Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ancient Aliens: Part I

I've been a follower - but not a fan - of the hypothesis that aliens gave the secrets of civilization to humans (otherwise known as "ancient alien theory") for some time.  It's deeply silly.  Like many pseudoscientific theories about the incredibly complex spread of writing, agriculture, and urbanisation, it engages with none of the real evidence, except in a superficial and deliberately exoticising way.  Anything prima facie mysterious is used as evidence that aliens landed and created/inspired whatever it is under discussion, relying on the ignorance of the audience for the claim to work.  This is how pseudoscience works, of course, but it's especially blatant in the ancient alien world.  We're not really dealing with complex scientific principles, after all.

My first introduction to it came from my dad, who (jokingly) told me about Erich von Daeniken's book Chariots of the Gods, having read it when it came out in the sixties.  I have never read it, but I sometimes look in bookshops for it (I'll never look for it on Amazon, in case it starts polluting my suggested reading list with Zechariah Sitchin and David Icke).  It's not a very popular book today, fortunately, but it was influential.  Having watched quite a lot of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel (I actually watched it online), it seems as if all ancient alien believers hold von Daeniken in high regard.  I think he had a theme park built in Switzerland at one point, too.

Ancient Aliens could be infuriating if you took it seriously.  I watch it and giggle.  It's an awful programme, an example of the typical American style that destroys the content of even the most well-meaning and otherwise interesting documentaries: cuts to adverts every five minutes, a recap at every one of those junctures in case you suffered GEICO-gecko-related brain damage in the interval, a hilariously dramatic narration by a disembodied poor man's Don LaFontaine, the implication that everything mentioned is awe-inspiring, a skin-deep and unsceptical treatment of these awe-inspiring things...  Oh, and it goes on for four seasons.  It would have been a bad documentary series even if it had been an updated version of Bronowski's Ascent of Man, but the fact that it's about the absurdity that is ancient alien theory takes it into so-bad-it's-great territory.  It's the documentary version of Birdemic.

My favourite Daenicken-supporting documentary was one from the seventies presented by William Shatner, called Mysteries of the Gods (von Daeniken has used "...of the Gods" as his signature for decades).  It's in a very different style to the History Channel effort, and it used Shatner's star power to get interviews with some interesting people.  Some are very strange indeed - including the daughter of famed English charlatan Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, the man responsible for the crystal skull nonsense - while others worked at NASA or on the SETI project.  It's still awful content, but presented in a much more appealing manner.  It's also very kitschy.

Ancient Aliens, on the other hand, interviewed only crazy kooks, used a deep, faceless voice to imbue authority into the bullshitty script, and showed footage of enigmatic locations entirely out of context to make them appear much more ancient and mysterious than they actually are.  The series repeated itself quite a bit in the early days, and then it seems as if the producers realised they could throw together any old pseudoscientific crap and re-package it as alien pseudoscientific crap - and just when you thought they'd sucked the ancient alien hypothesis dry, a third season materialised.  They used anything and everything as "evidence".  That suicide forest on the slopes of Mount Fuji?  Aliens.  As sceptical voices, the series used a single anthropology graduate student and a nun.  And there was a Bible-believing biblical archaeologist too.  It wasn't the best line-up, is what I'm saying.

I'm slowly going to tackle bits and pieces of ancient alien theory.  I'll be looking at problems in chronology (of which there are many), the misuse of archaeo-astronomical evidence, and a few of the specific historical questions, too.  Some have become tropes of the ancient aliens movement largely because of the History Channel show, and some go back as far as von Daeniken, or further.  Some of the specific issues I want to discuss include the Tiwanaku civilization of pre-Inka Bolivia; the rise and fall (and rise again) of Mayan-speaking civilization, including its amazing calendar; the "Annunaki" from Mesopotamia; and the idea of Atlantis (or Atlantis-like supercontinents and hyperdiffusionism).  Hyperdiffusionist claims about pyramids are a pet peeve of mine, and Ancient Aliens went the whole hog in linking any and all pyramidal structures around the world into a series of hyperdiffusionist claims, regardless of differences in architecture and chronology.

Some issues have been addressed in the past: Lovecraft scholars have shown convincing origins for the general principle behind von Daeniken's pseudoscience in H. P. Lovecraft's short stories, especially At the Mountains of Madness, and the fundamentally racist assumption behind ancient alien theory has been the subject of many sceptical post-mortems.  Pyramid hyperdiffusionism has been taken down many times, most often relying on the argument that pyramids are simply an efficient way of achieving tall buildings without advanced architectural technologies, so I'll include that discussion primarily under the topic of ancient alien chronology.  Many of the issues I'll discuss overlap with other pseudoscience topics (not necessarily Ancient Aliens-related), including the 2012 movement.  Those are the things I intend to tackle in any case.  So watch this space, and I'll be updating with more about ancient aliens and much else besides.

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