_ One of the key claims of the ancient astronaut theory is that many prehistoric buildings are constructed of stones so massive that no human could have built them. For example, in Chariots of the Gods, Erich von Däniken writes that
“Our imagination is unable to conceive what technical resources our forefathers used to extract a monolithic rock of more than 100 tons from a quarry, and then transport it and work it in a distant spot.” (p. 22)
For von Däniken and his followers, this is evidence that extraterrestrial beings were responsible for such achievements. But this line of reasoning—I don’t understand it, so it must be super-human—is quite ancient. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Greek travel writer Pausanias (fl. 2nd c. CE) reported the widespread belief that the ruins left behind by the Mycenaean people nearly 2,000 years before Pausanias wrote were so monumental that only the offspring of the gods could have built them:
It was jealousy which caused the Argives to destroy Mycenae. […] There still remain, however, parts of the city wall, including the gate, upon which stand lions. These, too, are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who made for Proetus the wall at Tiryns. (Description of Greece, 2.16.5)
Going on from here and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns. […] The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together. (2.25.8)
Just as von Däniken argued that humans could not move the blocks of Sachsayhuaman, so too did Pausanias precede him in arguing that the godlike quality of the workmanship was marked by the inability of modern humans to lift such blocks.
Of course, we know very well who built Mycenae and Tiryns (hint: the people are called Mycenaeans for a reason), and even Erich von Däniken does not pretend their architecture was superhuman in scale. Instead, he claimed in Odyssey of the Gods that the cities were built out of extraterrestrial concrete blocks! (Aliens apparently poured irregular blocks, necessitating a different mold for each, simply to confuse later archaeologists.) So, if we can admit that human knowledge advances over time to provide increasingly accurate explanations of how seemingly-miraculous sites were constructed, why should we attribute other ancient cities to aliens? In other words, why believe von Däniken or Giorgio Tsoukalos on the impossibility of architecture if we readily dismiss Pausanias’ attribution of Mycenaean architecture to the offspring of the gods?
Interestingly, such “cyclopean” architecture has long been (wrongly) assumed to link various ancient cultures. In the nineteenth century, antiquarians imagined a link between the cyclopean Lion Gate at Mycenae and the trilithons of Stonehenge, attributing both the Celts: “That the Cyclopes were Celts is certain; and it appears that the postern gate of Mycenae is in the form of one of the Trilithons of Stonehenge…” (The Treasury of Knowledge, 1850, “Ancient Buildings,” p. 227). Ignatius Donnelly linked Mycenaean cyclopean structures to those of Mexico, and others took the link still further, attributing the Pacific Island architecture of the Polynesians to this same culture, sometimes said to be Atlantis.
Never mind, of course, that such buildings date from wildly different periods (Mycenaeans before 1600 BCE; Mexico before 1000 CE; Polynesia anytime from 500 CE to 1650 CE) and really don’t look anything alike. They all have one thing in common: Alternative theorists don’t understand them (or don’t want to understand them), and since these theorists take themselves for the measure of all things, their ignorance confirms that only a superhuman intelligence from Atlantis or aliens could be responsible for the miracle of stacking stones one atop the other.
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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