While doing some research into the claim I discussed a few weeks ago that Native Americans had discovered Europe around 60 BCE, I found a weird little sidelight to the story. The Afrocentrist scholar Ivan Van Sertima discussed the case of the Native American travelers in his They Came before Columbus (1976), credulously repeating the hoary idea that Pliny and Pomponius Mela had accidentally described Native Americans when talking of “Indians” (from India), and in so doing, he adds a weird little detail that the Native Americans brought pineapples with them while traveling from North America to Germany.
The alleged dinosaur living in the Congo Basin, Mokèlé-mbèmbé, has appeared widely in popular culture, thanks in large part to early twentieth century writers who reported Congolese folklore about the creature. The earliest report for the supposed monster is almost universally claimed to be a passage in a 1776 book by the Abbé Proyart (1743-1808), a French cleric and writer later executed for writing the wrong thing about Louis XVI during the reign of Napoleon. Proyart served as a missionary in the Congo Basin in the 1760s, and in an early chapter of his book on the region, Histoire de Loango, Kakongo, et autres royaumes d’Afrique (an English translation is here), he describes the animals of west and central Africa using reports compiled by fellow missionaries in the area.
Are you unsure what kind of alternative theorist you are? Can't decide between ancient astronauts and pre-Columbian Chinese voyagers? Here is a Rorschach test for you: When you look at the rock art of the Columbia Plateau in Oregon and Washington State, what do you see?
It's fairly well established that the ancient astronaut theory owes more than a little to the wild speculations of the Theosophists, whose texts early ancient astronaut theorists mined shamelessly for nuggets to include in their books. This is no secret; Erich von Daniken among others specifically cites Theosophical claims and concepts by name, such as Madame Blavatsky's fictive Book of Dzyan.
Theosophy's influence was pernicious. I found today this fascinating text from an esoteric Rosicrucian group, the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, that aimed to marry Theosophy's ancient astronauts to the mysteries hinted at within the teachings of Jesus. The group was founded by the German Max Heindel, who wrote its key text, The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (1909), supposedly translated from a German original dictated by mysterious Elder Brothers in a cave along the German-Bohemian border.
The group's mystical claims about human evolution, spirituality, and the need to prepare for the upcoming Age of Aquarius are not particularly relevant here, but in Heindel's book there appears the following passage, obviously derived from and expanding upon Theosophy, that reads as close as one could imagine to a page from Chariots of the Gods, or even to the conspiratorial sections of Graham Hancock's works that claimed a forgotten brotherhood of adepts. A remarkable coincidence, wouldn't you say?
A few months ago I wrote a post about the widespread alternative history claim that the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (412-485 CE) claimed that the pyramids of Egypt were flat-topped and used as astronomical observatories for recording the transit of Sirius. As I wrote then, this claim does not appear in the alleged source, Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. I thought I’d revisit this weird little claim and follow it from its origins down to the present day, mostly to show that alternative history writers don’t bother to check sources when they can just copy things.
A few weeks back, I wrote about Francisco López de Gómara, the Spanish historian who was the first to propose that the Americas were the same as Plato's Atlantis. When I wrote my original blog post, I explained that I had been unable to find an English translation of Gómara's work, the Historia general da las Indias (1552). Fortunately, I discovered that there is an English translation of the relevant chapter, ch. 220! Unfortunately, it was done in 1555 and is difficult to read. I've now adapted that translation with modern spelling and have fully annotated it to explicate Gómara's astonishingly rich allusions to ancient literature.
Gómara was quite possibly the early modern father of alternative history. In addition to the passage on Atlantis, he also had this whopper from chapter 10, in which he states that the Indians who arrived in Germany in 60 BCE (whom I discussed recently) were in fact Inuit from Labrador who had "deceived" the Romans by having dark skin like people from India:
Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was the founder of the modern discipline of geology through his advocacy of the principle of uniformitarianism, and he was a close friend of Charles Darwin. Lyell originally rejected evolution in favor of creationism, but in 1863 he reversed his views, though still allowing for divine origins for the human soul. His remarks about archaeology in his Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) retain their value in light of today’s alternative archaeology and ancient astronaut claims.
from Geological Evidences (1863)
It has sometimes happened that one nation has been conquered by another less civilized though more warlike, or that, during social and political revolutions, people have retrograded in knowledge. In such cases, the traditions of earlier ages, or of some higher and more educated caste which has been destroyed, may give rise to the notion of degeneracy from a primeval state of superior intelligence, or of science supernaturally communicated. But had the original stock of mankind been really endowed with such superior intellectual powers, and with inspired knowledge, and had possessed the same improvable nature as their posterity, the point of advancement which they would have reached ere this would have been immeasurably higher. We cannot ascertain at present the limits, whether of the beginning or the end, of the first stone period, when Man coexisted with the extinct mammalia, but that it was of great duration we cannot doubt. During those ages there would have been time for progress of which we can scarcely form a conception, and very different would have been the character of the works of art which we should now be endeavoring to interpret,—those relics which we are now disinterring from the old gravel-pits of St. Acheul, or from the Liége caves. In them, or in the upraised bed of the Mediterranean, on the south coast of Sardinia, instead of the rudest pottery or flint tools, so irregular in form as to cause the unpractised eye to doubt whether they afford unmistakable evidence of design, we should now be finding sculptured forms, surpassing in beauty the master-pieces of Phidias or Praxiteles; lines of buried railways or electric telegraphs, from which the best engineers of our day might gain invaluable hints; astronomical instruments and microscopes of more advanced construction than any known in Europe, and other indications of perfection in the arts and sciences, such as the nineteenth century has not yet witnessed. Still farther would the triumphs of inventive genius be found to have been carried, when the later deposits, now assigned to the ages of bronze and iron, were formed. Vainly should we be straining our imaginations to guess the possible uses and meaning of such relics,—machines, perhaps, for navigating the air or exploring the depths of the ocean, or for calculating arithmetical problems, beyond the wants or even the conception of living mathematicians.
From my big box of stupid, I pulled out Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archaeology (1993; mine is the 1998 revised ed.), perhaps one of the worst offenders in the realm of stupid claims about archaeology. I can’t imagine how I managed to read through more than 800 pages of deathly-dull text when I was seventeen; apparently before cell phones and broadband I had a greater tolerance for longwinded boredom. At least Erich von Däniken managed to make his fraud and lies entertaining to read.
Anyway, I opened the book at random, and the first thing I saw was from page 797, “Letters in Marble Block, Philadelphia,” which is as good an example as any of how Cremo and Thompson selectively reported bits of “evidence” to create false impressions in favor of Hindu creationism.
Digging through some boxes I found my old copy of Gunnar Thompson’s The Friar’s Map of Ancient America (1996), which I bought in 1997 at the gift shop at America’s Stonehenge (Mystery Hill) in New Hampshire—that collection of colonial cold cellars and foundations that generations have passed off as megalithic architecture. The pages are still reasonably white, but the cover has faded from its original electric orange to a dull rust.
The book purports to demonstrate that the world map created by Albertin de Virga (c. 1414) actually depicts North America (as the blob to the northwest of Europe) and South America (as the island southeast of Asia) in the image below. (Note that southern Africa is marked as the site of the Garden of Eden!) The original map vanished into the private hands of an unnamed collector in the 1930s, and all that remains are photographs taken of it shortly before it disappeared.
In 1883, the Rev. Joseph Cook published Advanced Thought in Europe, Asia, Australia, etc., a weird little volume that “dissented” from “orthodoxy” on a variety of cultural subjects. The Harvard-trained Cook was a famous American orator in his day, and a thinker on the question of the relationship between science and religion. His conclusion was that, through careful backward reasoning, science could be used to prove the claims of religion. It therefore is of little surprise that he found the same “proof” for the lost continent of Atlantis. His discussion follows, reproduced with the original (and unusual) second person narration. As he explained, “when I say ‘you’ I mean myself.” Despite Cook’s fame in his day, his work did not survive him in the public’s mind, and his speculations have largely faded into obscurity.
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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