Until Ancient Aliens the other day, I can’t say I’d ever heard of Marshall Klarfeld. Apparently he is a familiar figure to listeners of Coast to Coast AM, where he has appears occasionally since 2005 to promote his theory that human beings were genetically engineered by an extraterrestrial race called the Annunaki 250,000 years ago. If that theory sounds familiar, it’s for a good reason: it’s Zecharia Sitchin’s theory from Twelfth Planet (1976), which Klarfeld has actively worked to prove true.
Here’s how Coast to Coast AM summarized Klarfeld’s argument:
This seems like a very slow process.
At this point, there is really no reason to go over these threadbare ideas another time. There is no Nibiru and never has been; no intergalactic space ship worth its salt would need a giant rock as a launch pad; there is no evidence of non-local intervention at Stonehenge or the pyramids; etc. And if the aliens genetically engineered humans, they did a really crappy job. Why make workers who are less strong than Homo erectus, more prone to injury, etc.?
Oh, and most importantly: where are these cities? If even a single building from 450,000 years ago survives, it would transform our understanding of history. But alternative theorists never want to provide the absolute proof they keep telling us they have.
But what interests me about these types of theories is the way they recapitulate the old racist arguments of the nineteenth century but extend the argument to include now all ancient peoples, not just the non-white ones. The assumption that ancient people were simply too stupid and too primitive to have built the buildings that were obviously their own work was first applied by European explorers in the Age of Discovery to the works of the Native peoples of ancient America and the Polynesians of the Pacific. In both cases, explorers assumed that brown-skinned people were unable to stack stone one atop the other because their skin color precluded such cognitive effort, and they attributed the works of the Americas and the Pacific to everything from Atlantis to Phoenicians to an all-purpose lost white race.
But now modern theories have expanded these racist old ideas to include monuments built by European ancestors as well, a sort of equal-opportunity degradation of ancient accomplishments. In the nineteenth century, the racist versions of these theories served a particular ideological purpose, reinforcing the social and political hierarchy of empire. Today’s theorists seem a bit different. Yes, they are still saying native peoples are inferior idiots, but now they include all ancient peoples. The dividing line is no longer between white and non-white but between modern and pre-modern. These theories are no longer weapons in a race war; instead, the war is on tradition and history itself. By demolishing the past’s claims to greatness, these theories build up modernity as preferable, as better. It seems to me that this reflects anxiety about the current state of the world and the need to make sense of its troubled state—especially the disorienting effects of rapid change—by providing a narrative that assuages that anxiety.
I wonder if it is entirely a coincidence that in the 1990s—during the so-called “holiday from history”—the dominant “alternative” theory was the lost civilization theory (i.e., Atlantis), which attempted to provide a glorious ancient analog to our own modern world that was better and more noble and worthy of emulation. After 9/11, the ancient astronaut theory made a comeback that I never expected. I thought it was dead and buried, to be honest. This theory posits an invasion by beings from another culture, imposing their ideas, their culture, and even their DNA onto human beings. Especially in its most recent form, the ancient astronaut theory has become quite frightening, imagining these invaders as essentially puppet masters controlling every human action, terrifying monsters from a past best forgotten.
I think there is something deeper at work. Alternative theories exist to express anxieties by recreating the past in the image of the present. It seems that the dominant fear right now is about the corruption of culture through contact with the Other.
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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