UFO enthusiasts often cite June 24, 1947 as the beginning of the modern UFO phenomenon. On that day, Kenneth Arnold coined the term "flying saucer" for the unidentified objects he saw flying past Mount Rainier, and sparked the public's interest in the idea of alien visitors from another world. But what if aliens had arrived on Earth sooner than that? What if they arrived a lot sooner? That's the basis of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, which suggests that alien visitors have been coming to earth for not just decades, but centuries, and maybe even millennia.
Notions of an Earth visited the ancient past by aliens from another world date back at least a century. In many ways, the Cthulhu mythos, H. P. Lovecraft's famous mythology of Great Old Ones from deep space who come to Earth and build eons-old cities, is an iteration of the Ancient Astronaut idea. In fact, it's quite possible that Lovecraft’s stories greatly influenced Morning of the Magicians, a nonfiction French book written in the 1960s that give serious consideration to the idea of Ancient Astronauts visiting the Earth.
If you've heard of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, however, the man you probably have to thank for it is Swiss author Erich von Däniken. In 1968, Von Däniken drew on various ideas of ancient aliens, probably including the ideas expressed in Morning of the Magicians, and turned them into a book called Chariots of the Gods? In doing so, he launched the modern Ancient Astronaut hypothesis.
The argument put forth in Chariots of the Gods? is rooted in Clarke's Third Law, which says that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."" In fact, the second chapter of Chariots of the Gods? sets the stage for the book with precisely that argument. Von Däniken asks readers to imagine what would happen if human spacefarers ever visited a distant world that was populated with a primitive alien culture. He argues that these primitive aliens would lack the vocabulary and knowledge to understand our advanced technology. Instead, they would view their human visitors as divine beings capable of incredible magic.
When our spaceship disappears again into the mists of the universe, our friends will talk about the miracle — "the gods were here!" They will translate it into their simple language and turn it into a saga to be handed down to their sons and daughters.
It's from this premise, Von Däniken spun his theory: that if other spacefarers visited our primitive Earth cultures, then we too would view them as miraculous gods. And in fact they did visit, he argues, as evidenced by the great works that these primitive cultures simply could not have made on their own and the strange drawings and myths these cultures left behind.
Chariots of the Gods? was a bestseller, as were Von Däniken's follow-up books with titles like Gods from Outer Space and In Search of Ancient Gods. They created a widespread public awareness of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis that persists to this day.
Popularity doesn't equate to quality, of course, and the book itself is full of flawed and spurious logic. As just one example, let's look at the argument from which the book derives its title. Chariots of the Gods? is an allusion to the Biblical story of the Chariot of Ezekiel, as told in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. Von Däniken argues that the story of the chariot is not a Biblical allegory or dream sequence, but instead an actual depiction of an alien visitation.
In the narrative, the prophet describes "a whirlwind [...] a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself,"" from which emerge four beings with
Ezekiel later talks about these beings having "wheels within wheels" and "rings full of eyes."
Here's how Von Däniken interprets that passage:
The description is astonishingly good. Ezekiel says that each wheel was in the middle of another one. An optical illusion! To our present way of thinking, what he saw was one of those special vehicles the Americans use in the desert and swampy terrain. Ezekiel observed that the wheels rose from the ground simultaneously with the winged creatures. He was quite right. Naturally the wheels of a multipurpose vehicle, say an amphibious helicopter, do not stay on the ground when it takes off.
The first thing to note here is that Von Däniken is basing his argument on the exact language of a translation of the Bible — he isn't drawing off of the original, but the King James Version, a version noted for its poetic language. Von Däniken also compares the translation to technology that is modern at the time of his writing in 1968, which implies that these spacefaring aliens haven't developed land technology any better than humanity in the latter half of the twentieth century. Hadn't they come up with landspeeders or something? Both of these are argument-ending red flags, nevermind that the passage in question is supposed to be describing a vision of the prophet Ezekiel, not a literal event.
That sort of logic-leaping and assumption-making is par for the course in Chariots of the Gods?. Von Däniken takes that line of logic across the globe, and in doing so establishes some of the mainstays of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, such as the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Nazca Lines of Peru, the Statues of Easter Island, and the Palenque Astronaut carving.
Not much of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis has changed in the decades since. Sure, there are new ideas about which cultures were visited, which great works were alien-influenced, and which evidence holds up to scrutiny; but the heart of the premise is the same as it was in 1968.
I'm not interested today in addressing every specific claims of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis. There are too many of them to cover in one episode; and besides, other people are already doing that in print and online. Instead, I want to look at the root argument of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis. All the specific claims about pyramids and ancient landing sites only mean something if the underlying assumption is sound. If the core of the idea is flawed, so is every argument that uses it as a basis.
And the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis is flawed. The idea begins with an argument from incredulity; gets supported by arguments from ignorance and plenty of anomaly hunting; and relies on the begged question of the existence of Earth-visitng aliens to fill in the gaps. The whole Ancient Astronauts hypothesis can be boiled down to
We don't know how these ancient structures were built, and we don't think ancient people were smart enough to have figured out how to build them, and we can't immediately explain everything we find; therefore, aliens.
But they're wrong. First of all, archaeologists know a lot about the creation of many of the megalithic sites often named as “alien” by the Ancient Astronaut crowd, and we have good working hypotheses for how sites were built even if we don’t know for sure.
For example, can we explain the building of the Pyramids without the need to invoke ancient aliens? Yes. There is a clear progression of technologies in the archaeological record. We don't need to wonder how the stone was quarried, or shaped, or even transported to building sites; we know a lot and we can fill in the gaps with well-grounded guesses. And even the questions for which we don't have a complete answer yet, like how the stones were elevated to build the Great Pyramid to its incredible height, have several workable theories that are supported by evidence and that don't require us to suppose alien levitation rods as a mechanism. And let’s be frank. Even if we didn't have these theories, Occam's Razor would demand that we need more to go on before we make the leap from "we don't know" to "aliens."
Second, the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis makes the mistake of reading every ancient text literally. When faced with the fantastic descriptions of ancient literature like those in Ezekiel, believers take ancient art and writing at face value. But just because ancient writers described their gods as descending from the heavens in chariots doesn't mean that they're describing literal events of historical record. Artistic license, poetic metaphor, and religious allegory are all vital parts of storytelling that are lost in the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis. Besides, these sorts of myths and legends and stories are passed down, usually orally, about events that the teller never experienced firsthand; and even after they're written down, they're usually copied and translated several times over, each time adding some variation to the narrative. The texts that have survived are not original reports by reliable eyewitnesses.
And as it turns out, Ancient Astronaut proponents are also prone to misrepresentation of these texts. For example, they sometimes argue that aliens either used nuclear weapons on the ancient Earth, or gave nuclear weapons to ancient Earth cultures. In support of this theory, they often cite passages in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata that speak of blasts as bright as a thousand suns that resulted in people losing their hair and fingernails — descriptions, they argue, that match a nuclear explosion and the resulting radiation poisoning. But filmmaker Chris White notes that the Mahabharata doesn't actually say that. The thousand-suns line is describing the brightness of a deity, and the loss of hair and nails is described as the result of rats chewing them off.
Third, Ancient Astronaut proponents tend to make a mistake common among UFO believers: they assume that aliens, even assuming they did come to Earth, would look and act like us: bi-symmetrical upright humanoids with two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and human-like motivations. This anthropomorphising of aliens makes no real sense given everything we know about biology.
Contrast this human-centric notion of aliens with something like H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories. Lovecraft's aliens weren't stand-ins for human gods; instead, Lovecraft envisioned beings so foreign to our understanding of biology and sentience that they would drive us mad to look at them (or at least lose some SAN). Everything we know about evolution and the development of life on Earth insists that alien beings, if they existed, would almost definitely be not humanoid. In this way, Lovecraft's fiction is a far more likely depiction of ancient astronauts than is Chariots of the Gods?
Finally, we arrive at what I view as the most problematic issue with the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis: that is, by investing aliens as the origin of things like the Pyramids or the Nazca lines, proponents diminish the actual accomplishments of these ancient human cultures. Societies like the Egyprians, Aztecs, or Nazca weren't brutish cave dwellers; they were vibrant and fully developed societies that had their own art, literature, science, and engineering. So the Egyptians, who could build whole cities, erect grand temples, and manufacture boats to navigate the Nile, couldn't figure out how to build a pyramid?
We don't need to explain the great works of ancient cultures by invoking aliens. An engineering marvel is marvelous specifically because humans invested the time and effort into creating it, and a work of art can be beautiful and innovative and evocative and imaginative without having been inspired by seeing a UFO fly by.
Ultimately, "I can't believe they built that!" is not sufficient excuse to rob ancient cultures of their agency. Give ancient cultures the credit that they are due. We don't need the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis to marvel at the grand works of our ancestors. All we need is to acknowledge the amazing power of human ingenuity that has existed since the first civilizations rose in the Fertile Crescent so many years ago.
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