Investigating Ancient Aliens
The History Channel has a series titled "Ancient Aliens" that claims to explore the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years from the age of the dinosaurs to ancient Egypt and present what as we will see can be described as a sensationalized bricolage.
The series also veers into claims that Greek stories dating to 2000 B.C. tell of the god Hephaestus refer to creating robots to build weapons and the bronze giant Talos. In Egypt, the Pyramid Texts say that the god Osiris was dismembered, reassembled, and brought back to life just like a machine. And from there jumps to such questions as if sophisticated robots really did exist in the ancient world–what function did they serve? Who built them? And what happened to them?
Akin to books I highlighted in an earlier section that involves pseudoarchaeology, and pseudoscience, left out (hence few people know about it) is the actual history of the idea of Ancient Aliens theory. This whereby science fiction fans will be aware of the work of the English author H.G. Wells. And the fact that his most well-known story, War of the Worlds (1897), is in part remembered for its 1938 radio adaptation directed by Orson Welles, which caused widespread panic across the United States as listeners who tuned in to only a portion of the show perceived as fact the fictional news broadcast about a Martian invasion. The publication history of War of the Worlds is typical of Victorian and Edwardian fiction: rather than being issued as a single volume, it was published in a serialized form, in the War of the Worlds in Pearson’s Magazine from April-December 1897.
Less known (and here we are getting closer to the background of where the Ancient Aliens idea in the History Channel series comes from.
Thomas Edison’s Conquest of Mars
As soon as the Worlds' initial publication of Wars ended in December 1897, the American magazine New York Evening Journal began publishing an unauthorized version of the story with the title changed to Fighters from Mars or the War of the Worlds. The story was broadly similar, although the Martian invasion setting had been changed from Surrey to New York. A second unauthorized publication of the story, Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds in and near Boston, was published by the Boston Post starting in January 1898.
Once the run of Fighters from Mars had been finished in both magazines, a sequel to Wells’ story appeared. It was written by a lesser-known sci-fi author, Garret P. Serviss (1851–1929), entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898). It may seem somewhat incongruous to cast Thomas Edison as the protagonist in a space opera. Still, Serviss was writing within an established literary genre known as ‘edinsonades.’ These had been born out of a fascination with science and engineering, which is also visible in many works by the French author Jules Verne. In the same way that not all ‘robinsonades’ focus on the character of Robinson Crusoe, not all ‘edinsonades’ focus on the character of Thomas Edison. However, a shared element of all the stories explores new technologies, and the protagonist is usually a brilliant inventor (sometimes Thomas Edison himself) who uses his inventions to overcome various perils and explore unknown lands and worlds.
Edison’s Conquest of Mars is a direct sequel to War of the Worlds and concerns the human response to the aborted Martian invasion of earth. Humanity’s leaders (represented by the President of the United States, Queen Victoria, the Emperor of Japan, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany) unite the planet’s population to launch a pre-emptive attack on Mars. Leading the assault is the American inventor Thomas Edison, who studies abandoned Martian equipment to develop the necessary tools (including ray guns). During the attack on Mars, the expeditionary force encounter a population of human slaves taken thousands of years in the past by another Martian raid. The slaves tell their human saviors that during this ancient invasion of Earth, the Martians constructed mountains of stone-blocks and a large statue carved in their leader's shape. At this stage, one of the earth scientists realizes which structures this ancient legend alludes to:
‘Gentlemen, gentlemen,’ he cried, ‘is it that you do not understand? This Land of Sand and a wonderful fertilizing river – what can it be? Gentlemen, it is Egypt! These mountains of rock that the Martians have erected, what are they? Gentlemen, they are the great mystery of the land of the Nile, the Pyramids. The gigantic statue of their leader that they at the foot of their artificial mountains have set up – gentlemen, what is that? It is the Sphinx!’1
In these sentences, we witness the birth of what became an addition to the field of Pyramidology: the Ancient Astronaut theory, which holds that ancient civilizations were visited by advanced aliens who in various ways helped to develop their societies. In Egypt’s case, this theory's proponents generally hypothesize that the Egyptians did not build the pyramids and other monuments. Still, they were constructed – as Serviss suggested – by an alien race.
However, Serviss’s story was fiction. There is no evidence he seriously believed the notion that aliens had visited earth in the ancient past, no more than Jules Verne believed that an obsessive submarine captain cruised around the Seven Seas in an electrically powered submarine. It would be nearly half-a-decade before anyone proposed the Ancient Astronaut theory in earnest.
The man credited with bringing Serviss’ fictional creation into the realm of factual publication was the British journalist Harold T. Wilkins (1891–1960). Wilkins published a broad catalog of books on pseudoscience, borrowing liberally from previous authors (and in fact plagiarizing some of them word for word). He created a hodgepodge of pseudoscientific ramblings centered for the most part around the notion of White Gods in the context of ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica. Wilkins claimed that the great monuments of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs had been built by a now-vanished white race who had been worshipped as gods (and who were also associated with Atlantis). The Italian writer Peter Kolosimo would later adjust this idea of the White Gods in his book Not of This World (1969), suggesting that they were not human but alien in origin. In rapid succession from 1954–1955, Wilkins published three books: Flying Saucers on the Attack, Flying Saucers on the Moon, and Flying Saucers Uncensored. Despite their rather sensational titles, these books were intended to be taken as serious factual contributions. While Wilkins did not overmuch discuss ancient Egypt, he was among the first to seriously propose that aliens had visited ancient races and influenced human history:
Maybe, there is life on some other planet; for, how otherwise, shall we explain, what may not necessarily be total legend and myth in the strange stories, of ancient South American prehistory, about fire falling from the sky, seemingly by design and not an accident, and not as the incalculable explosions of great meteorites, aerolites, comets or planetoids upon ancient South American cities? 2
Wilkins’s theories were so outlandish that they were not taken seriously by the academic establishment. However, they did find a willing audience among the general public in the UFO-obsessed aftermath of the famous Roswell Crash in 1947. However, true widespread acceptance of the Ancient Astronaut theory as fact among huge swathes of the Western world population did not begin until more than a decade after Wilkins published his book. More than anyone else, the man helped perpetuate the myth of alien beings visiting the Earth in its ancient past – a man who makes most archaeologists and Egyptologists sigh and roll their eyes – is the Swiss author Erich von Däniken. Däniken, a convicted thief and fraudster, began his crusade to spread his theories about ancient aliens in the late 1960s. In 1968, he published the hugely influential Chariots of the Gods, a book that continues to sell throughout the world. Where his inspiration Wilkins only hinted at ancient encounters with extra-terrestrial beings, Däniken made these encounters a cornerstone of his life’s work. The pyramids in Egypt, the Easter Island statues, the Nazca Lines; there is almost no end to the (non-Western)3 monuments which, according to Däniken, could not possibly have been constructed by humans without the aid of alien visitors.
Däniken’s theories are based on a mixture of willful misrepresentation of data, an extremely biased selection of evidence, and a downright refusal to engage with anything that challenges his basic narrative. His theories about the Great Pyramid of Giza provides an excellent case study. In essence, Däniken claims that the Egyptians could not possibly have built this structure because:
There is no evidence of the workers who worked on it.
1. The Egyptians did not have the tools required to construct the pyramid.
2. The Egyptians built the Great Pyramid perfectly in their first attempt.
All three conditionals are, to Däniken, evidence that the Egyptians had outside helped to build the Great Pyramid, that they simply followed the instructions of a technologically advanced alien race.
So far, so good. The issue with these three tenets of Däniken’s theory is that they are completely incorrect. Over twenty years, Excavations conducted on the plateau near the Giza pyramids at Heit el-Ghurab has revealed a vast town built to house the workers who constructed the Great Pyramid. Discoveries at Wadi el-Jarf of an account of the transport of stone blocks for the building site, written by Merer, one of the officials involved in constructing the Great Pyramid, provide further evidence for the pyramid workers and their organization. Chisel-marks found on the blocks used to build the pyramid and the vast scars in the nearby limestone quarry at Tura show beyond a doubt that the stones were quarried using very ‘Earthly’ bronze chisels. And finally, the idea that the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid perfect from the word go is a complete fallacy. The earliest pyramidical structure is the so-called Step Pyramid of Djoser, built a century before the Great Pyramid at Giza. After constructing the Step Pyramid, the Egyptians built no less than three pyramids for his successor, Sneferu: the Meidum Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid. These structures show clearly how the idea of pyramid construction evolved from a fairly simple idea of putting gradually smaller mastabas (flat rectangles of mudbrick) on top of one another to achieve a stepped effect, and even show the trial and error process experienced by their designers: the Bent Pyramid was originally built using a wrong angle, which had to be rectified half-way through construction, giving the finished pyramid a decidedly lopsided appearance.
Däniken’s theories, despite their serious flaws, however, continued to go from strength to strength. As is known, Von Däniken later became a co-founder of the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association (AAS RA). He designed Mystery Park (now known as Jungfrau Park), a theme park located in Interlaken, Switzerland, that opened in May 2003.
Various authors echoed his theories and have inspired movies and TV shows, including the hilariously kitschy Canadian sci-fi series Stargate SG-1 and its successors. Däniken’s books still sell like hotcakes, and since 2009 he has served as one of the producers on the above-mentioned History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, a show which now seeks to spread the pseudoscientific and pseudoarchaeological theories of Däniken and his disciples as far and wide as possible. And to the horror of many archaeologists, it appears to be working. Chapman University conducts an annual survey of supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories prevalent among the American public. Among these, they measure how many percent of the population believe that aliens visited the Earth during our ancient past and influenced human history. In 2015, that number was 20.3 percent; in 2016, it had grown to 27 percent; in 2017, it grew again to 35 percent; then in 2018, it had grown to a whopping 41 percent. Another benchmark – belief in the existence of technologically advanced ancient societies such as Atlantis – grew from 39.6 percent in 2016 to a majority of 57 percent in 2018, and so on.
The beliefs of the general public about the effect of extraterrestrial contact have also been studied. A poll of the United States and Chinese university students in 2000 provides factor analysis of responses to questions about, inter alia, the participants' belief that extraterrestrial life exists in the Universe, that such life may be intelligent, and that humans will eventually make contact with it. The study shows significant weighted correlations between participants' belief that extraterrestrial contact may either conflict with or enrich their personal religious beliefs and how conservative such religious beliefs are. The more conservative the respondents, the more harmful they considered extraterrestrial contact to be. Other significant correlation patterns indicate that students believed that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence might be futile or even harmful.
On top of this, the inherent racism and colonialism in most current pseudoarchaeological theories cannot and should also not be denied. One of the central themes of many of the theories dreamt up concerning the origins of the Giza Pyramids was that the Egyptians themselves could not have possibly built them. To John Taylor (The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built and Who Built it?) Joseph Seis ( Great Pyramid of Egypt, Miracle in Stone: Secrets and Advanced Knowledge) and Charles Taze Russell (God's Stone Witness and Prophet), their architect, could be found among the Biblical patriarchs. To Ignatius L. Donnelly, Newton Hall, and Edgar Cayce, the origin of the pyramids could be found in Atlantis's study. To later writers like the above-mentioned Wilkins, Peter Kolosimo (pseudonym of Pier Domenico Colosimo), and von Däniken, they were built by ancient astronauts, aliens, and White Gods in various guises. In fact, one can be forgiven for thinking that certain white and mostly Western scholars and pseudo-scholars would rather tie themselves into fantastical and illogical knots than just admit that non-European people were perfectly capable of undertaking grand construction projects long before the advent of what we refer to as Western Civilization.
So why do people believe weird things?
Expert opinion is not always taken as valid. Many people are less likely to make a specific decision if experts, or the dreaded Establishment, are perceived to order it. And the fight against the Establishment is a central building block of any pseudoarchaeological theory. Watch any episode of Ancient Aliens, and one notices the ‘them-versus-us’ narrative often perpetrated by the show. With their revolutionary theory, the pseudo archaeologists are a scrappy underdog who is mocked by the scientific establishment and whose research is foiled by forces in academia or government who refuse permission to – for instance – dig up a national monument. Of course, the Establishment does not make this decision because digging up national monuments based on a fabricated theory would be a bad idea. No, it makes the decision – it is implied – because it knows that the scrappy underdog is right and wishes to protect its position.
But what fuels beliefs in pseudoarchaeological and pseudoscientific theories? It is not by chance that the Chapman University team in their surveys include belief in pseudoscience and various conspiracy theories under the same banner because they share a lot of common denominators. Fundamentally, both rely on a basic them-versus-us dynamic: those who are enlightened versus the ‘sheep’ who conform to the Establishment narrative. In a 2017 article in Current Directions of Psychological Science,5, a team from the University of Kent asked themselves why people believe in conspiracy theories? By conducting a survey of previous psychological literature on the topic, they came up with three fundamental reasons: epistemic motives, existential motives, and social motives. Let us examine these motives in the context of belief in pseudoarchaeological theories.
Epistemic motivation is essentially the willingness to expend any effort to gain a richer understanding of the world, slake curiosity, or reduce confusion and bewilderment about the world and our place within it. Like pseudoscientific theories, they are speculative in nature; they maintain that a full explanation cannot be forthcoming because some relevant information has been hidden or is not available to the public. Furthermore, both conspiracy theories and pseudoarchaeological theories: ‘postulate that conspirators use stealth and disinformation to cover up their actions – implying that people who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves, be part of the conspiracy.’6
Conspiracy theories and pseudoarchaeological theories produce a sense of control, understanding, even safety in their believers. Their belief allows them perhaps a sense of superiority, the fact that only they know the whole truth, that they are more knowledgeable than any professor of archaeology. In the words of the team from the University of Kent: ‘For example, people who lack instrumental control may be afforded some compensatory sense of control by conspiracy theories, because they offer them the opportunity to reject official narratives and feel that they possess an alternative account.’7
The final category, social motives, maybe the most persuasive. Belief in both conspiracy theories and pseudoarchaeology (and pseudoscience more broadly) are fuelled first and foremost by a sense of belonging to a community.8
The thousands of online boards on which millions debate and discuss specifics of crystal power, lay-lines, pyramid power, and alien encounters constitute a network and a grouping of like-minded individuals who confirm one-another’s beliefs. They allow their followers to exert a positive self-image, to consider themselves more knowledgeable than the ‘enemies’ in academia and the Establishment. In the case of conspiracy theories, this motive can be viewed almost as a defensive mechanism. It is a way for a group of people to shift blame from their own culpability in a given situation and transfer it onto another grouping – be it immigrants or those with opposing political viewpoints. If the reasonings and motives behind belief in pseudoarchaeology and pseudoscience are so like belief in conspiracy theories, might we not address the issue? Outright aggression or derision is clearly not an effective strategy when dealing with conspiracy theorists. Calling someone an idiot to their face might be personally satisfying at times, but it simply entrenches already-held positions. It shifts nothing, except the aggression level. No one has ever changed their deeply held views because someone else repeatedly called them a moron. Instead, we firstly must at least acknowledge the allure of pseudoscientific theories and pseudoarchaeology. The attraction is undeniable: It creates a world wherein you, despite your lack of credentials and relevant experience, are more knowledgeable than the group which is traditionally viewed as knowledgeable. It provides you with a sense of understanding complex issues. It places you within a like-minded community – not dissimilar to Facebook groups about ancient Egypt and amateur archaeological societies. Of course, many of the most popular pseudoarchaeological theories are – at their deepest level – good stories. One should never underestimate the allure of a good yarn.
1. G.P. Serviss, 1947 (book edition), Edison’s Conquest of Mars, Carcosa House.
2.H.T. Wilkins, 1954, Flying Saucers on the Attack, London, 159.
3. Interestingly, to my knowledge, Däniken and his acolytes have never suggested that aliens descended to help the Greeks build the Pantheon, or the Romans build the Colosseum. Nor did little green men help the various Italian architects build St Peter’s Cathedral. And they arguably could have used the help – the construction of the basilica took 120 years (from 1506–1626). Stonehenge appears to be the only monument in Western Europe to have received widespread attention from the ‘Ancient Astronaut’ contingent of the pseudoscientific community. Evidently white people, on the whole, don’t need help from alien beings to build stuff, according to Däniken’s flock.
4. B. Arnold, 2006, ‘Pseudoarchaeology and Nationalism: Essentializing Difference’, in B. Fagan (ed.), Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public, Psychology Press: London, 157.
5. K.M. Douglas et al., 2017, ‘The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories’, in Current Directions in Psychological Science 26/6, 538–42.
6. Ibid, 538.
7. Ibid, 539.
8. Ibid, 540.