Largely thanks to the internet and a drive for ratings by the History Channel, so-called “Ancient Astronaut Theories” have resurfaced in the public imagination. Originally popular with New Age/Hippie types in the 1970’s, they found a renewed popularity among conspiracy theorists, and of course among their original demographic as well. However, these are works of proven liars and hoaxers, ones who ignore tested methods. If ever contrary opinions are mentioned, they misrepresent and simplify them. Often, academic explanations are made to appear dismissive of evidence. While genuine historians do not give these works of fiction the time of day, this blog does not make the pretense of being academic. This article will discuss the ideas of Ancient Aliens writers. Rather than refute every single claim made by these charlatans, we will group their evidence into three broad categories: monumental buildings, purported aliens and UFOs in art, and religious-related claims. Nearly every argument and “evidence” given by people such as Erich von Däniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos fall into these three categories. Ancient Astronaut/Alien Theories, for example the History Channel program “Ancient Aliens”, are demonstrably fictitious hoaxes. Grandiose claims require unquestionable evidence, and their “evidence” does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny by the outsider.
Just being on the show makes you look nuttier. Ancient Aliens panelist Giorgio Tsoukalos holds a degree in Sports Information and Communication from Ithaca College
“Chariots of the Gods?” author and popularizer of Ancient Astronauts ideas, Erich von Däniken, was convicted of fraud in 1968 and embezzlement in 1970 regarding illicit art purchases and issued a hefty fine. He wrote his book in prison, some have speculated it was to pay off his legal fees.
While not popular until the 1970’s, an early antecedent of Ancient Aliens/Astronauts comes from the publications of early 20th c. American writer Charles Fort. A researcher of paranormal activity, Fort exerted considerable influence on the subculture surrounding Ancient Aliens, Cryptozoology, and other paranormal pseudo-academic studies. Charles Fort was, amusingly, satirizing scientific journals however.
We have a proven fraud, a likely fraud and/or lunatic, and a guy from the 1900’s who was joking. Let’s go.
1. Monumental Buildings
These claims often go “Building X has Architectural Trait Y that was not feasible at the time, therefore aliens.” The building in question is often non-European and in a “remote” place. Examples which feature prominently in Ancient Aliens include Machu Picchu, the lesser-known Pumapunku (a large temple in modern-day Bolivia) the Nazca Lines, and of course various stone circles and similar structures. A common claim regarding the temple complex known as Pumapunku is that the stones are too exact and well carved for the technology of the time, fitting “perfectly” with “exact” carving. First, this complex isn’t remarkably ancient, it was built ca. 500-600 A.D. Secondly, the stonework would be remarkable if the buildings were not made of sandstone, a sedimentary rock which is relatively soft. The stone has been used decorative carvings and art all the way back to the Stone Age. Machu Picchu is further example, and they make clams about Incan stonework, a method which didn’t use mortar or cement. As earlier, Machu Picchu isn’t particularly ancient either, it was completed ca. 1450 A.D. Splitting stones using natural cracks with a large, cheap labour force is relatively simple. Furthermore, the Incas had copper tools which would have made the process forming the stones even easier. Especially if one uses limestone, another relatively brittle type of rock. It’s also important to note Machu Picchu wasn’t situated in a remote place if you were an Inca. It’s where they lived. Machu Picchu wasn’t found and seized by the Spanish Conquistadors and thus lost its importance to the city of Lima, modern-day capital of Peru, and thus became “remote”. Furthermore, on every continent for much of history cities were often built on hills and mountains as a means of defense. Norman castles in Wales do not feature in Ancient Aliens writings and programs. When compared to other buildings at the time, Machu Picchu and others become merely feats of human engineering, rather than supernatural ones.
So the Inca built a city on a mountain in Peru (where Inca people lived) using relatively easily formed stone widely available in the area. They also had pack animals, large pools of manpower, and metal tools. Aliens don’t really need to be there at all.
Amateur archeologist and blogger Aaron Judkins visited Pumapunku to refute Ancient Aliens claims, he released a series of amusing photographs pointing out alien technology isn’t quite as impressive as one might think.
The aliens mastered intergalactic travel, but not right angles.
The Byzantine Hagia Sophia was built ca. 532 A.D., about the same time as Pumapunku. While not abandoned, it was subject to several invasions and earthquakes. It does not feature in Ancient Aliens.
The Florentine Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, finished 1436, around the same time as Machu Picchu. People were perfectly capable of monumental buildings at the time.
Pyramids from various cultures are a constant feature of Ancient Aliens writers. This is possibly due to the simple yet mysterious elegance of the Egyptian Pyramids. A claim made is “since various pyramids exist in unconnected cultures across the world (and that’s pretty insane amirite?) they must be some how connected, therefore aliens.” This would be remarkable if the pyramids of Egypt and those of Latin America were not built nearly 3,000 years apart. They were also built using vastly different construction methods, and for completely different purposes. Egyptian pyramids were marvels of engineering, being built to very specific and exact proportions. They were built as tombs for their God-Kings, and were constructed between 3,000-600 BC. Latin American pyramids were not built to the exact building standards of the Egyptians, they were built largely of rubble with a stone finish. They were stepped, but also had stairs to the top unlike the earliest Egyptian pyramids. Latin American pyramids often had a small building on top, a trait never seen in Egyptian pyramids. These pyramids were used as temples, palaces, and observatories. To support their claim of common extraterrestrial origin, Egyptian and Latin American pyramids would have to be similar in construction and purpose. Ancient Alien arguments about pyramids do not stand up to a simple application of context and a discussion regarding the important differences.
Once again, the Aliens can manage space travel, but not interchangeable parts.
One of the more amusing claims is Nazca lines were used as landing strips by aliens, why would a being that has mastered intergalactic travel need landing strips?
Humans had interchangeable parts back in the days of Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolver. If Ancient Aliens writers are to be believed, despite their intergalactic travel, humans were actually much better at construction, and possibly had better industrial techniques and military equipment by the mid-19th century. Did the aliens perhaps master intergalactic travel using steam power?
Humans also had float planes about as early as we had airplanes, French float plane from 1910
2. Aliens in Art
These claims often go something like this: “Painting X apparently depicts a UFO (spooky!)” These paintings are usually works from Byzantine, Medieval, and Early Renaissance art. If one is unfamiliar with artistic motifs from these eras, they may be easily mistaken for such phenomena. Frequently, Ancient Aliens presenters will show two or three paintings and then deliberately give no context. Art made during this period was often full of motifs and symbols which are unrecognizable to many contemporary viewers. They often couple this with a simplified explanation of the academic view, often a skewed rendering. Interestingly, they often depict the same scenes from the Bible. Art featured in Ancient Aliens television programs and writings is often depictions of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Annunciation, when the Virgin Mary receives the news she is with child. When held against other works depicting the same events or motifs their any similarity to Unidentified Flying Objects becomes entirely superficial.
Purported UFO seen in Ancient Aliens program
Further purported UFO in Renaissance Painting
What these actually depict is a circle of angels and a window into heaven, frequently seen in Christian art.
Gustave Doré’s late 19th century illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy depicting paradise. However, if I just told you it was an angel without showing you these other artistic works it would look like a UFO.
This depiction of the Crucifixion also figures prominently in Ancient Aliens writing and television programs.
They’re actually the Sun and the Moon, which feature prominently in many Medieval depictions of the Crucifixion, and sometimes they were anthropomorphized.
Another example in stained-glass window.
From the Sarcophagus of Domatilla, a wealthy Roman Christian woman from the 4th c. A.D.
3. Aliens in Religion
Claims made by Ancient Alien writers regarding extraterrestrials in religion are immense. This is a “debate” tactic used by numerous politicians, snake oil salesmen, and other charlatans: throw as many bullshit claims out there as possible so there’s too many to refute. They purport of extraterrestrials popping up in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Ancient Babylonian and Egyptian religion, and in the mythology of an otherwise little-known African people called the Dogon. These claims often rely on speculation and ignore more conventional explanations regarding the origins of religion. These include a general universal human fear of death and thus mourning for the dead, as well as more groovy ideas such as psychedelic drug use by shamans and the like. The Dogon are a West African people who live in Mali, and according to Ancient Aliens writers the Dogon religion includes knowledge of the star Sirius, something they apparently could not have possibly known about using historical Dogon technology. This nevertheless excludes the fact the Dogon were not totally isolated, and could have easily learned about Sirius from any people trading with West Africa who did know about the star, such as the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The term “Anunnaki” is often thrown around by Ancient Aliens writers. It refers to a group of gods in Mesopotamian cultures. It is often claimed aliens were the inspiration for these deities. Hilariously, these claims are often paired with examples of Babylonian art which do not depict the Anunnaki. The winged and semi-animalian beings in Babylonian art are not gods or Anunnaki, but rather minor spirits and monsters. Babylonian gods were anthropomorphic, meaning they were depicted as humans. Once again, these writers rely on misinterpretation and misrepresentation to prove their ideas.
One frequently cited example of purported UFOs in the Bible is the Vision of Ezekiel, 19th century Greek fresco. Ezekiel describes as seeing a flying wheel with un-UFO-like wings. The fact he uses the word “wheel” to describe a flying object is enough.
They also cite Elijah’s vision of a chariot of fire, mentioned in the hymns “Jerusalem” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, Renaissance German woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Without a hint of irony they claim he used the word for chariot as he did not have the vocabulary to describe a saucer/wheel shaped object, despite having words for both “wheel” and “plate”, as he spoke the same language as Ezekiel. You see what I mean by throwing as much bullshit as possible at you?
For the sake of brevity, one cannot address every single claim made by Ancient Aliens writers in a single article. Nevertheless, every argument posited by these writers fall into one of these broader categories. Furthermore, European examples are almost never used, except for perhaps Stonehenge and other Neolithic monuments. While this is probably not intentional racism, it does often rely on patronizing and condescending views of the people of North America and Africa prior to European colonization. Their claims often carefully omit specific information, such as building materials and historical artistic motifs, rely on common historical misconceptions, and sometimes deliberately misrepresent more common explanations of what is being presented. To simply write off the mysteries of history as “aliens” is to write it off as magic. The Ancient Aliens writers have the absurd misconception they are skeptics, and describe themselves as such. Yet, they unquestionably write off any question as aliens. Many of the authors and presenters are known plagiarists and frauds, or at the very least thoroughly unqualified to discuss these affairs in any reliable form. While every Ancient Alien claim cannot be refuted in this article, a debate tactic they use, it has attempted to cover the general themes of their at times contradictory arguments. Nevertheless, given their frequent attention in the news media, they made an inevitable topic of discussion for this blog.