Next month, the Travel Channel is sending Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates on a “special event” in which he goes in search of “the mother of all questions.” Do I even have to say that he’s doing a multi-episode hunt for ancient astronauts and UFOs? While I have every confidence that Gates will fail to find ET (since he’s never found any other myth he’s looked for), the fact that the ancient astronaut theory—for which, read “ripping off the more popular Ancient Aliens”—is seen as a ratings-grabbing “event” is about as depressing as it gets in the shady world of unscripted cable TV. Almost a decade after Ancient Aliens debuted, it remains the platonic ideal of cable TV programming: lazy, cheap, and wildly popular. Stay on the air long enough, and every program ends up talking about space aliens.
And becomes repetitive. That, too. Ancient Aliens has covered the Stone Age Turkish site of Göbekli Tepe, a 12,000-year-old stone temple complex, many times in the past. Off the top of my head, I know of at least six episodes that discuss it, but I’m sure I am forgetting some. It should probably be obvious that the producers of the show were paying attention a few months ago when some Graham Hancock super-fans decided to try to cast Hancock and Andrew Collins’s speculations about the astronomical orientation of the ancient temple complex in academic language in an obscure academic journal, spawning a media frenzy among the uncritical who failed to realize that the academic authors basically just repeated Andrew Collins (though I am surprised that they did not mention the article by name). I give them this much credit, however: Ancient Aliens makes no bones about revisiting a well-worn topic. The title of S12E16 is “Return to Göbekli Tepe,” conceding that we have been down this path before.
The first segment rehearses the history of the discovery and excavation of Göbekli Tepe in the 1990s and the impact that the discovery of such a large and complex architectural wonder had on archaeology when its true age had been determined. In the real world, Göbekli Tepe demonstrated that monumental architecture was not the outgrowth of agriculture as had been previously thought but rather the effort to create monumental ceremonial sites might have been the driving force bringing hunter-gatherers together into what might be the earliest settlements.
But “ancient astronaut theorists” disagree with this assessment and argue that Stone Age human beings were incapable of creating stone structures. The show brings in Andrew Collins to claim that a lost civilization once existed and that Göbekli Tepe is the remains of an Ice Age high culture destroyed by the cataclysm that ended the Ice Age. The show then jumps to the nearby underground cave city of Derinkuyu we’ve all seen on this show many times before, and Collins tells us that he thinks that the survivors of the lost civilization hid out in these caves to survive the impact of a comet, or whatever Ragnarok / Worlds in Collision / Magicians of the Gods speculation they are going with in this segment. Yet the myths they rely upon for the claim of a lost civilization suggest the world was destroyed by flood, but the show does not explain how subterranean caves should protect people from a flood. Are we not to take the myths literally? Then why consider them at all?
The second segment takes us on a tour of underground Turkish cave cities with Andrew Collins. The show speculates that the cave cities are Paleolithic and that Paleolithic people built them. This isn’t well established, and most believe the cave cities to date from Phrygian times, carved from soft volcanic rock.
The show then alleges that Zoroastrian texts record the construction of an underground city used to survive the destruction of the world by a meteorite. This isn’t quite true. The text, which is obviously modeled on the Near Eastern Flood Myth, with the flood replaced by winter to adapt it to a Persian context. Note that the text mentions nothing about “underground” chambers, which the talking heads wrongly attribute to the Vara, in normal contexts an aboveground enclosure:
22. And Ahura Mazda spake unto Yima, saying: ‘O fair Yima, son of Vîvanghat! Upon the material world the fatal winters are going to fall, that shall bring the fierce, foul frost; upon the material world the fatal winters are going to fall, that shall make snow-flakes fall thick, even an aredvî deep on the highest tops of mountains.
As you can see from the actual text cited here, there is no falling object causing nuclear winter, nor is there an underground chamber resembling—“exactly” as William Henry falsely claims—the Turkish cave cities. One might read the sealing up of the walled enclosure as closing off a cave, but there is nothing in the text that demands this, not least because “Vara” literally means “enclosure,” i.e., a walled complex.
The third segment focuses on the animal carvings on the large t-shaped pillars that define Göbekli Tepe. Sadly, the show descends into creationist nonsense by suggesting, in Henry’s words, that the carvings are a monument to Noah’s Ark and the literal site where Noah disembarked the Ark and carved an inventory of his animals in stone. I imagine that Xisuthrus and Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian flood heroes, would be quite upset to hear that Ancient Aliens gives that upstart and knave Noah pride of place, considering his story is last in a long Near Eastern tradition that has nothing whatsoever to do with Göbekli Tepe except that the site is relatively close to the mountains associated with the Flood heroes and their arks.
The segment also expresses astonishment at the stylized human figures on the t-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe because the figures are unrealistic and has a posture with hands on the belly similar to Easter Island’s moai. But, given that arms can only be placed in so many positions on the human body, especially when trying to keep them flat to fit the shape of a pillar, it is hard to credit Collins’s assertion that holding one’s hands on one’s belly is a sign of a global prehistoric culture.
The narrator tells us that the true importance of Göbekli Tepe is its potential to prove that the Bible is literally true because Noah really sailed on the Flood waters, and I am left amazed at the way this season of Ancient Aliens has so completely embraced biblical creationism to fill out its countless hours.
The fourth segment follows Collins to a Turkish museum to look at a carved pole found at Göbekli Tepe in 2010 that depicts a series of stacked figures whose faces have been broken off. One might be a human baby and others possibly animal-headed humanoids, such as seen in shamanic art. The museum says that the carvings were deliberately destroyed when religious beliefs changed (destruction of religious art to deconsecrate is quite common), but ancient astronaut theorists allege that the destruction occurred to blot out the faces of space aliens so that modern people wouldn’t have proof that human babies were the genetic legacy of aliens having sex with Earth women. Naturally, this leads to the show claiming (wrongly) that (a) the Book of Enoch was “stripped” from the Bible in the 300s CE (it was never in) and that Enoch is correct in its claim that angels sired giants on human women. The implication is that the Göbekli Tepe pillar depicts that birth of the Nephilim and therefore supports the Genesis 6-7 narrative, read in light of Enoch, that the Nephilim’s sins brought about the Flood. At this point in the show’s run, they don’t bother even to say that angels are “really” aliens, mostly because for them the two categories are one, but this segment goes further than the previous one in advocating for the audience to believe in a heretical form of Christianity based on an ante-Nicene, Nephilim-centric view of history. It’s weird the way the show, which once offered a sort of generic New Age message has descended into an unusual Christian message as they rely ever more on the bizarre claims offered by Nephilim theorists and creationists, again to fill the time they are too lazy or too intellectually bankrupt to fill with their own original idea.
In the fifth segment, we hear more about the long history of the Göbekli Tepe site and the fact that it was built in stages over time. Many of the circular temple enclosures, which were deliberately buried, have not been excavated. The segment refers to Collins’s 2014 book Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods and follows his allegation, for which there is no evidence, that the enclosures were intended to track the brightest star of the constellation Cygnus, Deneb, as it appeared in 9500 BCE. His allegation is that new enclosures were built because the precession of the equinoxes moved that star over time, misaligning the old enclosure. He believes that shamans would stand between the two pillars and use a hole carved in a rock to watch Deneb set on the horizon. This is one of those claims that is possible but unproved; no evidence of Cygnus can be found at Göbekli Tepe, and even if the pillars were meant to align to it, there is nothing to tell us why that star was chosen. Giorgio Tsoukalos simply asserts that the star is the home system of the aliens that taught humans architecture. This they tie in with the claim that one of the stars of Cygnus—not the one “targeted” at Göbekli Tepe—dimmed in a way consistent with an alien megastructure, proving aliens lived there. However, more recent analysis cast doubt on the claims of an alien megastructure, as I pointed out the first time the show made the claim, back in episode 1 of this season.
The sixth segment notes that fighters from the Islamic State came within sixty miles of Göbekli Tepe and that the Turkish government took efforts to protect the site from potential damage. The Turks plan to cover the site with a large roof (the one Graham Hancock railed against as sacrilege), and the narrator worries that Islamic State might destroy the site before Andrew Collins can finish speculating about “celestial beings, perhaps even extraterrestrials from the Cygnus constellation.” Remember that the next time Collins wants to be taken seriously as something more than an Ancient Aliens blowhard: He will happily playact as an ancient astronaut theorist for camera time. At least Graham Hancock has the courage of his convictions to refuse to endorse the ancient astronaut theory, even if he has happily appeared on Ancient Aliens.
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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