I thought it might be worthwhile to take a moment to think about one of the reasons that ancient astronaut and alternative history books are widely read, even by those who harbor serious doubts about the validity of the theories described therein. I think one of the most important reasons is summed up in the mission statement of the ancient astronaut organization (whatever its name is these days): “The A.A.S. R.A. is determined to prove, using scientific research methods, but in ‘layman’s terms,’ as to whether or not extraterrestrials have visited Earth in the remote past.”
The key words there are “layman’s terms.” In other places, these theorists refer to “everyday language” or something similar. This, I think, is one of the essential elements of these books’ (and TV series’) appeal. They talk to their audience at their audience’s level. They do not require specialized knowledge to understand, nor do they presuppose the reader’s familiarity with the regions and sites described.
By contrast, most mainstream history books published today assume the reader has a great deal of background knowledge that the reader may not have. The books also tend toward academic language and vocabulary, both because the publishing industry has made it difficult for anyone other than academics to publish and because authors feel the need to use complicated and elevated language to bolster the perceived credibility of their work. But these trends simply turn off even more of the potential audience.
I’m reading right now Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies, a much-hyped and history of the forgotten states of Europe (those that did not survive to the present, such as Burgundy, Aragon, etc.). The book is ambitious in scope and, theoretically, aimed at a popular audience. But the book is a mess of incoherence. Unless one already possesses at least a college level understanding of pre-modern European history, the parade of actors, historical events, and geographic locations descends into meaninglessness. Chapter after chapter lists long-forgotten battles by indistinguishable warrior monarchs without the context necessary to make sense of the story. Davies wants us to understand that no state and no government is eternal, but unless the reader already possesses a good understanding of the process of state formation in the major European powers (something, I suppose, his British audience would know somewhat better than many Americans), the lesson is lost.
This isn’t to pick on Davies. So many historians seems to suppose they are speaking to fellow historians rather than to people who might be interested but lack an expert’s command of, say, the historical development of Capetian France, or the thousand year history of the Holy Roman Empire, or the differences between the two.
The problem lies with the publishing industry, which has gutted what used to be called “middlebrow”—the books that appealed to intelligent generalists. (The exceptions, of course, are the trend of politically-motivated histories intending to demonstrate the essential correctness of some ideological point of view or another and books about modern history—if it happened in your lifetime, publishers think there is an audience for it.) The resulting polarization leads to lowbrow books, like the Dummies series, and to highbrow books appealing to scholars but to few others. The reasons for this are manifold—everything from the erosion of the reading audience, to the ceding of the middlebrow territory to cable television, to competitive pressure to sell to the lowest common denominator en masse and to rack up prestige titles in limited runs. But the end result is the same—the intelligent generalist is left to either self-educate up to the level of scholarly work, give up hope and stick with watered-down popular surveys, or turn toward “alternative” works that still pretend that non-specialists are capable of understanding and enjoying subjects too often reserved for those enclosed in the ivory tower.
Today’s Great Moment in Ancient Astronautics comes from Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods (1968). The esteemed author discusses the Epic of Gilgamesh in which he claims the following scene occurs in Tablet 3:
And the third tablet goes on to tell us about a cloud of dust which came from the distance. The heavens roared, the earth quaked and finally the 'Sun God' came and seized Enkidu with mighty wings and claws. We read in astonishment that he lay like lead on Enkidu's body and that the weight of his body seemed to him like the weight of a boulder.
Von Däniken claims this is an accurate depiction of acceleration-induced mass increases, something ancient people could not have known. The problem? This passage does not occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh’s third tablet, or anywhere else in the epic. In the third tablet, Queen Ninsun offers prayers to Shamash for Gilgamesh, but that’s about it. (The tablet is fragmentary and many lines are missing. No, von Däniken does not have special access to the missing lines.)
It seems von Däniken is conflating the story of Gilgamesh with that of Etana, who in an ancient legend rides a giant eagle up to the highest heavens at the urging of the sun god Shamash, gazing down periodically to see the shrinking earth below. (Incidentally, Etana sees not earth as it would really be seen from space but instead the ancient concept of the earth as a rocky island girdled by the River Ocean.) I can’t say how the conflation happened, but in early printings of the stories, both were often included in the same volume or even chapter, as in chapter VIII of MacKenzie’s Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915).
Now, to be fair, there is one possible ancient text that might have spawned this confusion: Aelian's On Animals 2.4 in which the stories of Etana and Gilgamesh were, very late in history, confused and conflated:
"[…] When Euechorsos was king of the Babylonians, the Chaldeans predicted that a grandson would be born to his daughter, and he would deprive his grandfather of his kingdom. Fearing this thing, and if I may utter something of a joke, he acted as Acrisius toward his daughter; for he ordered the strictest of watches kept over her. But yet the daughter (for fate had outsmarted the Babylonian king) gave birth to the child, having become pregnant by some uncertain man. But out of fear of the king, the guards threw the infant headlong from the citadel where the daughter was imprisoned. In truth, an eagle, seeing the falling infant with its very sharp eyes, before he could be dashed against the ground, flew under and received him on his back, and transporting him to some garden put him down with the utmost care. Moreover, he who cared for the garden, when he saw the beautiful little boy, loved him, and reared him; and he, called Gilgamos, was the king of the Babylonians. […]" (my translation)
Of course, von Däniken's claims were about Enkidu, not Gilgamesh, so this can't be his source either.
I don’t read German, so I can’t speak to von Däniken’s sources except to say that von Däniken only lists an undated copy of Gilgamesh from the Insel publishers under “General Reading,” and I have no way of knowing what edition he’s referring to. A literal German translation, by A. Ungnad and H. Greasmann had been published in 1911 by Gottingen, but this isn’t the right one. The best known German translation is Burckhardt’s, published in three editions by Insel-Verlag in 1916, 1920, and 1958, and this is probably what von Däniken used. This was a very loose and free adaptation of the original text.
If this is the case, it only reconfirms von Däniken’s sloppiness as a scholar, failing to recognize the difference between the original and its adaptation. This recalls immediately the problem of Robert Temple, who based much of his interpretation in The Sirius Mystery (1976/1998) on Greek mythology as related by Robert Graves, ignorant of Graves’ casual revision of the myths and their history. The point, of course, is that one must be careful when making claims for the importance of evidence to be sure that the evidence actually exists.
Yesterday, I discussed Sarah Moran’s misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and doing this made me think of something that I would like to share with my readers. Moran, as you’ll recall, had claimed that no trace of evolutionary theory existed before Darwin, just as the ancient astronaut theory sprang from Erich von Däniken’s mind like Athena from the head of Zeus. In both cases, she felt succeeding generations preserved the master’s theories unchanged and sacrosanct.
Obviously this caricature is fundamentally wrong. Scientists have added enormously to our understanding of evolution since Darwin’s day. But in the history of these two ideas, we can see how science comes ever closer to the truth while pseudoscience spins farther away from it.
Evolutionary theories have been around in some form since at least Aristotle, who had suggested a form of natural selection in Physics (2.8.2). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, scholars like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin proposed theories that, while not the same as modern thought, took a close stab at the central concept of evolution. Lamarck had argued that evolution occurs through inheritance of traits gained during the life of the parent, but he had the central idea that change occurs through time. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, intuited both evolution and natural selection, though he did not have the evidence to prove them.
Then, at the very same time Charles Darwin was developing his theory of evolution and providing the theoretical and evidential foundation for it, Alfred Russel Wallace developed the exact same theory, not because he was copying Darwin but because the evidence led him to an identical conclusion. Afterward, scientists around the world worked on evolutionary theory, gradually building up a body of ideas and concepts that merged into a shared body of theory—albeit one with areas of controversy that scholars still debate. As new evidence emerged—first genetics, then DNA—the new evidence fit into the older theory and enhanced it, providing more evidence for the theory’s essential truth.
Now contrast that with the ancient astronaut theory. This theory was born of fraud when Helena Blavatsky, a fake medium, proposed that Venusians had inserted their souls in the people of Lemuria and gave humans civilization. Then, UFO theorists in Britain and the Soviet Union, developed, independently or not, fringe views that UFOs had visited earth in prehistory. Two French fantasists, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, synthesized these views into a speculative idea—with no original research—that aliens visited the ancient earth, and Erich von Däniken copied them (and Robert Charroux), and others copied him and rarely did any original research.
From there, the various ancient astronaut theories (AATs) have branched out into a plethora of mutually-exclusive ideas. In some AATs, aliens visit humans who evolved on their own; in others, the aliens have sex with pre-humans to create mankind, while in still others they genetically engineer human beings. In some AATs, the aliens are human-like; in others they are amphibious space frogs or giants or lizard-like, or stereotypical “greys.” In some AATs, aliens build monuments like the pyramids; in others they merely direct their construction, while in still others monuments are human-built “signals” to the aliens. In some AATs, the aliens fly around on a rogue planet; in others, they travel in rocket-like ships, and in still others they teleport through wormholes. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The point is that all of the scholars working across the centuries on evolution kept circling ever closer to a single idea. All the research in the field tends toward one consistent view (though, as with any data set, there are from time to time outlying data points that must be resolved) and this tendency has only grown stronger as more research is conducted.
By contrast, the ancient astronaut theory spins ever farther away from its center, its claims growing more baroque, more contradictory, and more outlandish as more voices are added. “Research” in the field tends toward no single view; every researcher develops wildly diverging ideas from no single agreed-upon data set. Don’t believe me? Compare Zecharia Sitchin to Robert Temple, or either to David Hatcher Childress. Or, better still, try looking up the concept of the “world grid” and see if you can find any two proponents who share the same world grid, or identify the same set of ancient sites that supposedly sit upon its nodes.
If there were any truth the ancient astronaut theory, then the facts of the aliens’ arrival, their deeds, and their mission should become clearer with more research, not more obscure. If there were any truth to the ancient astronaut theory, then the theorists working in the field should be gradually moving toward a single conception of the extraterrestrial visitation, one that comes ever closer to the truth. But this is not happening, which strongly suggests that the many ancient astronaut theories exist primarily in their creators’ minds, not in the facts they purport to explain.
Today’s Great Moment in Ancient Astronautics comes from the self-described “qualified journalist” Sarah Moran, in her 1998 opus Alien Art: Extraterrestrial Expressions on Earth, with an introduction by none other than Erich von Däniken and photographs of some fraudulent artifacts, including crystal skulls and gold tablets, long exposed as hoaxes. But no matter. What interests me is Moran’s blithe and ignorant dismissal of evolution, recognizing, correctly, that evolutionary theory poses a significant challenge for claims that aliens genetically engineered humanity.
Moran begins with an appeal to ignorance, makes false claims, and finishes with monumental stupidity cast as skeptical inquiry:
“There are so many puzzles which we are not clever enough to solve […] Evolutionists follow Charles Darwin’s theory to the letter. They, and mainstream science, tell us that we are simply part of the planet’s evolutionary process, changing and adapting in a ‘survival of the fittest’ manner until we reach the point where we are best suited to live in our environment. […]
“When Darwin wrote his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, there was no evidence to support his radical new theory. […] When the ‘proof’ started emerging in the form of fossils and ancient monuments, scientists eagerly pieced the various fragments together and declared Darwin a genius.” (pp. 13-14)
This idiocy barely requires discussion, so self-evidently ridiculous is it. Let’s leave aside the subjective issue of whether humans are clever—ancient astronaut theorists think every human except for ancient astronaut theorists are blinkered clods who rigidly defend dogma unless the aliens pass them blueprints and patents for new ideas. That Moran thinks “evolutionists” rigidly support evolution as Darwin first suggested it in 1859, reveals the depth of her research—ignorant of advances in genetics, DNA, punctuated equilibrium, and any number of modifications that have grown and developed evolutionary theory into one of the crown jewels of science. Apparently, for Moran, since she takes Chariots of the Gods as gospel, so too must scientists view Darwin as a fixed, unchanging Bible.
In the second paragraph, one might reasonably ask: If there was no evidence to support evolution, where did Darwin’s theory come from? Has Moran ever read Origin of Species? It’s full of evidence. Moran seems to view science through the lens of the ancient astronaut theory, where evidence exists solely to “prove” a predetermined theory and therefore cannot exist as such before the theory. Instead, Darwin’s theory emerged the other way around (i.e., the right way), with the evidence Darwin collected on his travels forcing him to the inexorable conclusion that life evolved. It also doesn’t help Moran’s claims that Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, among many others, had already been working on these problems and had amassed evidence that very strongly suggested evolution. Even Aristotle (Physics 2.8.2) had suggested a form of natural selection.
Finally, what on earth do “ancient monuments” have to do with evolution? Cultural evolution and biological evolution are not the same thing. Here again, it seems Moran’s ignorance got the best of her, and she again conflated the ancient astronaut theory (which combines a creation story with historical claims) with evolution’s biological basis. Moran seems to want to see archaeology and cultural anthropology as extensions of (biological) evolution.
That said, I will eagerly await news of which biology textbooks use “ancient monuments” as evidence for natural selection.
As I've discussed quite a bit, ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians ask us to take ancient texts literally in order to make discoveries about the ancient past. Thus, they take Plato's Timaeus and Critias literally as evidence for the existence of Atlantis. (Though, strangely, Euhemerus' equally fictional lost continent of Panchaea is roundly ignored.) This type of literalism, as I have show previously, prevents us from making real connections about events in the ancient past. Here is yet another case where ancient astronaut theorists' literalism leads us to the edge of incoherence when applied to an ancient text.
Our sample today comes from Diodorus Siculus' Library (3.13), where the historian describes the earlier work of Hecataeus of Abdera on a mysterious land far to the north:
"Hecataeus and some others have said that on the coasts opposite the Celtae, there is an island little less than Sicily, under the Arctic Pole, where they who are called Hyperboreans inhabit. They say that this island is exceedingly good and fertile, bearing fruit (i.e., crops of grass) twice a year. The men of the island are, as it were, priests of Apollo, daily singing his hymns and praises, and highly honouring him. They say, moreover, that in it there is a great forest, and a goodly temple of Apollo, which is round and beautified with many rich gifts and ornaments; as also a city sacred to him, whereof the most part of the inhabitants are harpers, and play continually on their harps in the temple, chanting hymns to the praise of Apollo, and magnifying his acts in their songs." (trans. H. Cogan)
Many modern historians believe this passage represents a description of Britain, with the round temple being Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. If so, this would be a remarkable piece of literature, since Hecataeus lived in 300 BCE, roughly a thousand years after Stonehenge's heyday. (Not all archaeologists agree, however.) But if we adopt the ancient astronaut theorists' textual literalism, we are prevented from investigating the question of whether this passage refers in fact to Britain and Stonehenge because, since we must take this literally, we should be looking for an island the size of Sicily near the North Pole. An alien Arctic research station? Was the temple a biodome?
I don't think it would surprise anyone to know that there is no such island at the North Pole (it's water up there under the ice), or that there has been no weather warm enough to grow two rounds of annual crops since humans evolved. This line of investigation is stale. But if ancient astronaut theorists choose not to interpret this text literally, then we must ask what criteria they use to decide which texts are worthy of literal readings, and which must be read symbolically or figuratively?
Of course, this is a moot point for ancient astronaut theorists, since textual literalism means they also have to accept that Geoffrey of Monmouth was literally correct that the stones of Stonehenge were meant as a bathtub for African giants: "The giants of old brought them [the stones] from the farthest coasts of Africa [...] Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness" (Historia Regum Britanniae 8.11, trans. A. Thompson and J. A. Giles). And, oh yeah, Stonehenge's stones aren't African either. Oops.
Just remember that bit of "ancient text" the next time an ancient astronaut theorist tries to tell you that Stonehenge is "obviously" a "UFO command center."
One of the incessant refrains of alternative theorists of all stripes--from Atlantis believers to ancient astronaut proponents--is that "ancient texts" are the key to understanding prehistory. So what do we do when the ancient texts are demonstrably false? Here is one describing the pyramids of Giza from c. 825 CE, written by the Irish monk Fidelis, possibly a pseudonym of Dicuil, who wrote the Liber de Mensua Orbis Terrae (c. 825 CE): “After sailing on the Nile for a long time, they saw, like mountains, the seven storehouses […] which Holy Joseph had built, four in one place and three in another” (3.2; my translation). Well, after the pyramids were opened, we learned that they were not, in fact, hollow storehouses for Joseph's grain. It's also fairly doubtful that Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173 CE) was correct when he wrote that the pyramids "are constructed by witchcraft" (Travels, trans. A. Archer).
So, why then should we do as the alternative theorists would have us and believe al-Firozabadi (15th century CE) when he writes that the pyramids "are supposed to be either two antient buildings erected in Egypt by Edris, to preserve the arts and sciences, and other knowledge, during the deluge; or the buildings of Sinan Ben el Moshalshal; (or the buildings of the antient antediluvians), erected in consequence of the stars foretelling the deluge" (trans. Alois Sprenger in Vyse, Operations)? Just because the al-Firozabadi can be twisted into to support for Atlantis or aliens while Fidelis is provably wrong doesn't give us much reason to trust a late medieval source over an early medieval one--or, for that matter, any medieval source, written 4,000 years after the Pyramid Age.
The wisest words about all of these myths and stories were written by Diodorus Siculus 1500 years before al-Firozabadi. Diodorus, with a bit of numeric exaggeration, wrote that "Some of the Egyptians tell wonderful things, and invent strange fables concerning these works [...] But this is not the truth of the thing; but the great multitude of hands that raised the mounts, the same carried back the earth to the place whence they dug it; for they say, there were three hundred and sixty thousand men employed in this work, and the whole was scarce completed in twenty years time" (Library 1.36, trans. G. Booth). But of course, no alternative theorist believes Diodorus. That's just ridiculous.
I can’t recommend enough the Bad Archaeology website of the British archaeologists Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser. In their mission statement, the pair describe themselves as Angry Archaeologists fed up with pop culture’s willful distortion of humanity’s past:
“Bad Archaeology is the brainchild of a couple of archaeologists who are fed up with the distorted view of the past that passes for knowledge in popular culture. We are unhappy that books written by people with no knowledge of real archaeology dominate the shelves at respectable bookshops. We do not appreciate news programmes that talk about ley lines (for example) as if they are real. In short, we are Angry Archaeologists.”
Fitzpatrick-Matthews and Doeser have compiled a great resource that presents a wealth of information, including quite a few tidbits I wasn’t aware of. Their site covers all the usual suspects—from the Piri Reis map to Atlantis to aliens—with a keen grasp of the fallacies and cherry-picking that goes into creating “alternative” views of these subjects. They also cover a number of oddly specific claims that I wasn’t familiar with (or only half-remembered), but which were both entertaining and put alternative authors’ larger claims into context.
What emerges from reading their thorough discussions of everything from pyramid claims to old maps is a theme that I’ve discussed more than once: ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians are really sloppy copyists. Time and again we read that one author copied from an earlier author and never checked the sources. More often than not, on Bad Archaeology the purloined text is Charles Hapgood’s Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, while I’ve found many unacknowledged references to Pauwels’ and Bergier’s Morning of the Magicians, which also gets its own shout out on Bad Archaeology under its original French title. (The book is one of Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ favorites in the alternative genre.) The result is always the same, however. One wacky, mistaken idea after another is repeated and repeated with no one bothering to check primary sources to see if it was ever true.
Do yourself a favor and check out Bad Archaeology for a thoroughly enjoyable debunking of an ungodly number of fringe claims.
_ Yesterday on CSI’s website, skeptic Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick.org) reviewed Syfy’s paranormal investigation show Fact of Faked, whose last few episodes are streaming on Hulu. The program follows a team of paranormal investigators as they attempt to evaluate whether videos shot by amateurs (mostly posted online) could be real by trying to recreate the phenomena captured in the video using standard special effects techniques.
Watson felt that Fact or Faked was a poor-quality program the stretched credulity with some of the pandering toward the supernatural that occurred on the show. She correctly noted, for example, that some of the cases they investigated were so obviously fake that it was almost as if the hosts were “going through the motions to be on television and get free trips to Mexico.”
That said, I found Watson’s review to be rather snarky and surprisingly uninformed. Watson engaged in sarcastic and sardonic attacks on a program that she admitted she knew from watching only a single episode, with no other background information. As good scientists know, replication is essential for coming to a strong conclusion. Watson’s lack of background research meant that she was also unaware of a report on CSI’s own website indicating that Fact or Faked’s producers have falsified footage or asked those who shot the videos under investigation to create fake versions of these videos that would work better on television. (This did not escape CSI’s editors, who appended a link to the article at the end of Watson’s review.)
As it so happens, unlike Watson, I have watched more than a few episodes of Fact or Faked and can give a somewhat more complete judgment on the series. The troubling ethics of recreating original footage without acknowledgment are certainly a strike against the show (not to mention ethically unsupportable), but over the course of its two seasons, the program has more often than not (and certainly more than any other Syfy show) concluded alleged paranormal activity to be the result of hoaxes, mistaken identification, or, well, more hoaxes and fraud. This is a good thing.
The work they put into showing how easily these videos can be faked is certainly padded for television. Many of their attempted recreations, before they hit upon the “right” one, are so obviously unworkable that they are clearly included to stall for time. But that’s not so much a flaw with Fact or Faked as it is with reality TV. Have you tried watching American Idol or Hell’s Kitchen in real time? Even the MythBusters show us a bunch of trials that don’t work before lighting on the one that does. If we skipped ahead to that part, the show would instead be a 3 minute YouTube video. But when Fact or Faked shows how simple things like a balloon and a light bulb can make a convincing UFO, this has to be considered a net positive for critical inquiry. The show also does a good job dismissing obvious fakes in rapid fire style and presenting some historical fakes in brief interstitial segments with explanations for them.
On the other hand, there seems to be a corporate directive (explicitly stated or otherwise) that a certain number of investigations on every Syfy show have to leave the door open to supernatural explanations. On sister show Destination Truth, it is painfully obvious that host Josh Gates is straining to concoct a reason to believe in cryptids or ghosts every third episode or so. On Fact or Faked, to their credit, they don’t declare ghosts or aliens real but instead say they cannot recreate a video’s imagery themselves. (Though the weight they place on useless ghost hunting devices like EMF readers, I can't pretend to justify, not even as "entertainment.")
On the third hand (aliens have three, right?), sometimes they don’t try very hard. On two occasions, for example, they have declared cryptids (El Chupacabra and Britain’s black panthers) a reasonable explanation for animals caught on tape, but their tests left out the animals most likely represented in the videos, instead testing against creatures that were obviously not those depicted. For the black panther, they tested against a lion, which is not even the same color. Obviously, no match. Similarly, the chupacabra in the video was obviously no horse. Testing against a mangy coyote would have been a smarter tactic, but one not likely to please Syfy’s executives, or core audience.
So, Watson is right that Fact or Faked is not “the worst paranormal show on television.” In fact, by the standards of reality TV—both in the informational and entertainment sense—it’s pretty good, though the faking of fake videos (meta-fake?) is ethically unconscionable. I wish Rebecca Watson had devoted more time to thinking critically about Fact or Faked to write a more thoughtful review of the program and its place in the paranormal universe rather than complaining that “we’re all complicit” in promoting fakery “especially me, because I watched this show and then wrote a really long article about it.” It’s that kind of dismissive attitude, with its knee-jerk hostility and uninformed snark that gives skepticism a bad name among those not already part of the skeptical community.
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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