Pseudoarchaeology and the Racism Behind Ancient Aliens
November 14, 2018 6:58 PM   Subscribe

Where, exactly, did the idea of ancient aliens building the pyramids begin? Since the late 19th century, science fiction writers have imagined Martians and other alien lifeforms engaged in great feats of terrestrial engineering. Earlier alien theories surrounding Atlantis may have spawned fantasies about alien building. The most substantial evidence for non-earthly creatures arrived in the wake of H.G. Wells’s success. Capitalizing on the fervor surrounding Wells’s The War of the Worlds, astronomer and science fiction writer Garrett P. Serviss penned a quasi-sequel titled Edison’s Conquest of Mars in 1898.
posted by MovableBookLady (30 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
An awful lot of Ancient Aliens woo, including Chariots of the Gods, is based on Morning of the Magicians, and that in turn was a “nonfiction” work of ur-woo that took from, amongst other things, the very fictional work of HP Lovecraft.

So cheers, Howie P. L., you introduced something fun but kinda racist into the world, very on brand for you.
posted by Artw at 7:06 PM on November 14, 2018 [21 favorites]

And it persists because ancient people (especially those of darker-hued skin) weren't as smart as us and could never have figured it out themselves, right?
posted by tclark at 7:07 PM on November 14, 2018 [10 favorites]

More to the point: especially WRT Egypt, darker-skinned people couldn't possibly have figured this out for themselves at a time when Europe was only occasionally building anything more impressive than a mud hut.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:21 PM on November 14, 2018 [12 favorites]

Yeah, I’m glad they brought up the stuff about the moundbuilders here in America. Europeans were really obsessed with ruins in the early 19th century, and it’s really interesting to see depictions of American ruins from that time — they were made to look like ruined castles and other European structures.

It was all a forerunner of the kind of hierarchical thinking that would be solidified later in the century when the theory of evolution was applied to human societies. The constant underlying belief was that Europeans were the peak of humanity, and other people were less so. The only way to explain how Native people in the Americas could have constructed big earthen structures and so on was to imagine that some other race, more similar to Europeans, had built them before being wiped out by the Native people the Europeans had encountered.

Anyway, if I can find some of those pictures of American castles, I’ll share them.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:06 PM on November 14, 2018 [13 favorites]

The whole "aliens built the pyramids" thing drives me crazy because it's obviously false if you spend more than 10 minutes on the west bank of the Nile. There are 90 pyramids remaining, with enough of them intact to see the progression from flat tombs to step pyramids to the Great Pyramids at Giza and beyond.

There are the hallmarks of classic human engineering all over. People build things, make mistakes and then improve on their design. The pyramids did not appear overnight perfect and without generations of human learning. I highly doubt that super intelligent aliens made the colossal mistake that embodies the Bent Pyramid, and its sudden, mid-stream design change. But the people who built that pyramid are the same ones who learned and then started over and built the Red Pyramid, the third largest in the world, right next door. Give the ancient Egyptians credit for at least that much.
posted by Alison at 8:33 PM on November 14, 2018 [35 favorites]

I've always found it kind of funny that nobody ever suggests that Columbus or Lief Ericson or whatever only managed to cross the Atlantic because aliens loaned them a GPS or whatever. I wonder why that is.

(Note: obviously, I know exactly why that is.)
posted by tobascodagama at 8:52 PM on November 14, 2018 [24 favorites]

I've always found it kind of funny that nobody ever suggests that Columbus or Lief Ericson or whatever only managed to cross the Atlantic because aliens loaned them a GPS [...]

I think you are seriously underestimating the bottom of the barrel that Ancient Aliens has scraped over their 13 seasons. There is indeed a theory that Columbus received communications from aliens. Same with Leonardo da Vinci and probably anyone else from history who had a decent idea. Sometimes these folks were abducted by aliens, sometimes they received psychic messages, or maybe they just tapped into the Akashic records.

On reflection, I may have wasted my life watching all 13 seasons of Ancient Aliens...
posted by selenized at 9:15 PM on November 14, 2018 [22 favorites]

My wife used to get great joy out of watching Ancient Aliens when I was in ear shot - one because she is a true believer in being open minded about aliens, visitations, et al, but mostly because of how sputtering mad I would get. I think the point that finally won her over to the "but horrible" argument was me repeatedly saying it's offensive that they're basically saying over and over again that our ancestors were dumb.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:39 PM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Personally, I think that ancient civilizations stretch farther back than we think, and I find reading about unthinkably ancient civilizations to be quite enjoyable, but what I DON'T find enjoyable is reading about some supposedly ancient civilization and it's just a cover for ALIENS. Basically, aliens can build something, POC can't.

Seriously, why can't I read about mysterious ancient structures on the Canary Islands and it DOESN'T have something to do with aliens!? Man, fuck that!

Tl;dr-- racism ruins everything.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 11:03 PM on November 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

Heh. One of my earliest posts. Can't believe it's been that long.
posted by brundlefly at 12:30 AM on November 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

1) The article conflates crackpot pseudo-science with racism, and doesn't "prove its case" through argument worthy of a lawyer or scholar. Instead, it offers up conjecture and assertions that amount to a straw man: the fact that a lunatic fringe promotes “ancient alien” theories does not even hint at the reason behind the effort, let alone prove the reason is racism.

2) The article is also an example of the fallacy of attribution, whereby the characteristics of a (small) part of a group are presented as characteristic of the entire group. Even if some seminal alien theorists were racist, that doesn't mean all alien theorists or alien theories are.

3) The claim that "many (though not all) extraterrestrial theories focus on archaeological structures at sites within Egypt, Africa, South America, and North America" is true but also misleading. In the same way the claim "the USA is the greatest country in the world" doesn't mean other countries aren't equally great, the fact that, yes, "many" theories focus on Africa/NA/SA doesn't mean equally many, if not more, theories don't focus on other geographic areas.

In fact, there's tons of alien theories about structures in Asia, the middle east, Europe and Australia. Among them:

Rock carvings at Val Camonica (Italy)
Wandjina Petroglyphs (Australia)
The Oracle at Delphi (Greece)
The underground city of Derinkuyu (Turkey)
Baalbek Stones (Lebanon)
Stonehenge (England)
Kailasa Temple (India)
Mohenjo Daro (Pakistan)

The claim that "many" alien theories focus Egypt/Africa/NA/SA is true in absolute but not relative terms. If alien theorizing were zero sum, if focusing on one place precluded focusing on any other place and there were a finite number of theories--then the article could justifiably present "geography" as prima facie proof of racism and colonial elitism. But theorizing is not zero sum. "Geography" proves nothing. The article is very misleading
posted by BadgerDoctor at 1:09 AM on November 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the same way the claim "the USA is the greatest country in the world" doesn't mean other countries aren't equally great

This is literally exactly what the superlative form of an adjective means. I'll bet you my most valuable dollar that the people who say that aren't trying to convey that the USA is among the greatest countries in the world or that all countries are equally great and therefore the USA's greatness is a mere corollary of it being a country.
posted by XMLicious at 1:56 AM on November 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

Rock carvings at Val Camonica (Italy)
Wandjina Petroglyphs (Australia)
The Oracle at Delphi (Greece)
The underground city of Derinkuyu (Turkey)
Baalbek Stones (Lebanon)
Stonehenge (England)
Kailasa Temple (India)
Mohenjo Daro (Pakistan)
This list of examples is not the proof of non-racist theorising you may think it is. Especially given that the Wandjina paintings are a relatively recent example of the cultural works of an independent civilisation with more than 40,000 years of continuous culture in my country. They are part of the living and vital belief system of actual people, and those people are also very protective of their heritage. Recognition of Indigenous culture in Australia is tenuous enough without claiming that the only reason they have culture at all is aliens.

Seriously, handwaving the achievements of ancient humans is not a way to increase the wonder of the world. It's a shallow, pointless exercise that only serves to kill off enquiry. "We'll never know, coz aliensdidit".
posted by prismatic7 at 2:10 AM on November 15, 2018 [15 favorites]

I recently spoke to some people from Peru who insisted that the Nazca Lines and Machu Picchu were built by aliens and that "everyone in Peru knows this because we live with it." I wasn't about to argue about a culture that isn't mine, and I suddenly realized that I don't have any arguments against ancient aliens except that humans are capable of all kinds of things, good and bad, no aliens needed.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:22 AM on November 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was in Nazca a few years back, did the whole fly-over in rickety airplane thing. I wasn't struck so much with the how (which with enough manpower and lots of rope and sticks, doable), but rather with the why?
posted by signal at 4:16 AM on November 15, 2018

Even Star Trek has gotten into the ancient aliens thing, with disturbing racist implications.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:44 AM on November 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

Heh. One of my earliest posts. Can't believe it's been that long.

Thanks, brundlefly :)
posted by NoMich at 4:51 AM on November 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

There are many principles I use to explain human behavior to myself. Two of these are “lots of people have no critical thinking skills and will believe dumb stuff” and “other people will exploit this to their benefit.”

This simple model allows me to explain both the existence of the claim that “ancient astronauts did a bunch of stuff” and the article’s claim that “ancient racists made people believe ancient astronauts did a bunch of stuff.”

I’m certain there was a racist component to some of these “theories” (it hurts to use the word) but I think mostly they were proposed by people that saw a chance to fleece the rubes.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:24 AM on November 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

It's really just the same thing as the talk of white men "discovering" whatever "new land" isn't it? At the root of it is a failure of teaching and thinking about history. In the U.S. at least, when I was taught "history" it was primarily that of how the West came to be. The focus on pre-western civilizations goes roughly as far as people moving from those lands to what is now Europe and, eventually, North America. Mention was made of later Eastern civilizations, but in broad terms as counterpart to that of the West, describing it in moments before contact rather than as an equally broad and complex history of its own.

Africa gained even less mention, where the general view of it was something like that of the First Nations people and other "tribal communities", modestly developed, largely "alien", and generally static, not really changing much since the beginnings of history, unlike the oh so clever West. Peoples like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Egyptians were treated as mysterious for developing cultures "we" don't fully understand for existing outside "our" written record. That very method of treatment, that of the history being mysterious, leads to flights of fancy in filling in the record that surely should exist had there been a "real" history like that of the West. The absence of such a record is then held as proof something fantastic must have occurred for there to be such a lack.

It's all based in racism via the narrow perspective of seeing the world only through one's own skin its claimed history. History as a concept was tied to that which could be shown through a certain method of documentation about how we developed. Everything else was left sketchy or not dealt with at all, leaving unanswered questions to be filled in with fantasies, that like the teachings, have unavoidable racism baked in as that is such a key part of the history of the West. Racism underlies our history, not making that explicit in every part of the discussion allows it to remain, taking on different forms, to explain that which "we" didn't have any part in or lack explicit record of. That people so desperately want fantasy to be real and are constantly fed that possibility by the culture does no favors either.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:31 AM on November 15, 2018 [10 favorites]

Consider also the improv "Yes, and.." nature of most fringe writing. It's a circular thing - one person makes a strange claim, another validates that claim and makes another one on top of it, and the first then returns the favor and validates the second claim, and the process repeats over and over. All it takes is one racist to pollute the cycle and since the racists know the fringe is in desperate need of validation, it's really easy for them.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:27 AM on November 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

My go-to response to people who say, "Those ignorant ancient people couldn't possibly have built the Pyramids!" is "You'd be surprised what you can do if you don't have television."
posted by vibrotronica at 9:36 AM on November 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

Oh for...look, you don't need aliens to explain the pyramids--they had rocks, and they had beer. Anyone who's been in a bar long enough knows that after a certain point stacking things become inevitable. They just had an entire society that ran on beer, so they attacked big things.
posted by happyroach at 9:39 AM on November 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

I pointed out elsewhere that the author of this article missed a rather big clue about the racist roots of the von Daniken-led charge into ancient astronauts. Chariots of the Gods was re-written heavily before publication, and the ghost writer was Utz Utermann. Not a commonly known name, I grant, but "you might know him from such hits as: editor of the Nazi Party house organ Volkischer Beobachter".

Only ghost writer I can think of who had to use a pseudonym, make of that what you will.
posted by Quindar Beep at 10:13 AM on November 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

You don't even need to prove that a racist made up the theory. The theory is "ancient non-Europeans had impressive architecture, but they couldn't possibly have done it so it must be aliens." The whole premise is that "those people" are self-evidently incapable, and that is what is racist.
posted by Scattercat at 4:26 PM on November 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

I've talked a lot about this idea here in the thread Halloween Jack linked above. I'd like to append that a couple years later, I'm as angry with the writing team of Star Trek Voyager as I was back then, because - rightly or wrongly - people often learn a lot about other cultures via the stories in pop culture, and fuck those people for telling these ones about POC.

1) The article conflates crackpot pseudo-science with racism, and doesn't "prove its case" through argument worthy of a lawyer or scholar.

There are enough bad ideas in your comment that it's hard to know where to start, but I'll take a crack at it.

So to start with, pseudoscience does not exist as some whimsical, value-free thing that is somehow separate from racism. Pseudoscience is a tool to cloak existing biases in rational sounding language so that they can survive beyond their time, and as such, it is a cesspool of racism, sexism and all other manner of vile attitudes because that's what it's for, ranging from the racist ideas behind phrenology or ancient aliens, to the horrifying sexism in GOOP's catalog. If someone is clinging to pseudoscience, there's generally going to be something ugly beneath the superficial 'harmless' silliness.

Second of all, the idea that racism is hard to demonstrate just gives aid and comfort to racists, and I view anybody who would espouse that position with deep suspicion. I wrote about bigotry recently, and so I'm just going to relink here, as correcting people every single time it comes up is exhausting.

The whole premise is that "those people" are self-evidently incapable, and that is what is racist.

Precisely this. No complex argument is needed when the basic premise is so unsophisticated. This isn't a dog whistle, it's an open statement.
posted by mordax at 5:55 PM on November 15, 2018 [18 favorites]

The inverse exists too, in the belief that ancient civilizations in Egypt possessed fantastic advanced technology beyond the capabilities of industrial civilization.
posted by thelonius at 8:19 PM on November 15, 2018

I've heard a similar thing pertaining to ancient India... specifically, IIRC, that among other things a passage in the Mahābhārata describes the battlefield use of nuclear weapons.

I wondered, when I encountered this, if there might be some connection to Hindu Nationalism, but I don't have anything beyond the most superficial knowledge about modern India to address that question.
posted by XMLicious at 9:56 PM on November 15, 2018

tobascodagama: I've always found it kind of funny that nobody ever suggests that Columbus or Lief Ericson or whatever only managed to cross the Atlantic because aliens loaned them a GPS or whatever. I wonder why that is.

Did Vikings Use Crystals to Rule the Seas? Those Viking sunstone rumors appear to be true. [, April 5, 2018]:
Long celebrated as master shipbuilders and seafarers, the Vikings ruled the waters of the North Atlantic from 900 to 1200 A.D., regularly sailing their longboats for hundreds of miles over open water to their colonies in Iceland and Greenland. On clear days, they used a sundial-like instrument called a sun compass to guide their way, with great accuracy. But scientists have struggled to answer a simple question: How did the Vikings navigate when it was cloudy or foggy?

Now, two Hungarian researchers have used computer simulations to bolster a longstanding theory that the Vikings used chunks of crystal known as sunstones to find their way during inclement weather, a backup navigation method that enabled them to dominate the seas for three centuries.

As New Age-y as it sounds, the sunstone navigation technique actually shows up in ancient Viking legends, like “The Saga of King Olaf,” which refer to Viking mariners using a sólarsteinn, or sunstone, on their voyages. And back in 1967, the Washington Post reported, a Danish archaeologist suggested that the Vikings might have followed the sun’s path through the clouds using sunstones.
Sunstone (Icelandic: sólarsteinn): imagine the tech support calls.
posted by cenoxo at 10:16 PM on November 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

there's tons of alien theories about structures in Asia, the middle east, Europe and Australia.

No actually there aren't. This is not how theories work. There's tons of unverifiable speculation about structures being built by aliens, all of which make enormous effort to hand-wave around Occam's razor.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:57 AM on November 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I actually went to a lecture by Von Danikan. Guy struck me as being a straight up crook/con man.
Sure his assorted books made entertaining, even interesting reading, so do ‘People Magazine’ and the ‘National Enquirer’. Doesn’t make them true. Finding out his ghost writer is a damn Nazi doesn’t make me feel any better about his books.
Yes, it’s pretty damn racist to think African people couldn’t build the pyramids.

As for descriptions of nuclear war in Hindu scriptures...
The books in question have a lot of exaggeration about pretty much everything. Some of those books were misused by cult leaders to hook half educated and credulous young people.

Cults were a HUGE feature of life in the 1970s. A lot of less nice people came from India on special visas for ‘religious workers’. As with Evangelical Christianity in the US, certain movements in Hinduism were very politicized. Yes, I totally think that accounts describe as ‘nuclear war’ were seized upon by groups like the BJP. Shame too.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

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