This is one of those topics that makes me uncomfortable. I studied anthropology in college, and took my degree in it, and I feel uneasy about holding other cultures’ (and subcultures’) practices up for rubbernecking as some sort of alien “other.” It’s doubly weird when the narrator, Robert Clotworthy, asks what would cause someone to alter their bodies with tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body art, as though these behaviors are completely foreign to the audience. At one point, one of the guests goes so far as to say that he observed body modification in National Geographic magazine, thought it cool, and imitated it. There’s a lot to unpack here about cultural appropriation, cultural relativism, and how we define the mainstream and the normal, but Ancient Aliens doesn’t care about any of that. They claim the practices derive from “so-called ‘primitive’” tribes and leave it at that before moving on to acupuncture, a pseudo-medical system that has no scientific evidence in its favor but which David Childress suggests was invented by space aliens and given to Ice Age Europeans.
Mitch Horowitz, who believes that rich people have magical powers and are favored by the universe, claims that tattoos of modern Grey space aliens—a type of “alien” not invented until after the 1960s—are really “primeval” symbols that connect humanity to the cosmos. He similarly claims that astrological tattoos and even the five-pointed star aren’t just symbols chosen because of modern New Age belief but instead have bubbled up into hipster consciousness from some imagined deep well of alien mystical knowledge. Uh-huh. So what does that make butterfly tattoos? Sidelong race-memories of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”?
The second segment already struggles to have anything to say about tattooing, so it repeats the same few ideas over and over, namely that some Egyptian women had goddess tattoos. Lacking anything to do with this information, they fall back on old claims that the solar barge in Egyptian mythology was a flying saucer. Over and over they repeat the claim that tattoos might commemorate contact with space aliens, but they never really make any sort of argument for why the tattoo would be of any more importance than any other type of art.
Horowitz suggests that Egyptian symbols contain “power” that tattoo enthusiasts intuitively experience as “awe” without understanding it. The narrator adds that ancient symbols are imbued with alien energy that endures through subconscious connections that cause people to embrace them. This is bullshit. Regular readers know that I collect two headed eagles, another ancient symbol of power—political, rather than divine—and, yes, symbols can be inspirational without having a space alien magically charging them with mystical energy. The meaning is in the observer, not the symbol.
The third segment returns to the old canard of cargo cults, particularly the cargo cult of Vanuatu, introduced to the ancient astronaut theory by the film version of Chariots of the Gods that Rod Serling bequeathed to America. This has nothing to do with tattoos or body modification, but it gives the ancient astronaut theorists time to be vaguely racist and condescending. As per usual, the show claims that ancient people built monuments like pyramids and stupas in imitation of space aliens’ ships. They even repeat the old claim (from a very racist Erich von Däniken, writing of “wild Indians” in 1973!) that an Amazonian tribe has an “astronaut” god in a wicker space suit. It’s a beekeeper’s suit, as I showed seven years ago in debunking, yes, Ancient Aliens when they previously made the same claim. The narrator then says that body modification might be an effort to imitate the look of space aliens. The show gawks at neck rings to produce the illusion of an elongated neck and then pretends to believe that the dragons of myth that inspired the practice were really reptilian aliens.
The fourth segment describes the practice of head-binding, one of the more unusual and inexplicable human practices, found worldwide. The show alleges that the resulting elongated skulls were created in imitation of space aliens and that our DNA (!) is programmed (!!) to make us want to look like space aliens. Therefore, tattoos and other body modification are “practice runs” for transhuman alterations. This idea fails to explain why only some people seem to feel the need to look like the way we imagined space aliens after the Outer Limits invented the modern space alien during three consecutive weeks in of episodes in the winter of 1964. During this segment William Henry visits a transhumanist who likes to stick technological and radioactive material into his body. He has horns.
If this material starts to sound familiar, it’s because much of it, including the fifth segment, is largely a repeat of material from the show’s last two episodes about transhumanism. To justify the repetition, it adds a news peg about recent efforts to create “smart” tattoos whose inks change color according to temperature, store thermal energy, etc., or could strengthen the skin. The show asks if aliens had artistic tattoos that doubled as technological devices—basically Supergirl’s evil tattoo plot. Gray Scott makes a return appearance on the show after three years, and he is still a creepy, overly mannered performance imitating a person. The segment is thin, however, and the narrator is reduced to simply repeating the same questions about whether body modification imitates space aliens over and over again.
The final segment talks about whether smart tattoos can help astronauts control their space suits, and then it repeats the same material about tattoos strengthening the skin from segment 5. The narrator again repeats the question of whether aliens inspired tattooing and whether our genes drive us to do it. Tattoos make us the “equals” of aliens, the narrator says. The summation repeats material from the first segment, and this incredibly repetitive episode repeats itself a few more times before it finally hits the 1 hour and 3 minute mark and packs up its toys and goes home.
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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