History of the meme along with its place in the historian’s professional landscape
Aliens have become somewhat infamous in the world of history writing. Every historian from the armchair variety through to the academic professor has more than likely come across that one particular meme. The one featuring Giorgio A. Tsoukalos standing there with his style of hair in its usual kind of crazy way an holding his hands out stating the words “aliens.” And honestly, it doesn’t matter what style or period of history one is exploring. The meme seems to have made its way into all of them. The infamous image itself comes from the 2010 Ancient Aliens TV series that Tsoukalos, himself an Alien expert, was the host for. Spinning out of the concepts raised in the Ancient Aliens series, one of the key ideas that made this program notable is the wide variety of historical phenomena that it attributes to aliens. That is to say, iconic historical products of civilizations and peoples such as the Nazca Lines or Baalbek become attributed to extraterrestrials instead of the cultures that produced them. This concept is termed conversely “ancient astronauts” and “paleocontact” and can be defined through the attributing of great and sophisticated works of the past to extraterrestrials.
Ancient Astronauts and Colonial Psychology
The concept of ancient astronauts is not dissimilar from the effects of colonial propaganda. Briefly, colonial empires would create and impose an image of inferiority onto the peoples it colonized, and likewise, an image of ascendancy for the colonizing peoples. From this standpoint, the colonial entity would project outward, through its arts and literature, the idea that its cultural developments were inherently superior to those they colonized. Concerning notions of cultural works, the concept of superiority shown through technology still exists and is tied to the lingering colonial psychology. Indeed, within the 19th, 20th and continuing into the 21st century, western society underwent a massive degree of technological revolution in a relatively short span of time. That, further, this time period has brought with it unprecedented forms of technology and social issues. While the same could be said to be true of any technological revolution, from the perspective of those within it the past must be, by definition, less capable. For instance, the 20th century has seen technology develop from the assembly line to splitting the Atom, being able to propel humans into space to having wireless communication networks spanning the globe. While the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries certainly had its technological advances (the functional button of the 13th century, for example), there is the mentality that the current developments are more progressive largely because they are more pertinent to us. Outside the sense of temporal pertinence, the past must be lacking the sophistication of technology the contemporary enjoys.
I often argue that western society has lost their colonial empires (to greater or lesser degrees), but has maintained the colonial psychology of perceived and projected inferiority. The current perception of technology as equating with superiority falls into that colonial mentality and for 21st century capitalism, is part of the colony’s legacy. Yet, there are products of other cultures that present a compliment to or empathize with that sense of pertinence. Items such as the Saqqara Bird, Machu Picchu, the Moai and others are routinely attributed to extra-terrestrials. As an examples of objects that can be situated into contemporary western perceptions about technology, the ancient astronaut notion offers an easy method of situating the sophistication of past and non-western societies. Thus, lacking the precise same means, the products of another time or culture become attributed to aliens as a source of equivalency of method and psychology. The ancient astronaut, the alien, becomes the appropriate stand in: A technologically advanced helper from somewhere far away, a benevolent invader, a colonist.
Development of Paleocontact Notions
Before the concept of ancient astronauts became a force in history, it was (and still is) alive and well in the domain of science fiction writers. The idea of paleocontact, of extraterrestrials intervening in past civilizations, is the foundation on which the Stargate franchise was built, for example, with multiple species of extraterrestrial intervening in Earth’s history. But long before the Stargate film and its television follow-on, authors such as H.P. Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931), J.H. Rosny (The Shapes, 1897) andGarrett P. Serviss (Edison’s Conquest of Mars, 1898) established the idea of ancient astronauts. While these authors, respectively, feature aliens as undertaking feats ranging in ability from building mighty pyramids to seeding Earth with life itself, the concept is not distinct from the current thinking discussed above.
Later, individuals emerge such as Harold T. Wilkins and with them there begins to arise a concept of historical paleocontact. This post is not going to delve too much into Wilkins’ contribution specifically, or that of other contributors, because each of their specific additions to the idea of ancient astronauts is rooted in their own particular interests. Our purpose, today at least, is to provide an overview. And as Tsoukalos’ is now in regard to academic historians, Wilkins and others are, in their own times, similarly controversial. In this sense, it is key to note the concept of ancient astronauts is typically considered to be pseudohistory. By the 1960s the concept of alien intervention in ancient civilizations was carried forward in works by Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky and Carl Sagan. However, the concept of extra-terrestrial intervention in human history takes more of its contemporary shape and root with Erich von Däniken’s book – Chariot of the Gods. Published in 1968, Chariot of the Gods puts forward a sincere argument for paleocontact as a key factor in the formation of various civilizations. In doing so, Chariot of the Gods attempts to present a sense of plausible explanation that has since taken root in the historical imagination. Moving into the 1970s, authors such a Zecharia Sitchin along with the foundation of UFO religions help move the concept of ancient astronauts forward. Part of the key argument put forward by proponents of ancient astronauts was that the civilizations that produced certain artifacts that these artifacts are somehow more advanced or more sophisticated than their society’s means to produce them. That is to say, places like Stonehenge or the great pyramid of Giza would have required what we would consider by 1960s standards more contemporary manufacturing and engineering principles than those that were provided or that were capable of the societies that manufactured them at the time. And further, that there must have been some sort of other society that intervened to complete these works.
Within such explorations of ancient astronauts comes the notion that alien contact is preserved in the history, literature, and traditions of cultures around the world. And that by exploring stories of otherworldly contact, some element of the alien life in the galaxy can be understood. That said, an aspect of the discussion on paleocontact in the mid-20th century occurs in the setting of the idea of then-contemporary discussions of science, futurism and the potential for contact with extra-terrestrial life. Such discussions place the notion of paleocontact in a reactionary sense to European notions of colonial superiority, themselves being challenged at the time. In this milieu comes the notion that firstly, that humans should not expect conformity to European notions to come with extra-terrestrial contact. Secondly, that western society creates advanced aliens because it presented itself, historically, as a technologically developed invader (i.e. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells). Thirdly, that stories of benign extra-terrestrial contact are generally placed onto colonised peoples while those same narratives typically present the western, colonising, world as suffering invasion by technologically developed extra-terrestrials.
I’m not saying I’m a historian, but I’m a historian…
As a cultural historian, one of the really interesting things about the ancient astronauts idea is how it has become a vehicle to talk about the past. As an idea that has developed out of European colonial insecurities in the 1960s, paleocontact has been worked backwards and forwards through the writing of popular history to create an alternative paradigm of explanation. When I say alternate paradigm of explanation I’m not and in no way purporting that the idea of ancient astronauts is within a consensus opinion of history or that the notion puts forward valid historical source material. But rather, despite the fact of its non-historical nature it has nonetheless become a means for many people of exploring, explaining and discussing the past. Typing the phrase “ancient astronauts” into Google, for example, brings up all sorts of amazing, wild and fantastic historical interpretations that are put forward as authored histories in the same manner as a university professor might put forward their own history of a subject. There are, for example, stories of Hitler having alien advisors, extraterrestrial visitations into the 19th century United States, contemporary conspiracies such as the Roswell crash of 1947, and other wild explorations.
One of the occurrences with the current state of the western world is that, as a society, it has been in the process of dispelling its mythology. That is to say, in a traditional kind of sense such as we might discuss with religion. There is an absence of a storied history, a romantic past in which we can situate ourselves emotively rather than literally. In place of that storied history and traditional mythology, there are other strange narratives emerging to occupy their space. Herein, ancient astronauts and the strange histories they present become an instructional instrument on how western society has functioned, revealing its insecurities surrounding technology and former colonialization. There is a now a rationalized situation of time, date and geographic place here in the west, a concern with truth. The concept of the storied history has been lost, an account that isn’t exactly a considered an accurate exploration of what occurred, but serves as an instructional narrative on a romantic level in terms of how the society works and functions. In a outlandish manner, the strange-historical, still colonial, ancient astronaut histories serve the that function in western society. Yet, the paleocontact narrative is highly problematic as the placement of extraterrestrial intervention onto societies dismantled through the western colonial process continues a great denial of humanity, intellect and civilization attributed to those peoples. Where the storied history explored how the world is emotively, the ancient astronaut continues to impose how it was. Thus where European empires are continually attributed the status of making the contemporary world and able to fight the extraterrestrial invader, the colonized culture is forced to defend their very humanity.