I’ll pick up with my analysis of Erich von Däniken’s 1974 Playboy interview tomorrow, but first it’s time for Ancient Aliens again. Judging from my email, it seems that a sizable part of the audience feels that there is a conspiracy to suppress the program by removing it to History’s sister station H2. It was so well hidden in fact that the conspiracy had History simulcast the first episode on its main channel, just to make sure no one saw it.
The first episode of Ancient Aliens’ new season asked whether the Maya were influenced by aliens. Most of the episode’s territory had been explored in Alan Landsburg’s The Outer Space Connection (1975), right down to the claim that the Maya expected the aliens to return when the stars came right again. But unlike Landsburg, Ancient Aliens left out the cryogenically frozen clones that the aliens were supposed to come back for. This is an improvement of sorts.
One thing that immediately struck me is that the episode had many more real scholars in it than previous outings, probably because they needed people who actually know real things about the Maya in order to explain the culture, since clearly ancient astronaut theorists know nothing about the Maya except what they have read in secondhand sources. Plus, there are only so many times you can say “aliens did it” without becoming repetitive. Many scholars I’ve talked with have mixed feelings about appearing on shows like Ancient Aliens, and the presence of real archaeologists offers a false equivalency that ends up making ancient astronaut theorists (AATs) look more reasonable and credible than they are.
Before we get into the meat of the episode, there is an important fact about the Maya that we have to keep in mind, and one that Ancient Aliens did its best to hide. The program discusses Mayan pyramids, texts, and carvings as they exist today, representing the last years of Maya culture. This was not in some remote period of prehistory. These ruins represent the Classic and Post-Classic periods, roughly contemporary with late Antique and early medieval Europe. The Classic Period runs from 200-1000 CE, but Ancient Aliens treats the Maya as though their culture emerged fully formed, with no understanding of the formative Paleo-Indian and Archaic and Pre-Classic periods that preceded the Classic. When, exactly, did the aliens arrive? In the Classic? Well, “alien” pyramids began long before then. The Pre-Classic? If so, then did they come back again in the Classic, say at Palenque between 603 and 638 CE, when AATs claim Lord Pacal rode to space in a rocket ship?
This is the equivalent of arguing that Justinian’s church of Hagia Sophia (built 527-537 CE) is an alien monument since it is a large, sophisticated building in a mysterious and complex culture, while ignoring the existence of Greece and Rome before it. But who’d buy that Byzantine culture came from aliens?
Now that we have our chronology straight, it’s time to get into the episode proper.
It Really Isn’t Rocket Science
Near the beginning, Philip Coppens declared the Maya the “most advanced” ancient civilization, which is patently ridiculous since these people had not invented the arch, made use of wheels, or took advantage of any of the many advances enjoyed by contemporary peoples. Also, as noted, they weren’t really that ancient, unless you consider Charlemagne ancient. The Classic Maya, remember, were contemporaneous with the Romans and Byzantines, who had arches and concrete and seagoing ships and a vast imperial infrastructure. The Maya had none of this.
But all this Maya madness is territory well-trod since at least von Däniken’s dumb idea about Lord Pacal’s tomb depicting a man in a rocket (a very small rocket, apparently). Naturally, the tomb lid appears here as most important piece of evidence in the ancient astronaut theory. David Childress (apparently definitively dropping the “Hatcher” and once more becoming an ancient astronaut theorist) credited Lord Pacal as “the original rocket man,” which was neither clever nor accurate. Giogrio Tsoukalos noted Pacal was in the position used by modern day astronauts for lift off, which is of course as conclusive as it comes.
A modeler made a 3-D imaginary version of Pacal’s tomb as a space ship, and Tsoukalos declared that the model “is a dream come true.” Neither seemed aware that applying one’s own bias to creating the model produces not evidence but a circular argument, where the premises (“this is a rocket”) yield the conclusion (“this is a rocket”). The most important confession comes when the modeler explains he had to “interpret” the plaque and add things that weren’t there (thrusters) to make it more like a rocket. “Of course!” Tsoukalos declares. Now, think about this: A capsule less than six feet tall is attached to “thrusters” that are supposed to send it safely to escape velocity with no apparent fuel tanks. The stupid thing would explode at ignition. Of course, you could argue it used sophisticated technology, but if so, it shouldn’t have all the smoke and flame AATs imagine are visible in Pacal’s tomb lid.
Turning to other Maya sculptures, Tsoukalos sees cockpits and rockets everywhere, interpreting geometric shapes as prima facie evidence for high technology, since technology has geometric shapes. But then so too does math homework, so maybe that’s what it was after all.
Flying African Alien Astronauts?
Ah, but the Maya aren’t enough to fill an hour on their own, so we next switch to the Olmec of thousands of years earlier, with weird claims that their colossal stone heads are “maybe aliens” because their headgear looks like space helmets. Childress and Tsoukalos, ignorant of everything, claim that Olmec sculptures depict Africans, apparently unaware of actual native peoples of the region who closely resemble the Olmec sculptures found there. Tsoukalos believes one statue in particular depicts an African wearing a space suit with wings to fly from Africa to Mexico to spread the aliens’ message. This is yet another case where you see what you want to see when looking at the statue. All I see is a king or priest in his ceremonial outfit, draped in necklaces and pectorals and other jewelry. Besides, how can the aliens have needed space suits if they also had sex with humans, as ancient astronaut theorists claim? (The “visitors had sexual intercourse with our ancestors,” von Däniken told Playboy in 1974.) And why would Africans need “life support” on earth?
Oh, well, enough Olmecs. Now we’re back to the Maya, this time at Copan, abandoned in the ninth century CE. Surprisingly, much of this segment relies on real archaeologists discussing the actual content of Mayan hieroglyphs, with their emphasis on recording the lineage and deeds of the kings. But then someone who can’t read the hieroglyphs, Giorgio Tsoukalos, claims that the Maya priests who wrote them were in contact with aliens they mistook from gods and used their alien power as “a way to keep the common people in place.” Interestingly, this is what AATs think about scientists today, an elite trying to suppress the truth about aliens and keep the common people ignorant. Coincidence?
The Blood Is the Life
Childress mentions that the Mayan gods “came from the sky,” as though this were proof of alien origins. But this is simplistic. Not all the gods came from the sky. The Mayan death gods, for example, are chthonic deities, who live in Xibalba under the earth. This is not the same as the sky. But the Maya apparently wanted their alien overlords to return, and they sacrificed each other willy-nilly to get the aliens (who must be vampires) to come back.
“Blood sacrifice was nothing else but an act of desperation to bring about the return of the extraterrestrials,” Tsoukalos said, arguing that every culture has a promised return of the gods. This is false. The Greek gods never promised “to return,” for they never left. The Sumerian gods will not “return,” for they are always here. The Hebrew god does not “return” (at least not until Christianity revises him) for he is everywhere. And of course animist societies have no need for “returning” gods because their gods are always here, in the souls of every object. Therefore, to claim “all” ancient cultures predict the return of the gods is only possible if you first disqualify every culture that doesn’t believe it.
Next up: ANCIENT TEXTS! There isn’t really a lot of trust we can put in the Popol Vuh as an unbiased record of the Maya’s beliefs, since it was only written down in 1588, long after Catholic influence infiltrated Mexico. Similarities to Genesis may well be the result of such contamination. It would be roughly the equivalent of trusting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (written 1599) as an accurate representation of Roman history and beliefs. There is a foundation of truth, encrusted with later ideas. If we had no Roman history, we might never know which parts were true and which were Elizabethan fancies. I will wait for the Ancient Aliens episode on how Shakespeare encoded extraterrestrial knowledge into his plays—unless they were really written by aliens!
Snakes on a Spaceship!
Ancient Aliens doesn’t have time for that now. Instead, we move on to SNAKES! What to make the show’s interest in flying serpents I can’t say. Kukulkan isn’t the Chinese dragon, since the Chinese dragon is not a serpent, but a combination of 9 animals: stag, camel, demon, snake, clam, carp, eagle, tiger, and cow. “Space clams” just doesn’t feel the same. The serpent as a wisdom bringer is nearly a human universal, probably because the shedding of its skin associated it with eternal youth and immortality. The only suggestion that Tsoukalos can make as to why this is relevant is that ancient people mistook spaceships for flying snakes and the emergence of astronauts from them as the “creation” of mankind.
Whatever. Tsoukalos claims that all world cultures have “not just similar but identical” serpent myths. “This is not coincidence. This is evidence for ancient alien encounters in the remote past. There is no other way.” But this is so false as to be laughable. The serpent who steals immorality from Gilgamesh and/or Adam and Eve is not the Python slain by Apollo. The flying serpent god of Mexico is not the nine-part Chinese dragon. These creatures have vastly different stories and functions, and they have nothing to do with spaceships or delivering visitors from space. The Greeks, for example, had a serpent god of sorts, Zeus Meilichios, but he was a subterranean god, not a sky god. The Rainbow Serpent of the Australian aborigines lives in water, not the sky. Etc.
The Fault, Dear Brutus, Is Not in Our Stars…
We finish up with a tour of Mayan astronomy, with von Däniken and Coppens arguing that the Maya’s astronomical calculations are so sophisticated that (despite earlier praising their advanced math) they could not have “observed” or calculated these changes but must have been given them by the aliens—aliens who, incidentally, also neglected to inform them about such niceties as the heliocentric solar system, the outer planets, or the Big Bang. Heck, you’d think the aliens might have mentioned something about their home planet, or at least which star it orbited.
Of course, no Mayan conspiracy would be complete without the 2012 apocalypse claim, debunked so many times that it isn’t funny. Childress says 2012 “might be the return of the gods themselves—the extraterrestrials.” Obviously, Childress is very sincere when he insists he is not an ancient astronaut theorist. Ancient Aliens argued that the Maya “conspired” with the aliens to fix the date of the apocalypse and the destruction of the world. Nice of them to do so on behalf of the world. Apparently such contemporary figures as Charlemagne, Pope Leo III, Chinese emperor De Zong, and other luminaries weren’t involved, since they betray no knowledge of the aliens. I wonder why the aliens chose only to appear to the Maya, or why this relatively isolated people were given the awesome task of fixing the end of the world on behalf of all humans. Heck, even the Tiwanaku weren’t given a say, and they’re the ones whose city is supposed to be an alien spaceport.
At any rate, with the deadline for the aliens’ return or the end of the world or whatever fast approaching, this is one episode that won’t play well in reruns. Perhaps that’s why the 2012 discussion was jammed at the end, near the closing credits, so it can be lopped off come 2013 and the series can replay the episode without later audiences being any the wiser that AATs once argued that the aliens would return in 2012, since that kind of prediction worked so well when Alan Landsburg predicted their return for 2011.
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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