-American people.
I’m certain that it is no coincidence that “alternative archaeology” tends to achieve its greatest success in periods of social upheaval. In America, it correlates well with the early Republic, Reconstruction, the Depression, the 1960s/70s, and the post-9/11 eras. (There are exceptions: American interest in Graham Hancock’s lost civilization claims of the 1990s was possibly one, though its presumed web of hidden communications networks and priesthood of secret dispensers of high-tech information did parallel the technological upheavals of the Web 1.0 era.)
It’s possible to become convinced by one particular archaeological “alternative” claim, like a particular Norse expedition to Minnesota, or a stray Englishman in Anasazi territory, without becoming part of the revitalization movement. (Indeed, any one claim by itself is a scientific question.) But those who string together dozens of such claims across time and space, almost indiscriminately and largely without care about the quality of evidence, do so because they reject mainstream “ways of knowing,” and are involved in a project designed (consciously or not) to replace an unsatisfying mainstream view with one that is more satisfying on an emotional level, or more useful in advocating particular cultural values that the advocate wishes society to adopt.
This isn’t just speculation on my part. On Friday I received an email from a highly deluded individual who, if taken at his word, believes he is the incarnation of a Hindu god (specifically Vishnu), who is also a space alien, and that religion is the only path to helping science prevent global warming from creating an imminent apocalypse that will end the Kali Yuga. He strung together every half-understood claim from Ancient Aliens and imagined that his message of renewal is failing because it’s all a conspiracy by the evil mainstream academics to suppress the truth for profit.
The questions, I guess, are these: What are the values these alternative proponents wish to normalize? And for what reason?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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