Alright so I’ve gotta stop everything for a minute and talk about something that’s been bugging me for a while. Pseudoarchaeology.
I mean, it’s so much fun to watch all the crazy documentaries and specials about the mysteries of what went on in the past and how we can’t reeeeeeeaaally know what went on back then. Cryptozoology, too! Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, even the friggin’ Mothman. I love it all.
But some of it can be problematic. No, you don’t have to stop watching it, but hear me out.
I love suspending my attachment to established science for the sake of watching a 17 part series of 2 hour episodes of searching a 10,000 year old lake for a creature that’s been extinct for 65 million years as much as anyone. I also have light sabers tattooed to my chest. It doesn’t mean I believe in Star Wars being real (as much as it pains me to type that sentence).
But all of those specials about fringe studies have one thing in common: they tend to leave out critical information (like the geology establishing Loch Ness as having been created by glaciation during the Last Ice Age), and they tend cherry pick different aspects of science that supports their hypotheses, including using outdated or disproven theories while disregarding the modern science that would more or less ruin their day.
So I love it. But I realize it’s not true. I know that the Loch Ness Monster cannot exist based on modern geological science. But I don’t care. I will spend my entire weekend glued to my tv watching someone interview eyewitnesses and do SONAR scans of the loch. I also have Star Wars on DVD in two different languages.
Don’t even get me started on my love of Bigfoot.
But not all of the fringe science specials are harmless fun. Particularly the ones about alien visits to ancient peoples.
They employ the same techniques to deceive non-specialists into thinking they’re really onto something. Whether it’s the supposition that the pyramids of Egypt were originally power generators or that giants were a thing, the supposition that ancient societies could not have achieved the architectural/mathematical/technical heights that they did without the help of some supernatural or otherwise mysterious force is a dismissal of countless thousands of cumulative research hours at best, and an intentionally racist revision of history at worst. With real repercussions, especially with our unprecedented access to both create and consume media.
It more or less all started with the publishing of Chariots of the Gods?, in 1968 by author Erich von Däniken. In it he postulated that ancient structures were too complex to have been constructed by the people of the cultures in question. As such, they must have had outside influence from extraterrestrial, which in turn gave rise to many ancient deities.
He goes on to give a whole bunch of examples from history, the majority of which seem intriguing on their face but are more or less nonsense to historians and archaeologists, who have devoted their lives to understanding ancient cultures and know (often from first hand written accounts) how much “we” know, and can know.
On its face, it seems to merely pose “alternative” arguments for things that happened long so long ago, we surely must be getting something wrong. Shunning mainstream (I’ve been accused of being “government indoctrinated”) archaeologists as being the closed-minded ones is one thing, and honestly, if that’s where it stopped, that would be fine.
But…it doesn’t stop there. In dismissing the cultural achievements of (inherently non-white) cultures in antiquity, writers like von Däniken are at least indirectly insinuating that non-white races are incapable of the kinds of cultural achievements that whites are.
Ok…maaaaaaybe you’re doing the eye roll that so many people do when they hear accusations of racism against everything. But hang on. Read this quote from von Däniken:
Was the black race a failure and did the extraterrestrials change the genetic code by gene surgery and then programme a white or a yellow race?
I am not a racialist… Yet my thirst for knowledge enables me to ignore the taboo on asking racial questions simply because it is untimely and dangerous… why are we like we are?
Once this basic question is accepted, we cannot and should not avoid the explosive sequel: is there a chosen race?
You…you don’t get to ask questions like that without being racist. You just don’t. Disregarding the established archaeological record and often times the written record is one thing…but von Däniken’s work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They have real impact beyond the strictly fringe archaeological crowd.
In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center has written about the influence of writers like von Däniken on groups like the alt-right and the National Socialist (Nazi, for short) Party of America.
Von Däniken’s work has a huge following, and has inspired shows like History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of and most likely seen. One of the common tropes on that show is to take isolated artifacts or glyphs, and wonder what they must be from a 21st century point of view.
It may not seem obvious at first what would be wrong with that, but think about anything in your life. Any random object in your house. Maybe it’s a rock that you thought had some cool, colorful banding in it. Maybe it’s a cute, turtle-shaped toothbrush holder you found at Target. Maybe it’s a replica Australopithecus afarensis skull that you’ve got on a small pedestal on your desk because it reminds you of what sparked your passion.
Now, imagine for whatever reason, your culture is gone. Something catastrophic happens…disease, environmental catastrophe, whatever. And some time in the distant future, humans discover what happens to be your house. But there’s no real connection to your culture because everyone died off centuries ago. Not even the language survived.
What do these future archaeologists make of your apparent reverence for that stone, that toothbrush holder, that skull? What are the odds that their suppositions reach the proper conclusions that the rock was pretty, the toothbrush holder cute, and the skull inspirational?
Pretty low, right?
Without cultural context, it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on what’s familiar to you. Take this example, which shows up in the series Ancient Aliens.
Called the “Dendera Lights” by ancient aliens theorists, at first glance (meaning out of context), these things kinda look like massive light bulbs. How would ancient Egyptians have modern light bulbs?
But…think about it. Why would an advanced race of either aliens or time travelers go to ancient Egypt with…incandescent light bulb technology? Seriously. We’re talking about a civilization who are capable of both/either interstellar or time travel. In 2018 we’re a far ways off from either, but incandescent bulbs are already fairly obsolete.
Why the heck would they give them THAT technology? It doesn’t make sense.
But within the context of their culture, a different explanation makes a bit more sense.
Looking at the base of the “bulb,” it’s instead a flower. Specifically a lotus. The power cord is instead a stem. The lotus is a symbol of stability. At the head of the filament is…well…a HEAD. It’s not a filament at all, but a snake. A symbol of fertility.
The bulb itself is actually a djed, a pillar common in ancient Egyptian motifs, another symbol of stability and representative of the backbone of the god Osiris.
None of this is controversial and none of it is mysterious when you understand the greater cultural context.
Take a look at this fun picture:
Taken from a fun psuedo-archaeology discussion group I’m in, professor Bruce Tutcher uses this take on the Dendera “Lights” to caution against the “that looks like” approach to identifying objects depicted in ancient motifs. Also, you can see the lotus base much better in that image.
Here’s another one, supposedly depicting the same lights but with a curious glyph in the center:
But the fun thing about stuff like this is…the wall on which this is supposedly inscribed actually exists:
I’m pretty sure (but cannot find my reference right now) that this depicts part of the Temple of Hatshepsut. It would make sense that these goofballs would photoshop a UFO onto her wall, because it’s been said that the face on Mars may be a depiction of her.
But ok. Racist idiots and psuedo-intellectuals aside, what’s the real harm?
Well…these people have gone to pretty extreme lengths to provide evidence for their claims. And their desperation to prove their racially-tinged revisionist history goes far beyond merely defacing the Great Pyramid.
Yes, I said “merely defacing the Great Pyramid.”
Ancient aliens theorists and the groups that work to keep the hoax alive have resorted to purchasing mummies on the black market, and mutilating them to fuel their trade in psuedoscientific nonsense.
That’s a screen shot and caption from my post on the Peruvian Alien Mummy thing that was making headlines last year. Anthropomorphic excrement pile Jaime Maussan has been manufacturing hoaxes like these for years, and it would seem that the mummies he’s “finding” are a mix of human body parts and modern forgeries.
They are actual, ancient mummies. Real humans that lived and died and were preserved for eternity by their contemporaries. Only to be stolen, mutilated, and made into a perverse freak show by people so invested in peddling fake history that they’ve no regard for ancient cultures or their living descendants.
It’s disgusting. Plain and simple. I can go on, but numerous writers of greater expertise in archaeology and talent for writing have said so much more than I could ever, and if you’re interested in more I would suggest heading to Jason Colavito’s fantastic website and blog.
While it can be fun to suspend believe and entertain the fantastic, the demand for ancient mysteries has led to the destruction of antiquities, the mutilation of mummies, and fodder for idiotically racist philosophies.
There is so much we know, and so much we cannot know about the ancient world. But the truth of it is that the pursuit of knowledge about any period in prehistory is so fantastic and exciting that there really isn’t any reason to genuinely subscribe to the garbage peddled by publishers like Gaia, shows like Ancient Aliens or by trash bags like Erich von Däniken, Georgio Tsoukalos, or Jaime Maussan.
Watch it if you want. Be entertained. But take it with a grain of salt, and keep in mind the kinds of people supported by consuming this stuff. And when you’re ready to see just how awesome the study of the ancient world can be, anthropology is waiting.