Last week the Travel Channel launched Expedition Unknown: The Hunt for Extraterrestrials, and in the second episode, “Ancient Visitors,” which aired last night, host Josh Gates got down to ancient astronautics and went in search of evidence of prehistoric alien contact on Easter Island, a popular location with the Ancient Aliens crowd. He also delved into to the panspermia hypothesis, another popular recent fixture of Ancient Aliens. As with the previous outing, there wasn’t much content, but it is probably worth noting the influence of History’s flagship show in that Gates refers to ancient astronauts as “ancient aliens,” the trademarked term popularized by his cable rival. The real news, however, occurred in the after show, when Gates and the production crew seemed to express their own belief in the ancient astronaut theory and their conviction that the past is essentially unknowable.
The episode opens with a recap of last week’s episode, picking up on the previous episode’s cliffhanger, which featured Gates marveling that his electronic equipment experienced interference in the Atacama Desert of Chile and which found Gates gawking at a light in the sky that he cannot immediately identify. Sadly, the lengthy (6-minute) recap goes nowhere, as the “analysis” of the findings get punted to another episode. In short, we wasted most of the first segment to simply restate last week’s episode.
Following this waste of time, Gates arrives on Easter Island. “What are they? Who are they?” Gates asks of the famous moai. He then gives us a potted summary of the ancient astronaut theory, complete with some of the worst ancient astronaut evidence: the Egyptian Abydos “helicopter” hieroglyph, Pacal’s sarcophagus lid, Sumerian carvings of “giants,” and, of course, the moai. Gates claims that “legends” say that that moai were moved by visitors from the sky, though this is not a typical part of native Easter Island mythology. The “legend” dates back only about 50 years, and to call it a “legend” is to misrepresent the past by implying a timeless antiquity ti a new story. The usual legend is that a king of the island called on the gods to make the statues move, and the gods caused them to walk into position. The story of sky beings is actually a part of the largely unrelated story of the Birdman, a more recent cult established after around 1500 CE that replaced the previous religious belief system. We know that the Birdman can’t be an alien who built the moai because the Birdman cult didn’t take root until after the majority of moai had been built.
Gates met with UFO researcher Sixto Paz, which seems to be what self-described alien contactee Sixto Paz Wells is calling himself now, and together they descend into a cave on the island that Paz claims is filled with evidence of space aliens. They are actually looking at evidence for the former Birdman cult, and Paz tell us that the Birdman was a space alien and that his mystical egg was actually a metallic UFO. Paz believes that the aliens’ bones are in the cave, and they are the bones of giants. But the Birdman cult is not as mysterious and alien as Gates and Paz make it sound. The cult honored the god Makemake, a fertility and creator deity, and islanders would compete to capture a bird’s egg, symbolic of the new life born of, well, creation and fertility. Since birds fly, the god was imagined as living in the sky. What a surprise. The standard legend of Makemake has nothing to do with flying ships or aliens. It involves a priestess finding a human skull on a moai platform and discovering when it is washed out to sea that it is the god. The god proceeded to drive the birds out of Easter Island to stop the people from eating their eggs. There is very little evidence for pre-Contact beliefs, but later researchers found relatively few Makemake myths, and he is apparently a local creation on Easter Island since other Polynesian cultures lack him.
At no time does Expedition Unknown inform viewers that Paz believes he receives messages from a being living on Ganymede through psychically mediated automatic writing. Instead, the show presents Paz as a serious and credible, though even Jacques Vallée dismisses psychic messages from Ganymede. Paz shows Gates a carving of Makemake with two large eyes in a round head, with a stylized nose or beak that, to be frank, also looks like a penis, as befitting a fertility god. “That does look so not of this earth,” Gates enthuses. “Look at that!” Gates compares this to a Grey alien, despite the nose and/or beak, and says, without skepticism or argument, that petroglyphs around the world depict the same Grey-like creature, pointing to carvings from Peru, North America, and elsewhere. All of these images are different, and carved for different purposes, and yet here we are. Not a skeptical word passes his lips about the patently absurd notion that any stylized face with big eyes is a Grey alien. Worse, everyone pretends that these carvings are found only underground even though they are also found in broad daylight where tourists regularly photograph them. The head-on view of Makemake might look alien, but the profile view shows his full Birdman form, with beak. Paz shows Gates some obviously human bones in the cave, and Gates regrets that he cannot DNA test them due to Easter Island’s protection laws, to see if they belong to space aliens, giant or otherwise.
Gates concludes the first half hour by expressing some skepticism about the ancient astronaut theory, disassociating himself halfheartedly from “ancient astronaut believers” and regretting that proof can never be found because the evidence comes from humanity’s “distant past.” This sort of milquetoast postmodern handwringing that the past is essentially unknowable is literally a refutation of the entire purpose of Gates’s Expedition Unknown series, which attempts to investigate history. Gates’s attempt to be inoffensive has led his show to suggest that there is real reason to believe space aliens visited Easter Island in the past. As we shall see, this seems to reflect his own interest in the ancient astronaut theory.
In the second half of the episode, Gates traveled to Zimbabwe, where he visits Victoria Falls and meets with Sharad Master, a geologist, who takes Gates out to look for evidence of meteors. Master explains that he believes that Earth life began from seeds brought from a warmer and wetter ancient Mars, and he hopes to locate evidence of alien life in the remnants of the impact crater a recent meteor that hit in rural Zimbabwe and was stolen not long after. This is mostly an excuse for a patented Gates travel adventure, and the mostly content-free half-hour resolves into nothing. As you can guess, they did not discover extraterrestrial bacteria, so the entire half-hour was a huge waste of time that could have easily been summarized in a sentence or two, at most.
Gates reserves analysis of whether the ancient astronaut theory has merit for the second hour, the After the Hunt after show, but having already sat through a full hour of populist waffling, I can’t say that I had a lot of interest in continuing on for a second hour, but for your sake I … well, I watched the segments that weren’t simply recapping what we just saw or sharing extended, alternate, or omitted version of scenes from the previous hour.
Frankly, I hate these crappy after shows. They are mostly made up of clips from the main show, dull chat about the difficulties of filming said scenes, and some random, mostly ill-informed, discussion of the topic of the episode, mostly serving to reveal that the people making the show lack the subject matter expertise to actually understand the subject in the first place. Here, a ufologist named James Fox, who recently offered $100,000 for proof of space aliens, serves as the only alleged “expert” commenting on ancient astronauts. The other guests were members of the production crew.
I was embarrassed to listen to Gates and his crew examining the supposed Abydos helicopter hieroglyph—debunked long ago (it’s an illusion due to superimposed re-carving)—and hearing Gates screaming loudly about his belief that this was a helicopter. Not a single person on the crew had actually researched the actual history of the carving. They also discuss the Iraqi official who fantasized about Zecharia Sitchin and proclaimed that the Sumerians had airports. Gates announces that there is no way to know what the moai were, and the fact that Gates seems to truly believe that the past is ultimately unknowable is disturbing. At a technical level, of course we can’t ask the people of the past who specifically the moai represented, but the existence of surviving legends and comparisons with similar statues on other Polynesian islands gives us a pretty good idea of the meaning behind them. I am genuinely surprised that Gates wants to view Easter Island in isolation, and chooses not to engage in the broader lines of evidence that help us to reconstruct the past. He has a degree in archaeology. Presumably he knows better but has simply chosen to become a creature of sensationalist television.
The ignorance on display was so profound that I cringed at several points in the discussion. Brian Weed, the director of photography, wants to know why the carvings of Makemake are in a different style than the moai and placed underground rather than on platforms like the moai, as though Easter Island had only one art style over its 1700-year history, and as though religious beliefs did not change over time, and as though Makemake carvings are not found on the surface, too. Gates expresses his wonderment and the executive producer wants to know why everyone around the world drew the same face. “It’s the exact same shape head,” Gates said in comparing the Makemake carving to the Peruvian drawing of a fisherman often mistaken for a space alien. (The Peruvian drawing literally holds fish in his hand and is wearing a slicker.)
Together, Gates and his crew have all the combined knowledge of ancient history that a Google search for “ancient astronauts” can provide, and I was dumbfounded that the clearly credulous crew invited a ufologist to discuss the so-called “evidence” but did not ask a single skeptic or real scholar to offer anything resembling rational analysis. I went from cringing to anger when the show gradually descended into a full-on Ancient Aliens episode, discussing the greatest hits of the classic ancient astronaut theory, all of which would be instantly familiar to my readers. “I’m not saying their aliens, but come on, that’s weird,” Gates said of one piece of shamanic art. He added that he believes Pacal’s coffin lid really does look like a rocket, Fox says that archaeologists “don’t want to talk about” evidence that has been discussed and refuted over and over since the 1960s. What makes it worse is that Gates is unaware of or unwilling to discuss the rational explanations, and that the entire production crew pretends to genuinely believe that there are alien mysteries behind ancient art.
It was a sad but not unexpected glimpse into how the sausage is made on cable TV—a lot of people trained in subjects other than history mistake their own ignorance and romantic notions for a postmodern impossibility to know at all, and they basically consult with the worst hucksters, lunatics, and frauds because they mistake them for “experts,” largely due to “research” that rarely goes deeper than googling the fringe phrasing of the topic and then reporting what other hucksters, lunatics, and frauds wrote on the internet. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that, and I’m sure that they must have someone on staff who knows better, but either through genuine belief or the desire to titillate an audience that they presume to be true believers, they sure as hell made it look like their whole staff is a bunch of incurious ignorant idiots who have no business pretending to document “history” when they are really just making expensive homages to Ancient Aliens from a knowledge base that doesn’t extend much beyond a viewing of that show, a reading of some old ancient astronaut paperbacks, or a simple Google search. It doesn’t help that Gates refers to people with actual expertise as “brainiacs.”
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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