Every Tuesday I am going to address one specific myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory or piece of pseudo-science. This time we are dealing with the question whether aliens influenced early human civilizations or not and examining the evidence behind this idea.
Science From Outer Space
As you guys already know, I was raised in a family of esoteric and conspiracy nutjobs. This led to the fact, that during my childhood and youth I was able to experience all kinds of weird things – although I didn’t see them like that back then. I remember one special occasion: my parents took me to a public presentation by a guy called Erich von Däniken(1) who talked about the extra-terrestrial influences by intelligent space guys on early human civilization. I was, of course, dumb and numb in my early days, so I had no idea whether the things he explained to his big audience were true or not. But he presented his claims in an entertaining way with a loot of scientific-sounding explanations, so I figured he knew what he was talking about.
Now I know, that the majority of professional historians and archaeologists would disagree with me there.
For the scientific educated mind, the whole idea of aliens influencing human culture might seem a bit far-fetched, to put it mildly. And I haven’t even started to talk about the belief in the existence of reptiloids secretly controlling Earth’s powerful governments. The more you know…
But with more than 70 million sold copies of his books, von Däniken has apparently quite a large audience who is willing to listen to his ideas – no matter how weird they may seem. So, it seems appropriate for me, to give him and his claim also a well-deserved spot in my Debunk-Series. I am probably as curious as you are, where it will lead us. Maybe we are a big extra-terrestrial experiment after all. Who knows?
Well, obviously, scientists do.
But let’s start with von Däniken. In 1968 he wrote a book titled Chariots of the Gods? )(2) where he writes that certain structures built by ancient civilizations were in fact constructed with the help of intelligent extra-terrestrials. According to his book, structures like the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge could not be built by the people of that time, since they lacked the knowledge and technology needed for it.
Furthermore, he suggests to interprete ancient drawings and artworks as pictures of the helping space guys including their spaceships and advanced technologies.
So, now we have drawings, advanced technologies and…? Ah, right, there is a third claim made by von Däniken: he proposes the idea that the process of human evolution was only possible by the influence of said space guys – without their interference, humans would not have evolved the way they did.
In 2011, Kenneth Feder wrote an interesting book about common misconceptions in archaeology - Frauds, Myths and Mysteries – Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology - which I will use (in addition with other sources) to explain the evidence behind von Däniken’s three main ideas a bit more detailed)(3).
Feder calls the idea of ancient drawings, sculptures and stories about extra-terrestrial visitors the Inkblot Hypothesis - honouring the psychological idea of the so-called Rorschach test. If you are familiar with the procedure, then you will know that these inkblots one sees during such a test are no identifiable pictures but really just inkblots – so any kind of similarity or images you may see are completely made up by your own imagination.
Von Däniken’s approach is a similar one. He describes actual pictures but with his own cultural background and understanding of them – so he sees, what he chooses to see – no matter if it makes sense or not. A picture with what might seem like a guy wearing a spacesuit and helmet, can easily be explained as picturing a priest or some kind of mythical figure. Using Ockham’s Razor is often the smarter approach to discuss things.
Another interesting claim is the origin of the Nazca Lines (4). According to von Däniken, these lines were constructed with instruction coming from an aircraft, because this would be the only possible way to make them as detailed as they look. Or is it?
Well, although it might be an intriguing idea that our ancestors had help from space guys, there is another, more reasonable explanation. In 1982 Joe Nickell(5) and his team gathered to recreate a 120-meter-long Nazca drawing in only nine hours. Just by using a model, simple materials and a set of coordinates. Nothing too spectacular and certainly something which could have been done by the Nazca themselves. Even without the help of space guys.
In Chariot of the Gods von Däniken introduced us to another mind-blowing idea of his:
Extra-terrestrial travellers came to Earth, were fascinated by the primitive creatures they found there (humans in particular) and decided to make love with a few selected women to take the first step in producing a new race (fun fact: I had a typo here and wrote "rice" instead of "race", changing the meaning quite a bit...), which could skip one stage of the evolutionary process(6).
Feder calls this the Amorous Astronaut Hypothesis - because space guys are all about making love, you know. Ahem.
But let’s think about this idea for a moment.
We all know, how humans reproduce (ok, maybe the 4chan-virgins don’t, but they don’t count anyway). And we are aware of the incompatibility of inter-species DNA- And that only because you happen to accidently fall on your lady dog, so your dick ends up in her vagina and you are too drunk to realize and just keep on going – she will not suddenly give birth to some kind of weird human-dog-baby-hybrid.
So how likely is it, that Mr. Spaceguy is compatible to human DNA and can create offspring with a female human?
I will leave it for you to answer that.
Idiots from the Past
Finally, von Däniken explains that prehistoric humans were basically morons. According to his books, our ancestors simply lacked the intellectual capabilities to create and build the amazing things we are now able to see. Therefore, Feder coined it the Our Ancestors, the Dummies Hypothesis.
This is becoming quite obvious, when von Däniken asks himself why our ancestors even bothered with astronomical representations and who might have taught them about it(7), since they were, according to archaeologic research, able to create a calendar.
It doesn’t appear to him, that our ancestors who lived 30,000 years ago were not less intelligent than we are now (if I look at my Facebook feed, I’m inclined to think, they were much more intelligent…). So why would they not be able to recognize lunar phases? In addition to that, it doesn’t take much intellectual power to realize seasonal times like winter, spring, summer and fall. One can only assume an extra-terrestrial involvement, if he thinks of our ancestors as complete morons, who were hardly able to maintain breathing, as soon as they stopped thinking about it.
But what about the amazing structures we can witness today? Like the Moai of Easter Island? Well, as von Däniken tells it, the space guys just got bored and wanted to do something in their spare time. Yeah. For sure.
If you believe, our ancestors were morons, you can stop reading here. If not, think about this:
Have you ever asked yourself how the Moai were transported (for almost 17 kilometres)?
Well, as far as archaeologists can tell, the involvement of space guys is highly unlikely.
But something else was done. In 2011 Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt demonstrated how it could have happened(8). Ever moved a large refrigerator? Then you know, what I’m going to talk about.
You can move it by tilting it from side to side, so it moves a bit forward every time you do that. Hunt and Lipo were able to prove, that you only need a small team of dedicated people, a few ropes and you can get a decent transporting speed. The actual evidence supports this idea, since one can find wear at the bases of the statures, which makes it seem likely that the Moai were transported upright.
Always Use a Razor
Alright. This should be enough now. There is, of course a lot more, but I hope I was able to give you an idea why von Dänikens claims are not considered solid archaeological theories by professional archaeologists and historians.
For me, von Dänikens success is as much fascinating as it’s tragic. Sure, his ideas may sound intriguing compared to the boring, empirical research conducted by actual scientists – but that doesn’t make them right.
One should always ask himself, whether there is a more likely explanation for presented claim. You don’t need imaginary space guys to explain human evolution or the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. We have scientific research for that. And Ockham’s as well as Hitchen’s razor. Maybe it doesn’t sound as amazing and awesome as the made-up stuff written by von Däniken, but at least it doesn’t promise anything without backing it up.
Never confound facts with fiction.
Feel always free to discuss my ideas and share your own thoughts about the things I’m writing about. Nobody is omniscient and if we all walk away a bit smarter than before, we’ll have achieved a lot.
Thanks for reading and stay sceptical.
Make sure, to check out #steemstem for more science related content.
(3) Feder, Kenneth. Frauds, Myths and Mysteries – Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology.
(6) Von Däniken, Erich. Chariot of the Gods?. 1970
(7) Von Däniken, Erich. Gold of the Gods. 1973
(8) Hunt, Terry; Lipo, Carl. The Statues That Walked. 201
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