As some of you may know, the (Pseudo)History Channel runs a series called ‘Ancient Aliens’, a series devoted to examining the historical ‘evidence’ of ancient, extra-terrestrial contact. For a skeptic, this sort of series is exactly the reason why the History Channel has come to be viewed as a veritable clearing house of pseudoscientific and revisionist history programming. Not only is the show presented as a serious discussion of real history, but there is hardly – if ever – a representative from the skeptical (or even from the mainstream historical) side. The claims made during this one-hour cavalcade of failure are so ridiculous that it is difficult to believe that anyone takes them seriously. But there are those poor credulous people amongst us who do, so let’s take a closer look at some of the more foolish claims shall we?
ANCIENT GODS ARE ACTUALLY ALIENS
As one ‘expert’ has said on the show (in an episode called ‘Gods & Aliens’), “We feel that extra-terrestrial entities are a more plausible explanation for these stories, because Gods don’t exist“. The stories the commentator was referring to are, of course, the mythologies of ancient civilizations – notably the Greek, Norse, Incan, and Indian – particularly the stories recounting interactions between the Gods and mortals. One of the more important claims made is that all of the ‘magical weapons’ of the Gods are similar to each other, and their descriptions are similar to some modern weaponry. Thor’s hammer and Zeus’ lightning bolts are apparently similar enough in their descriptions to warrant being compared, for example, although how anyone thinks that a hammer and a bolt of lightning are in any way similar is beyond me. I suppose when you’re reaching for connections, you’ll grab onto anything at hand, no matter how tenuous. Apparently, Thor’s hammer, Zeus’ thunderbolt, and other divine weapons might really be ‘directed energy weapons’.
There are a few unstated premises buried in this assumption, including the following:
A) Aliens exist and have visited earth,
B) They wield energy weapons against their foes, and,
C) Human witnesses dutifully recorded accurate accounts of what they saw.
I can certainly understand how these ‘ancient astronaut theorist’ came to their conclusions, given that they are apparently fine with leaving the above assumptions unchallenged and unsupported, but I can’t understand how they are able to convince others, given the incredibly shakey nature of their claims. I might as well argue that mythological deities are actually time travelling reverse vampires, because hey, beings such as they could easily be mistaken for gods. I’d have just as much proof of my claims as the ‘experts’ on this show, but my theory would also have the added bonus of being both novel and creative.
TRANSLATIONS OF ANCIENT TEXTS COULD REVEAL THE EXISTENCE OF ANCIENT ALIEN VISITORS
This argument barely merits a response apart from: “Uh, yeah, translations of ancient texts CAN be interpreted to mean that if you already believe it to be true.” This sort of argument is guilty of begging the question, a logical fallacy in which a person uses as evidence an example of the very thing they are setting out to prove. In other words, interpretations of ancient texts are only proof of the existence of aliens if you have already decided that aliens have visited earth. It’s like saying that you know God exists because the Bible says that it’s the inerrant word of God. You can make ancient texts say pretty much whatever you want them to say, if you already have a narrative that you accept as true; ancient texts say ‘aliens’ to you, because you already believe that alien visitations must have been recorded by ancient people. Ancient texts such as the Bible or the Koran are routinely used to justify any number of mutually exclusionary beliefs or practices; the Bible for example teaches pacifism and brotherly love, while also offering examples of God’s apparent desire to commit genocide and to have his children commit it for him.
ANCIENT MUMMIES AND SKELETONS WHICH FEATURE UNUSUAL CHARACTERISTICS ARE EVIDENCE OF ALIEN/HUMAN HYBRIDS
This sort of claim is what Steven Novella of the New England Skeptical Society refers to as ‘Anomaly Hunting’. Alien Astronaut ‘theorists’ use examples of bizarre ancient mummies or skeletons as proof of the existence of ancient aliens who bred with primitive humans, but ignore all of the other, more prosaic explanations put forward by mainstream scholars. One of the most famous examples of this is that of the ‘Starchild‘ skull, the owner of which claims that its existence proves that ancient aliens had a thing for human women. Here’s a link showing all of the myriad things that are wrong with that assumption – creepy imagery aside. Folks that engage in this kind of pseudo-archaeology will essentially disregard the simplest explanations in favour of the more elaborate assumptions that fit their narrative. They will cherry-pick data such that only the confirming evidence – no matter how tenuous – is accepted, while all disconfirming evidence is ignored or explained away as ignorance on the part of researchers, or fear of the ‘truth’, or some other conspiracy (usually involving Men in Black or the Government).
ANCIENT MEGALITHS MAKE DESIGNS THAT CAN ONLY BE SEEN FROM HIGH ABOVE THEM, THEREFORE THEY ARE PICTURES FOR ALIENS
Or they were drawn as offerings or tributes to gods that were believed to live high above the earth, like just about every major god in history. The Greek Gods dwelt high above their mortal playthings, living at the summit of mount Olympus; the Abrahamic God is said to dwell in the Heavens above, as are most of the gods of the Sumerians and Babylonians. If you believed that the gods lived far above you, and you believed that they would appreciate a lovely drawing or portrait, you’d probably also feel that ‘bigger is better’. If the gods want art, it had better be big enough for them to see it; you wouldn’t want them coming down there to chastise you for honouring them incorrectly, would you? It’s often quite frustrating that people will go to such strange lengths (such as positing alien visitation) to explain the activities of early humans, when there are far more satisfactory – if prosaic – explanations available. There is absolutely zero evidence that connects ancient mega-art with aliens, but there are good psychological and sociological reasons for thinking that such ancient pieces of art were made for the gods.
The same general principles hold true for structures like Stonehenge; there is no reason to link them to ‘aliens’, but there are perfectly mundane explanations which we can accept. One of the biggest complaints I have about ‘alien astronaut’ theorists is that they seem to prefer to believe that ancient humans were stupid or incompetent. Pyramids? Nope, humans could never do something like that, therefore aliens. Stonehenge? Aliens. Math? Writing? Art? Aliens. There is absolutely no reason to believe that ancient humans were any less intelligent than we are, and there is no reason to think that ancient builders, priests, and philosophers couldn’t discover, invent, or observe any of the things we can. We know that ancient Egyptian and Muslim astronomers and mathematicians developed highly advanced mathematics and models of the heavens; we know the Greeks could build extremely complex navigation tools. The ancient druids could recite incredibly long and intricate litanies recounting the history of their tribes, and the ancient Chinese had philosophers without peer. It is the height of arrogance and contempt of ancient thinkers to believe that they could not be – and were not – responsible for all of the many wonders of the ancient age.
I get it; thinking about the existence of ancient alien benefactors can be thrilling. There is so much about the ancient world that we know nothing about; in many areas, our understanding of the lives of ancient peoples is hazy at best. What did they see? What did they know? How much ancient experience and knowledge is lost to us forever? Were there civilizations that predated even the oldest of those currently known, and did they vanish from history without ever leaving a trace of themselves behind? Who knows? There are many gaps in our historical knowledge, and some of those gaps are deep; but their existence is not a license for anyone to fill them with whatever fantasy they like. By essentially making up alternate histories that cater to their own pet beliefs, these pseudo-historians and pretenders do a disservice to their ancient ancestors, human ones who rose from the muck and ashes to build a future for themselves and their progeny. And they did it without the help of ET.
EDIT: If any of you are brave enough to read through the comments at the end of this blog, you’ll notice that many of the objections raised to my post fall into a number of rather predictable categories. In order to spare anyone else the mental health risks associated with wading through pages of tortured logic, I’ve complied a few generic responses to some of the more popular arguments levelled against me. Enjoy.