In 1974, ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken sat down with the science writer Timothy Ferris for three days of interviews for Playboy magazine. This was one of the rare occasions when an ancient astronaut theorist submitted to questioning from a well-informed skeptic, something that almost never happens today. I am reviewing this extraordinary interview in segments. This is part four.
Since Erich von Däniken (EVD) spends so much of his time claiming that the various sacred texts of every religion (except, of course, Islam) are really the records of alien visitation, the obvious question is whether the ancient astronaut theory constitutes a sort of substitute religion. EVD replies that the theory is not a religion because it prescribes no moral actions and proscribes no sins. EVD asks Ferris is he has ever read the Bible, implying that the difference is clear.
Ferris turns the question around and asks EVD if he is not merely a Biblical literalist in a new form, substituting aliens for God. EVD disagrees, arguing that his work is about uncovering ancient science, not religion. He argues that scientists, by dint of specialization, miss the bigger picture. Every anthropologist, he claims, wishes “to prove that man comes from the ape, to find which is the first man, what ape comes after another ape, and so forth.” The result, he claims, is “tunnel vision” that prevents scientists from seeing “the truth”—i.e., aliens.
“Are you sure you understand how scientists work?” an incredulous Ferris asks. EVD admits that his description of science as a cabal of old men who are resistant to new ideas was wrong, but he immediately reverses course and claims that archaeology is the one science ruled by dull, dead dogma: “…there is no fantasy in those brains. There is no speculation.” Archaeologists, he says, care only about chronology, manufacture, and cultural succession. “Who cares about that?” EVD asks. The bigger question is who gave them their culture (aliens). In this, EVD again reveals how little he knows of archaeology, ignorant of the role that imagination and, yes, speculation play in proposing new hypotheses and envisioning how ancient cultures worked. It is a recurring theme in EVD’s work—ancient people have no imagination, scientists have no imagination, historians have no imagination. Only EVD has imagination—only he can fantasize about aliens.
The conversation then turns to the cave in Ecuador where EVD claimed in The Gold of the Gods to have viewed plastic furniture, golden statues of animals, and a library of golden tablets on which the aliens had written their history. Ferris informs EVD that Juan Moricz, the adventurer whom EVD said led him into the cave, denied ever having done so.
“I guess we are both telling half the truth,” EVD said (p. 58). “Which half is yours?” Ferris asks.
EVD explains that he lied about the location and the details of the cave—but only to protect the treasures therein. “In German we say a writer, if he is not writing pure science, is allowed to use some dramaturgisch Effekte—some theatrical effects. And that’s what I have done.” EVD then expresses outrage that the controversy is centered on whether he had ever seen the caves, not whether the treasures in them exist. So had he been to cave? Well, maybe, just not where he said in the book he was. He went in an undocumented “side entrance.” So did he really see the golden wonders he claimed to have seen? “Definitely,” he replies, before claiming he is no longer sure whether they were really made of gold.
Ferris again presses EVD on whether his description of his trip into the cave is correct, and EVD replies that it was fictional. “It is what I call theatrical effect” (p. 58). Did EVD even enter the cave? “Yeah, sure,” he replies (p. 58). He then claims that Moricz is purposely lying about EVD out of spite because EVD violated a confidentiality agreement meant to protect the caves’ treasures from outsiders. “But again, to me the main point is not if I have seen these things or not. I just don’t care. The question is, do they exist?” (p. 58). EVD says he will not go to Ecuador to retrieve the artifacts because he fears the Ecuadorian government would assassinate him for revealing their existence, “and I really don’t care too much anymore.”
This passage is, quite frankly, astonishing. EVD’s cavalier attitude toward truth is on full display, along with his singularly disingenuous claims to curiosity. Yes, the question is whether these treasures exist, but EVD passed up the chance to prove the existence of what would have been proof positive of alien encounters. Why? This is the same astonishing lack of interest Graham Hancock displayed when he neglected to investigate a Mexican site he claimed was absolute proof of a prehistoric lost civilization. In the face of the artifacts that could forever prove the ancient astronaut theory, what did EVD do? He lied, he dissembled, and he then had the gall to argue that his own claims about the alien artifacts ought to be proved by someone else even though he was supposedly right there! Then to top it off, he claims not to care about the only actual proof of alien encounters he has ever found!
Next time: EVD defends more fake evidence and tries to explain claims even he admits he doesn’t understand.
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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