There are so many interesting things to explore about the past, so much exciting and fascinating history, that the so-called “mysteries” of the ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians pale in comparison. And yet, what is that we see on television, find on bookstore shelves, and stumble across on nearly every website? Aliens, Atlantis, Chupacabra, “new” chronologies, Phoenician world travelers, prehistoric nuclear bombs, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
It’s tiresome, really. The false mysteries of fake history haven’t changed more than an iota in more than 150 years. Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) set the stage for “alternative” history (though it was not the first of its genre, only the most popular), and his work is a veritable buffet of scholarship compared to the imperfect carbon copies that followed during the twentieth century. All of the basic arguments later used by Erich von Däniken in the 1970s, David Hatcher Childress in the 1980s, Graham Hancock in the 1990s, and Ancient Aliens: The Series today can be found in Donnelly’s book. Most of the later versions are unchanged from their first presentation: that pyramids on both sides of the world are evidence of a common source; that the use of heavy blocks implies a centralized prehistoric civilization of superior organization and power; that similarities in myth speak to a common origin in real life history.
Science has demonstrated the falsity of these claims—the impossibility of a sunken continent existing in the Atlantic; the wild dissimilarities in composition, purpose, and date of the Old and New World pyramids; the elaborate evolutionary tree of Indo-European myth and other myth cycles that explains so many similarities and coincidences.
And yet… No matter how much work archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, history, biology, and every other discipline put in to explaining the human past, “alternative” theories never change. Sure, some may argue for Atlantis and others for aliens, or even an unidentified “lost” civilization in Antarctica or on the parts of continents sunken at the end of the Ice Age, but the claims and the evidence and the reasoning are always the same. They are immune to criticism.
True believers will never surrender their beliefs because they are not founded on evidence.
How else can we explain why “alternative” authors still rely on sources that were out of date when Donnelly used them in 1882? How else can we explain why “alternative” authors repeat the same discredited lies over and over again? Arguments that were speculative in the 1860s do not become suddenly true against facts simply by virtue of age.
In 1882, Nature wrote that Donnelly made a mockery of the scientific sources he tried to marshal to his cause: “Our only reason for noticing this curious book is that the names of writers of authority which constantly appear in its pages may lead some readers astray. But the author, while quoting them, has neither assimilated their method nor understood the bearing of their facts.” This situation has not changed with the likes of von Däniken, Childress, et al., who ape the language of science and its pretentions without caring a whit for its methods or its reasoning.
The saddest thing is that a century from now, those who truly care about history will still be fighting the same battles against the same purveyors of false history. And I’ll be willing to bet the fight will still be over the same “evidence” that Donnelly used in 1882.
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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