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oh Dogon it!

by Bruno Van de Casteele

February 17, 2013

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Donate It's a weird "credit", but one of the persons who brought me into skepticism, was Von Dniken, the Swiss guy claiming that we have been visited in the past by alien civilizations, and that proof of this can be found in ancient writings and art. Luckily, I had the sense of looking beyond his books (I read several of them cover to cover). Von Dniken didn't convince me, but at least he got me hooked on skepticism.

He is of course not the only person claiming such wild ideas. Another rather popular one is about the Dogon people, living in the now war-torn nation of Mali. Loosely based on the work of French anthropologist Griaule between 1931 and 1956, Temple wrote The Sirius Mystery in 1976. In it he claimed the Dogon had knowledge of the multiple star system Sirius, including properties of its stars, but also about the moons and rings of Saturn, elliptical orbits of planets, etc. To him it was clear that they could not have gathered this themselves, so: alien visitors. Forget about the hundred other possible explanations (recent contacts, wrongly documented, influenced by the anthropologist during interviews, pick-and-choose of available material to fit a preconceived notion, ...), this is indeed the only solution.

Only, it is not. It's not my goal here to debunk in detail the outlandish claims done in the book, or to discuss with the anthropological results (for a quick introduction, see The Skeptic's Dictionary). I don't mind people launching wacky ideas, it sometimes makes for a nice read, just like with Von Dniken. The fact is that years after the book was published, this story keeps popping up, but reinforced with an anti-science sauce. For a nice although frustrating example, see this post in the Inquirer. For added entertainment, play along the game of "Name that Fallacy".

For instance: western astronomers for instance are categorized as "conservative", in contrast to Temple of course (ad hominem). His work is "well-documented" (no it's not - and what does it prove?) but his arguments are "dismissed without providing counter-arguments" (wrong again). A nice strawman comes into play, as those silly and stubborn Western researchers (with a hint of racism) would you rather have believe that this knowledge came from a now lost advanced civilization on Earth. A far cry from what Sagan proposed, that this advanced civilization was ours.

But the rant is not over: Licauco, the author of the column, links the "accurate knowledge" to of course the question of who built the pyramids, or the stone statues on Easter Island. And so the circle closes itself back to Von Dniken with a nice excursion via Bauval and the pyramidology. ... Everything is linked, our ancestors had lots of contacts with intelligent alien beings, and only a handful "bold" people dare to state the (obvious) truth. Sigh indeed...

Which is all the more frustrating, as the Dogon people really are a fascinating people, with a rich culture and also an amazing architecture of their communities, given the sometimes harsh and hostile environment they live in. The UNESCO has rightly identified the Cliff of Bandiagara as a World Heritage Centre. Being wishy-washy about some purported link with advanced knowledge of a far away star system does a big discredit to what this people have achieved. The opinions of Temple or Von Dniken do not bother me that much. It's that the promotion of ill-conceived fantasies actually ignores the real and much more interesting aspects of their culture.

Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons)

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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