Yesterday we all learned the news of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Fans of alternative archaeology and ancient astronauts will also remember him as a member of the 1976 expedition that went in search of Tayos caves in Ecuador that Erich von Däniken claimed in The Gold of the Gods (1972) contained a vast library of metal books inscribed with the writings of an alien civilization. Von Däniken had claimed in Gold to have personally visited this metal library, but he was forced to admit that he had fabricated his account of the cave after its alleged discoverer, Juan Moricz, stated that he had never taken von Däniken to the cave.
Von Däniken claimed his false personal account was dramaturgisch Effekte or “theatrical effect” (i.e. dramatic license) and that the cave really existed, though he would not travel there himself because he feared the Ecuadorian government would assassinate him for revealing too much information, and “I really don’t care too much” about the only extraterrestrial artifacts that could prove his theories beyond doubt.
In 1976, Scottish explorer Stanley Hall, a deep believer in alternative science and ancient astronauts, asked Armstrong, then a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, to join him on a British military scientific expedition to Ecuador to investigate the Tayos caves, which von Däniken had claimed were carved at perfect right angles by aliens with laser beams. Armstrong, as Honorary President of the expedition, flew to Quito in August on a British Royal Air Force cargo plane along with Hall and the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers regiment to explore the caves, though he was unaware of von Däniken’s wild claims about them or Hall’s alternative theories. It took only a day’s exploration at Cueva de los Tayos to determine two essential facts. First, there was no metal library where von Däniken had claimed. Second, in Armstrong’s own words: “It was the conclusion of our expedition group that they [the caves] were natural formations.” No lasers. No gold library. No aliens.
Newspapers had a field day, publishing headlines like “THE CHARLATAN MAKES A FOOL OF HIMSELF,” and “DÄNIKEN UNMASKED!”
Von Däniken quickly went into damage control mode. Despite having conceded that his Gold of the Gods claims were fabrications in a 1974 Playboy interview, von Däniken reversed course, doubled down on the caves’ reality, and suggested that Armstrong had been duped into debunking him:
“He [Armstrong] knew nothing about his task of exposing Däniken,” he wrote in 1977’s According to the Evidence. “Every expert knows that there are hundreds of different caves in Ecuador.” Armstrong did not set out with the purpose of debunking von Däniken, but he also did not shy away from asserting that the science he conducted was real and that his findings were sound. Von Däniken’s new tactic was to claim that whatever cave anyone visited (and many tried), it was the wrong cave—even though he would never say what the “right” cave might be. He would later claim that Hall knew the exact position of the true cave and purposely went to the wrong one to protect the metal library from exposure to the wrong sort of people. (Presumably the ones who in von Däniken’s imagination were waiting to assassinate him.)
Von Däniken became angry when the controversy would not go away, and he recognized that this was the beginning of the end for his time in the spotlight. A popular author could not withstand the double-whammy of confessing fabrication and being publicly debunked by a global hero. That’s why he began striking out, demanding to know in 1977’s According to the Evidence, “What are they [the media] still on about?” and telling his dwindling readership that his 1972 claim was five years in the past, old news, and probably in a different cave anyway.
But the public had moved on. Von Däniken continued to write books, but they sold fewer copies, and he was no longer the media darling of the heady years of 1973-1975, when he was on the Tonight show, interviewed in Playboy, and the toast of the New Age intelligentsia. EST, pyramid power, Noah’s Ark, and alien abductions had begun to take over the public imagination, and ancient astronauts were no longer interesting enough even for In Search of…, the 1976-1982 television program spun off from In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) and its two sequels, the film versions of von Däniken’s own work. His theories appeared just once on the series after the Armstrong expedition, despite a prominent first season role. In 1978, a biography of von Däniken by Peter Krassa appeared, but even this laudatory tome was forced to ask if “von Däniken [was] at the end of the road.”
For the next twenty years, von Däniken was an afterthought in alternative history. He continued to pump out his twenty-five books, but increasingly few were ever translated into English. In 1996, he hit his low point, forced to concede that Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval had surpassed him in popularity with their lost civilization and ancient Egypt theories. So he wrote The Eyes of the Sphinx, among his last major works published by a large English language publisher (Penguin's Berkley) and the last for which he apparently wrote completely original text. (His later books contained increasing amounts of recycled text, much of it from Eyes.) It was a sad book, summarizing Hancock and Bauval and layering on aliens.
Von Däniken experienced a dramatic resurrection on the back of Ancient Aliens (2009-present), but the bitterness showed. In 2010, von Däniken, now a prophet claiming the imminent return of the aliens to punish his enemies, still felt anger at Armstrong and all those (like, ahem, me) who continued to cite him as proof that von Däniken had lied about the metal library. (Well, he did admit to lying after all…) In History Is Wrong (2010), von Däniken again asserted that despite his earlier lies, the metal library was real and the media and skeptics were his enemies:
What part of von Däniken’s life’s work is not understood? Which of his lies, fabrications, distortions, and untruths has been left unexamined? Erich von Däniken was diagnosed as a psychopath and pathological liar by a court-appointed psychiatrist during his embezzlement trial, and he could be dismissed on those grounds, but skeptics have studiously examined his every claim because hypotheses are independent of the theorist. His biography and “life’s work” is irrelevant; every claim has been found wanting.
For the record, before his death in 2008, Hall revealed the “true” location of the cave: 1° 56’ 00” S, 77° 47’ 34” W. If von Däniken is so certain that this site is a “kick in the teeth” (his words) to “conservative” archaeology and ethnology, I invite him to prove us all wrong and do what he never did in the 1970s: actually visit the cave and show us some real proof. It’s what Neil Armstrong’s expedition tried to do, and it is the honorable way to pay respect to an American hero. Your move, Däniken.
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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