Happy New Year! As we start 2017, I thought I would continue my annual tradition and look back at 2016 in fringe history. It was probably one of the most depressing years for fringe history in decades.
The annus horribilis got off to a bad start with the continuing fallout from the December 2015 claim that a “Roman” sword had been discovered off the coast of Oak Island in Canada. Sword advocate J. Hutton Pulitzer doubled down on the assertion and offered a cascade of new claims in support of the contention, none of which were supported with physical or scientific evidence that outside observers could confirm. The Curse of Oak Island featured the sword and said that scientific testing proved it was most likely modern. Meanwhile, a rapper made headlines by convincing some in his audience that the Earth is flat, and at least one science writer was fine with that. An ancient astronaut museum opened next to Disneyland, while former American Nazi Party boss Frank Joseph put out a book claiming dolphins are telepathic space aliens and that mermaids are real. Conspiracy theorists joined together on the ConspiraSea cruise, after which former Ancient Aliens talking head Sean David Morton was arrested for tax fraud. Skeptics’ accounts of the cruise bizarrely continued to be published into August, while much bigger, influential, and better attended conferences like October’s Alien Con passed almost unnoticed by skeptics.
In February, we lost the H2 network, the purveyor of pseudoscience and pseudohistory and the broadcaster of programs like America Unearthed and Ancient Aliens. While Ancient Aliens would live on over on sister station History, the transition from H2 to Viceland killed off America Unearthed. The replacement channel would broadcast rapper Action Bronson’s stoned reactions to Ancient Aliens in a new program in which he smoked marijuana and discussed old episodes. Taco Bell paid Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens to appear in a Super Bowl ad, while Nephilim theorist L. A. Marzulli declared the Super Bowl halftime show to be an Illuminati conspiracy. Elsewhere, actress Shirley MacLaine wrote a book explaining that in a past life space aliens helped her to watch as the lost continent of Atlantis decayed into the Canary Islands, where she shot a recent movie. Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates promised to leave the country and move to Vancouver if Donald Trump were elected. As of this writing, he had not. Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) claimed archaeology was not in the “national interest.”
In March, conspiracy theorists of a Christian bent imagined that liberal elites were planning to worship Moloch at massive art installations in London and New York. They did not. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers confessed his love of Ancient Aliens and said that conspiracy theories give him “hope.” Janet Wolter and Alan Butler claimed to find a temple to Venus in Washington, D.C., even though it’s nothing of the sort. Fringe geologist Robert Schoch announced plans to raise $600,000 from his fans to fund his new Organization for the Research of Ancient Culture, the latest phase of a years-long effort to be paid to explore ancient sites and to turn his life story into a blockbuster action movie. The British pseudohistory series Forbidden History returned for a third season of repetition, speculation, and lies. Ancient Origins sent its owners and giant-hunters Jim Vieira and Hugh Newman to look for the Ecuadoran cave Erich von Däniken alleged was full of alien gold. They did not find it. A mentally ill Marine shot and killed a pastor before traveling to Washington, D.C. to deliver a message to Pres. Obama about the danger of Martian infiltrators in the government.
In April, Christian extremists fell for a piece of fiction claiming to be a “suppressed” text written by a Nephilim giant before the Flood, and they claimed Pres. Obama and the Nazis were working to resurrect the Nephilim corpses buried in the deepest ocean trenches. Oh, and they said Stonehenge was built by the devil. None of that was remotely true. Ancient Origins claimed that there was a conspiracy to hide the Old World golden artifacts allegedly collected by Father Crespi in Ecuador, artifacts that earlier visitors to Ecuador had reported were crude forgeries made of metals like brass, copper, and tin.
In May, Graham Hancock announced that he would produce a “lengthy” article dismantling the ancient astronaut theory. He did not. Former television personalities Scott Wolter and J. Hutton Pulitzer announced that they would merge their operations into a company called Xplrr Media, LLC, which would produce new television and online content. As of year’s end, it had not. Swiss publicist and onetime geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger resurrected his own 1992 claim that the Luwian civilization caused the Bronze Age collapse for a new book, website, and media tour. Scholars were not impressed. Ancient Aliens returned for an astonishing eleventh season of repetition, speculation, and lies. The show’s parent company announced its plans to promote Ancient Aliens as a “lifestyle” brand. A 15-year-old boy believed he had discovered a secret star pattern to Maya cities, causing a media sensation. He was wrong.
In June, the producers of Forbidden History created a second show, Inside Secret Societies, covering Holy Bloodline conspiracies. In other Holy Bloodline news, the so-called “Jesus Wife’s Gospel” was shown to be a likely fake, and The Atlantic concluded that it had been created by a German pornographer with a Da Vinci Code fantasy obsession. Graham Hancock delivered a TEDx talk that the organization slapped a warning on for failing to meet scientific standards, and he claimed that cacti are the physical embodiment of cosmic intelligence. Actress Megan Fox said she is privy to secret Egyptian government knowledge about the real purpose of the pyramids, and she hoped she could host a fringe history show on the new Viceland channel. An educational geography show for teenagers claimed that ancient history and legend proves pomegranates can read calendars.
In July, Scott Wolter and J. Hutton Pulitzer announced that they would soon document the uncovering of the remains of a human giant and broadcast a show about the find. They did not, but they did threaten to sue me for libel in a dispute over how to interpret the words they used in their announcement. Later, they admitted that local officials had determined the bones were those of an animal. Pulitzer also claimed that a tomb near Oak Island might hold the body of Hercules. He provided no proof. In advance of the release of the Watchers X DVD, L. A. Marzulli announced the discovery of the corpse of a “fairy” in Mexico. Months later, after gaining publicity for the “discovery,” he would sheepishly admit that the body was a taxidermy fake. He also claimed his team had discovered “European” DNA in elongated Peruvian skulls, though critics maintained that poor research protocols almost certainly contaminated the samples with the researchers’ own DNA. Conspiracy theorist David Icke appeared on the Australian Today show and had a meltdown when challenged on his ideas. Graham Hancock added trees to his list of plants that act as “antennae” for supernatural beings and spy on us mammals.
In August, Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens confessed that even he doesn’t understand how the show’s producers can keep coming up with new claims. It helps when you don’t need facts. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin suggested that history professors could be replaced with PBS or History Channel DVDs. Fringe media blew up with discussion of a years-old claim about a “giant” being discovered by the U.S. military in Afghanistan after L. A. Marzulli included the story in Watchers X. The story is almost certainly false. Scott Wolter announced his plan to attach his claims to those of Graham Hancock, now stating that his conspiratorial “Venus Families” were the descendants of Hancock’s lost civilization of Atlantaeans, also known as Nephilim. The two scheduled a meeting for the fall.
In September, David Wilcock of Ancient Aliens released his book The Ascension Mysteries (my review: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), which turned out to be a strange and somewhat depressing autobiography in which the author discussed his self-described trauma and mental illness, which occurred at the same time he began to see fantastical conspiracies all around him. L. A. Marzulli admitted in a lengthy video to being taken in by the fairy hoax, but that did not stop him from cashing in on the fake demon-fairy corpse or using his admission to boost his credibility as a truth-teller, at least after making money from gullibility. He also endorsed Donald Trump for president and announced that Scott Wolter was his inspiration to hunt Nephilim in New Hampshire. A European company announced plans to turn Chariots of the Gods into a “360-degree” entertainment experience. As of this writing, they had not. A Chinese geochemist claimed that Chinese civilization derived from the Hyksos kings of ancient Egypt. He was not even the only person to ascribe parts of ancient Chinese culture to Westerners in 2016.
In October, the BBC aired a documentary alleging that the famous terra cotta warriors buried near the tomb of China’s first emperor may have been the work of Greek artisans, prompting consternation from Chinese scholars, who suspected cultural appropriation. Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island executive producer Kevin Burns spoke openly about his belief in conspiracy theories about history and that all religions are the result of contact with space aliens. Ancient Aliens held the first Alien Con fan convention in California, with the show’s stars as the feature attraction. The crackpot Iraqi transportation minister announced that Sumerians operated airports and traveled to outer space, prompting ridicule in the Arabic-language press. Robert Schoch alleged that werewolves are really humans who have formed psychic connections to animals while high on drugs. Skeptics toured creationist Ken Ham’s replica of Noah’s Ark and found it to be rather disturbing. A survey from Chapman University released in October found that 27% of Americans believe in ancient astronauts and almost 40% believe in Atlantis or another lost super-civilization. Nephilim theorists spent the waning weeks of the 2016 election campaign alleging that Hillary Clinton was a literal demon from hell and praising Donald Trump as either God’s instrument or even the next Messiah. The daughter-in-law of racist anthropologist, Vichy government collaborator, and Neo-Nazi leader Jacques de Mahieu lashed out at me to Scott Wolter on Twitter for identifying her father-in-law accurately.
When Wikileaks released a cache of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails many believe were obtained from Russian hackers (Wikileaks denied this), we learned that he had been in contact with ex-Blink-182 bandmember Tom DeLonge about DeLonge’s multimedia UFO disclosure project. After Donald Trump won an Electoral College majority, white nationalists became more open about using fringe history and hyper-diffusionist arguments to promote racist causes. L. A. Marzulli, emboldened by Trump’s win, wrote a screed about why he is offended to be told he has white privilege. Andrew Collins and Hugh Newman put on a fringe history conference in London that conflated fringe archaeology with the occult. Anne Rice explained that she loves Graham Hancock’s books and uses them in her fiction. Hancock spent three and a half hours on the Joe Rogan Experience bashing skeptics. Graham Phillips recycled his own claim that the Ark of Covenant is buried in rural England, while Scott Wolter and J. Hutton Pulitzer strongly implied that they would soon announce the discovery of resting place of the Ark in North America. They did not. Pulitzer also claimed to have evidence that a Roman soldier was buried in “near conjunction” to Oak Island. He said he would provide details in a future broadcast. As of year’s end, he had not.
In December, the History Channel suffered an embarrassment after the show Hunting Hitler wrongly implied in November that a photograph of Jewish comedian Moe Howard was one of genocidal anti-Semitic tyrant Adolf Hitler. They quickly backtracked and pretended in a December broadcast that the incident had not occurred. As the year neared its end, a Malaysian historian claimed, without evidence, that 16-foot-tall human giants were buried on an island off Malacca. An alt-right supporter who spoke at a pro-Trump white nationalist rally became offended that the school where he earned his Ph.D. spoke of him at a faculty meeting as a white nationalist or white supremacist, and it turned out that in his dissertation he relied on Atlantis, ancient astronauts, and ESP to make a case for a philosophical system that put “Aryans” in a privileged position. Nephilim theorists, Evangelical fundamentalists, white supremacists, and David Wilcock all hailed Donald Trump as a necessary scourge who will cleanse the Earth of the evils of liberalism. Wilcock embraced the false conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” and alleged that Illuminati and space aliens run the Democratic Party as a front for pedophilia and use pizza as the symbol of their tyranny. Scott Wolter met with Giorgio Tsoukalos at a Latin American History Channel event, and he said that he is now convinced that Graham Hancock’s “Atlanteans” really existed.
In the last weeks of 2016, publishers readied several dubious archaeology books for a January release, including Lost City of the Monkey God, about the alleged discovery of the mythical Ciudad Blanca, and The Origin of the Sphinx (my review Part 1 and Part 2), Robert Schoch’s and Robert Bauval’s latest recycling of 1990s-era claims. On the last day of the year, some of the producers of October’s Alien Con announced a knockoff fan convention for May 2017, Alien Expo, without the official endorsement of the History Channel, but which was set to feature David Hatcher Childress from Ancient 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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