Debunking Ancient Aliens, Part 1
Longtime Skeptoid listeners have, for many years, heard me (and many others) condemn the way the cable networks that bill themselves as presenting science or history quickly transitioned into the outright promotion of pseudoscience and pseudohistory, such that by the year 2000 the amount of anti-intellectual content has far outweighed the amount of factual content. One series stands alone as being most emblematic of this trend: Ancient Aliens, on the air constantly since 2009, on History (formerly The History Channel), an A&E Networks channel. From its inception, Ancient Aliens has promoted the most flagrant misinformation in what can only be reasonably described as a deliberate attack on science and history; a coordinated assault against the public intellect, a reckless scheme to de-educate anyone who has an honest curiosity about humanity's ancient past.
Ancient Aliens got its start as an unveiled promotion of the claims presented in Erich von Däniken's book Chariots of the Gods which asserted that virtually every ancient civilization was built or strongly influenced by literal space aliens who came down in flying saucers. Von Däniken himself was a guest on the pilot episode, along with other proponents of the bizarre belief system who had themselves been influenced by von Däniken's books. For over a decade, Ancient Aliens' producers have dredged up virtually every historical mystery (including many legitimate archaeological discoveries) and woven a narrative around them crediting space aliens.
But most recently — probably due to having run out of false historical claims to promote — the show has shifted focus. Author Jason Colavito, who has been perhaps the most prolific of the show's critics over its entire history, says:
In 2018 the show's executive producer Kevin Burns confirmed this change of direction in a New York Times interview:
Yet from the show's very title to its many tireless years of specific claims, Ancient Aliens has laid out an explicit, unambiguous narrative that human civilization is largely the result of alien influence, whatever hand-waving explanation Burns may give today.
For many years, you — the Skeptoid audience — have been asking me to debunk Ancient Aliens. My internal dialog has always been there's just no way, it's too big and too deep a collection of falsehoods, I can't even begin to do the topic justice on a short-format show like Skeptoid. But nevertheless I have finally summoned the courage, and will make this a three-part episode. By no means do I pretend that it is comprehensive. I have surveyed numerous colleagues and assembled what I consider to be Ancient Aliens' most popular offenses against science and truth.
This Herculean task has been done before, and one of my favorites is Chris White's 3-hour YouTube video Ancient Aliens Debunked. It's a point-by-point correction of nearly every untrue factual claim made on the show. It was made in 2012 and so it was only able to address the first three or four seasons of the show, but luckily, that was when the Ancient Aliens producers were grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Thus, what's covered in Chris White's film is mostly the same stuff that people who have been persuaded by the Ancient Aliens narrative think about and cite as evidence. Catch it if you can spare the three hours — especially if you have a friend over who believes he is a half-alien chimera.
To organize all of this into something vaguely manageable for a three-part episode, I've separated the popular claims into Texts, Places, and Artifacts. For the remainder of this episode, we'll look at actual historical texts that have been re-interpreted as historical records of alien visitation. So without further delay, let's get right into what you came here for: debunking Ancient Aliens. The first of the historical texts we'll start with is the Biblical book of Ezekiel.
They go on to posit that this must have been some sort of aircraft powered by four propellers. Here Ancient Aliens follows a common tack: they wrongly assume that Ezekiel simply didn't have the vocabulary to describe propellers; therefore, we are forced to conclude that's what "wheels within wheels" must mean. But neither vocabulary nor descriptive prowess were weaknesses of Ezekiel's. He was describing the throne of God on a platform supported by four angels, which he described in great detail: each had four faces which he described and four wings; in fact, elsewhere Ezekiel devotes an entire chapter to them. He also includes another such chariot in another chapter. Its wheels had hubs and rims, thus the "wheel within a wheel".
Let's take one more from the Bible. Ancient Aliens claimed:
The reference is from Genesis, but Ancient Aliens also correctly notes that many cultures throughout history have had stories of gods coming down and mating with humans — the Greek gods did it every time they turned around. The show asserts that the classical interpretation of nephilim to mean giants (the Biblical Goliath being the most familiar example), is a mistranslation.
It featured the claims of ancient astronaut theorist Zecharia Sitchin — a businessman with no linguistic or archaeological credentials — who said nephilim actually translates to those who came from above. The word has no meaning outside of a Biblical context, and Biblical scholars are split on whether it means giants or fallen angels. But one thing is clear: only the fringe of ancient astronaut theorists have ever suggested it has any connection to aliens. It doesn't.
The Vaimānika Shāstra
In fact, vimanas are simply palaces, which is why they're found in many texts. Those of the gods were said to be able to fly, but they were immense and intricate just like real palaces. However Ancient Aliens speaks of a whole different type, powered by jets, flying violently, and described in great mechanical detail that exceeds what the ancients would have had the knowledge to say. Why? Because Ancient Aliens used as its source only a single book, the Vaimānika Shāstra. It's a well-known hoax text probably written in 1952, with a bogus story attached to it claiming that it was revealed in a vision to a Hindu mystic in 1918.
The Sumerian Anunnaki
First of all, scholars who actually know anything about this know that the civilization was called Sumer, not "Sumeria"; so, not off to a good start. Also, all Sumerian writing has been translated and is searchable online, and it's plain for everyone to see that not a thing Ancient Aliens says about the Anunnaki bears any resemblance to the truth. Anunnaki were simply nonspecific deities, and nowhere in the texts is there any reference to them coming from the heavens, or anything close to it.
How could they get this so wrong? Simple. Ancient Aliens' entire discussion of the Anunnaki is based (again) on the books of our friend Zecharia Sitchin, the uncredentialed ancient astronaut theorist who claimed to have taught himself all the ancient languages. It's all made-up stuff that's trivially disproven.
The most influential story in ancient Egyptian mythology is that of Osiris, a god who was murdered and chopped into pieces. His wife Isis then collected the pieces and made Osiris whole by wrapping him as a mummy. Ancient Aliens said:
In no version of the story was Osiris miraculously restored; but was put back together just enough for Isis to impregnate herself to bear their son Horus. From then on, Osiris is mentioned only as the ruler of the realm of the dead. The story established the basis for the Egyptian funerary rites and mummification tradition, among other traditions. These were their gods and their cultural stories. Never in any records is there any indication anyone in Egypt thought these were literal accounts of actual events.
Ancient Nukes in India
I'll be brief on this one, as there's a complete Skeptoid episode on it already, #541 on India's ancient nuclear blasts. For a long time there have been claims of evidence of atomic bombs being used in India some 8-12,000 years ago; claims like a giant crater, radioactive skeletons found holding hands, and detailed graphic descriptions of what can only be nuclear Holocaust found in an ancient Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The short version of the truth here is that it's all 100% fabricated. All the Mahabharata quotes are fake, there's actually nothing in there like it at all; the archaeological evidence like the skeletons is also made up — everything except the crater, Lonar Crater, which is simply a half-million year old meteorite impact. See the Skeptoid episode for the complete details.
In next week's Part 2 installment, we're going to look at places that have been featured on Ancient Aliens, ancient human sites and cities featuring great works that some would have you believe were beyond the capabilities of humans and thus could only have been done with extraterrestrial help. Since many of these same believers also believe in ancient giants, it's not clear why they think aliens were the helpers instead of the giants; but perhaps that's another conversation for another day.
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