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.   

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