Since it was a rather slow day today, I thought it might be a good idea to mark the fortieth anniversary of a seminal moment in fringe history. 1976 saw a wave of epochal fringe events that set the course for the world of aliens, Atlanteans, and other unusual material we are dealing with today.
Just before the start of the year, in November 1975, Travis Walton alleged that he had been abducted by aliens following a viewing on an NBC TV-movie about the Betty and Barney Hill abduction. The story reached national attention in December thanks to the National Enquirer and set the template for future alien abduction accounts. The story stayed in the news through the early months of 1976 thanks to the ongoing drama over Walton’s polygraph test, administered by the ARPO UFO group in November 1975 and released in February 1976.
Meanwhile, in 1976, Erich von Däniken was riding high due to the success of Chariots of the Gods following the widely seen TV adaptation In Search of Ancient Astronauts in 1973. During the summer of 1976, von Däniken even made an attempt to advise then-president Gerald Ford on his reelection campaign, imagining that his popularity would make his counsel about treating UFO believers as a voting bloc welcome to the incumbent. Ford ignored him and lost the election for unrelated reasons. Forty years later Hillary Clinton now runs ads on Ancient Aliens to reach the UFO audience, in part due to her own stated interest in flying saucers and alien abductions, an interest honed in the 1970s.
In 1976, no less a figure than Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, set out for Ecuador to try to confirm von Däniken’s claim in The Gold of the Gods that he had entered an artificial cave full of alien gold. The failure of that expedition to find the cave prompted headlines such as “The Charlatan Makes a Fool of Himself” and “Däniken Unmasked!” The negative publicity contributed to a downturn in the career of a man who had formerly been the toast of the media. The embarrassment prompted von Däniken to start work on According to the Evidence, a book in which he blasted the media for attacking him, and starting ancient astronautics down the road to seeking outlets outside of mainstream media to deliver fringe messages without the risk of challenge. Von Däniken’s career did not fully recover until the 1990s and the fringe revival inaugurated by Graham Hancock.
He did get a consolation prize, however. In 1976 Walter Ernsting’s novel The Day the Gods Died featured von Däniken as a character, bravely searching for the “truth.” Von Däniken also wrote the introduction to the novel.
Also in 1976 Zecharia Sitchin published his first book, Twelfth Planet, which was published in the wake of the success of von Däniken. In the book, Sitchin claimed that space aliens landed on the ancient earth to mine gold for their wandering planet Nibiru, claims he supported with eccentric interpretations of Biblical and Mesopotamian texts. Sitchin’s book introduced the Anunnaki into fringe history, and later volumes in his “Earth Chronicles” series would eventually equate the mysterious Mesopotamian gods with the Biblical Nephilim.
Sitchin’s books, because of their patina of pseudo-scholarship, became highly influential and resulted in seemingly endless copying and recycling, from Elizabeth Claire Prophet’s New Age spirituality to Ancient Aliens continued rehashing of his ancient mistakes.
Sitchin’s claims seemed to find an uncanny echo in a photograph of Mars taken by the Viking orbiter in July 1976. Within a month, news spread that a “face” had been discovered on Mars, launching a wave of conspiracy theories about ancient Martian civilizations and their alleged connection to Egypt.
That same year also saw the publication of Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery, another ancient astronaut text that had pretensions of scholarship. Temple had learned about Erich von Däniken through conversations with Arthur C. Clarke and was inspired to write his own “ancient astronaut” book. While Temple’s book was, in truth, based on secondary sources (such as Robert Graves’s Greek Myths) and an unwavering trust in controversial anthropological reports from preceding decades, many were fooled by his copious footnotes into thinking that Temple had produced the first truly intellectual and serious examination of whether amphibians from another world splashed down in the Persian Gulf thousands of years ago.
Temple’s book had strangely positive reviews. Time praised its “sophistication” and its “torrent of arcane information,” while the journal Nature claimed that it was a “fascinating book because the nugget of mystery Temple has mined and polished is from a pure vein. … The Sirius Mystery should be taken seriously.” These were hardly alone. More than a few scholars, mostly in the humanities, rushed to praise Temple’s book despite its manifest shortcomings. Bernard W. Riley lauded Temple for his “philosophical message” raising the profile of indigenous African achievements in the journal African Arts. Even in dismissing the book as flawed, Ronald W. Davis praised it for being “provocative” in the International Journal of African Historical Studies. It remains the best-reviewed ancient astronaut book of all time, and the one with the widest scholarly acceptance, though this damns it with faint praise.
Temple’s book went on to inspire Afrocentrists because of its praise of the Dogon, an African people. But more importantly, his book’s claims about ancient cities mirroring constellations inspired Robert Bauval, by his own admission, to invent The Orion Mystery, through which Graham Hancock and his “lost civilization” gave the old Atlantis myth the aura of science.
Speaking of Afrocentrists, 1976 also saw the publication of They Came Before Columbus, Ivan Van Sertima’s seminal Afrocentric account of how Africans dominated the pre-Columbian Americas. His book was not different in kind from earlier Afrocentric texts going back half a century, but it was different in style, aping the look and feel of 1970s “ancient mystery” books and substituting Africans as the protagonists in order to create a (fictional but) empowering prehistory for African-Americans.
Christian conservatives, meanwhile, went in search of Noah’s Ark, and an expedition to climb Ararat in search of it prompted concerned cables in the State Department as the U.S. government worked to help investigators get permission to view sensitive military photographs of the mountain. The State Department also responded to a request for information about Josef F. Blumrich’s von Däniken-inspired book on the Spaceships of Ezekiel.
During 1976, the author known only as “Simon” began work on the pastiche of Mesopotamian texts that would become known as the Simon Necronomicon, a book that was published the next year and which helped popularize the hitherto fringe notion of Lovecraftian “magick.”
Heck, 1976 was also the year that The Six Million Dollar Man invented the “connection” between Bigfoot and flying saucers (S03E16 and E17, “The Secret of Bigfoot”)! This is the origin point for the “interdimensional” or “supernatural” Sasquatch favored by ancient astronaut theorists and seen on Ancient Aliens 35 years later as “nonfiction.” The more direct inspiration for Ancient Aliens, Erich von Däniken did not see any money, though, from the series spawned by In Search of Ancient Astronauts. Following the death of Rod Serling in 1975, producer Alan Landsburg took it upon himself to continue the televised exploration of ancient mysteries by creating a spin off, In Search of..., which he planned, developed, and began producing in 1976, selling it to local TV stations in syndication for a spring 1977 launch.
Yes, 1976 was quite the year. Let’s hope we don’t see its like again.
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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