Alien astronauts building ancient megastructures, the lost continent of Atlantis, the Kensington Runestone and the Roswell UFO – all these are examples of pseudoarcheology. The History Channel and cable tv generally, under the pretext of promoting academic debate, has given credence to one or more of these claims, posing as a contrarian outsider challenging the ‘orthodox’ archeological establishment.
Playing the Galileo gambit – the courageous genius maverick waging a lonely fight against the dominant forces of orthodoxy – is a cynical ploy, one that has enabled misleading and dangerous pseudoscientific nonsense to gain credibility. It is impossible to refute each and every pseudoarcheological claim, however, we can make important observations here that will enable us to be skeptical next time outlandish claims about the past are made.
The Atlantis myth
The story of Atlantis, and the perpetual search for that alleged continent, is the mother lode of pseudoarcheological theories. Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, first elaborated an allegorical tale in his Socratic dialogues – Timaeus and Critias – about a lost paradise. Criticising the hubris, corruption and greed of his time, Plato was making a commentary regarding the sociopolitical issues of his time.
A lush paradise inhabited by people who were half-god and half-human, Plato employed this allegorical device about Atlantis as a cautionary tale regarding the cataclysmic downfall of hubristic civilisations – and the superiority of his theory of the ideal state. Atlantis was abundant in minerals, a utopian state that became morally bankrupt. It sank, 9000 years before Plato was writing this story in 360 BC, and remained a cautionary tale.
The idea of an ultimate catastrophe destroying a once-prosperous civilisation – the Armageddon in Christian theology – is a powerful literary device used by political writers, poets, and commentators throughout the ages. However, the question that lingered bedevilled writers since Plato’s time – was he referring to an actual place?
This question remained in the background for centuries, until the discovery of the Americas. Here was a previously continent, peopled by indigenous civilisations, with no connection to any of the monotheistic religions – and they developed independently for centuries. The existence of entire nations, developing their own science, ethics and technology shattered the exclusivity of the biblically-based worldview – there was no mention of indigenous Americans in the Bible.
Could Atlantis be another lost continent, inhabited by its own resident peoples, with its own science and technology? Interest in Atlantis pseudohistory erupted with the publication of books such as Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, by Ignatius Donnelly, a populist American politician. Numerous publications followed, with an intermingling of speculation about a ‘race’ of Atlanteans, and their allegedly superior intelligence responsible for seeding the achievements of various non-white civilisations.
Ancient alien astronauts and megastructures
The notion that superior extraterrestrial intelligence – visiting aliens – built the majority of the world’s ancient megastructures has a long lineage. Erich von Danikin got the ball rolling in 1968 with his book Chariots of the Gods? Speculating that alien astronauts are responsible for constructing ancient monuments, such as the Egyptian Pyramids, alien astronaut responsibility for megastructures has made its way around the world.
Indeed, nonwhite civilisations have had to defend themselves from claims that extraterrestrial visitors seeded their nations and built their structures. Numerous popular culture movies – such as Stargate – have popularised notions of ancient Egypt, and the pyramids, being enmeshed with alien races, demons and curses. The Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs in Peru, have also been assigned to alien creativity.
What is the harm of these kinds of pseudoarcheological beliefs? So what if a person thinks aliens built the pyramids, or indigenous American structures?
The problem with this kind of thinking is the inherent racism in such an outlook, dismissing the possibility that indigenous civilisations could develop the mathematics, science and technology to construct sophisticated megastructures. Julien Benoit, writing in The Conversation magazine, states that misdirecting responsibility for great archeological structures in nonwhite civilisations to alien intelligence contains a component of dismissive racism.
African nations have extensive archeological records, and impressive monuments in their own right. While Egypt has the well-known pyramids, Africa also has the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, not to mention archeological sites in South Africa and Mali. The proponents of alien architects not only misunderstand the depth of knowledge and scientific skills in nonwhite civilisations, they go to great lengths vandalising such monuments in order to prove their outlandish theories.
The Egyptian pyramids have attracted the speculations of alien enthusiasts, occultists and Atlantis advocates. Pyramidology is a particularly fertile branch of pseudoarcheological obsession. Sir Isaac Newton, the noted English scientist, spent hours not only on physics, but also examining the geometry of the pyramids, looking for signs of the Christian God’s presence in its design. The pyramids as a product of some ‘lost superior wisdom’ has preoccupied Atlantis enthusiasts and alien advocates for decades.
The purpose here is not to denounce each and every instance of ancient alien speculation. It is to highlight that archeologists deal with unsolved mysteries every day; they are passionate about their work and driven by a profound sense of curiosity about the past. They explore numerous evidentiary avenues to bring the past back to life – alien astronauts and Atlantis theorising are dead-ends.