Some interesting links came in over the Skeptoid transom the other day, and they provide a good opportunity to apply a little healthy skepticism as well as learn about an interesting corner of the world.
A web article published by the Centro de Investigaciones Atómicas (Atomic Research Center) of Lima, Peru, tells of some remarkably huge images apparently carved into the mountains near Caral, Peru. For those who don’t read Spanish, the gist is that a man named Sixtilio Dalmau was surprised to discover several super-sized images in the hills. This, for example, is dubbed “The Sleeping Warrior,” and measures an impressive 300 meters on a side.
Caral may be one of the most interesting historical sites you’ve never heard of. Sometimes called the Cradle of South American Civilization, as far back as 5,000 years ago it had vibrant cities and monumental pyramids. To put that in perspective, it predates the Inca empire by over 1,500 years and makes these pyramids about as ancient as the oldest ones in Egypt. The Caral Valley is dotted with archeological sites and remains fertile farmland today. Could an ancient civilization, capable of building massive pyramids, have had the ability to carve huge images into the sides of mountains? Well, as the saying goes, it doesn’t violate the laws of physics. This is, after all, near the 13 Towers at Chankillo, built in the 4th Century BCE and probably the oldest solar observatory in the Americas.
But are there other explanations that are simpler and more likely for what’s going on here? As skeptics we have a few arrows in our quiver which might help get us on target.
Humans are pattern-finding machines. We’re particularly good at finding faces. This is why we see faces in clouds, Jesus on toast, Mary on tortillas, the Man in the Moon, and even Richard Hoagland’s infamous Face on Mars. It’s easy to scoff at these stories but, in my pre-skeptic days, I was working at the Lucasfilm Computer Division when Hoagland came by with his digital images. He had a serious demeanor, an apparent command of his subject, and was, as they say in the movie business, “very good in the room.” I remember not necessarily buying the civilization on Mars story, but the images were very compelling. It sure seemed like something odd must be going on.
Pareidolia is not a marker for gullibility, it’s a marker for a normally-functioning human brain. It’s one of the many reasons that skepticism and the scientific method have to be used as disciplines to keep us from fooling ourselves. And nobody can fool us as deeply or thoroughly as we can fool ourselves.
Anomaly hunting is closely related to both pareidolia and the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy—if one is motivated to find something in the data it’s almost certain that one will find something. Consider this image, which is supposed to be “two condors seated, apparently as if in their nest or resting place”:
My daughter pointed out that if you tilt your head 90 degrees to the right it looks a little like Dora the Explorer. Or the Target logo. I see a guy with a big nose and a motorcycle helmet. But have you noticed something else that these images have in common? They’re all from Google Earth.
Many interesting things can, and have, been found by amateurs exploring the world virtually. But some have been fooled by anomalies in Google’s data into thinking they’ve found things like Atlantis—which vanish when better data arrive. As with the Face on Mars, features can appear or vanish with changes in lighting, just due to the time of day when the image was captured.
Consider the Source
It is not an ad hominem attack to see if the source of the information we’re considering has credibility or expertise in the field. Anybody could be right or wrong about anything, but the odds are better with a credible, experienced expert. In this case, the grandiosely-named Atomic Research Institute seems to have been formed right after the “discovery” of these artifacts. It’s located in a neighborhood of Lima, Peru on a street populated mostly by small stores, mechanics, banks, and barber shops.
The author has also written about “Global Inflationary Time Theory,” which relies on some dubious arithmetic and appeals to Zeno’s Paradox. Archeology and amateur cosmology from an atomic research shop apparently run by one guy seem like a stretch of one person’s expertise.
My attempts to find academic papers, articles, or academic credentials about Mr. Dalmau were fruitless. Again, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but I would have higher confidence in him if I found other credible sources who had that confidence as well.
It’s worth noting that none of this has been peer reviewed, and I harbor significant doubts that it would pass even at a fairly casual publication. This seems to be the case of a person living in historically-rich country just getting carried away by his own enthusiasm.
Naturally occurring forms can appear to our visual systems as things that they are not. And it’s a good thing, too, because without that ability we wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of the visual arts. Seeing faces or castles or kittens in things is part of the joy of being human. But when trying to figure out what’s real as opposed to what looks nice, it’s good to reach into the skeptical toolbox and make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves.
It appears unlikely that there really are giant figures carved in the mountains of Peru near the Supe and Casma valleys. At least that seems to be the safest conclusion until more reliable and plausible information comes along. As Charlie Brown so eloquently put it, “I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”
More information on Caral, in Spanish, is available here. The Google Translate version will give you a pretty good idea of what’s going on. This article, in English, tells how it became the new oldest town in the Americas.