This week I am reviewing Philip Coppens’s Ancient Alien Question (2011), a book I had intended to review last year before his untimely death. This is the final installment.
At this point in the book, more than halfway through, we finally come to a chapter devoted to “the best evidence” for ancient aliens. I can’t wait. Let’s see what Philip Coppens comes up with.
The Baghdad Battery. Sigh. Even Wikipedia doesn’t pretend this is really a mystery, but even if the little jar were a battery, it is so primitive and weak it has no implication of “advanced” or “alien” technology whatsoever. It would be like claiming Archimedes’ steam engine was delivered by aliens because it’s “too sophisticated.”
Antikythera Mechanism. Fascinating, mysterious, and completely based on a false geocentric model of the earth. Given the similar devices described in ancient literature (unknown to Coppens), this is not an “oop-art” (out-of-place artifact) but rather the last surviving example of Greek genius, one that is beautiful, exciting, and completely human in origin. Coppens claims scientists looked at the device, “deemed [it] to be impossible, and therefore ridiculed and debated away” its existence. In what universe? It’s in almost every book on Ancient Greece produced over the past half century. Coppens has conflated the relative absence of the device from early twentieth century scholarship (before technology allowed the lump of corroded metal to be analyzed in detail) with current non-interest, with the dogmatic idea that a scholarship froze in place around 1940 or 1950 and never changed again.
Lord Pacal’s Coffin Lid. It doesn’t even look like a rocket. Before David Childress started getting paid to believe in aliens, he made the salient point that a naked person sitting directly atop a powerful thruster is just plain silly. What’s more interesting is that Coppens generously gives archaeologists “credit” for proposing that the first identification of the tomb lid as a scene of sacrifice was wrong and that it is in fact a scene of transition to the underworld. He seems to take this for a rare crack in dogma, unaware that ideas are not ratified by committee and chiseled in stone for all time but rather are provisional, corrected as new information comes to light.
Columbian gold “airplanes.” These stylized fish have a vague resemblance to airplanes but, even in the most generous reading, prove only that Columbians of ancient times figured out the concept of a toy glider, something little more complex than a paper airplane. No aliens needed.
Piri Reis Map. A twisted map of South America mistaken for Antarctica. This one was debunked time and again and yet here it comes anew. Coppens doesn’t even pretend to understand the arguments for why the map supposedly does or does not show the coast of Antarctica beneath the ice, and he thinks Antarctica was ice free just 12,000 years ago! While accepting every European depiction of the fictitious terra australis as a genuine memory of Antarctica, Coppens recognizes (only because of Graham Hancock’s faux-Atlantis) that this is still not evidence of aliens.
World Ages. Numbers games! December 21, 2012 came and went without a hitch, so that pretty much shuts down the Maya Apocalypse. From alternative historian Willem Zitman, Coppens pretends that many ancient calendars recorded the same units of measurement into the billions of years, but he fails to notice that relationships like this are bound to happen since ancient calendars the world over are based on the same lunar and solar periods. He then asks us to assume, following Zitman, that the Babylonian picked an arbitrary and incorrect number of years for the precession of the equinoxes (otherwise unattested in Babylon) and thus developed fabulous precision in their cycles of thousands of years. “Therefore, whatever intelligence knew of this cycle was either millions of years old or had knowledge—if not technology—at its disposal that had calculated a period of 90 million years and had revealed its importance.” Or the Babylonians just liked counting and doing math.
Oannes. I’ve dealt with this question separately in an earlier post. Oannes rose up from the sea and therefore does not conform to the narrative of a “sky god.” His story is a very late, somewhat corrupt version of a tale told more clearly in earlier cuneiform texts—texts which lack most of the elements Coppens attributes to aliens. Coppens likens Oannes to Osiris and Viracocha on the strength of all three being culture heroes (civilizers), and claims that because of this “high command” “all ancient civilizations divided the sky in the same constellations.” Not even close. China and Greece differ markedly in constellations, and the South Americans emphasized the dark spaces between the stars over pictures connecting the dots. Even the Egyptian constellations form no clear analogue to neighboring Greek, Arab, or Babylonian ones.
Atomic Warfare in India. This is based, again, on the fake quotations cobbled together from pieces of the Mahabharata along with a healthy dose of Zecharia Sitchin’s work, which Coppens earlier explained was wrong. It bothers me immensely that Coppens uses the “some believe” format in claiming that Mohenjo-Daro was blasted with radiation, making no effort to confirm this allegedly obvious radiation. He provides a “quotation” from archaeologist Francis Taylor as confirming the existence of prehistoric nuclear warfare: “It’s so mind-boggling to imagine that some civilization had nuclear technology before we did. The radioactive ash adds credibility to the ancient Indian records that describe atomic warfare.” Taylor allegedly said this after “translating” “etchings” in a Mohenjo-Daro temple, a neat trick considering the language used by the Indus Valley civilization remains un-deciphered today.
But tracing the quotation back, Coppens is recycling it from a 2005 article of his own, this time actually citing his source, Rene Noorbergen’s Secrets of the Lost Races (1977), a book known to have included fictional material as fact. (Noorbergen, for example, included the plot of the 1878 novel Seola as a factual account of an archaeological find.) Archaeologist “Francis Taylor” does not exist outside alternative history, though a Francis Taylor was involved in protecting Europe’s cultural heritage for the Allies during WWII. (I’m betting Noorbergen meant it as a play on the well-known academic publishers Taylor & Francis.) The otherwise unattested quote from “Taylor” also appears in Jim Marrs’s latest book, which I will not name because HarperCollins treated me badly and refused to send me a review copy.
To his credit, Coppens tried to find the source of the quote and discovered, as I did, that Francis Taylor did not exist. He also notes that the claims about “prehistoric” nuclear warfare in India emerged at precisely the time India began clandestine nuclear experiments it needed to keep secret. He concludes, however, that the fake quote from the Mahabharata convinces him that nuclear bombs were used in ancient India.
Panama Chief Fetish. This is a mummified fetus found by Mitchell-Hedges, of the crystal skull fame. Coppens claims that its skull is deformed in ways science can’t understand, involving eyelashes. No, I don’t understand either. He also claims it lacks a “scar” from an umbilical cord, which you and I might all a belly button. The photograph he provides shows what looks like a very typical miscarried fetus, and the mummified body is in the British Museum.
Dropa Stones. Non-existent alleged alien stone discs covered in writing. Coppens here simply summarizes Hartwig Hausdorf. I have previously discussed how Coppens swallowed fabricated material wholesale, including a fake report from the AP that was actually the words of Hausdorf, which Coppens either misunderstood or intentionally falsified.
This is Coppens’s “best” evidence for ancient aliens. He then complains that “the scientific community” is unwilling to investigate these mysteries—not one of which has any basis in fact after just a cursory glance—and therefore dogmatically refuse to take Philip Coppens seriously… no, wait, dogmatically refuse to accept the presence of aliens. He calls for the creation of a “consensus point” akin to a jury trial that would set up criteria scientists will accept for proving aliens were here in the past because Coppens believes that every time ancient astronaut writers propose a new piece of “evidence” nasty scientists move the goal posts to protect their “beliefs.” It couldn’t be that all the “best” evidence he can muster is a pack of fabrications, lies, misinterpretations, and irrelevancies that speak nothing of aliens. That can’t be it. Even accepting all of Coppens’s evidence at face value, nothing except the fictitious Dropa Stones implies the existence of aliens; everything else could be explained by appeal to Atlantis, a lost civilization, time travelers, or any other silly idea.
But as this chapter ends, Coppens again has provided not a single piece of original research, insight, or analysis. This entire chapter was another collection of summaries.
This chapter begins with a discussion of panspermia, the idea that DNA or the building blocks for it, rode to earth on a meteor or comet. This is irrelevant to the question of whether aliens were involved in starting human civilization. He then presents the Viking tests that showed the presence of metabolic byproducts on Mars, an indication of life. “Yet despite the straightforward, positive result, the conclusions were debated away! Does anything more need to be said?” Well, yes. Coppens apparently fails to understand the idea of replication and of the need to review findings for any possible contamination; if NASA were trying to hide Martian bacterial life, why did NASA spend several more decades looking for the remains of Martian life? Nevertheless, Martian bacteria imply nothing about alien involvement in human culture. Coppens quotes Sri Lankan mathematician Chandra Wickramasinghe as claiming that after 1982 science became engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the self-evident truth of panspermia. A quick look at Wickramasinghe’s publications shows that he has in fact published dozens of articles and books on panspermia, including six articles since 1982 on the topic in peer-reviewed journals, as recently as last year. Wickramasinghe controversially believes that new strains of influenza arrive on earth from outer space every few years, and that plagues and even SARS are viruses that fell to earth from the stars.
None of this is relevant to the ancient alien question proposed at the beginning of the book.
Get a load of Coppens’s next claim—apparently an original one, for once: “The big question, of course, is whether life is a cosmic imperative, which would mean that the Bible and so many other religious texts are likely true when they say that God created life.” Notice that Coppens quickly elides God and the universe—pantheism—as a self-evident identification, and he then uses this identification to resurrect the authority of the Bible, suggesting in subsequent sentences that the aliens (i.e. “the gods”) are acting on a “religious imperative” to aid God-universe in spreading life through panspermia. Coppens is apparently entirely unaware of the logical problems with this idea, not least that “God” and the universe are not necessarily identical, either in fact or in theory, and this assumption cannot be used to speculate about directed panspermia, the idea that aliens were sending out probes filled with DNA to spark life.
Coppens builds out from this to the planet Mars where he summarizes Graham Hancock’s Mars Mystery (1998, with Robert Bauval and John Grigsby), whose publication details he incorrectly reports. He mixes in Richard Hoagland’s Mars claims, probably from Hancock’s summary. “In the final analysis, it is impossible to argue that there are no pyramids on Mars—it’s impossible to prove a negative.” Sigh. It is possible to explain every alleged Martian pyramid for what it is—eroded hills. Even Coppens understands that blurry photos of eroded heaps of dirt are not evidence of pyramids, but despite this he promises that the “mystery” will “linger” until humans travel to Mars to conduct full-scale archaeological digs—but I thought you can’t prove a negative?
He finishes up by repeating David Childress’s and Mike Bara’s claims about pyramids on the Moon, for which of course no real evidence exists, and informs us that thanks to panspermia we can conclude we as humans are aliens. Logically, of course, this actually undercuts the ancient astronaut idea since it eliminates the need for aliens to travel physically to earth.
Coppens’s final chapter dispenses with flesh-and-blood aliens altogether, tacitly admitting to the flimsiness of the preceding evidence. Instead, this time he looks for psychic alien influence. He speculates whether false doors in Andean and Egyptian art were “star gates” but draws no conclusion. He claims that Coral Castle in Florida, constructed using very simple applications of levers and pivots, defies explanation and questions whether aliens psychically gave its builder the secrets of the ancients. Following this, he summarizes Adrija Puharich’s book The Sacred Mushroom, as filtered through The Stargate Conspiracy, a book Coppens worked on as a research assistant and which he strip-mines for spare parts about an alleged group of government officials who worship the nine creator gods/aliens of Egypt who are also the Nine Support Gods of the Maya and therefore were supposed to return last December during the Maya Apocalypse. Oops. You’ll see that this section is almost point-for-point identical to portions Coppens’ own article I just linked to. The upshot is Coppens adopts Puharich’s position that hallucinogens put human minds in contact with “non-human intelligences” through psychic channels.
His next section deals with the Pyramid Texts, but it is so confusingly written that I am not able to tell whether he incorrectly states that the Pyramid Texts sparked alchemy and the Renaissance (impossible as hieroglyphs were not understood at that time), or whether he meant to say that the Corpus Hermeticum did (still a dicey assertion to make with no proof, especially since alchemy and the Renaissance were well established when the Corpus was discovered, translated, and published by Marsiglio Ficino in 1463).
Coppens describes Egyptian royal rituals in tiresome detail, building up to the claim that the Egyptian pharaohs believed themselves to be in psychic contact with the gods, much the way Pat Robertson tells us that Jesus whispers in his ear. But what does this have to do with aliens? There is still no proof whatsoever that any non-human intelligences actually spoke to the pharaohs!
Coppens tries to make the case that Egyptian rituals were followed by “the Maya” at Teotihuacan, but he again does not understand that Teotihuacan was a completely different culture. Worse, his source is an “ancient” text written in 1961, allegedly by a Mexican shaman, and called the Codex Matz-Ayauhtla. This was a picture book, allegedly a hieroglyphic codex (not seen in public of course), presented to the Beat poet Marty Matz, who then “translated” it into English and waited until 1994 to reveal it to the world in the English version only. And we are to rely on this as an accurate depiction of “Maya” rituals at Teotihuacan thousands of years ago? Even at face value, it was presented as an Aztec codex. But, you know, all those Mexicans were the same, right? Wasn’t Coppens the one who was arguing for clear rules of evidence?
Following this, Coppens summarizes the work of psychedelic drug advocate Terence McKenna, who argued that shamans the world over connected with real extraterrestrial “gods” through taking hallucinogenic drugs that propelled their consciousness into other dimensions. This is a literalizing of the more sophisticated idea put forth by David Lewis-Williams about the way altered states of consciousness give rise to specific sensory hallucinations that cultures worldwide interpret through their own cultural lenses. Coppens, of course, is happy to report only the literal version where the hallucinations are real, just as Graham Hancock has recently done. There is an obvious epistemological problem in that there is no objective way to distinguish between hallucinations and actual inter-dimensional contact within the human mind. Saying that the –coatl suffix in Quetzalcoatl’s name means both “serpent” and “twin” and therefore represents DNA helices isn’t enough to overcome this question of proof. “Feathered-Twin” doesn’t sound much like DNA to me.
Coppens next discusses the desert southwest of the United States, claiming that a Hopi myth of a magic water jar could be a true story of terraforming technology and arguing that archaeology is “wrong most often” because it fails to use myths to explain the rise and fall of cultures; Coppens himself fails to understand that myths are not prima facie true and may well develop after the fact to provide equally wrong but satisfying explanations of their own. For example, he wants us to read the Hopi creation myth as a divine sanction for abandoning cliff dwellings after a century of use, but fails to consider whether such myths were retroactively created to explain why such buildings were abandoned for other reasons, such as environmental change or warfare.
He claims, summarizing Gary A. David in The Orion Zone (2007), that the three Hopi mesas represent Orion’s belt. I’ve showed that they’re not even close. The rest of this section similarly summarizes David, whose research and conclusions spiral into fantasy. Coppens does nothing to research actual Hopi, Navajo, or Ancestral Pueblo sites or beliefs, simply taking David at his word. Accepting David’s claims, Coppens asserts that Teotihuacan, the Hopi mesas, and Giza are all Orion’s Belt, and this therefore proves a connection: “they are definitive evidence that our ancestors were in contact—repeatedly—with a nonhuman, alien, extraterrestrial intelligence.” This, he says, is the origins or religion and the true nature of God. If only any of those “correlations” actually worked. Ah, well. You can’t have everything, can you?
The end of the chapter gives the game way: Coppens declares that religion was originally a science, a science of inter-dimensional communication with unknown intelligences. Thus, his readers can take comfort that nasty old science hasn’t buried God; no, the divine is transfigured, the old faiths feel new blood course through their veins as the comforting verities of religion receive a new seal of sanctity from the unnamed intelligent designers who dwell safely beyond the ability of science to search for them. God is dead; long live the gods.
Coppens sums up the book, recapitulates the key “evidence” he discussed, and repeats the refrain that science is too reductive in refusing to acknowledge the supernatural. He concludes that aliens physically visited the earth a few times but otherwise delivered “knowledge” across a trans-dimensional pipeline powered by magic mushrooms. This is a very sad commentary on his opinion of human intelligence, but entirely in keeping with the two unstated (and probably unconscious) themes of the book: (a) science is an atheistic, elitist enterprise designed to keep the common man poor, ignorant, and spiritually bankrupt and (b) reality is governed by a spiritual element that can be physically located in another dimension, making religion real and our hopes for God and the angels coming to care for us justified. The aliens, by and large, are irrelevant so long as we can find a reason—any excuse really—to return to religion and to surrender our independence and will to the superior direction of God or the gods.
In that, Coppens resembles not the great heroes of literature he aims to ape but rather Isidore of Seville, the medieval compiler. Like Isidore, Coppens simply summarizes others’ works, adding little of his own except to twist the texts to support a predetermined spiritual framework. Like Isidore, he struggled to reconcile pagan (or, in Coppens’s case, scientific) knowledge with the dogmas of religion, and he worked to salvage the parts of science that could be used to support the spiritual. And like Isidore, Coppens represents the decay of literature, the candles blowing out one by one as the light of reason gives way to medieval superstition.
Where they differ, however, is that Isidore worked to preserve what he could of the knowledge that came before him, while Coppens wants to destroy everything but alternative history. He actively calls for the end of science and the assumption of a medieval worldview of mysticism, occultism, and the immanent nature of the supernatural.
At the most basic level, his book is a failure. I am genuinely shocked that it contains no original research, no unique ideas, and no new information, artifacts, or interpretations. He failed even to use primary sources except when another author provided them for him. This book could have been written in 1973, as nearly all of the “evidence” he presents comes almost wholesale from Erich von Däniken’s first three books (Chariots of the Gods, Gods from Outer Space, and Gold of the Gods), updated only insofar as von Däniken’s later books and other alternative authors returned to the themes. If you didn’t know about a particular site or artifact before reading this book, you would be left confused, so haphazard and half-hearted are his discussions.
Far from breaking the “intellectual sound barrier,” as Giorgio Tsoukalos claimed, this book is even worse than David Childress’s cut-and-paste plagiarisms, which at least had the virtue of being entertaining and engaging rather than half-digested, incomplete nonsense. Even von Däniken was able to muster up new and interesting things to write about in most of his books, at least until the 1990s, when he started recycling text.
The Ancient Alien Question is barely a book in that its chapters do not work together, do not support the main idea, and represent the nearly unedited ramblings of a man who was play-acting at profundity without the intellectual rigor or theoretical framework to understand the claims he partially, incompletely proposed. That it is also filled with fabrications, hoaxes, and lies that Coppens failed to recognize in his secondhand sources and armchair research tells us everything we need to know about the “best” evidence ever presented for 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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