Far back in the mists of ancient time, yea, e’en before the Great Nova of Gath, I wanted to start a piece of writing with that phrase, which I think is actually a quote from somewhere, so I can’t. But anyway, a long time ago, according to Erich von Däniken, ancient aliens visited this planet, interbred with the hominids here and gave rise to intelligent humans. Their traces are still evident in the markèd differences between us and the other great apes, in ancient myths and legends, and in the art, objects and buildings of ancient civilisations. The word “ancient” has to be used a lot here, with reverence and an air of mystique. None of this happened of course, but the idea has a surprising history.
One of the first people to make this suggestion was none other than Carl Sagan, who later came across very much as a sceptic, although not precisely in the same mould as James Randi or John Sladek because of his claim that the Galaxy is “teeming with life”. In his 1966 book ‘Intelligent Life In The Universe’, cowritten with Iosif Shklovsky, Sagan claimed that scientists should take the possibility that aliens had visited this planet in prehistoric times seriously, although it should be treated as a hypothesis subject to testing as part of the usual scientific process. Their reasoning was that since the Universe was such a big place with so many star systems apparently suitable for life, the chances of intelligent species leaving their worlds and exploring distant stars were very good indeed, particularly over the billions of years this planet has been in existence. He later regretted saying this because he felt responsible for the whole ancient astronaut debacle that ensued, particularly due to Zechariah Sitchin and Erich von Däniken among other less well-known writers, and of course this ultimately led to the interminable History Channel series ‘Ancient Aliens’. Sagan actually used to appear on documentaries in the ’70s trying to undo the damage. He actually wasn’t the first. In 1940, the editor of ‘Astounding’ John W Campbell had Isaac Asimov insert Greek deities as aliens in Asimov’s story ‘Homo sol’, with racist overtones. Asimov, being Jewish, was unsurprisingly not keen on this at all and proceeded to make sure he avoided non-human intelligent life forms in most of his writings after that, thereby inventing the ‘Humans Only Galaxy’ which still shows its influence today, for instance in Rob Grant’s and Doug Naylor’s ‘Red Dwarf’ series, where there are no genuine species not originating ultimately on Earth.
Erich von Däniken is obviously the worst offender here. Some of his work is based on forgeries and outright falsehoods. For instance, he mentions and illustrates stones carved with heart transplant operations which were in fact contemporary engravings which he commissioned personally. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this because even his reputation is old hat nowadays, but just briefly he was found guilty of repeated fraud, embezzlement and forgery in 1968 on unrelated matters connected to loans and went to prison for three years. Luckily for him, ‘Memories Of The Future’, more usually known by its English title ‘Chariots Of The Gods’, had been published by then and he was able to pay off his debts with the royalties. He wrote the second book, ‘Gods From Outer Space’, in prison.
Before I go on, I want to debunk this.
First of all, the really low-hanging fruit is the issue of aliens interbreeding with humans. The definition of a species is a population able to interbreed and produce viable offspring, although this often doesn’t work very well because there are microspecies, asexual organisms and fossils we have no idea about. In one of his attempts to salvage the situation, Carl Sagan once said it would be easier to mate a human with a petunia than with an alien, because petunias are more closely related to us. The only scenario in which this would not be so, given unaltered biology, would be if the aliens were actually completely human. More on that in a bit. However, this is often evoked as an explanation for perceived human exceptionalism, but fails for two reasons even if it worked. Firstly, it attempts to explain something by simply deferring it. Secondly, it makes humans seem more special than we really are. We’re apes, simple as that. Our intelligence differs to some extent from the others but if assessed, inappropriately of course, by human standards all the other species of great ape would have an IQ above thirty, probably higher, and they are also ahead of humans in cognitive development until eighteen months. They also have cognitive abilities we lack, as I mentioned previously.
As far as anyone has been able to discover, all living things on this planet descend from a common ancestor four billion years ago, because our genomes are all fairly similar, and with a few exceptions among the viruses, all use the same DNA or RNA bases. It is possible that there’s a “shadow biosphere”: undetected life forms whose chemistry is somewhat different and therefore undetected. The phenomenon of desert varnish is sometimes explained by this – a coating on rocks in deserts whose mode of formation is unknown. Most scientists involved would say it’s very unlikely that we wouldn’t have detected them by now. Anyway, it would be enormously difficult for visiting aliens not to leave behind a few microörganisms, but there are no traces of those at all, so it’s also unlikely that this planet has ever been visited at all. That said, the Silurian Hypothesis suggests that there may have been a technological civilisation before us on this planet, the best candidate being some time in the Eocene (see the post for details), although that could in theory have been native. Or hypothetically, rather.
The humanoid nature of the aliens might be worth looking into. The general consensus among xenobiologists (the only science without a subject, as it’s been called) is that there won’t be any human-looking aliens. Using a very slapdash approach, if each step in evolution had only two alternatives and every star in the Galaxy had intelligent life on one planet circling it, it would take only thirty-nine steps for every such species to be different. On the other hand, evolution really comprises order imposed on randomness by the constraints of biology and the influence of the environment, and this frequently leads to similar organisms. For instance, a flower-like body plan crops up over and over again in the animal, protist and plant kingdoms, even without similar pressures. As for humans, well, maybe we’re just what intelligent tool-using life forms end up looking like, but I personally doubt it. There are reasons for supposing the opposite though.
The illustration at the start of this post is notoriously interpreted by many as an astronaut at the controls of a spaceship. It’s from Palenque (I’m not sure about the political significance of this spelling incidentally – at school we were taught the spelling “Palenki” and that may be less culturally imperialistic but I’m not sure how Yucatec Maya uses Latin script). This is in fact a bas relief of Pacal (and again I don’t know how to reproduce Mayan glyphs inline), a ruler of the area in question. The Von Dänikenische interpretation of that carving is that the snakes’ heads at the bottom (right) are the bottom of a space capsule, there are flames coming out of them, the thing to Pacal’s left/above Pacal is a control panel and so on. Here’s a link to an illustration of that interpretation in detail.
Glossing over what was happening on the Other Side at the time, which is in fact VASTLY significant to many people, on 26th November 1977, as well as there being a really good episode of ‘Doctor Who’ on BBC1, BBC2 broadcast a Horizon special called ‘The Case Of The Ancient Astronauts’. There must’ve been something in the water on that day, because a nice throwaway tidy-up line at the end of the documentary ended up hugely influencing my thoughts on the matter for years afterwards:
The achievements of the past tell us nothing about spacemen (sic), but a great deal about the intelligence of our ancestors. And if we are ever to find other intelligent life among the stars, it’ll be because we continue to apply that inventiveness and that questioning spirit which the ancient astronaut theory seeks so strongly to deny.
And it’s true of course. The idea of ancient astronauts guiding every great achievement of the human race makes us look as if we’re unable to take the initiative, and also carries with it the suggestion that primitive people were primitive more than they were people. I may be reading too much into this but there seems to be an overtone of colonialism there, in that if a non-Western civilisation comes up with something technologically sophisticated it is automatically explained via alien intervention. The TV series ‘Ancient Aliens’ may be a little better in this regard for all I know, but that’s only because it’s had to keep dredging the bottom of the well for more source material to shoehorn alien intervention into. I don’t know how seriously viewers have taken that programme but if they have, it hasn’t done their critical thinking skills any good. However, I do have a slightly more sympathetic take on this because I think for some people belief in ancient astronaut intervention is a form of religious expression, which is seen elsewhere in for example the Raelians, the Aetherius Society, Scientology and tragically also the Heaven’s Gate cult. Since I am religious, possibly even pathologically so, I can’t help thinking that there’s a widespread instinctive human need for religion and this is an example of a new set of religious beliefs with pseudoscientific trappings. Like some other religious beliefs, it portrays humans as helpless, and this strong statement made at the end of this documentary made quite an impression on me.
Remember first of all that I was only ten at the time. I took on board the idea of human ingenuity and resourcefulness, but didn’t reject the ancient artefacts. As far as I was concerned, there was still a mystery to be resolved vis à vis the likes of the Baghdad Battery, the stainless steel pillar in India, the nuclear war in the ancient Indus Valley and so on. I even attempted to write my own version of ‘Chariots Of The Gods?’ likening snakes to trains and so forth, which was more for fun than anything I took seriously. It was kind of a parody, which ‘The Burkiss Way’ was doing better at the time with their Eric von Kontrick character, who incidentally was a creation of Douglas Adams – his fingerprints are all over the sketch.
These are the odd conclusions I drew at the time, which turned out to be remarkably durable. It’s a good example of my tendency to believe it’s important to be delusional in order to support one’s mental health:
I started with the discovery of fire by Homo erectus. This species was the first whose cranial capacity overlaps that of today’s humans. Two important sets of remains are the Peking and Java Men, the second of which is more like Homo sapiens than the latter. I have to say that although they’re portrayed as another species, since they’re not around today I don’t think there’s any firm evidence that they could not have formed a breeding population with us, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, and therefore that their physical differences from us may be due to evolution having occurred within our species. I suspect that we are they. Their earlier members had a cranial capacity of 600-800 cm3 but later on it had exceeded a litre, reaching 1250 cm3 . Archaic H. sapiens are actually smaller than that at 1200. I could introduce a lot of stuff that I’ve learnt since then and changes due to scientific findings, but I’m going to stick to this impression as it’s what I based my thoughts on at the time.
This next bit had its first draft in about 1978 when I wrote an essay on it for RE, which I’ve lost.
In order to resolve the problems presented by out of place artefacts without evoking aliens, it’s possible to assume that from the discovery of fire, Homo erectus continued to advance technologically over a period of a few thousand years from about 800 000 BP (=Before Present, present being 1950 here) to develop firstly a global advanced industrial society, then to venture forth into the solar system and then the Galaxy, settling worlds all over the Milky Way and maintaining a Phase Three civilisation for hundreds of thousands of years. At this time, the now lost continents of Atlantis and Mu still existed and were the most heavily developed landmasses on this planet. During the last Ice Age, a catastrophe befell this civilisation and it returned to Stone Age level, before giving rise to civilisation as we know it today.
A little embarrassingly, I held on to this set of beliefs for many years although I can’t place when I stopped believing it was so except that I was definitely adult at the time. I also recognise that it’s somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ mythos, but I guarantee I wasn’t aware of that at the time because I came up with it in late 1977 and the first episode was broadcast in September 1978. There does, however, seem to be a tendency for ideas to occur to various people at the same time, which I think is due to most of the pieces being in place for them: what Charles Fort calls “steam engine time”.
You might also be wondering how come nobody has found any trace of this civilisation. The answer is that it had been calculated many years before, in the 1920s, that all traces of human civilisation would have disappeared entirely within 50 000 years. However, to my pre-teen mind the presence of fossilised artefacts such as screws, glass jars and hammers would’ve been enough to justify my belief. I think there’s something about that age which makes us very keen to believe in things like the Loch Ness Monster and flying saucers. We want the world to be outlandish, exciting and exotic, and it’s like an outgrowth of our earlier burgeoning curiosity about life with, perhaps, a bit of rebellion mixed in with it.
There’s a danger in using ideas without experience of what other people have done with them. Doris Lessing’s ‘Canopus In Argus’ series is an example of that, as may be Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, although I admit that she did something different with it than Kurt Vonnegut did. I’ve seen one Galactica film at the cinema in 1980 and that’s it. I never watched the TV series or the reboot, although I have watched one episode of ‘Caprica’. Therefore I’m quite ignorant of it, which I may in fact already have exposed by writing what I have here, but my impression is that it’s set in prehistoric times and that humans on Earth are in the future relative to the time its set in, although this might have been retconned.
A major flaw in my ideas was that if civilisation had collapsed, it should have left humans all over the Galaxy unaware of their history, which is fine since we don’t know anything about any possible life forms in the rest of the Milky Way except that that then makes the probability of us just happening to be on the planet humans evolved on very low. If it had happened, the chances are we’d be living on a different planet with no fossil record of earlier humans and two distinct sets of life forms, one related to humans (even if only distantly, such as algæ) and another which had completely different genetic code and possibly even biology.
As a world-building idea, it has possibilities. The less plausible one is just to take it as it is: we are living after the end of an interstellar civilisation without knowing it. This is not sustainable in hard science fiction. The more plausible version would involve positing that humans do, in fact, eventually colonise the stars before their civilisation collapses and on various planets recovers and gradually discovers that they are not the first. Andrew Tomas wrote a book with that title in 1972, but I haven’t read it and it seems to confine itself to this planet and the likes of the Ancient Babylonians having electric current or something. I vaguely associate that with a book called ‘On The Shores Of Distant Worlds’, which seems to be imaginary as I can’t find any trace of it.
The remaining question is, what does it say about me that this belief system was so persistent? Does it mean I was immature or psychotic? All I can say is that it’s along the lines of my general belief that it’s important to have some kind of “give” in a rational mind to enable it to persist in being rational under stress. It’s kind of like escapism I suppose. On the other hand, there are people who believe all sorts of strange things throughout their lives, whole communities of them, so maybe I’m not so unusual.