True story: We owe the popularity of the ancient astronaut theory to Rod Serling’s love of airplanes. Serling was a parachutist during World War II and spent the rest of his life fascinated by air travel. It’s impossible to watch The Twilight Zone without seeing Serling’s fascination with every facet of flying. As he recounts in his foreword to Alan Landsburg’s In Search of Ancient Mysteries, when Landsburg (who, sadly, died last month) came to Serling to propose dubbing a German documentary about Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods for American television, Serling was skeptical of ancient astronauts—until he saw the Nazca lines. Landsburg told Serling he could prove aliens had visited the ancient earth with a photograph, one that he had learned about from Chariots of the Gods. Serling remembers his conversation with Landsburg on the Universal lot in late 1972:
Item one was a picture of an airfield taken from 2,500 feet up. “Okay, it’s an airfield—from the look of the runways, a military base of some size.” That’s the impression I got.
Serling’s reaction is nearly identical to von Däniken’s offhand description of Nazca in Chariots of the Gods: “Seen from the air, the clear-cut impression that the 37-mile-long plain of Nazca made on me was that of an airfield! What is so far-fetched about the idea?” It was, perhaps, the single most quoted line in the entire book, and one of the first claims that the Nazca lines were connected to aliens. But even he no longer believes the lines were runways. Surprisingly, no matter how many explanations involving aliens are debunked, new ones always emerge out of the conviction that something aliens had to have happened there.
As a result of the Nazca photo, Serling agreed to narrate the film In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973), broadcast on NBC and watched by more than a third of all American television viewers. The program did more than anything to bring the ancient astronaut theory into the pop culture mainstream—and to make von Däniken so big a celebrity that 40 years later he is still inspiring new versions of the same old material first recycled by Serling and Landsburg.
This is a rather long way around introducing In Search of Aliens S01E09 “The Mystery of Nazca,” in which von Däniken’s protégé, Giorgio Tsoukalos, returns to Nazca, Peru to investigate his master’s “questions” about Nazca. He begins by discussing the history of exploration of the Nazca lines and archaeologists’ views about how they were made. This lasts less than one minute after the credits before David Childress shows up. He and Tsoukalos are apparently competing to see who can wear more Indiana Jones-style clothing. Childress has the leather jacket and khaki shirt, but with his jeans he loses out to Tsoukalos, who, sans leather jacket, has the khaki clothing and satchel to pull off a fetching ensemble, though he loses points for the sparkly and chunky necklace of semiprecious stones, which is impractical for swashbuckling.
“David is one of the most well-known proponents of the ancient astronaut theory,” Tsoukalos says, neglecting to mention that Childress adopted the ancient astronaut theory only in 2010, after joining the regular cast of Ancient Aliens. Prior to that, he actually opposed the ancient astronaut theory (despite writing at least one book on the subject) and blasted me in The Chicago Reader in 2006 for calling him an ancient astronaut theorist: “[M]y whole thing is that this stuff is from this planet. These giant ruins aren’t built by extraterrestrials. I say they were built by humans.”
The two strap into an airplane, fly over the Nazca lines, and take photos on their smartphones. They giddily giggle while taking happy snaps of the so-called “astronaut” glyph, which actually depicts a fisherman holding a fish, according to research conducted in 2002. Childress says that “I keep wondering if this isn’t a signal to the Anunnaki,” who apparently enjoy fish. (Other experts suggest the bug-eyed figure might be an owl-man.) Tsoukalos compares this to the allegedly 10,000-year-old ancient astronaut rock paintings in Chhattisgarh that caused a flap in July when the Times of India declared them proof of alien contact.
Next, the pair visit the Nazca lines on the ground, and Tsoukalos wonders why anyone would make glyphs in a “remote, barren desert.” He asks this while we can clearly see green vegetation and foliage beyond the plateau. In other words, the most likely explanation is that, while this a very harsh environment, the Nazca people came up to the plateau because it was a desert and made their glyphs where they would be preserved.
Childress asks some locals if they see many UFOs around these parts, and they say yes. After the break we pick up on the ufology thread. The locals tell Tsoukalos that the “lights” they see are a mysterious energy, but Childress wants to force this into a flying saucer framework. Tsoukalos concludes that the existence of strange lights “proves” that the site is still the site of extraterrestrial contact “even today,” though this does not logically follow since there is no evidence presented that the lights are flying saucers from other worlds. (How do you know, for example, that they are not bioluminescent flying jellyfish, as Karl Shuker once proposed?) Everyone just assumes that strange lights are alien “craft.”
When this goes nowhere, the two men travel to another Peruvian site a hundred miles away, a large construction called the Band of Holes (first seen in an early Ancient Aliens episode called “The Mission”), which according to legend represented a snake. Tsoukalos uses a model airplane to shoot pictures of the long line of holes, resembling a honeycomb stretching for miles. “It’s weird!” Tsoukalos says before assuming that the snake image was really a dragon, that it belched smoke, and was therefore a rocket ship. None of this is in the legend. Childress, by contrast, wants to know why anyone would put so much work into digging holes. One might just as well as why anyone would put so much effort into a Gothic cathedral (believed to be roughly contemporary with the Band of Holes, or at least the Inca use of them) when a simple four walled structure without adornment would serve the same function. Of course, only non-Europeans are believed to be lazy people who would never expend effort without alien help. Even after discussing the legend that the Band of Holes is meant to represent a snake, Childress declares that he can think of no reason anyone would bother making such a thing.
After the break, Tsoukalos runs out of material to discuss about the Nazca lines, so he falls back on the painfully familiar claims about elongated skulls, visiting the same Paracas skulls featured in Ancient Aliens S06E14 “The Star Children.” As in the earlier Malta-themed episode, Tsoukalos takes the lack of a sagittal suture on some skulls not as a sign of random genetic anomaly but as evidence of aliens. The owner of the Paracas History Museum, Juan Navarro, who says he personally saw a flying saucer close up, tells Tsoukalos that “persons who had money” tested the skulls—and here he fails to mention that those “persons” were Brien Foerster and Lloyd Pye—and determined that the skulls were those of Aryans from Northern Europe. This is the first time I have heard this particular part of the claim, which does not appear in the original reports from late 2013 and early 2014, which had instead declared the skulls were of an unknown human species not associated with northern Europe. Navarro seems to be adding in some new claims taken over from assertions that “red hair” on the skulls connects them to Europe. Navarro, though, says that a previous investigator concluded that the skulls are of their own race. Undisclosed to viewers is that these investigators are Foerster, who claimed they were of a different Homo species, and L. A. Marzulli, who claimed they were of the race of the Nephilim. Marzulli is persona non grata here because he’s a Christian fundamentalist, and it’s funny to see the way the different strands of the fringe orbit around one another. Foerster is good at playing ancient astronaut and Nephilim theorists off one another. Tsoukalos concludes that the Paracas skulls are actual alien skulls, and Childress agrees. These skulls are so versatile!
Childress then says something very weird and largely unrelated to the rest of the conversation: “It wouldn’t matter how these skulls were obtained if DNA shows they were not humans.” This looks like a broken chunk of a conversation about cultural patrimony, since Tsoukalos also emphasizes that any DNA tests they reference on the show were done from hair samples, not bone samples. This is false, however, and Foerster and Pye specifically exported bone samples along with hair for testing and reported on DNA obtained from the bone samples. Are they trying to disassociate themselves from Foerster’s self-generated problems with seeming to admit he violated international law and U.S. government treaties by importing bones and artifact samples in to the U.S. from Peru and Bolivia without official permission? Or, as Judith mentions in the comments below, from the fact that many of the skulls were obtained from looters?
After another break, Tsoukalos speculates that the plateaus of Palpa, near Nazca, were artificially formed because they are rather flat. Instead of consulting a geologist to help explain the formation, Tsoukalos instead investigates how miners might remove the mountaintops without leaving any rubble behind. This is just stupid. Plateaus form in many different ways, and you would need to exclude geological processes (such as magma-generated uplift) before proposing alien mining operations as an explanation. Given the location of Palpa at a conjunction of two tectonic plates (and the straight-line formation of the “flat” mountains), I’d imagine that uplift is a better explanation than cutting mountains for cosmic strip mining.
After the next break, Tsoukalos meets up with Erich von Däniken, whom Tsoukalos credits (falsely) as “the man behind what is now known as the ancient astronaut theory.” Popularizer though he may have been, he copied his “theory” from Robert Charroux, Louis Pauwels, and Jacques Bergier—who were not the originators of the idea either. Tsoukalos, though, correctly notes von Däniken’s role in popularizing the connection between Nazca and space aliens. However, von Däniken engages in some revisionist history. He originally proposed, as we saw, that Nazca was an airstrip for space aliens (well, he said it was his “clear-cut impression”), but in later work and here on this show, he revises the idea to incorporate material borrowed from Zecharia Sitchin. Now the aliens came to Nazca to mine for gold, and the lines are just a byproduct of the trails left behind by rolling alien “rovers” that were testing the soil for gold. The Nazca imitated the tracks.
As for the Band of Holes, it has “something to do with the mathematics,” von Däniken says. The holes would have been filled with fire to signal the aliens in a specific mathematical code. This seems strange to me since according to Ancient Aliens the extraterrestrials gave the Israelites an Ark of the Covenant to communicate via hologram and could speak to Einstein and Tesla via a psychic connection. Apparently New World people don’t qualify for this level of sophisticated communication. Nevertheless, von Däniken is no good at math, so he says he doesn’t know how to solve the “mathematical message” in ancient sites and has made no effort to get anyone else to do so, either. A bit odd, I would say, for someone who thinks he has discovered real evidence of aliens.
Von Däniken then gives Tsoukalos high praise: “Giorgio Tsoukalos, you know a lot about ancient aliens. Probably you are the one leading figure living on this planet.”
After a final break, Tsoukalos makes very brief allusion to the resemblance of the Nazca lines to runways, and he then meets with Michael Dennin, the house physicist for Ancient Aliens, who tells him nothing useful. Tsoukalos instead compares the Nazca lines to crop circles, and he claims at least some crop circles “defy explanation.” Dennin and Tsoukalos suggest that the geoglyphs were “not random” (no fooling!) and involve geometry (again, no fooling!). However, neither man is able to distinguish between geoglyphs meant to give a message to aliens flying in spacecraft and those meant to communicate to gods imagined to live in the sky. From the ground, there would be no difference. Therefore, even taking all the claims at face value, this fails to provide evidence that the beings the glyphs were meant to reach actually existed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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