Sunday, 15 July 2012
Ancient Alien Chronology I: Pumapunku
One of the things that leaps out at you when consulting alient astronaut materials - if you have a good sense of the chronology of human history, anyway - is that there doesn't seem to be a plausible time scale by which this is all happening. These aliens seem to have hopped about all over the place at completely different points in time. A short visit to twelfth century BCE Veracruz to get the Olmecs up and going, a saunter into tenth century CE Java to get Borobudur built, a few cocktail parties in sixth century CE Bolivia to establish the Tiwanaku civilisation. It all seems a little far-fetched. Why didn't the aliens go everywhere at the same time? Why did these extra-terrestrial voyagers, used to super-long-distance travel, find it so hard to cross the Atlantic Ocean?
The principle is basically the same in ancient alien and 'Atlantis' thinking, and actually many of the claims are the same, which means that the same chronological problems are found in both of these collections of pseudoscientific claims. In this post, I'm going to discuss one major problem in ancient alien chronology. It isn't exactly representative, but it's pretty silly. And more importantly, the truth of the thing is incredibly interesting.
Ancient alien theorists lie fairly frequently about the ages of the sites they're discussing - they know that the evidence contradicts almost all of their pseudoscientific beliefs, and dishonestly claim otherwise. The classic example of this is at Pumapunku, a site in Bolivia, which has been claimed to be 12,000 years old. Pumapunku is a pre-Columbian palace in Bolivia associated with the Tiwanaku civilization, a precursor to the Inka empire in the Bolivian Andes. There are lots of artistic and architectural continuities between the Inka empire and Tiwanaku, and the people of the Inka empire appear to have believed that the builders of Tiwanaku were giants, and not ordinary people (despite the fact that the Inka empire was responsible for even bigger and grander sites).** Pumapunku is in an enigmatic place, up in the highlands. It was, apparently, an incredibly gorgeous and otherworldly palace, decorated with tapestries and gold, and considerable technical skill was used in its construction, in particular the use of molten metal staples to stick the gigantic blocks of stone together.
Ancient Aliens unequivocally states that the site is 12,000 years old. That would make the Tiwanaku/Pumapunku complex not only the oldest city in the world by a considerable margin, and the oldest megalithic architecture to boot, it would also mean that the site was built around the same time as the first arrival of humans in South America. That makes it, I think, an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
So what evidence is there for the claim that Pumapunku is 12,000 years old? It consists entirely of a flawed book from the 1940s based on archaeo-astronomy. Archaeo-astronomy is the study of how people in the ancient past, or prior to the development of modern astronomy, related to celestial objects. There are lots of good archaeo-astronomical studies, and there is nothing wrong with archaeo-astronomy in principle. Gary Urton, a brilliant (and incredibly hard-working) anthropologist now at Harvard, has applied ethnographic research on how modern Quechua and Aymara speakers in the Andes think about the stars to the study of Inka civilization, and in particular to the lay-out of streets in Cuzco, the pre-Hispanic capital of the Inka empire.*** Other studies have highlighted the role of the pleiades cluster in regulating the harvest cycle in much of the Americas (and elsewhere). So this kind of archaeo- or ethno-astronomy can be very useful stuff. After all, people in almost all societies align some aspect of their lives with the stars, even if it's only something as simple as building a south-facing house.
These studies all rely on ethnographic data, either collected by ethnographers today, or by missionaries, travellers, and amateur ethnographers in the past. That's the key in ethnoastronomical work: finding out what the people themselves thought, or were likely to have thought. What matters is what the group of people intended, not whether the things they created happen to align with a star or constellation. Urton found out that Cuzco was supposed to align with the coalsack nebula through his ethnographic work. He used old Spanish documents, maps of Cuzco's streets, and the words of his modern-day informants to piece together the proposed astronomical alignments of the Inka capital. This is important, because it would probably be possible to find some alignment with some astronomical formation using any building in the world. Go back far enough in time, and you'll probably be able to find an alignment between a major astronomical object and your house - but that doesn't mean that the builders of your house intended to align your house with it, or that the house dates to the time of the alignment.
Failure to understand this is what led to the naive acceptance of the 12,000 BP (before present) date for Pumapunku. The basis of the claim is found in the writings of Arthur Posnansky, a Viennese adventurer who died in 1946. Posnansky visited Tiwanaku and Pumapunku, and came to believe that Tiwanaku was the source of all civilization in the Americas, from the Maya to the Inka and beyond (a version of hyperdiffusionism, the idea that civilization began in one place and spread from there, rather than being a more complex process). He thought that he had found an alignment between two stone pillars at the Pumapunku palace site and the rising and setting of the sun when viewed from a certain spot in the centre of the plaza - except that the sun doesn't rise and set at the pillars today (not even all that close, really). Instead of abandoning the theory of the alignment, Posnansky chose to believe that the pillars aligned with the rising and setting sun 12,000 years ago, and this proved the age of the site.
The pillars probably do exhibit this alignment, but there is no reason to believe either that they are that old or that they were intended to be aligned in that way. There's the possibility that the point from which the sun is being viewed is wrong; maybe a wooden structure, since disappeared, was once the observation point, or perhaps an earthquake shifted the position of the pillars. Possibly the idea of aligning the palace with the sun was not considered by the Aymara who built it. We really have no evidence to go on regarding this. Whatever was actually the case, Posnansky's date contradicts every other piece of evidence from the site, from radiocarbon dating to seriation, which place the site in the middle of the first millennium CE. That makes it pre-Inka, but relatively late on in the development of complex society in highland South America - which began much earlier at both coastal and highland sites, some of which are nearly 5,000 years old (although more like the large villages of eneolithic eastern Europe than the cities of Mesopotamia). All of the evidence points towards the 12,000 year old solar alignment being a fluke, a coincidence, and not the result of a decision by aliens or Atlantean Tiwanaku people.
Pseudoscientists, conspiracy theorists, ancient alien promoters - they all say that people questioning and debunking their claims have been brainwashed by the establishment, and that we are merely following academic dogma. They say that we are dogmatic, and not "open-minded" to the possibility that we are wrong. This is completely incorrect, and is based on a poor understanding of the epistemological basis of science. Beliefs in science are justified on the basis of a crossword-like system****; we don't accept that any statement we make is unequivocally and absolutely true, but as provisionally true if it makes sense in the context of the other evidence. New evidence changes how we look at the old evidence, and we might have to change our old entries in the crossword on finding out that new answers fit better with the newer evidence. The more evidence we have backing the belief - the more it fits with everything else - the more justified the belief is. It could all turn out to be wrong, but the likelihood of that being so in many cases seems incredibly low, especially with something like the chemical composition of water or the fact that English is the majority language of the United Kingdom. It could be that we got the earlier evidence wrong; we filled in parts of the crossword wrong, and that's why we can't find the right word to put in the spaces we've got. Sometimes, more than one word will fit in the same space, so we look for other evidence that could help us choose the correct one.
Instead of relying on a dogmatic belief in a secure foundation for all knowledge - otherwise known as foundationalism - we rely on working out how the existing evidence fits together to produce a coherent picture that could potentially be corrected and updated by new discoveries and new assessments of the evidence. When we come across a piece of evidence that doesn't fit, like Posnansky's claim, we don't dismiss it as wrong on the basis of an academic dogma. Instead, we investigate it and see how it fits with all of the other evidence.
Posnansky's claim was made on the basis of a spurious alignment that was not backed up by any ethnographic or historical evidence (in fact, if I remember correctly, he didn't even believe the ancestors of the Aymara-speaking people present in Bolivia in modern times had built the site, so he would have believed ethnographic studies of them to be useless with regard to resolving questions about Pumapunku). Posnansky believed that the alignment was intended by the Tiwanakuans solely on the basis of the fact that the pillars and the sun align at 12,000 BP - but similar alignments could be found between any objects if you give yourself thousands of years in which to find them, and do not constitute evidence enough to justify rewriting the entire crossword (which is what such a claim would amount to). If ethnographic evidence had somehow pointed in the 12,000 BP direction, and if radiocarbon dating had corroborated the Posnansky date, then perhaps it would be worth looking further into.
Science isn't dogmatic, and opposition to wild theories that contradict all other evidence is not the same as being close-minded. If Tiwanaku had proven to be 12,000 years old, and if it had been created by aliens or Atlanteans, that would be an amazing and incredible thing - something worth knowing and telling people about. But it turns out that the site (still amazing, and still a technological marvel for its time) is simply not that old, and was built instead by native workers with the genius of thousands of years of cultural mixing and development behind them.
* Lemuria was once considered scientifically respectable, unlike Atlantis and Mu; the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, briefly endorsed it before concluding that it wasn't a parsimonious explanation for the presence of lemurs in southeast Asia and east Africa (hence the name).
** You can read more about Tiwanaku/Inka continuities in Gary Urton's cheap, reliable book, Inca Myths. The Tiwanaku people appear to have spoken Aymara, a language from a completely different family to Quechua, the language of the Inka.
*** Urton's book on Inka khipu is what led me to read his studies of Cuzco's celestial relationships. I recommend his khipu book, Signs of the Inka Khipu. His ethnoastronomical articles are either on JSTOR, behind a paywall, or in pricey article collections.
**** Susan Haack coined the term foundherentism for this view of the justification of belief, and I believe she also came up with the crossword analogy. I have mentioned her before, and I really recommend her book, Evidence and Inquiry, in which foundherentism is spelled out (although scientists had unwittingly been using it for years). Falsification is not the only, or the best, epistemological position out there, and Haack's work is more up-to-date and useful than Popper's.
Epilogue: there is another claim made about Pumapunku, and that is that the rock at the site is diorite, an incredibly hard stone that the Tiwanaku people did not have the tools to work. In fact, most of the stone is sandstone, although some of it is harder rock, and actually the Tiwanaku civilization had access to metal tools - mostly copper, some bronze. This is a simple empirical claim, and it is evidently incorrect. It is another example of ancient alien enthusiasts lying about the facts to prop up their crazy theorising.