The first segment covers the discovery of Caral, an ancient city in Peru dating back to 2600 BCE. Shatner marvels that it was “not built by the Inca,” and then the show brings in Robert Schoch, who is not an archaeologist to blather about the city being “sophisticated,” with all the condescension that implies. The city was the subject of an Ancient Aliens episode last summer, and The UnXplained version seems to derive fairly closely from the earlier show’s “research,” though with different talking heads who are less angry and less ignorant. Nevertheless, the show expresses wonderment that South Americans might have been able to do what the Egyptians did at the same time they did it. As I mentioned last year when Ancient Aliens offered the same false claim that Caral extended the timeline of “civilization” back to 2600 BCE in the Americas, my textbooks from college two decades ago already noted the existence of temples and pyramids by that period, and the difference was in scale, not in form.
The second segment deals with the most popular Ancient Aliens site, Giza, to rehearse Robert Schoch’s claims about the Sphinx from thirty years ago. Ramy Romany from Ancient Aliens is on hand to offer commentary. Schoch alleges that no one truly understood the purpose of the Sphinx because it was buried—it wasn’t always, and it was understood to be a lion for all of its history, as medieval and Renaissance texts prove—and Andrew Collins accepts a nineteenth century misunderstanding of the Inventory Stela, a Ptolemaic document, as dating to the time of Khufu. Schoch also accepts this in order to allege that the Sphinx predates Khufu, and Shatner says that “archaeologists” agree that the Sphinx is predynastic without telling the audience that those archaeologists were French researchers of the late 1800s who misunderstood the date of the Inventory Stela. It is not contemporary with Khufu but was as pious fraud of much later times. Schoch then rehearses his claims about the Sphinx being weathered by water, which few of his geological colleagues accept. The show offers no mainstream views to rebut this and allows Romany to falsely claims that there is deep dissent among archaeologists about who built the Sphinx and why. Then the show claims Edgar Cayce correctly prophesied the Hall of Records under the Sphinx, though (a) a chamber under the Sphinx was already part of the literary record when he made the claim and (b) no Hall of Records has ever been found.
The third segment discusses Cahokia, the Mississippian city that Shatner claims is a “surprise” because the show seems to believe that (presumably white) Americans don’t know the history of the Americas, and Andrew Collins reinforces this by saying that “we” (again, presumably old white folk) think of pre-Columbian America as “hunter-gatherers” who “ride around on horses”—double bizarre since the horse was introduced to the Americas by Europeans, and even schoolkids know that Native people grew corn. However, because even this show isn’t willing to let Ancient Aliens talking head Hugh Newman go full-on racist nineteenth century Mound Builder Myth by saying white people built them, they instead assert that the Native Mississippians were bloodthirsty monsters who sacrificed virgins in rituals tinged with blood, until they killed enough women to cause the collapse of their culture. While Mound 72 contains the remains of more than 270 people, mostly (but not all) women, the sacrifices occurred around 1000 to 1100 CE, at least a century before the abandonment of Cahokia. Linking the sacrifices to the collapse of Cahokia creates a moralizing narrative with traditional racist underpinnings, unsupported by evidence.
The fourth segment looks at stone tunnels carved into the ground beneath southern Germany and Austria known as erdstalls. Shatner calls the long but low and narrow tunnels “bizarre,” which is a bit of a value judgment given that his own show correctly notes that too little work has been done on them to understand their purpose. Believed to be medieval (based on dating of coal found in them), they are often though to have a religious purpose. The show brings in the hypothesis that they were symbolic holding chambers for the shades of the dead. Shatner alleges that these tunnels are related to basically any underground chamber around the world, even though his show’s own talking heads say there is no evidence of a connection.
The fifth segment alleges that there are ancient pyramids in Antarctica, another Ancient Aliens staple. Andrew Collins offers the false claim that Antarctica was ice-free as recently as 4000 years ago, relying on Polynesian oral stories of icebergs as referring to the heart of the Antarctic continent rather than its outermost reaches. While it is possible that parts of Antarctica were sometimes less frozen, the show goes full-kook by alleging that fringe history favorite author Charles Hapgood was correct to assert that Antarctica used to be a temperate land in the tropics before “shifting” to the South Pole, a claim that no geologist has endorsed since plate tectonics became well understood.
The final segment looks at the Neolithic stone ruins of Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands. The show asserts that the Skara Brae builders were also the builders of Stonehenge and other stone circles, and even Newgrange. It’s not a claim I am familiar with, and not one I was able to find presented as plausible in a quick literature review. As best I can tell, the argument is that the grooved ware pottery originating in Orkney in the third millennium BCE spread across Britain and Ireland indicates that the movement of people and a unified culture. Most archaeologists, recognizing that the pottery appears in different cultures which had different traditions, think that the style spread by trade, not cultural expansion or conquest.
4/2/2022 10:15:09 am
Ah, the infamous Dr. Schoch again raises his…hairy head. Apparently a BA in anthropology is enough of a background for him to be dangerous and to continue spouting his fringe theories and fantasies. But even his geology is suspect. I’ve been to Giza, seen the Sphinx up close, studied the area’s geology, and I digress, sorry.
4/3/2022 06:56:28 pm
For all the reasons our critical guru states, I have stopped watching the Shatner show.
4/24/2022 01:37:46 pm
I am so self-absorbed I compulsively tell strangers what TV shows I don't watch. People need to know what shows I don't watch!
4/2/2022 11:38:41 am
"[The Sphinx] was understood to be a lion for all of its history, as medieval and Renaissance texts prove" Huh? Is that as far back as its history goes? The Liber Sphinxi of al-McRizzo?
4/5/2022 01:04:48 am
I think you give too much credit about people knowing about Cahokia and mound builders. Most peoples are completely ignorant of these things nowadays in North America, whatever their creed and ethnicity. If it was mentioned in a textbook, you can be certain most people never read or memorized it. I had a recent conversation with peoples about Cahokia and they knew nothing about that culture. And seriously, I can't blame them. Don't ask them about their own history, they barely know. You were an astute student of history in your younger days (I followed the same pattern as you) and it would be foolish to expect everyone cared or paid notice. I had a few friends well versed in history and we discussed these things, but later in life it became apparent it was an illusion on my part to believe most people had a somewhat clear timeline of history in their mind to locate cultures and eras. That said, it's unbelievable how these shows never ever evolve! Always the same 1960s vibe from the seminal books of the era.
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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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