The year 1976 was certainly a busy one for alternative history. That year gave us The Sirius Mystery from Robert Temple, Twelfth Planet from Zecharia Sitchin, and They Came before Columbus from Ivan Van Sertima (whom I’ll call IVS for short), among others. All of these books, though, attempted to take on the big dog of alternative studies, Erich von Däniken (EVD), whose Chariots of the Gods and its sequels had sold around ten million copies in the preceding decade.
Temple and Sitchin attempted to gain market share by providing more specific information about the exact nature of the aliens; by contrast, IVS proposed a radically different theory: Afrocentrism. He reinterpreted the same hoary evidence to show that Africans had launched global civilization, though with the same caveat as EVD that no incontrovertible product of this advanced culture remained to be found. In They Came before Columbus, IVS attempted to explain why his new alternative theory was better than EVD’s in a weird little passage that seemed to acknowledge the the two men were competitors in the marketplace of bad ideas. IVS’s answer was a false dichotomy.
Obviously, the only two answers are space creatures or globetrotting Africans.
IVS doesn’t bother to check EVD’s evidence, of course. According to his end notes, he simply accepted EVD’s word that a camel is depicted at Marcahuasi (Markawasi) without any attempt to seek out a primary source. This is the entirety of what EVD said about it in Chariots of the Gods:
But EVD had misunderstood his source, as we shall see. Marcahuasi does not feature “outline drawings” (per EVD) or “etched” images (per IVS). The claim for Marcahuasi is that the plateau’s collection of boulders and eroded rock formations is the remains of a prehistoric sculpture garden. It isn’t, of course. As I discussed back in March, even alternative geologists like Robert M. Schoch recognize that the site is simply a collection of suggestive shapes that human imagination can sometimes see as various intentional designs—little more than Jesus in the tortilla. Actually, worse than that: the “sculptures” appear as recognizable shapes only from particular angles and at particular times of day. Otherwise, they appear to be what they really are, naturally-eroded rocks.
This one linked here is the so-called “camel.” (The site wants payment to reproduce, so you’ll have to click the link.) I didn’t see it, personally, until someone pointed out that the tall part is supposed to be the head and the round part the hump. One humped camels (dromedaries), incidentally, are not native to Africa; they are originally from Arabia.
IVS didn’t even bother checking other alternative sources for more information. Had he done so, he might have seen that there was a long history to this claim. It begins with a fellow named Daniel Ruzo, a lawyer and mystic who first decided that the random rock patters on the plateau were statues and starting marketing the claim in various publications, along with his other beliefs about ancient civilizations’ high technology, 40,000-year-old high cultures, and Nostradamus. He felt other eroded rocks around the world were also extremely old statues, no matter how much evidence accumulated that they were natural formations.
George Hunt Williamson wrote a chapter about Marcahuasi in his 1959 ancient astronaut book The Road in the Sky (itself based on Theosophy’s Venusian spirit beings via George Adamski, a friend with whom Williamson communed with Aryan beings from Venus). Also, Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels had written of the site in Morning of the Magicians, identifying the site as being at 3,800 meters (= 12,467 ft), the source for EVD’s 12,500 feet since EVD borrowed shamelessly from Bergier and Pauwels. (Modern estimates place the 4 sq. km plateau, which is not entirely even, at 3,950 meters above sea level, almost 13,000 ft.) Here are Pauwels and Bergier on Marcahuasi:
Pauwels and Bergier’s account is written ambiguously enough that EVD did not immediately recognize that the “carving” in the rock comprising images of light and shadow were intended as statues rather than outline drawings. The connection between the two sentences in the passage is not clear enough; however, his assigning of the site to 10,000 years ago (c. 8000 BCE) is not found in Morning of the Magicians and appears to be the result of EVD confusing Marcahuasi with the next site Pauwels and Bergier site, Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco), which alternative theorists falsely dated to c. 9000 BCE.
Until Ruzo’s own popular book was published in 1974 (he had published a pseudo-academic monograph in the 1950s), all subsequent accounts are dependent on this discussion from Morning of the Magicians and the monograph from which they drew information. For example, Peter Kolosimo’s Not of This World (1968; trans. 1971) repeats Pauwels’s and Bergier’s account virtually word-for-word (including the odd phrase “secondary era” and a word-for-word repetition of a weird claim about photographic negatives of a “statue” at the site turning its subject from an old man to a youth). Seeking out the dating of the stegosaur in a reference book, Kolosimo finds that the animals date from “185 to 130 million years ago”—in which number he, in the later book Spaceships in Prehistory, included from other sources horses and oxen, animals that didn’t exist 195 million years ago! (The stegosaurus is now dated to 155-150 million years ago.)
This set of “facts” was also repeated in Andrew Tomas’s We Are Not the First (1971), Atlantis: From Legend to Discovery (1973), and On the Shores of Endless Worlds (1974); Charles Berlitz’s Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds (1972) and The Bermuda Triangle (1975); two later works of Bergier, Eternal Man (1970; trans. 1972) and Extraterrestrial Visitations (1970, trans. 1973); and Colin Wilson’s Lovecraftian novel The Mind Parasites (1967) among dozens of other works—including some articles in academic journals.
The claims in these various works differ wildly in their details. Over time, the claims for the Marcahuasi plateau grow more elaborate—the discussions of the “rock carvings” (i.e. representational statues) gradually transition to “rock drawings” or “inscriptions” based not on firsthand research but mostly due to repetition and confusion. In almost no 1970s book are there photographs of these "drawings" since they do not exist. Pauwels and Bergier are, oddly enough, perhaps the most careful, suggesting in The Eternal Man only a limited number of inscriptions (on "two rocks") or drawings in addition to the representational sculptures. But Bergier turns them into "bas-reliefs" in Extraterrestrial Visitations and suggests that they are the origin of the religious belief in death and resurrection, since the "sculpture" said in Morning of the Magicians to turn from an old man to a young man when viewed as a photographic negative is now said to make the change not on film but by season! If only Peter Kolosimo had waited for the updated fabrication!
So, by the time Ivan Van Sertima got around to complaining about Erich von Däniken—his bestselling competitor in the 1970s marketplace—there was a vast literature of copying and repetition he could have chosen to deal with. Instead, IVS, like EVD before him, simply repeated uncritically earlier claims—all of which go back to one man, Daniel Ruzo, who climbed up a mountain and thought he saw statues in a bunch of random rock shapes.
Marcahuasi is still a popular fixture in alternative history books, and the site was featured on Ancient Aliens a few months ago. Sadly, we are still dealing with the after-effects of Dainel Ruzo's bout of pareidolia today.
Honestly, it's depressing how this works, with alternative authors copying and copying and copying, cashing big royalty checks on the strength of no original research.
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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