Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Ghost Story for Halloween - The Night Death Came to Stumptown

The Night Death Came to Stumptown 
Written July 3, 2013 – the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Death paused at the crossroads and read the sign ahead: Stumptown Ferry: 1 mile.  He pushed his hat back on his head, raised his nose, and inhaled deeply, drawing in the night wind.  On the breeze he could smell it - the sweet sweat that comes with fear and panic.  A lot of men were massed, getting ready to die.  These men were not far away and even at a leisurely pace, Death would join them by daybreak.  He spurred his horse in the direction of Stumptown and the odor of terrified humanity. 
            As he rode on, the path closed in around him, becoming a hollow way, the trail steepening downward.  The air became cool, but heavier.  He was approaching a body of water.  Shortly, Death halted his horse at the edge of a sluggishly moving stream.  The moon, showing over head, cast its light upon the clearing the water provided.  On the opposite shore Death could see the outline of a small, rugged looking cabin, with a single orange light flickering in the glassless window.    A few yards ahead of the cabin, resting before a primitive dock, was a sturdy looking flat-bottomed barge, constructed of lashed logs and planking.  This barge was connected to a sagging metal cable which spanned the little water course. 
Looking about Death saw a bell hanging on the skeleton of a dead tree, just to the right of the path.  He urged his horse over and rang the bell, its clanging cutting through the quiet night and causing sleeping crows to flutter out of the trees overhead.  Shadows moved in the cabin across the river and the door opened slowly.  An ancient man, his skin tight across his skull, and black as ebony, emerged, probing the ground with a twisted wooden staff.  He was dressed in course clothing and wore no shoes.   He stared straight ahead, his eyes white with blindness.
            “I hears ya, I hears ya,” hollered the man, making his way to the ferry.  “This boat ain’t free.” 
            “It’s alright,” Death yelled back, “I have coin in pocket.” 
            The old man shook his head in acknowledgement and, feeling his way, unhooked the little ferry from its moorings.  Stumbling over to a heavy wooden crank he began laboriously turning it, the mechanism inching the ferry across the water, gliding on its cable.  The ferry creaked and sloshed in the water and, after what seemed an eternity, came to a rest on the opposite shore.  Death waited patiently. 
            “Alright, mister,” yelled the old man, “get on.  I’ll bring you over.  Have them coins ready.” 
            Death clicked his tongue and urged his horse onto the barge.  It was steady, for its primitive condition, and he saw no reason to dismount.  He yelled: “ready!”
            The old man returned to his cranking, this time struggling under the weight of horse and rider.  But the gears were true and the barge slowly slipped the bank and settled into an easy motion.  Death considered the inky water, a mirror of the night sky, catching the light of a clear moon.  Suddenly, as the ferry reached the center of the river, it stopped. 
            “Is anything the matter?”  Death saw that the old man was no longer turning the big crank and was now resting on his staff. 
            “Not now, sir,” said the old man.  He seemed to be smiling, but Death could not be certain. 
            “You must be tired, but after your rest could you please finish your task and bring me ashore?” 
            The man stood stock still, his expression unchanged.  
            “Do you hear me?”
            “Yes, I hears you, sir.” 
            Death fidgeted in his saddle.  He was not the type of entity accustomed to being played a fool.  “Then what is the meaning of this?  I have important business to attend to shortly, and I must get across this river before dawn!”
The man straightened himself and his smile fell into a deep and serious grimace.  “Oh, I knows about your ‘business’ sir.  I been waitin’ on you three nights now and I knew you’d come along directly.  You’re that old Death.  I ‘spect you don’t remember but we knowed each other before. 
Lordy, must be nigh on 80 year ago, back down South.  My old Grand Momma – she was Africky born – she told me about you.  I was borned blind, you know.  But I can hear and I can smell, sir, better’n anybody.  And I remember that night old Grand Momma died.  She said you’d be commin’ and as I lay there on the floor next to her cot, I heard you come in and I smelled you, sir.  You got a mighty particular smell, you do.
I knowed you’d be coming soon, so I kept a look out.  I could smell you riding down that path.  And now I got you.  A normal man, he could swim for it.  But not old Death – Grand Momma told me death couldn’t cross running water without help.  So you can stay put a little while.” 
Death frowned.  He looked down at the water and shivered.  The old man was right, though how mortals came by this knowledge he never could understand.  He had gotten himself stuck in similar situations before – it usually ended in the soon-to-be dead trying to bargain with him for a few more years of precious life.  Typical mortals, he thought, begging for more life after wasting what little they had. 
            “May I have your name, sir?”
            The old man answered:  “It’s Caleb.  How about you?”
            “Very good, Caleb.  In fact you have identified me correctly.  I have many names, but Death is good enough.  Let me ask you something Caleb, how old are you?  Ninety?  Surely you can’t fear me by now, nor can you expect to live very much longer.  Why keep me trapped here when I have business elsewhere?”
            “Oh, I ain’t afraid of you, Mr. Death, not on my account.  I lived a long life and a good ‘un.  I ain’t sorry for how I lived and my soul is in good order.  It’s not for me I got you trapped here, it’s for the boy.” 
            “Boy?”  Death lifted his head, flaring his nostrils, and taking in the smell of the night air once again.  There was a fresh scent upon it – the odor of youth in mortal peril. 
“Yes, sir,” said the old man, “my boy.  He’s in the cabin.  He ain’t mine exactly but he came here a couple of years back, alone.  Starved and near naked.  I don’t know how he got away and made it across the Line, but he came here, just like you, banging the bell one night.  Maybe it’s the war – maybe his master and mistress got killed and everyone turned loose.  I ran away myself, long time ago and been here ever since.  Sometimes I helps others.  I knows this boy’ll be the last one I help before I go. 
            Three days ago he was fetching wood for the cook stove and turned over a log.  A rattler got him, right on the hand.  I did what I could do.  He’s healing, but it’s slow – gonna take time.  I imagine if he makes it through the night he’ll be alright and out of your grasp for a little while longer.  It’s always at night when they go.” 
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the quiet calm of early morning was broken apart by what sounded like the booming of a ferocious thunder storm.  But there were no clouds in the sky.  Caleb, frail against his staff, collapsed to the ground with the shock. 
“No,” yelled Death, “it’s starting!  It’s starting!  You’ve got to let me go!” 
Caleb got to his feet, screaming over the powerful sound.  “What in hell is that?  What is it?  Old Death, old Death, what are you doing to me?” 
“It’s not me,” Death yelled back from his perch in the water, “it is cannon fire!  There’s a great battle beginning, Caleb, and I must be there.  I swear, I can do nothing for your boy!” 
Death looked overhead and saw that the dark sky was filled with the shimmering glow of tiny lights, like fireflies.  They rose briefly above the trees in an ecstasy of flight and then settled lower, flitting aimlessly about.  Some moved into the water, others dived into holes in trees, while still others flitted around confusedly, to no purpose.  Death rocked in his saddle, clearly in anguish at this occurrence. 
Over the madness of the noise, Caleb roared with a giddy, half-insane laughter.  “I gots you!  I got old Mr. Death on my ferry!  The war done come to Pennsylvaney and I got Death stuck on my boat!  Ain’t no young boys gonna die tonight!  Ha! Ha!” 
Caleb continued to laugh and dance around his staff, while Death tried to get his attention, shouting through the thunder.  The woods filled with gunpowder smoke, drifting in from the battlefield and the men could no longer see each other.  Finally, as suddenly as it began, the noise ceased and the cloud of sulfurous smoke began to dissipate. 
Death sat in his saddle forlorn, his head slumped on his breast.  The tiny flickering lights continued to swarm through the trees but, began to fade to invisibility as dawn rose.  Exhausted from his ecstatic fit, Caleb flopped to the ground, his staff across his legs, panting.  The river was again silent. 
Death spoke, his voice artificially calm:  “You don’t understand, old man, it’s not me that ends life.  That happens on its own.  Man’s time is not dictated by the Fates.  It is my task to collect what remains of him after he dies in order to make sure it passes on…correctly.  Otherwise the little candle of humanity that remains will burn here on this earth until it has no more fuel left and dissipates into nothingness.  Many men have already died this morning, Caleb I can see them – their little firelights moving through the trees.  They’re beyond my reach now and will have to remain, a soul that cannot go elsewhere.  You have a word for them – gast, geist.” 
“No, no sir.  They say that old Death is the devil.  He’s a trickster.  I don’t believe it.” 
“The devil?”  Death furrowed his brow at the word.  “That name has no meaning to me, though I hear it often.  I am telling you the truth.  I can neither end your life nor save it.  Many before you have begged me to do one or the other, and that is not within my power.” 
The sun was beginning to break through the trees and Caleb turned his face toward the warmth, smiling.  A last gloom hung around his cabin door and in that trailing darkness a soft flitting light emerged, bobbing and diving like a firefly.  Death saw it and breathed in sharply.  It drifted forward and passed around Caleb’s head.  He seemed to notice it, reaching a hand out.  It passed through his hand and his smile faded.
“What was that?” 
“I told you,” said Death, “I have no power over life.  I only collect what remains when it is done.  Go to your cabin and find out for yourself.” 
The old man pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily upon his staff, and trudged toward his home.  He paused briefly before stepping inside.  After a few moments he emerged, a hard, distant look on his face.  He pulled the door closed, firmly, and without speaking made his way to the giant crank.  He began to turn it, this time more rapidly than before.  Death heaved a heavy sigh.  When the old barge made landfall, he dismounted and approached the old man, whose head was hanging low. 
Caleb sensed Death’s approach and faced him.  “Can’t you do nothin’ for my boy now he’s gone? Can’t you take him to that other place?”
Death again sighed.  “No, I am afraid I cannot, though it pains me to say so.  There was not enough time.  He will stay here until the little bit left of him fades, though one can never know how long that will be.” 
Caleb’s stern expression never changed, but he was fighting back tears which welled at the edge of his eyes.   Finally he nodded his head. 
“Mr. Death,” he began, “I’m sorry for what I did.  But I didn’t know better.  I wanted to…” 
“Hush,” said Death, and he put his arms around the man and embraced him tightly, warmly, a feeling that felt to Caleb like his Grand Momma’s old cotton quilt.  “I understand.” 
After Death released his embrace, Caleb once again stood erect, worn, but proud.  “Will you promise me something, sir?  I knows I ain’t got much time left before you’ll be back here for me.  Promise me this – don’t you come back.  You keep away and let me go.  Let me be here with the boy so he doesn’t have to stay alone.” 
Death put his hand on Caleb’s shoulder, a silent assent.  Then he turned and mounted his horse, raising his hand in a salute the old man could not see.  Spurring his mount, Death galloped off in the direction of smoke and flame.         

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Where are the Cryptoarcheologists?

Yeah, yeah, yeah...the hot Bigfoot news today is the report that studies of DNA samples taken in the High Himalayas indicate that a previously unknow species of brown bear might be the source of Yeti sightings.  Not surprising - Big Foot sightings and bear sightings in North America seem strikingly similar.  If you want to read about that, check out the news here.  

But as I see more and more episodes of "Finding Bigfoot" and get wind of new "Squatching" clubs cropping up, I have a simple question to ask: where the hell are the cryptoarcheologists and cryptopaleontologists?  

In the world of science it works like this: if you want to discover a new species, you have two choices: 1) find it in nature or 2) find its fossil remains.  We already have cryptozoology - the search for "living" legendary creatures.  So where are the researchers looking for these creatures in the fossil record?  It's pretty clear that Bigfoot is an elusive guy - finding him in the woods is a moving target.  That hasn't worked out so well.  But he's not immortal - he has to die.  Even if he scatters the remains of his dead, they're going to turn up eventually.  Cryptozoologists like to famously proclaim that "no one finds bear bones in the woods."  OK.  I don't think that's true...but even if it is, we sure as hell find bear bones in the fossil record.  

And we sure as hell find the remains of gigantic primates in the fossil record, as well.  In 1935 Ralph von Koenigswald turned up the first known fossils of the mega-ape Gigantopithecus in an apothecary shop. Where are the researchers scouring the riverbanks of the Pacific Northwest for washed out Bigfoot teeth or combing through museum collections for anomalistic fossils? This is an aspect of Squatchology that has always bothered me, for a rather simple reason: I don't think Bigfooters, deep down, actually take what they're doing seriously.  This especially includes those who have actual scientific training.  Two of the leading lights of cryptozoology over the past century have been men with university training in physical anthropology: Grover Krantz and Jeff Meldrum.  Admittedly neither of these scholars are "fieldmen," but their professions rest on the work of analyzing data extracted from the environment.  Without "physical" remains, "physical" anthropology has no work to do.  It has always struck me as irresponsible on the part of these researchers to approach the question of Bigfoot without access to the kind of evidence upon which their professional opinion would necessarily be based.

Forget about the dodgy folklore upon which Bigfootery rests and approach this question as a matter of serious scholarship.  Like a police investigation, other than establishing a claim, it is a waste of time to rely on witness testimony as a source of objective cryptozoological evidence.  Here's an example of why this fails.  If someone comes to the local university's paleontology department and describes the bones of a new species of dinosaur that they have found on their property the paleontologist is not going publish a paper establishing this new species based on that information alone.  The researcher is going to want to go to the site, examine the evidence for themselves, examine the remains, and perform an objective analysis.  WITHOUT ACCESS to those remains there's nothing for the researcher to do but stay in their lab - otherwise they're merely adding to the extant body of dubious folklore by putting themselves on the record.  In other words, it's the remains that speak - not the expert.  All the opinons of all the physical anthropologists in the world matter nothing, if those opinions have no foundation in evidence upon which to rest.   

This is why I doubt the sincereity of so-called Bigfoot researchers - even those with professional training. They know better.  They know that without physical evidence they have no work to do.  Sure, Meldrum's interest in footprints brings him a bit closer to the realm of seriousness, but without understanding the means by which that print was created, that evidence is little better than worthless.

In fact, a serious Bigfooter - as opposed to someone trying to get on TV, earn publicity for themselves, or simply having fun with their buddies in the woods, would spend their time doing what Raymond Dart, Ralph von Koenigswald, the Leakey family, Donald Johanson, and a whole host of anthropoligsts and archaeologists have done to better understand our human origins: dig for the remains.  By digging, I don't just mean in the ground.  Diggers have been pulling fossils out of North America for close to two hundred years by now.  A serious Bigfooter would begin their search for evidence in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History or the American Museum of Natural History.  If Bigfoot were truly real, there's a very good chance one of his teeth or digits got dug up and tossed into a bag or box at some point during a field expedition.  New species are discovered every year by researchers working in old collections.  This is a common practice of grad students looking for material with which to break new ground.

So if you're looking for Bigfoot - or any cryptid, for that matter - put down the infrared camera and pick up a book on anatomy and get busy combing the museums for remains.  Read old journals and catalogs of finds. Ask your local fossil club to let you tag along when they go to "Bigfoot country."  In short, if you're serious, get serious about finding REAL physical evidence.  If a great ape ever lived in North America, he had to leave some of himself behind.  


Monday, October 14, 2013

Space Columbus: The Question of Extraterrestrial Explorers

Of all the theories related to what we call the "paranormal" the least crazy among these is the idea that the planet earth was once visited by beings from outer space - and that these creatures influenced, in some way, the development of our planet.  The reason being: the universe is ONE HELL OF A BIG PLACE.  If civilized life can evolve on this planet then it stands to reason it can - and likely has - evolved on lots of planets.  So I want to approach the ancient aliens theory in a serious manner.  It's not worthwhile to dismiss the notion out of hand because unlike a lot of what falls into the realm of the so-called "paranormal" this particular theory exists within the realm of scientific plausibility.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that a technologically advanced civilization has had prior contact with humanity.  Technologically advanced life can - and possibly does - exist somewhere else in the universe.

But it is a far cry from asserting the plausibility of alien contact with humanity and stating that it has actually happened.  As things stand today, there's just no evidence of that.  However, rather than simply dismissing the "ancient astronaut hypothesis" out of hand, I want to take a look at why it has problems and offer some guidance on what actual evidence historians and archeologists would need to see in order to give it credence.

But first, a brief overview of the ancient astronaut hypothesis and its history.


Modern-day science fiction is, really, a product of the late nineteenth century.  Though, throughout history, authors have told fanciful tales, stories rooted in what could be called the extreme fringes of scientific knowledge, like modern science itself, began to emerge during the Victorian era.  The universe became "real" to the Victorians.  By the close of the nineteenth century, the average person carried around in their head a basically accurate conception of what the cosmos looked liked: the sun was a star at the center of our solar system, surrounded by planets similar to our home world earth, other celestial objects such as comets and meteors orbited the sun, and it was possible that other stars were part of solar systems like our own.

In the distant past a more or less accurate conception of what the universe is was totally impossible. Every civilization had its own pet ideas and while some civilizations were brilliant at tracking celestial objects, any notion of what those objects were was little better than a guess.  So science fiction, as a literary genre, required that the reading public have some idea of the basic scientific consensus of the day.  That became a reality at about the time authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were writing.

These authors, arguably, were the pioneers of science fiction as a genre.  It was out of their work that the popular conceptions of "extraterrestrial aliens" was born: creatures from other planets, perhaps in our own solar system, with a civilization and technology not entirely unlike our own.  In the same way that we humans conquered new lands - the Americas, India, Australia, etc. - a writer like Wells found it entirely plausible that an advanced alien civilization might like to conquer this planet to suit its own ends.  Thus stories like War of the Worlds were born.

The idea of "space aliens" took hold in the popular zeitgeist very quickly.  Human beings do not like the notion that we are alone in the universe.  Ancient humans peopled the heavens with gods and other such divine and diabolic beings.  Modern humans invented a plethora of alien civilizations to fill the celestial void.

It was, thus, not very long before extraterrestrials made the leap from science fiction to the real realm of scientific possibility.  The great astronomer Percival Lowell proposed that structures thought to exist on the surface of Mars were built by an alien civilization.   If such civilizations could exist and change their environment in such a radical way, it was thus assumed that such civilizations might be able to leave their planet altogether and voyage to earth. 

On April 19, 1897 the account of a Martian spacecraft crash in the small town of Aurora, Texas ran in the Dallas Morning News.  Fifty years before the Roswell Incident, this stands as the first true account of what purported to be an actual encounter between humans and extraterrestrials.  A tidal wave of similar stories was soon to follow.  In the popular mindset aliens were now "real."  

For a group of would-be historians, the possibility of human contact with an advanced space traveling civilization solved a lot of problems: everything from how the Egyptians built the pyramids to the question of the miracles of the Bible could be ascribed to ancient visitors from other worlds.  Such theories fit neatly into the emerging rationalist mindset.  For instance, instead of climbing a mountain to visit a god, Moses had an encounter with an extraterrestrial bringer of helpful knowledge.  To an unscientific mind, advanced technology would have resembled magic.  Had not the Aztecs mistaken Cortes for a god?  
Charles Fort
Arguably, the person most responsible for initially popularizing this hypothesis was Charles Fort, the famed paranormalist.  Fort spent his life trolling libraries and newspaper archives searching for stories he thought were anomalous - that is couldn't be easily explained by science.  He published several works based on this research, including the 1919 Book of the Damned, which laid the groundwork for how ancient astronaut theorists would support their ideas over the next century.

During his research Fort ran across a report of some masks discovered in Sullivan County, Missouri which he believed could not have been the work of ancient "savages."  He thus hypothesized that these artifacts represented contact between Amerindians and advanced space traveling beings who shared their knowledge of metal work with humans.  Form that point forward everything from the colossal statues of Easter Island to the Mayan calendar have been ascribed to "aliens" for the simple reason that we moderns have a hard time of conceiving how our ancient ancestors managed to do seemingly miraculous things with "primitive technology."

In the classic example of a feedback loop, Fort's seriously proposed hypothesis was enthusiastically incorporated into the emerging science fiction genre.  In this the author H.P. Lovecraft should be noted especially.  His fiction represents one of the earliest and most comprehensive attempts to reconcile ancient human belief systems with the notion of space traveling hyperintelligences.  Gods such as the Great Cthulhu ("Call of Cthulhu," 1928) are revealed to be alien creatures who colonized earth millions of years ago and who took a hand in the rise of humanity.  All human religion, thus, is merely a perverted misunderstanding of our true story.

By the 1960's this idea was bubbling at the fringes of Western pop culture and it took the work of a shameless self-promoter and outright plagiarist to really bring it to the fore.  Though many authors had taken up pen to write on the subject, it was hotel manager Erich von Daniken who made ancient astronauts a household concept.  His book Chariots of the Gods? hit the stores in 1968: a year of near unprecedented culture change in Western society in which traditional institutions and social norms were being questioned - and doubted - like never before.  The idea that all of human history was somehow a lie (or a joke) and that our ancient gods, the sources of our morals and laws, were merely aliens was VERY appealing.  The book and its sequels sold so many copies that to this very day a visit to any random Goodwill store or garage sale will guarantee that you find a copy. 

From Battlestar Galactica to the X-Files, von Daniken's pseudoarcheological approach - cribbed directly from Charles Fort - became a fixture of global popular culture.  So much so, in fact, that today, in 2013, a television show based on the concept and running on the History Channel - "Ancient Aliens" - has entered its sixth season.  The idea is here to stay.

The Ancient Alien Hypothesis

The idea of ancient astronaut or ancient alien contact with earth should more correctly be called the "paleocontact hypothesis."  It states that in pre-history, ancient space travelers visited earth and these visits - whether on purpose or accidentally - left a tangible impact on human culture.  To support the hypothesis proponents summon forth evidence along the same lines as that presented by Charles Fort: so-called anomalous artifacts which could not have been created by human beings without outside influence.

Paleocontact: The Pros
  • The Universe is a Big Place:  As theorems such as the famous Drake Equation illustrate, it is not merely scientifically possible, but quite likely other civilizations exist in the universe.
  • It's Logical:  We've seen it before here on earth - the Aztecs mistook Hernan Cortes for a god, Pacific Islanders mistook Western soldiers for gods and founded "cargo cults" designed to bring them back, and Plains Indians suddenly found themselves in possession of anomalistic weapons, tools, and animals shortly after the Spanish arrived on the American continents in 1519.  Humans adapt - we'll use new technology when it is provided and incorporate outlandish encounters into our mythology.
  • It Gives Meaning to Ancient Religion in the Modern Age:  It's tough to believe in god in the twenty-first century.  But believing that hyperintelligent space beings are looking out for us is a comforting feeling.  
  • It Looks Like There's Evidence:  When Egypt built the Pyramids it had not yet mastered the wheel.  We still aren't entirely sure how Stonehenge or the Easter Island heads were built.  And what about those giant stone balls in Central America?  Maybe we had a little help. 
Paleocontact: The Cons
  • The Universe Might be Too Big:  Albert Einstein dramatically expanded the size of the universe when he demonstrated that faster-than-light travel is probably impossible.  And if not impossible, it's REALLY hard.  At sublight speed there are no casual trips to pretty much...anywhere.  And even at light speed just getting to a neighboring star system would take lifetimes.  Thus space visitors would not only need to possess advanced technology - but mind-boggling advanced technology.  Also, though the universe may be teaming with life - not all of that life is going to be sentient.  Even less is going to be technological.  Even less will be space traveling.  AND EVEN LESS is going to have developed faster-than-light travel.  Of all the billions of species to evolve on our own planet ONLY ONE has developed advanced technology.  By that logic, the universe is starting to sound like a much lonelier place.  Aliens not only have to survive, develop the technology, and use it to visit earth - they would have needed to do so during our very brief 10,000 year history of civilization to leave a notable impact.  The likelihood of that happening is now getting much closer to zero.
  • It's Logical, but There is No Evidence:  The paleocontact theory relies on the fact that it is possible for all of its credibility.  Short of evidence, simply because something is possible doesn't mean it's probable.  The theory's proponents make a critically fallacious leap in logic: just because something COULD happen doesn't mean it DID happen.  
  • Religion, Like All of Human Culture, Evolves:  Religion doesn't need ancient aliens to persist into the modern age.  Well before Charles Fort, theists were already reconciling their beliefs with science.  From Thomas Jefferson removing miracles from a new translation of the Bible to spiritualists proposing that heaven and hell are "other dimensions" rather than physical places, the adaptive nature of religion insures it will survive.  In fact, we have seen new iterations of faith simply incorporate science into their belief systems - including the possibility of aliens.  The Mormons postulate that god lives on another planet called Kolob and Scientologists have developed an intricate "space opera" to explain the rise of human civilization.  Mythology cheerfully evolves in the face of all objective understanding of the universe.  
  • There Actually is No Evidence:  Sure, the ancient astronaut theory is possible.  More on this later, but to date no one has yet to provide any artifacts that could not be defined within the context of the evolution of human history.  Just because a hotel manager couldn't figure out how to build the pyramids without wheels, that doesn't mean that our ancient ancestors were in the same boat.  Or modern archeologists for that matter.  There really is no evidence to support the theory. 
The Racism Caveat

On its surface the ancient aliens theory seems like a bit of harmless fun - a bit of "what if?" speculation.  However, lurking under the surface is one rather ugly problem: it is pretty damn racist.  None of the theory's proponents propose that ancient aliens built the Roman Coliseum or the Greek Parthenon.  They reserve their assumption that ancient humans needed help for non-white cultures: Africans, Amerindians, the Chinese, etc.  Sure the Romans could build megalithic structures in ancient times!  But the Great Zimbabwe?  Forget it.  Those poor brown people needed the help of spacemen.  It's this aspect of the theory that takes it out of the realm of speculative fun and makes its misunderstandings of history insidious.

What Kind of Evidence Does the Theory Demand?

Ancient astronaut theorists often point to places like Pumapunku or Easter Island as examples of anomalous structures that we have "no idea about how they were built."  In fact, this whole notion is purposely ignorant.  Von Daniken himself calls Pumapunku in Bolivia the best evidence for prehistoric alien contact.  The architecture at the site is supposed to be too advanced for human technology of the era and archeologists are supposed to be baffled about how the site was built.

EXCEPT - we know exactly how the site was built because the tools of construction are still there.  The same goes for the heads at Easter Island and the Pyramids of Giza.  The quarries, the tools, the stone marks - all of it is still laying around.  At all of these places there are partially finished stones still left in place.  To believe that these sites were built with the help of aliens using advanced technology ignores the archeology sitting right on the ground.

So, what kind of evidence do we need to lend some validity to the ancient astronauts theory?  Here goes:
  • Some alien remains: If the alien theorists are correct, aliens were constantly visiting earth and just like Aurora and Roswell, their ships crashed from time to time.  If that's the case, a piece of non-terrestrial skeleton, ship, technology, clothing, etc. would be pretty convincing evidence.  Considering archeology has gotten so good we can find a place like the tiny short-lived Fort of Jamestown or the site of a crashed WWII plane in a cornfield, an alien base camp or wreck site should show up...eventually.  
  • Totally anomalous technology: Finding stone building being used in the Stone Age is not an anomaly.  Finding the remains of a glass and steel structure in Iron Age Jerusalem or the Australian Outback would be.  We know Egyptians built the Pyramids because we can see on the ground the various phases of their evolution: from mustaba, to the Step Pyramid, to the Bent Pyramid, on to the Great Pyramid.  If the Egyptians suddenly leaped from the Step Pyramid to the World Trade Center, that would be serious evidence for alien interference.  Finding a microchip turned into a Comanche arrow or a piece of polyester sewn into a medieval garment would all indicate technology extant totally out of time.  We see instances of this in actual human history as related to the incursion of outside influence.  For instance, an archeologist studying the horizons of Amerindian culture, around the start of the 1500s is going to suddenly find the natives using guns, steel, horses, and trading in currency.  This great technological leap forward is not evolutionary, but the result of new contacts.  We would expect to see the same thing if aliens had played a serious role in our history.  
  • We make contact:  We meet some actual aliens.  Nothing proves the existence of something like it showing up on your front porch.  If aliens visit earth or if we establish contact with them in some other manner, that raises the likelihood that we have made contact before. 
In short, what we need to affirm these ancient astronaut theories is something incontrovertible: bodies, machines, or a personal visit.  Anything less than that is just speculation.