Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, 2019 was the year in which fringe history stopped being fringe and went completely mainstream. This year, we saw pseudohistory and conspiracy theories top the literary bestseller lists, multiply across cable channels like mushrooms on a rotten log, and attract record crowds to traveling carnivals masquerading as pseudohistory “fan” conventions. It perfectly captures the tenor of the times for the post-truth era that the very notions of fact and fiction ceased to have meaning. This was a long, hard year, both for the world and also for me personally. After dealing with family health problems, buying and selling a house (and still not being able to close on selling the old one until early 2020, nearly half a year after the sale), writing two books, and a knot of lawyers for many different developments, I am ready for this unpleasant year to end. Let’s look back in anger:
The year began with Ancient Aliens concluding its thirteenth season with a batch pair of new episodes. These two episodes, added to the twenty-two which aired later in the year as the show’s fourteenth season, meant that 2019 saw more original episodes of Ancient Aliens air than any year since the show’s debut ten years earlier. The History Channel, which airs Ancient Aliens, doubled down on its alien and UFO programming by debuting Project Blue Book, a dull conspiracy thriller that imagined the Air Force’s Project Blue Book as an anti-X-Files, suppressing the truth about UFOs and ancient astronauts. Naturally, it became one of the network’s highest-rated scripted series. The New York Times, which carried a wraparound ad for the show, delivered free advertising in the form of credulous reporting about the “truth” behind the show from UFO disclosure advocate Leslie Kean, who masquerades as a journalist when not actively lobbying the government for UFO disclosure. Australia’s History Channel marked Australia Day by airing a marathon of Ancient Aliens episodes claiming aliens and Egyptians colonized Australia. An alt-right Proud Boy follower of the pro-Trump Q-Anon conspiracy theory killed his brother with a sword after becoming convinced that his brother was a Reptilian. This sad story of apparent mental illness brought to light the convergence of pro-Trump and UFO/Reptilian conspiracy theories in the darker parts of the internet. Religion scholar Diana W. Pasulka published American Cosmic, a study of UFO culture, which offered controversial depictions of leading government officials and scientists enthralled by imaginary space aliens. The Travel Channel began airing reruns of America Unearthed to whet viewer appetites for a revival of the 2013-2015 extreme pseudohistory series. Travel’s sister station, the Science Channel, announced a new America Unearthed-inspired series, America’s Lost Vikings, to search for evidence of white people in pre-Columbian America. The Council for West Virginia Archaeology blasted Appalachian magazine for reviving claims that Irish monks colonized pre-Columbian America. Archaeologists in Scotland discovered that an “ancient” stone circle had been built in the 1990s.
In February, Erich von Däniken received an “integrity” award from the Conscious Life Expo, and the admitted fabricator accepted with a speech containing years-old false claims that had been repeatedly debunked. His speech dealt with his particular obsession: “Did extra-terrestrials have sex with humans?” The Australian Labour Party and Jewish groups pressured the Coalition-led government to ban conspiracy theorist David Icke from the country because of his anti-Semitic claims about Jewish complicity in a Reptilian conspiracy to rule the world. Scott F. Wolter, erstwhile host of America Unearthed, spilled the beans on the Travel Channel’s plans when he was spotted in Scotland filming new episodes of America Unearthed before an official announcement of the show’s renewal was made a couple of weeks later. The Travel Channel called the resurrection of the former H2 show a “crowd-pleaser and ratings driver.” Middling Nielsen ratings showed it was not, losing viewers most weeks from a years-old rerun of Expedition Unknown that aired as its lead-in. The Science Channel launched America’s Lost Vikings, which spent a terminally dull season dancing around the idea that America “really” belongs to the hosts’ Scandinavian families because of imaginary trips by Norsemen into the interior of pre-Columbian America. This show, too, lost in the ratings to years-old reruns of Expedition Unknown. Former Ancient Aliens talking head David Wilcock apologized to Gaia TV for a dramatic and accusatory resignation letter that circulated in 2018, adding that a conspiracy had been organized against conspiracy theorists to destroy conspiracy theory TV, a claim 2019’s bumper crop of conspiracy shows proved sadly wrong. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb tried to join the ancient astronaut gravy train by defending a claim that the interstellar object Oumuamua could be an alien spacecraft. Podcaster Joe Rogan blasted Tom DeLonge of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science (TTSA) by correctly noting that the world’s highest-profile ufologist can’t tell the difference between reality and hoaxes. Former baseball player Jose Conseco made news by babbling about his belief in bendable time-traveling space aliens. A Tampa-area man thought that finding a Roman coin on the beach meant the Romans reached Florida, and a Nevada newspaper bizarrely claimed that the Phoenicians mistook Maya cities for Atlantis a thousand years before they had been built. The University of New Mexico quietly removed Afrocentric claims from its website after criticism of a planned study abroad program to explore the “African presence” among the ancient Olmec.
In March, former senator Harry Reid began a year of reinventing himself as a UFO celebrity by sitting down for an interview with UFO journalist George Knapp to speculate about government UFO secrets. He strongly advocated for the “disclosure” he did nothing to bring about when he actually had power over the government. The History Channel announced a partnership with TTSA and Tom DeLonge for a new series about government UFO secrets, Unidentified, and told advertisers it planned a full year’s worth of paranormal and conspiracy programming. The producer of Alien Autopsy sued a bunch of people, including an ex-congressman, over a stalled UFO documentary. America’s Lost Vikings ended its season with a whimper, and almost no one watched Starz’s Now Apocalypse, a quarterlife dramedy featuring the Apocalypse, Reptilians, and cattle mutilation. Slate magazine attacked Joe Rogan for selling pseudoscience and false enlightenment to angry white men. A right-wing extremist killed 49 people in an attack on mosques in New Zealand and wrote in his manifesto that he had been inspired by an anti-immigrant group that borrowed the name and imagery of the Knights Templar.
In April, Graham Hancock published America Before, an examination of controversial claims about North American prehistory, including allegations that Atlanteans were actually telekinetic Native Americans. The book became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Hancock embarked a media tour, attacking archaeologists as “the pseudoscientists” and appearing on Joe Rogan to sell the book to angry white men. Andrew Collins began promoting his new book alleging that the Denisovans were the Nephilim of old and the originators of civilization and religion. Ancient Aliens narrator Robert Clotworthy admitted that the show is less about aliens than it is about finding humanity’s “purpose.” Scientific American and Time both published articles linking pseudohistory to white nationalism and racism. Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, relying on dubious research, alleged that Greco-Roman statues were a cause of white nationalism. Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates opened an Egyptian sarcophagus on live television and became giddy with excitement about posing with a human corpse, calling it “a stunner.” CBS asked whether space aliens carved Easter Island’s statues in a tweet promoting a 60 Minutes story. Ancient Aliens made a gaming deal to “leverage its franchise potential,” reinforcing that fake history is all about real money.
In May, Chandra Wickramasinghe, Kamala Wickramasinghe, and Gensuke Tokoro published an ancient astronaut book about the panspermia theory, but it was more of the same from a lead author who specializes in repeating the same claims under new covers. The book attempted to recast panspermia as a cosmology, specifically H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic indifference. The company that manages Erich von Däniken’s intellectual property announced a Chariots of the Gods theme park would be built in Blackpool, England in 2020. The University of Bristol backtracked furiously after making a dramatic claim that one of its researchers had deciphered the infamous Voynich Manuscript by discovering it had been written in the (hypothetical) language of Proto-Romance. It was not. Financier Christopher Mellon of TTSA called on Congress to investigate UFOs in The Hill. Coincidentally or not, a few days later, TTSA launched its new History Channel TV series, and the New York Times ran another credulous article by Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal backing up the show’s claims, timed to the show’s debut. Blumenthal denied being in cahoots with TTSA or timing the article to the show’s debut, but he did so by admitting to watching the pre-air screener for the show and deciding to write about, with reference to the show in the article. The FBI designated conspiracy theories a motivator for domestic terror. At the end of the month, Ancient Aliens returned for a fourteenth season, which would run, with only limited breaks, until nearly the end of the calendar year. Ancient Aliens fatigue set in, however, as the show’s 1.3 million viewers at the beginning of the season declined to under a million by year’s end, touching series lows for the second half of the season. The Curse of Oak Island finished its sixth season as one of cable’s highest-rated series, with more than three million weekly viewers. A much-diminished America Unearthed returned on a new network, with tamer topics, fewer diversions into extreme pseudohistory, and an audience a third the size of the viewership for its original run, aroung 500,000-600,000 weekly viewers. Many weeks, the show lost in the ratings in the key 18-54 demographic to reruns of its own earlier seasons airing as a lead-in. Only one episode focused on Wolter’s pet subject of Templar conspiracies, but during the show’s run Wolter revealed himself as an ancient astronaut theorist (in fringe media appearances, he described Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens as a “friend”) and claimed that an obviously fake carving of the alien from Alien was likely a genuinely ancient record of alien visitation.
The month was dominated by new episodes of History Channel and Travel Channel pseudohistory, conspiracy, and paranormal programs, whose ratings rose as the network TV season ended and viewers shifted to cable. Several U.S. senators demanded a briefing on UFOs from the Pentagon after reading coverage of TTSA’s History Channel show in the New York Times. Donald Trump received a briefing as well, but told ABC News that he did not believe in alien spacecraft. Q-Anon conspiracy theorists assumed Trump was heroically lying to protect America from an imagined truth. The History Channel announced a new series from the mind behind Ancient Aliens to explore the imagined paranormal “mysteries” of Skinwalker Ranch, made famous by Robert Bigelow, who spent years trying to find flying space demons on it. Diana Pasulka revealed her true sympathies by describing longtime UFO and ancient astronaut speculator Jacques Vallée, a computer scientist and advisor to Robert Bigelow, as an “incredible” scientist of flying saucers. She spoke of an “Invisible College” of UFO scientists in the U.S. government and the defense industry, apparently unaware of their connection to Vallée’s longtime friend Hal Puthoff, formerly a Bigelow subcontractor and now a TTSA executive. TTSA and History Channel UFO and ancient astronaut celebrities appeared at the first of two annual Alien Con events to promote their shows to believers. Atlantis Rising magazine, a mainstay of the pseudohistory media industry, folded due to a lack of money. Its mistake was lying about history in print instead of on video.
David Wilcock fully embraced the Q-Anon conspiracy theory and, after trouble with his YouTube channel, declared YouTube part of an anti-Trump population-reduction death cult. An internet joke about “invading” Area 51 gained so much momentum that Giorgio Tsoukalos took to Twitter to condemn the “anarchy” of storming the military base, which he said was not actually home to alien secrets. After Unidentified ended its first low-rated season, it was renewed for a second. The show that replaced it as the lead-out to Ancient Aliens, The UnXplained with William Shatner, outdrew the TTSA series easily. TTSA announced that it had purchased so-called “metamaterials” from Ancient Aliens star Linda Moulton Howe, who had obtained them from Art Bell decades previous, when they were falsely described as wreckage from the Roswell UFO crash. TTSA went on to use “Art’s Parts” to land a contract with the Pentagon to use government resources to test the metal slag for imagined paranormal properties. America Unearthed ended its first Travel Channel series with its only Templar conspiracy episode of the season. Host Scott Wolter would later admit in a radio interview that the network had requested that the series hold back on the host’s most extreme pseudohistorical ideas. Wolter published some of these ideas on his blog shortly after the season wrapped, including an absurd fictitious Templar fish code. The Maltese government responded to pseudohistory claims from the History Channel and others about the country’s prehistory by launching an official inquiry into Maltese elongated skulls to disprove their supposed “alien” origin.
Tom Delonge of TTSA claimed to have secret knowledge too dangerous for the public to know. Late in the month he suggested some of that secret knowledge might include “ultra-terrestrials” arriving on Earth in “Atlantis and Lemuria time.” The Discovery Channel tried to capitalize on the perceived success of TTSA by launching Contact, a rip-off of Unidentified, and this was yet another show that did not find proof of aliens. The Travel Channel replaced America Unearthed with a clone called Code of the Wild in which brothers Casey and Chris Keefer went in search of pseudohistorical mysteries by walking around outside. Fewer than 500,000 people watched most weeks (except for high ratings for an episode on giants), and the show lost viewers from the Expedition Unknown reruns airing as a lead-in. Paranormal programs about ghosts and demons saw their ratings rise as pseudohistory shows’ ratings fell. On Fox News, the former host of the History Channel’s Hunting Hitler blamed domestic terrorism and gun violence on the “feminization” of American males. Scottish chemist Martin Sweatman claimed the Stone Age Turkish site of Göbekli Tepe was a “university” that taught the art of civilization to Europe, Africa, and Asia. The racist and anti-Semitic Barnes Review, which had previously praised America Unearthed, claimed that “white leadership” from Ancient Egypt helped the Maya to develop their civilization. Italian researchers wrongly claimed to have discovered the cave occupied by Circe from the Odyssey on the Italian coast.
In September, Andrew Collins and Greg Little published their book claiming that civilization, religion, and science originated with the Denisovans, a species of hominin known from a handful of bone fragments. In it, they attacked me, alleging that I am in thrall to an elite anti-Native American conspiracy of eugenicists. I am not. Scott Wolter published his new book, Cryptic Code of the Knights Templar in America (my review Part 1 and Part 2), in which he accepted a number of dubious documents and artifacts as authentic evidence of a cult of Templars and Holy Bloodline descendants operating in North America before Columbus. Otherwise, it was a slow month, with even cable shows largely sitting out the beginning of autumn. UFO believers gathered near Area 51 for an alien-themed concert and party which had been organized to replace the planned “storming” of Area 51. Ancient Aliens, which was on hiatus for the month, sent some of its talking heads to film segments during the event and live-streamed the gathering online.
In October, Ancient Aliens returned from a summer hiatus, joined by In Search Of, which regularly outdrew its fading lead-in in the ratings. The second Alien Con of the year took place in Dallas. A vandal used a power tool to etch a Q-Anon initialism into the cider press at America’s Stonehenge that believers maintain is an ancient sacrificial table created by an Old World culture. The owners of the site initially described the attack as anti-Masonic. The vandalism caused America Unearthed host and Freemason Scott F. Wolter to have a conniption, and he blamed me and “academics” for fostering an environment of “confusion” that inspires attacks on imagined Euro-American heritage. The FBI launched an investigation, and Wolter claimed to be privy to its non-public details. Wolter’s onetime friend Frank Joseph, the former head of the Nazi Party in America, attended a fringe history conference and posed with fake crystal skulls in a bizarre convergence of Indiana Jones and real-life pseudohistory and Nazis. Tom Delonge and Peter Levenda published a new book offering TTSA’s views on the UFO phenomenon, which turned out to be that they believe UFOs are spiritual energies from other dimensions that offer transformative religious experiences and proof of God. Psychologist Steven Pinker claimed historians “hate” science because they don’t agree with his simplistic view of Western intellectual history, which he called “objective.” A Stanford professor declared the fall of the Roman Empire the “best” thing ever to have happened to Europe.
In November, Fox News megastar Tucker Carlson appeared on Ancient Aliens to discuss his belief that the U.S. government is hiding the truth about aliens, solidifying the long-simmering connection between ufology and rightwing politics. The Science Channel launched yet another America Unearthed clone, Unexplained + Unexplored, which largely remade old episodes of America Unearthed with two hosts who were less knowledgeable and more credulous than even Scott Wolter. Fewer than 500,000 people watched, and most weeks it was more like 350,000. Naturally, the show used plenty of conspiracy theorists from the History Channel roster and some misidentified and fake evidence. Nexstar, a local television operator, launched Mystery Wire, a UFO news website based on KLAS UFO reporter George Knapp’s reporting. Knapp has longstanding relationships with TTSA, Robert Bigelow, and Bob Lazar, the so-called Area 51 “whistleblower” who published an autobiography this year with TTSA. It was all very incestuous. Nephilim theorist Steve Quayle held a fallen angel conference in Branson, Mo. and announced on Sky Watch TV that the fallen angels would soon return to kill us all. Even though Giorgio Tsoukalos condemned the effort to storm Area 51 and claimed the site held no alien evidence, he still appeared in an Ancient Aliens episode celebrating the event. The SAA Archaeological Record, a publication of the Society for American Archaeology, published a theme section dissecting pseudohistory through lens of Graham Hancock’s America Before. Hancock took to his blog to attack the articles, including my own contribution, as biased against him. The History Channel announced that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin would appear alongside the cast of Ancient Aliens and other History Channel pseudohistory shows at a fan convention to celebrate the network’s 25th anniversary next year. After receiving criticism, the network revised the lineup, and Kearns Goodwin is now scheduled to appear alongside Tom Brokaw and two U.S. presidents at a tonier Carnegie Hall celebration of the History Channel that will not include the network’s controversial pseudohistory stars. There was little that so clearly encapsulated the difference between the upper class and the mass audience they pandered to than having one convention for ignorant conspiracy theorists and another for media and political elites, both to celebrate the same corporation.
December saw Ancient Aliens end its fourteenth and longest season with a promise to return shortly after the new year begins. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Deep Prasad, who recently turned to investigating UFOs, announced on Twitter that he had had an alien encounter, but his description was extremely similar to the type of waking dreams experienced in the twilight between waking and sleep. He also released results from tests conducted on metals similar to those purchased by TTSA. His analysis could not rule out a terrestrial origin. Jacques Vallée, who was also investigating the same metals, refused to provide proof of his claim to have documents showing the CIA faked alien abductions as “psychological warfare.” Andrew Collins claimed Denisovans were “grotesque” cannibal giants but that the first people of India had sex with them anyway. Scott Wolter claimed Akhenaten and Jesus Christ were his ancestors. A British production company began work on a new America Unearthed-style series called Relic Hunters, which was to feature Templar conspiracies. After releasing a Jordanian teen drama about Jinn earlier this year, Netflix finished the year with a Turkish drama, The Gift, which placed Göbekli Tepe in a supernatural conspiracy. Diana Pasulka announced on Twitter that her new book would discuss high-ranking researchers and scientists who now believe UFOs are angels and demons because studying UFOs had convinced them of the literal reality of Jesus and Satan. It was the perfect distillation of everything wrong with popular science and history in 2019.
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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