This month’s National Geographic has an interesting story about “glacial erratics,” boulders left behind by the glaciers that once covered large parts of North America. After seeing rocks riding on European glaciers, Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) used the existence of such rocks in Europe to develop the theory of the Ice Age, arguing that the distribution of these rocks implied that vast ice sheets had once covered the continent and deposited the stones.
Prior to Agassiz’s work, these erratic stones were believed to have been deposited by Noah’s Flood, the only force religious scholars could imagine capable of transporting boulders across the landscape. In the Geographic article, Native American legends claimed that the boulders were stones that “fell from the sky,” presumably because there seemed to be no local source capable of producing such immense and out-of-place rocks.
This case is rather instructive since we have a situation analogous to the ancient astronaut theory or “alternative archaeology.” Ancient myths tell one or more conflicting stories about an anomaly and science proposes a completely different view drawn not from religion but from evidence.
If we were to follow ancient astronaut methodology, these boulders would be clear “evidence” of a global flood or a rain of sky boulders, since ancient people, after all, always report the unvarnished truth (except, of course, when the ancient astronaut theory requires another outcome).
But this isn’t the case. Because Agassiz developed his theory in the early nineteenth century (before Darwin), it has entered popular imagination with little controversy, the debate over the idea having been settled more than 150 years ago when a scientific consensus formed around the theory of the Ice Age in a time when science held great public respect and was not yet viewed as a direct and mortal threat to religious dogma.
So, it isn’t surprising that despite the clear evidence of “ancient myths and texts” that the erratics are the result of Noah’s Flood or alien bombardment, almost no modern alternative theorist takes these legends seriously. This, of course, calls into question once again the methodology by which these theorists assign truth value, seemingly at random, to myths and legends. Apparently, the only criterion is convenience to the researcher’s pet theory.
As far as I can find, there are only a few fringe theorists who associate these boulders with UFOs and aliens (despite, as I’ve noted, the Native American legends about sky rocks). Even then, it is usually rocks balanced on other rocks that attract the most attention. Here in New York State (but of course), at North Salem there is a boulder sitting atop five smaller rocks. This boulder has been associated, for no good reason, with UFO sightings in the area (actually helicopters that routinely fly overhead). Local residents claim that cloaked figures stalk the rock, and that visitors experience weird “sinus pressure” due to, and I am not making this up, energy from the past projecting outward from the rock to disturb the noses of the sensitive. This makes the North Salem rock a “Sacred Power Site” according to alternative authors.
Of course, aliens aren’t the only theory about the rock. Remember how Noah’s Flood was once blamed for the erratics? Well, in North Salem the rock formation is attributed to Celtic visitors to America who set up a dolmen like those found in Neolithic Britain. Barry Fell, in America B.C. (1976), called the site the “largest” Celtic dolmen in America, declared it the monument of a king (!), and associated it with other (fake) Irish dolmens dedicated to the sun god Bel. Apparently Celtic kings liked giving up the comforts of palace life and internecine warfare to haul rocks in the Hudson Valley, far across the ocean from home. The North Salem Historical Society references this theory on the sign placed beside the formation.
So what have we learned today? We learned that it is not enough to gape in awe at the power of nature; instead any wonder must be attributed to the work of aliens, lost civilizations, or traveling white people from Europe. (Note: Not under any circumstances Native Americans.) And, like the ancient astronaut theory in general, the case of the glacial erratics shows what happens when suggestive but accidental imagery intersects with imaginations primed for outré explanations.
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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