The science of being smart – and why we didn’t need alien help

Human stupidity never seems to stop giving. News surfaced this week that some guy in the Egyptian Museum broke King Tutankhamen’s mask while cleaning it, and stuck the part back on with epoxy. Bad move. Not only is it a conservation nightmare, but everybody knows you should use alien fantasy woo-woo tech like the Pharoahs had. Or something.

Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

My bet’s with the ‘or something’. In the last few decades there’s been a popular trend towards dissing a lot of older human achievements – imagining that ancient civilisations couldn’t raise pyramids, build Gobleki Tepi or whatever, and must have had ‘alien’ help. Total rubbish, of course; the notion speaks more about our own credulousness and prejudices than it does of past realities.

Take epoxy. Did aliens give it to us? Hardly. And was it a modern invention? Noooo. According to archaeologists, the first artificial epoxy was invented at least 80,000 years ago – and you know who invented it? Neanderthals. Who, it turns out, had bigger brains than ours and were easily as smart. And they invented a method for making an artificial viscoelastic polymer out of birch bark, using a dry distillation process requiring an oxygen-free environment and temperatures of 650 degrees F – all with stone age tech. Woah!

Neanderthal engineers used the stuff to glue stone spear heads to shafts. The bond – reinforced with fibre whipping – had to be solid, because Neanderthals were physically twice as strong as we are, and their hunting techniques involved sticking a large beast with one of those spears and then hanging on while the thing bucked (they got the same injuries out of it that rodeo riders do today).

Jump forward a bit and we come to the pyramids – always a favourite for the alien astronaut woo brigade. The reality? The ancient Egyptians actually lagged a bit, tech-wise, by comparison with their neighbours; they lacked bronze for a long time, for instance. But they had enough know-how – and, more crucially, economic scale – to build the pyramids. Despite efforts during the twentieth century by ‘independent thinkers’ to assert the whole thing was a product of space aliens, there’s nothing magical there, and the way it was done is well documented. The only argument is over precisely which technique the Egyptians deployed.

The aqua-blue water is really that colour, it's a by-product of ground glacial rock flour suspended in the water.
Tekapo canal, a small part of a monolithic 1970s-1980s construction project that created whole rivers, lakes and diverted watershed flows in New Zealand for power generation. The aqua-blue water is really that colour, it’s a by-product of ground glacial rock flour.

The same applies to the assertion that we couldn’t build pyramids today, which inevitably goes with the ‘aliens did it’ claim. What this usually means is that the ‘independent thinker’ doesn’t themselves know how it was done back then, mistakes the debate over specific technique by the archaeological community for ‘nobody knows’, and assumes that it therefore couldn’t be repeated today.

Actually, given the money, we could build pyramids just like the Egyptians did. Though our modern tech would make the job faster, easier and cheaper. We’ve already done the harder job of un-building some of the more complex Egyptian stone-works – don’t forget the way the Abu Simbel temples and other monumental works were disassembled, moved and then reassembled with modern tools and heavy lifting equipment when the Aswan High Dam went in during the mid-late 1960s.

The Aswan High Dam also underscores the astonishing scale of the engineering works that go on today, worldwide. Even here in New Zealand, for instance, the Upper Waitaki power system  – which involved redirecting whole rivers – represents a raw scale of construction that dwarfs the pyramids.

All of which underscores one point. We’re conditioned to suppose that technology is a relentless ‘advance’; and of late it certainly has been. But that also seems to come with the notion that ‘old’ is ‘less sophisticated’, even ‘stupid’. It sets us up to underestimate what people of earlier ages knew and could do. Remember – they were just as smart as we are. There’s a difference between being ‘uninformed’ and being ‘stupid’. And ‘uninformed’ also doesn’t equate to ‘incapable’.

Unlike the guy that thought they could repair King Tut’s mask with superglue. Urrrgh!

More soon, as I get on to looking into ‘ancient mysteries’ in detail. Lots more detail.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


9 thoughts on “The science of being smart – and why we didn’t need alien help

  1. All good points – the ancient humans were more clever and capable than we give them credit for.
    If archaeologists, scientists, engineers, et al, worked together, instead of staying within their own fields to make their statements, the better and faster we’ll really understand how things were done AND how to use this knowledge to do even better.

    1. Absolutely. And I think that recent evidence points to human tech and understanding developing in a slightly different order from what has usually been supposed – for instance, village life and animal domestication was always held to pivot off the development of agriculture after the end of the last major glaciation. Actually there’s evidence, now, of the villages emerging first. All grist to the mill which helps explain a lot about otherwise ‘mysterious’ or supposedly anachronistic developments. More on that soon.

  2. Who knows? Do you think we are the only planet sustaining life?
    I do know that we lost tons of important informative documents through fire and destruction through the centuries. Good thing I back everything up on my computer… 🙂

    1. In a philosophical sense the answer is ‘nobody knows’ – but I’m pretty sure that life has emerged elsewhere, possibly (in bacterial form at least) inside our own solar system. Titan and Europa seem to be the latest choices de jour. I’d be very surprised if we found ourselves alone. But it’s a big jump from that to supposing that putative aliens looked like us (as the woo brigade usually claim), came here conveniently at a specific time that is a merest eye-blink against the whole history of Earth, and ‘helped’ humanity when we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever of anything like it ever happening. Whereas there is plenty of consistent and cross-disciplinary evidence of exactly how humanity made its own way on its own efforts. We gotta give ourselves credit! 🙂 More on this soon – and I’ll look forward to some interesting and constructive discussions in the comments.

      Backups – absolutely vital! And there’s a ton of stuff lost over the millennia which would be great to have back. Including recently. Here in NZ there was a fire in one of the National Archives buildings, back in the 1950s, with the result that, certainly when I was doing my thesis research about thirty-odd years ago, anything that couldn’t be found was said to have been lost in that fire, even if it had merely been mis-filed…

  3. Excellent points! It really is important to note that previously people’s in history were just as smart as us. If anything, they had to be a little more “resourceful” because they didn’t possess the modern conveniences that we enjoy. I don’t buy the whole, we only have the things we have (including our genes) because of aliens. It sounds fun, but that’s ll it is. An idle fantasy.

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