Bring me some new ancient astronauts. I like not the ones I have.

Back when I was a kid, the latest woo-de-jour involved ‘ancient’ aliens who’d apparently arrived in the ‘ancient’ world to help humanity build pyramids and become civilised. Stupid humans!

This is part of the Egyptian learning curve - don't make the pyramids too steep, OK?
This is part of the Egyptian learning curve – don’t make the pyramids too steep, OK? Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The idea wasn’t original – Arthur C. Clarke had been toying with it for decades in his science fiction. But as he well knew, it was fiction.

The ‘ancient astronaut’ brigade had no such conceits. The first to gain wide public attention was a Swiss hotelier named Erich von Daniken, who began re-interpreting history along the lines that ‘ancient astronauts’ had built the Egyptian pyramids, along with what he thought were anomalous ‘technological’ relics. He could prove the aliens existed because ‘ancient’ drawings showed humans with what he interpreted as space helmets.

Yup, the aliens were human. Later, von Daniken claimed they had bred with ape-men to produce modern humans. I still remember seeing Carl Sagan pointing out, quite rightly, that the chances of an alien being inter-fertile with us was somewhat less than the chances of a human being inter-fertile with a petunia. Such niceties didn’t stop the woo-brigade, of course.

Von Daniken’s anthropocentrism can perhaps be excused: even the scientific community was very human-centric in the mid-twentieth century. However, his other logic flaws can’t be ignored. Von Daniken inspired a large number of imitators, all following the same idea – Scientists had Got It Wrong and aliens had been among us long ago. As always, the evidence (Evidence) was logically disconnected from the conclusions.

The reality? There is no evidence whatsoever of alien visits – now or in the past. And as for ‘ancient’? Well, I suppose against a human lifetime of years and decades, hundreds or thousands of years becomes a vast span. Actually it isn’t. Paleo-anthropologists – like physicists – keep buckets full of zeroes to add to numbers. The time since humanity emerged from the ice ages, 10,000-odd years ago, is the merest eye-blink against the span of human existence. One of the (many) cognitive flaws humans suffer from is the ‘recency phenomenon’, in which whatever just happened looms vastly larger. We view time, in our own minds, as a logarithmic scale – not linear.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

But it is linear. Try this fun exercise – this is one I demoed with my (under 10 yo) nephew and niece a couple of years back. We walked down the footpath pretending we were walking back in time, while their Grandma (my Mum) stood where we’d started and waved at us from the present.

It’s a great technique. Every step is equal to a million years. Take two paces. That’s the whole known span of genus Homo existence, from the day that the first hominin that looked anything like us appeared on the African veldt. Take 63 more paces. That’s the whole of the quaternary period. You’re at the K-T boundary. Now take another 75 paces. That’s the Cretaceous period. And another 75 paces after that, which takes you to the beginning of the Jurassic. Take a look back at your start point – half a block back. When I walked back in time with my relatives, Grandma was still waiting and waving back in ‘the present’ – and that was the point where my young relatives decided they were being chased by a T-Rex and that if they ran back to the K-T boundary it would be extinguished by the meteor and they’d be saved.

The point of the exercise is that it shows us the actual linear spans of time, as linear space that we can see. And why should aliens turn up, conveniently, just at the precise moment when humanity happened to have not only survived the ice ages (just as you lift your foot to take the first step)? Why didn’t they arrive (say) in the middle of the Cretaceous, or Jurassic? Much bigger target, isn’t it – and we have to suppose that alien civilisations will have appeared and disappeared across such a span, and more.

The other conceit is the idea that ‘ancient’ humans were incapable of achieving anything for themselves. Actually, the pyramid builders and the rest weren’t stupid – they were just as smart and creative as we are. Among many, many other logic and cognitive flaws, Von Daniken and his imitators were confusing ‘technology’ with ‘smart’. The fact is that our modern technology isn’t just a product of our own smartness – it’s the product of a lot of smart people in past generations, too. Right back to those ‘ancient’ pyramid builders, on whose shoulders we stand.

I could go on, but probably I don’t need to.

What are your thoughts on ‘ancient astronaut’ woo?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


18 thoughts on “Bring me some new ancient astronauts. I like not the ones I have.

  1. I’m an alien. I dispute your entire post. 🙂
    In all seriousness, the Egyptians were so novel in their ways that it is easy to make the alien link. There is still an element of mystery around them such as how they were so advanced for their time.
    But great civilisations come and go. and in those days they didn’t spread widely, so they died out eventually, there was no outlet for the Egyptians to continue to build on their incredible creations.
    At least they were good enough to leave some hidden tombs behind!

  2. Julian May had fun with this concept in the 80s – she had time travelers going back from the 21st century to the Pliocene and meeting, and mating with, ancient aliens, which were implied to be human ancestors (and the source of key elements of Celtic culture, the most unlikely bit of the whole business).

  3. You know how to ignite my sarcasm. So, they built the pyramids, but have only been able to make it back here for X-Files episodes? We need to keep digging. Eventually we’ll find a T-Rex footprint with an ancient astronaut *splat!* in the middle of it. Positive proof!

    Not only do we have “recency” issues, but we have technology issues. We’re convinced that if we don’t have a crane to lift a giant block then there’s no way to build, for instance. Ancient humans had a different brand of smart because they had to work with what they had. In their own time they were advanced, but advancement in their time was built on fewer shoulders than it is today.

    Right now, though, I need to get ready. I’m being abducted tonight for my annual checkup.

  4. The drives me nuts. I remember when the first “Ancient Aliens” episode appeared on the History Channel. I thought it was going to be a proper discussion of the (lack of) evidence. Instead, it bought into the whole concept. I think I made it to the first ad break in the first show. I think they’re onto about their seventh season now. It annoys me that something that calls itself the “History Channel” can treat this with any seriousness.

    Then, of course, we have the Scientologists and also the planet Kolob of Mormon fame. Infuriating. There are so many legitimate areas of research that all that money could be spent in science, medicine, humanities, social sciences etc, and we get it being wasted on this rubbish.

    Rant over!

    1. I saw the first show and lasted about as long. Urgh! Anti-science sensationalism masquerading as fact. Abandoned it but that was still 15 minutes I wasn’t going to get back.

  5. I remember getting all indignant about “Chariots of the Gods” back in the ’60s or ’70s. That was Von Daniken, wasn’t it? Thing is, some people question the orthodox thinking in this area. I recently reblogged this post: Not ancient astronauts, but a different theory about the dating of archaeological sites. Can’t say I agree, but…

    1. I don’t agree with the re-dating because it’s based on pattern matching isolated evidence, whereas the ‘conventional’ dates are broad-based and fit an integrated pattern. That’s not to say that some current dates might be revised if new evidence arises, but it would need to be properly peer-reviewed and so forth.

  6. Reblogged this on 1petermcc's Blog and commented:
    This works for me. So many wacky ideas want to downplay the achievements of humans. So often we fall for the arrogant idea we are so much smarter. The likes of Trump’s popularity is a clear indication we can repeat bad ideas from history. That probably gives a good indication for us actually being dumber.

  7. Love the post and have taken the liberty of reblogging. Hope that’s cool.

    I’m frustrated that folk can dismiss the ancients so readily, then come up with silly theories to replace them. Ockham’s razor is unknown to these folk. (That’s assuming they believe their own drivel and not simply operating a business opportunity.)

  8. I loved your final point the most. The intelligence of the ancient Egyptians is equivalent modern people. We just have thousands of years of scientific advances to build upon. The notion that Egyptians couldn’t figure things out alone is just ridiculous.

    On a side note: There was no Mega Short-Story last week. Will there be one this week?

  9. I say let’s bring them back to teach us how to clean up the world we are working so hard to destroy. So, I ask the question, are we really that smart? 🙂

    1. I think humans are incredibly smart, if we want to be. The problem is, a lot of the time, we don’t want to be, which means we miss the point… Sigh… 🙂

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