Reviewing more than one TV show a day is a real chore, and while I am busy proofreading and indexing the page proofs for Jason and the Argonauts this month, it’s not really one I can take on. My plan, therefore, is to review Ancient Aliens today and its new companion show Hangar 1 tomorrow. Then, on Monday, I’ll review tonight’s episode of The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved, which due to prior commitments I won’t be able to watch until tomorrow night anyway.
Ancient Aliens S06E17 “The Shamans” represents an interesting tension between the “classic” ancient astronaut theory represented by Giorgio Tsoukalos and the ethereal New Age alien-based religion of David Wilcock and William Henry. Are mystical powers claimed by shamans genuine supernatural powers, or are they misunderstood alien technology? Those are your only options.
We open in northern China in 1211 CE, when Chingis Khan (Genghis Khan) communed with the sky gods in advance of a battles. The show suggests that the claims that the shamans in the Great Khan’s employ could control the weather had something to do with “the divine,” though everyone at every time has attributed weather events to supernatural favor. Remember when David Childress said that the War of 1812 was decided by aliens manipulating tornadoes a few weeks ago? Oddly, the narrator doesn’t seem to want to distinguish between “the divine,” “otherworldly beings,” or “extraterrestrials.” As far as the show is concerned, they’re the same.
The show next defines what a shaman is and how they believe they have the ability to move among a series of stacked planes to commune with the gods. The show asks whether shamans are merely hallucinating or whether they are really experiencing interdimensional travel. Graham Hancock shows up to talk about this, and we already know that he uses drugs, specifically ayahuasca, so he can fight battles with supernatural monsters, so his answer is obvious. It’s not exactly fair, though, to reduce the opposing view to an implication of fraud on the part of the shamans; their hallucinations are altered states of consciousness, but that does not mean that their experiences are necessarily fraudulent, just that they occur within the mind rather than external to the body. To be fair, though, there is no scientific way to exclude the possibility of interdimensional leakage into shamanic brains—we can only say that shamanic experiences can be reproduced through stimulation of specific brain regions and therefore correlate with neurological activity, as David Lewis-Williams discussed in The Mind in the Cave.
At Copán in Honduras, we look at a statue of a Mayan king named 18-Rabbit, who is alleged to have had magical powers gained by letting blood to commune with the gods. They misidentify him as having ruled “2,000 years ago,” when in fact he reigned from 695 to 738 CE. All his alleged magic and connection to the “other world,” as Kathleen McGowan Coppens calls it, did him no good. The show doesn’t tell you that he was captured by a neighboring city and beheaded. Apparently the aliens didn’t care much about that. Perhaps the elderly are not beloved of aliens? William Henry says that the “guidance of these extraterrestrial beings” made him such a great king, and Tsoukalos changes the subject and tells us that the shamans were on the horn communicating with aliens to receive news bulletins and information updates. Again: The aliens failed to warn 18-Rabbit that the neighbors were coming to behead him.
After the break, we travel to Ft. Lauderdale to watch a 2014 Peruvian-style shamanic ceremony with Oscar Miro-Quesada, who talks of his respect for Peruvian tradition, including what he claims is communion with his “relatives” that live in the stars. The show does not tell you that he makes his living peddling “cross-cultural shamanism,” running workshops, and selling books about how to use shamanism as a self-help tool. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is an important thing to know. He claims to be a permanent observer to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, but according to the UN, any indigenous group or NGO can appoint an observer, so this is less of an honor than it seems.
This leads to Miro-Quesada explaining to us that he became interested in folk healing as a child and that his mentors taught him to communicate with spirit helpers. The narrator wants to know if these spirit helpers are interdimensional or extraterrestrial. Therefore, we travel to Big Horn in Wyoming to view a medicine wheel, a rough stone circle from around 1200 CE of uncertain construction. Brian Burkhart, a Native American and scholar (philosophy PhD), states that the medicine wheel is very important and is connected to constellations viewed as sources of cosmic energy. He claims that the star, earth, and human energies combine at the medicine wheel. Childress tells us that little people are associated with the medicine wheel, and Burkhart (!) tells us that these little people are from “another planet” and like to “play around” with people. This contradicts standard sources, which state that the prank-playing little people are typically considered inhabitants of rocks and trees and caves, going back to the first stories recorded by Lewis and Clark in 1804. No pre-space-age source attributes the little people to another planet. Many Crow believed these being to physically reside in caves down to the present, and claimed to have seen their skeletons (often ancient infant burials).
Tsoukalos tells us that these beings are “physical, flesh and blood” extraterrestrials, “the progenitors of knowledge.”
Next we hear from Graham Hancock about the similarity between the shaman’s selection by the gods and alien abductions, for in both cases there is a removal from daily life, an encounter with strange beings in another realm, and (often) the implanting of something weird in the body and/or an operation performed on the body. The difference, unstated, is that alien abductions allegedly require the body to enter the UFO, but shamans’ bodies stay put while their minds supposedly wander. The narrator asks if aliens are abducting shamans, but the shaman’s body never leaves his hut: His spirit is believed to travel to the gods, and indeed no one other than the shaman sees or hears anything unusual—no lights, no sounds, no spaceships.
After the break, we travel to the Peruvian Amazon, oddly described as a “jungle” rather than a “rainforest,” as though this were a 1930s pulp adventure. We talk about the use of plants and drugs to access the spirit realm, particularly ayahuasca, which has been used for thousands of years. Graham Hancock calls it an amazing achievement that native peoples discovered how to combine just two out of tens of thousands of plants to achieve hallucinations. The narrator says that aliens were required to show them the right plants to use. OK, geniuses: How did the aliens examine, catalog, and study “tens of thousands” of plants and test them against human body chemistry to produce the required results? Oh, and then the narrator admits that the “extraterrestrial beings” are actually “spirits” in the original telling. Oh, they have an answer. We will get to that shortly.
The show is shocked to discover that volunteers given the active ingredient in ayahuasca in a hospital setting (outside of “the jungles”) experienced the same neurological results, and the narrator can’t figure out why a drug would produce “similar” results in civilization as it does in the wilds of “the jungles” where the uncivilized, non-Western, and non-rich live. Obviously it has to be aliens. That’s also why aspirin somehow produces the same effects wherever it’s given and isn’t contingent on the color of the wallpaper of the room where it’s taken. The long and short of it is that the chemical in ayahuasca activates the same neurological pathways shamans the world over use to access the spirit world, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to attribute that merely to brain chemistry or to actual spirit contact. It does, however, prove that the phenomenon can’t be “alien abduction” in the classic sense since the medical volunteers never left the laboratory while meeting the “gods.”
After this we get a similar myth from China about an emperor, Shennong (or Shênnung), who catalogued all the world’s plants. This is, of course, how the aliens learned about ayahuasca. The show simply asserts that the emperor who allegedly “tested” all the plants really did consume every poisonous plant because, as David Childress tells us, he was an alien with a transparent body. Sima Qian, the great early Chinese historian, did not consider the folktales about Shennong to be reliable; he merely quotes a brief line from Confucius to the effect that “He was the first to taste the different herbs, and the first to make use of them for medicinal purposes.” The rest is simply myth. The trouble is that Shennong supposedly lived about 2750 BCE, in line with the dates for the first ayahuasca use c. 2000 BCE, yet the show will later claim shamanism goes back 40,000 years.
After the break we visit the San (!Kung) Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert to witness their Trance Dance, by which they access (mentally) their spirit realm. Henry tells us that the San gain supernatural power through trance, but the only evidence of this is that while in this state shamans claim to be impervious to burns. This appears to be similar to the fire-walking stunt seen at many corporate retreats—a bit of water and brief contact with the heat provides a second or two protection. David Wilcock, however, tells us that the San are the “primordial seed of human civilization,” mistaking the San’s genetic relationship to the earliest humans with a lack of evolution—as though they were primitives forever trapped in deep time.
At the Lascaux Caves in France, the show points to a shamanic figure, a man with a bird’s head, a common enough shamanic being, as Graham Hancock explains (correctly!). The show instead tells us that this is “consistent” with the Egyptian god Thoth and “the Sumerian sky gods, the Anunnaki.” This is wrong as we well know because the Anunnaki are not bird-people, and the show has again conflated the Sumerian Anunnaki with the demon-griffins of much later Assyrian and Babylonian art. The show comes close to understanding that the earliest “gods” have a close relationship to the beings witnessed in shamanic trance, but Wilcock mucks it up by declaring that this is not a neurological event but a real trip to a real land where real bird-people live. Tsoukalos, however, disagrees and does not accept that any of this is mental at all. Instead, in his charmingly old-fashioned view, the bird-people flew to earth in rocket ships and visited “all of earth’s cultures and brought them the basics for what we’ve accomplished today.” That would apparently be drugs, dance, and more drugs, judging by this episode.
Graham Hancock, who knows of David Lewis-Williams’s work, correctly understands that altered states of consciousness helped to launch the “radical change in human behavior” seen during the Paleolithic, but the show drops this without a thought.
After the final break, we witness a 2011 Pan-American shamanic gathering in Mexico. We finish by seeing some lab work about how rhythm and repetition can induce altered states of consciousness. The trouble is that the show isn’t willing to decide whether these altered states of consciousness are simply mental, or if they are interdimensional, nor are they willing to decide whether “beings” seen by shamans are internal or external, or spirits, gods, or extraterrestrials. Instead, they speculate that shamanism can unlock mental superpowers. McGowan Coppens tells us that we are all seeking a “connection” to the magical powers of the past—and she would know: she claims to be the descendant of Jesus and to receive spirit visions from Mary Magdalene. Her claims in this episode would seem to undercut her earlier claims about her Holy Bloodline, since if true she would actually be an part-alien speaking with the High Command on Beta Reticuli. The show does not disclose that McGowan Coppens believes she is in contact with supernatural beings and that she makes money from these claims. This is a noticeable ethical lapse.
David Childress finishes the show by spouting nonsense incoherent even by his standards about how shamans contact aliens, aliens created humans, and the aliens are manipulating us “into the future” in some kind of closed ouroboros loop of endlessly profitable fatuous flatulence.
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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