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Pseudoarchaeology and the Racism Behind Ancient Aliens

Where, exactly, the idea of ancient aliens building the pyramids began — and why some academics think racism lies at the heart of many extraterrestrial theories.

A female Egyptian head with an elongated skull is likely a depiction of the child of Amenophis IV/Akhenaten, (1351-1334 BCE) and is a forgery executed in the 18th Dynasty, Amarna Period style, limestone and red paint, Walters Art Museum (image via the Walters Art Museum creative commons).

At the ancient site of Hatnub, a quarry in the eastern Egyptian desert not far from Faiyum, archaeologists have recently discovered a sled ramp system used to transport alabaster blocks. Post holes and a ramp with stairs on either side indicate that the contraption allowed Egyptian builders to move heavy blocks up and down steep slopes. Inscriptions have now helped archaeologists from the Institut français d’archéologie orientale and the University of Liverpool to date this groundbreaking technology to at least the reign of Khufu, who ruled from 2589–2566 BCE. Khufu is known as the pharaoh who likely commissioned the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Discovery and reconstruction of the ramp allows us to better understand ancient construction techniques. It also chips away at the long-held but fringe theory that the blocks were so heavy and the distances they would have to travel so lengthy that aliens must have built the pyramids.

Where did the theory of aliens building the pyramids actually come from? 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.

The Pyramids of Giza (Egypt) are often the focus of extraterrestrial theories (image via Wikimedia by Ricardo Liberato).

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. Serviss posited that “giants of Mars” had moved large blocks and built the Great Pyramid. He even noted that the Sphinx had Martian features. Edison’s Conquest was part of a number of science fiction works published as books or serialized in newspapers in the late 19th century which imagined alien invasions fought off by great inventors of the time. Thomas Edison was a favored hero in these science fiction fantasies much later collectively called Edisonades.

Cover of Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) Illustration by G. Y. Kauffman (image via Wikimedia)

The popularization of the theory of alien architects as having a basis in science rather than consisting of only fictional musing can be attributed to Swiss author Erich von Däniken’s 1968 publication of the book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Originally published in German and subsequently translated into English, it was one of the first popularly sold books to suggest that extraterrestrial life forms, not humans, built structures associated with our ancient civilizations. In 1966, Carl Sagan and Iosif S. Shklovskii had already speculated that contact with extraterrestrials might have occurred in their book Intelligent Life in the Universe, but von Däniken took this theory to new levels.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that book’s publication with over 65 million books sold to date. While its ideas might be laughable to most, the creation of doubt is a pernicious and rhetorical agent. The questioning of human building projects in Chariots of the Gods? remains a bedrock for many within the field of pseudo-archaeology. Far from innocuous, these alien theories undermine the agency, archaeology, and intellect of non-European cultures in Africa and South America, as well as the Native peoples in North America by erasing their achievements.

Cover of the translated edition of Chariots of the Gods (image by Christo Drummkopf via Flickr), first released in the United States in 1970

A potent combination of tabloids and television helped to make von Däniken’s book a bestseller in the United States. Historian of pseudoscience John Colavito has remarked that while the book became a bestseller in Europe, it was the National Enquirer’s underscoring of von Däniken’s work through a serial series published in the tabloid that introduced it to readers in the US in 1970. Three years later, NBC aired an adaption of the book retitled In Search of Ancient Astronauts (featuring a cast of all white men) which translated and visualized pseudo-theories of archaeology and science for broad popular consumption.

It is notable that many (though not all) extraterrestrial theories focus on archaeological structures at sites within Egypt, Africa, South America, and North America — a fact that has led some academics to see beliefs in ancient alien engineers as a stalking horse for racism. In a piece for the online journal The Conversation rather frankly titled “Racism is Behind Outlandish Theories about Africa’s Ancient Architecture,” Julien Benoit, a postdoctoral researcher in vertebrate paleontology at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), addressed the continued harm of these theories:

Firstly, these people try to prove their theories by travelling the world and desecrating ancient artefacts. Secondly, they perpetuate and give air to the racist notion that only Europeans – white people – ever were and ever will be capable of such architectural feats.

Belief can indeed lead to action. In 2014, German pseudoscientists and “hobbyists” defaced a cartouche of Khufu inside the Great Pyramid in their misguided search to prove their alien theories. The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Zimbabwe site are commonly cited by pseudo-archaeologists as structures built by extraterrestrial beings, along with the Moai heads on the tiny Easter Island off the coast of Chile.

Martians build the Sphinx as a portrait of their own leader in an illustration from Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars (Image via Hathitrust)

Stonehenge, in the English countryside of Wiltshire, is one of the few structures built by European ancestors placed in this category structures allegedly built by aliens, though in the original printing of Chariots of the Gods? von Däniken does not discuss the site any more than to say its massive stone blocks were from Wales and Marlborough. The disproportion of speculation surrounding non-European versus European structures is noticeable. As medieval historian Chris Reidel noted,

That’s what the ancient aliens theory does: it discredits the origins of civilizations, and almost entirely of non-white civilizations. People may suggest Stonehenge was built by aliens — but do the[y] suggest the Roman Forum or Parthenon were? No.

We must question what is at stake in these cases. While the British are not in any danger of having their overall intellect or capability as a culture questioned, many non-European cultures are historically more vulnerable to such questioning.

If we look to von Däniken’s work, there can be little doubt that his racial beliefs influenced his extraterrestrial theories. After a short stint in jail for fraud and either writing or appropriating the material for a number of other books that developed his ancient astronauts theory, von Däniken published Signs of the Gods? in 1979. It is here that many of his racial views are most boldly stated. British archaeology officer Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews points out on his Bad Archaeology blog just a few of the many racist questions and statements posed by the author: “Was the black race a failure and did the extraterrestrials change the genetic code by gene surgery and then programme a white or a yellow race?” He also printed beliefs about the innate talents of certain races: “Nearly all negroes are musical; they have rhythm in their blood.” Von Däniken also consistently uses the term “negroid race” in comparison with “Caucasians.”

What does it mean to deny a non-Western civilization their accomplishments? As Everisto Benyera, a lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa, has noted, these “Western denialists” prefer to revoke agency and skill from ancient Egyptians or the Shona people of the Bantu civilization, rather than recognize their intellectual ownership of these structures. In a chapter addressing “Colonialism, the Theft of History and the Quest for Justice for Africa,” Dr. Benyera remarked:

Western denialists would rather attribute the Great Zimbabwe to aliens, who do not exist, than attribute them to the Shona people and the Africans who exist and who built them. The denial of the Shona people of their intellectual ownership, among others of the Great Zimbabwe, Khami ruins, is theft of history.

And while many may consider theories of ancient aliens to be an outlandish and ultimately harmless belief or meme, Benyera points out that there is an extant spectrum of western denialism whose occupants seek to rescind and reallocate great accomplishments from African civilizations in particular.

The Great Zimbabwe National Monument is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates to about 1100-1450 CE. Legends say that it was the capital of the Queen of Sheba. It is a stunning testament to the Bantu civilization of the Shona (image by Simonchihanga via Wikimedia).

To Benyera, one example of western denialism lies in the writings of the historian Niall Ferguson. Benyera notes that Ferguson underscores the colonial gifts of parliamentary democracy and the English language to the countries that they colonized in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Like von Däniken, Ferguson’s views have been disseminated by television shows. A six-part series also called Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World aired on Channel 4, ostensibly to hype the book’s release. Arguing that aliens brought magnificent structures to many African civilizations erases accomplishments, but so does arguing that colonizers brought gifts (rather than imposed obligations) upon the nations they colonized.

Colonization coded as the gift of civilization remains an entrenched defense of colonialism.

In recent years, academics have increasingly called foul on alien theories as cultural erasures outside of Africa as well. A year ago, Christopher Heaney, a professor of Latin American history at Pennsylvania State University, wrote an article addressing the racism behind notions that Pre-Columbian bodies were evidence for extraterrestrial life. Others have sought to dispel the racist theories surrounding Native mound-building cultures.

In comments to Hyperallergic, Morag Kersel, an archaeologist at DePaul University, noted the connection between ancient aliens and the idea that an ancient and superior race had originally built mounds like those at Cahokia in southern Illinois. The myth supported racist policies and has done lasting damage.

It’s an extension of the 19th-century myth of the mound builder. No way could the North American mounds and artifacts have been made by people of the First Nations, it had to be an “alien” (non-local) race. Rather than set up a white supremacy model, which may have not been as popular, von Däniken takes the “alien” further to “aliens” from outer space.

Kersel noted that the use of pseudoscience revoking the accomplishments of Native American cultures is a sad part of American history. Journalist Alexander Zaitchik pointed out in an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center that there was widespread popularity and belief in the “Lost Race of the Mound Builders” in 19th century America. It was used by Andrew Jackson and others to undermine the intellect and abilities of Native peoples as we removed them from their native lands.

The “astronaut” geoglyph in the Nazca Desert of Peru has been attributed to extraterrestrials by Erich von Däniken’s and others (image via Wikimedia).

Today, many of von Däniken’s theories can still be found in television shows like Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. Since 2009, the show has featured a mix of mostly white male conspiracy theorists posing harmful questions about the legitimacy of human involvement in archaeological structures. As of recently, they have at least begun to incorporate actual Egyptians such as Ramy Romany. Despite his history of racist views, Von Däniken appears to still be a paid producer on the show Ancient Aliens.

Most Egyptologists see shows like Ancient Aliens as a program that capitalizes on the bizarre rather than endeavoring to be out-and-out racist. In comments to Hyperallergic, Salima Ikram, distinguished university professor and Egyptology unit head at the American University in Cairo, noted that even Egyptians viewing the History Channel find the program more fantastical than factual: “I think that often it is more that people want the extraordinary and the bizarre, and do not want anything too real, as they crave the fantastic — look at the types of films being made and their popularity.” For most watching these programs, they are indeed about escapism through conspiracy theories — and internet memes.

For others, the attraction to books and television touting ancient alien conspiracies may be a bit more racially motivated. In comments to Hyperallergic, Robert Cargill, an assistant professor of Religious Studies and Classics at the University of Iowa who also served as an academic counterbalance on a number of episodes of Ancient Aliens, discussed the role of the program in supporting racist ideas of ancient capability:

There is an underlying ethnic bias against people of color that many white people don’t even recognize when the magnificent achievements of the ancient world are attributed to aliens instead of to their rightful creators — the ancestors of modern Egyptians, Iraqis, Guatemalans, Peruvians, etc. This is not to say that belief in ancient alien theory makes one racist. However, attributing the achievements of the forerunners of darker-skinned peoples to aliens because you believe they couldn’t have possibly done it themselves might be perceived as racists to the people of color who descend from these ancient innovators.

As Cargill and many other right-minded academics now make clear, the necessity for scientists, archaeologists, and academics in general to talk to the public about the ethnic biases of pseudoscience is becoming ever more apparent. In 2015, bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove already discussed the need for archaeologists to dispel pseudoscientific myths through public outreach. Public-facing scholarship in the humanities and STEM fields can serve as strong rebuttals to pseudoscientific narratives broadcast on television and online.

In July, the 50th anniversary edition of Chariots of the Gods? was published along with a new foreword and afterward by the author. Yet it is notable that the punctuation that originally posed the book’s title as a question has now been removed. The title stands more as a statement than a question, but it is up to archaeologists, historians, and the public to continue to interrogate the insidious arguments that it contains.

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