Ancient Astronauts and Space Gods!

Erich von Däniken, a Swiss high-school dropout, has made many millions of dollars from more than a dozen books written since 1968. These books all make a remarkable and exciting claim. In von Däniken’s words, “Our forefathers received visits from the universe in the remote past, even though I do not yet know who these extraterrestrial intelligences were or from which planet they came. I nevertheless proclaim that these strangers annihilated part of mankind existing at the time and produced a new, perhaps the first, Homo sapiens.” Each of von Däniken’s books— Chariots of the Gods?, Return to the Stars, The Gold of the Gods, In Search of Ancient Gods, Miracles of the Gods, Von Däniken’s Proof, Signs of the Gods, etc.— gives a different version of this story, and each interprets the same “evidence” in different and contradictory ways. In some versions of the story, creatures from other worlds create humanity by genetic engineering or other manipulation of lower animals; in others they create humanity by interbreeding with apes (evidencing a curious taste in women); in others they are castaways who become humanity; and in still others humanity is already well established, and the extraterrestrials simply give them a boost from savagery to civilization. Von Däniken rarely tells the story the same way twice, even in the same book. Nevertheless, the essence is that extraterrestrials have had some impact on human history, and that there is evidence of this influence.

In fact, it is the essentially unanimous opinion of archaeologists and specialists in human pre-history that no such evidence exists. Von Däniken’s arguments consist mainly of an appeal to ignorance. He cites examples that his sometimes poorly educated readers are unlikely to recognize or to know anything about. These are misrepresented, taken out of context, or used as a springboard for wild speculations and non-sequiturs. Von Däniken’s books also contain a large amount of outright factual error and thinly-veiled racism. What they do not contain is any valid evidence supporting his claims in any way.

Examples of Von Däniken’s “evidence” include the following:

  • • The Bible is full of strange stories best explained by assuming that the ancient Hebrews were in regular contact with extraterrestrials whom they worshipped as gods. (His ideas about the New Testament are strangely not made clear.)

  • • Intelligence seems to have appeared very suddenly in our ancestors about 40,000 years ago. They suddenly began using fire, bows and arrows, stone axes, and making sophisticated cave paintings.

  • • A map made by Turkish admiral Piri Re’is in 1513 is “perfectly accurate … [about] even the contours of the Antarctic, so that the originals must have been aerial photographs taken from a very great height” by extraterrestrials.

  • • In the Nasca Plain, a high desert in Peru, there are enormous linear markings; they are only comprehensible if the desert had been used as a spacecraft landing field.

  • • The immense pyramids of Egypt could not possibly have been constructed by primitive humans without help from extraterrestrials. He also claims that “ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made civilization.”

  • • The statues of Easter Island could not have been carved or raised by primitive men.

  • • Certain ancient works of art clearly show space ships and jet aircraft. One Mayan carving shows a “god” piloting a rocket ship complete with acceleration couch, instrument panel, and exhaust flames.

  • • The space gods dug gigantic tunnel systems under Ecuador and Peru, where they stored fantastic golden treasures offered them by the primitive savages of the region.

  • • The myths of all ancient cultures concerning their gods do not make sense unless they are interpreted to be distorted memories of encounters with extraterrestrials somewhere and somehow on the ancient earth.

  • None of this “evidence” is valid! For a detailed analysis of von Däniken’s claims, consult books in the reference list. There is space here for just a few brief comments.

    All of von Däniken’s hard evidence vanishes instantly when looked at in light of what we actually know. Consider Piri Re’is’ map. Examination of any clear reproduction of this map will show it to be extremely inaccurate— actually, more so than most other maps of the same period. A far more accurate map appeared in 1559, drawn by Turkish cartographer Hadji Ahmed. Furthermore, Piri Re’is references all his sources in marginal notations on his map; these include maps from the expeditions of Columbus— even so, the Caribbean is almost unrecognizable.

    While the exact purposes of the Nasca markings and the statues on Easter Island have disappeared with the cultures that produced them, they are in no way difficult to construct— even without extraterrestrial help. Two people with pegs and string can lay out identical copies of the Nasca markings— markings which are rarely more than 6 inches to one foot wide, making it pretty hard to use them as spaceship runways! Explorer Thor Heyerdahl has filmed Easter Island natives carving and erecting a statue using only crude tools always available on the island— stone axes, vegetable fiber ropes, and logs. (Incidentally, the original statues are known to have been carved mostly around 1500 AD— long after the time von Däniken usually claims space gods were flying around.)

    As for Egypt, it has a long, continuous historical and archaeological record. The Egyptians left detailed accounts of their methods for creating monumental architecture, and for moving massive stones and statues. Also, there are primitive early pyramids, completely botched and collapsed pyramids, pyramid block quarries with tools still lying there, wall paintings of engineering methods, mathematical texts setting architectural problems for pyramid construction, and many other relevant interrelated records of mathematics, technology and culture. There are actually very few legitimate archaeological mysteries concerning the purpose, construction, or properties of the pyramids— despite tons of rubbish produced by occultists and crackpots claiming the contrary in the face of all the evidence.

    To von Däniken, the sun or moon in any ancient work of art is a “space ship.” Bits of jewelry in the shape of a fish or leaf or spearhead are “jet aircraft.” A classic von Däniken howler is his interpretation of the tomb lid of Mayan king Pacal. In this von Däniken sees a “god” at the controls of his “spacecraft,” but one might just as well see a limp figure in the clutches of a Hollywood movie monster or sci-fi robot. What the Mayans intended the image to represent, judging by the rest of their surviving art, was the descent of the corpse of King Pacal into the underworld. He falls past the sacred Quetzal bird (sky) and the sacred corn plant (earth surface) into the jaws of the (underground) Earth Monster, waiting to devour him. All these images (bird, corn plant, monster) are common individual motifs in Mayan art; there is no uncertainty about what they represent.

    Von Däniken’s story about “gold of the gods” has been exposed as a hoax by the explorer Juan Moricz, from whom von Däniken got the basic elements that were woven into the hoax. Von Däniken’s books are full of outright mistakes, errors, and blunders that make it clear that he does not bother to consult even the most readily available reference works. His mathematical formulas lack equal signs; his rare references have incorrect page numbers; he apparently does not bother even to glance at the maps he cites as “accurate;” he does not take the trouble to find out what is actually known about archaeological sites that are important to his claims, even at the most superficial level.  He cannot in any sense be taken seriously. He is not a scholar nor a scientist by the furthest stretch of the imagination. He has done nothing but misinterpret and obscure the work and discoveries of genuine scholars.

    One of von Däniken’s favorite general ploys is to give a “gadget” explanation for everything in a selected myth. [The Old Testament is fair game, but the New Testament is usually off limits.]  His interpretation is always based on our own present technology and not the hypothetical super-advanced technology of extraterrestrial space travelers. Thus, the Ark of the Covenant was a radio transmitter/receiver (or a nuclear reactor). Aladdin’s lamp was also a radio. Sodom and Gomorrah were devastated by a nuclear explosion. Ezekiel’s wheel was a helicopter. The absurdity of this device can be shown by making up your own “gadget” explanations for everything mentioned in the Bible. The flaming sword used by the angel to bar Adam and Eve from Eden was doubtlessly a flamethrower or perhaps a soldering iron. Jonah’s whale was a submarine. The pillar of fire was a streetlight (or a MacDonald’s sign); the raising of Lazarus, an application of heart massage; Ezekiel’s vision, an alien version of a TV commercial! This is philistine provincialism, not evidence.

    Another of von Däniken’s ploys is to allege that “our ancestors,” especially those who were not white, were morons and filthy savages, incapable of imagination, architecture, or discovery. But fire and weapons were in use, not tens of thousands but millions of years ago and by exceedingly ape-like human ancestors. It is nonsense to claim that we modern citizens of developed nations are different in intelligence, imagination, artistic yearnings, etc., from New Guinea tribes-people, ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, or European cavemen living 40,000 years ago, or the earliest “modern” humans, living 200,000 years ago in Africa. Even “pre-humans” such as Neanderthal man did not differ significantly in appearance or in richness of culture from modern man. To deny this is to deny every discovery of modern anthropology, but this von Däniken does effortlessly, since no facts tend to match up with his fantasties.

    Von Däniken initially tended to concentrate on very ancient art, or art of non-European cultures, but some of his followers, even more ignorant and uncritical, have fearlessly pulled images fairly randomly from Medieval or Renaissance Christian religious art and proclaimed them to show space craft and space gods, even though the appeal here is to the total ignorance of our own culture! Von Däniken and other published pseudoscientists can take a lesson from this phenomenon— it is virtually impossible to exaggerate the degree of total and complete ignorance displayed by a significant fraction of the general population. However total you think it might be, it is apparently even more total than you can possibly dream.

    The first two of von Däniken’s books, written in about 1966, showed the clear evidence of his familiarity with a 1960 work, The Morning of the Magicians, by New Age pundits Pauwels and Bergier, and the first edition of 100,000 Years of Man's Unknown History, by Robert Charroux, published in 1963. Almost all of the “evidence” cited by Von Däniken is found in these previous volumes; indeed, Von Däniken's use of the Pauwels, Bergier and Charroux material is sometimes nearly verbatim. The “ancient astronaut” claims were old-hat even then. They can be traced back to the poetry of Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906) and from him, to the crackpot literature of the Theosophist synthetic religious movement of the 1880s; they resurfaced in the Shaver mystery of 1945, in the claims of “contactee” George Adamski in 1953, and are to be plentifully found in the works of many writers about “flying saucers” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Von Däniken himself faced a strong paperback Space God competitor, W. Raymond Drake (1913-1989). In addition to his difficulties with charges of plagiarization (no court case resulted), von Däniken was convicted for forgery and embezzling money from a hotel which he managed, and served part of a 3 1/2-year prison sentence beginning in 1970. However, since between 1968 and 1980 von Däniken’s books were selling an average of 3.5 million copies per year, he was with his royalties able to make restitution to the hotel and earn early release from prison. Perhaps anyone who plunks down good, hard cash for one of von Däniken’s works is actually demonstrating that crime can be made to pay… and pay very well indeed.

    Von Däniken's great financial success, as compared to earlier and roughly contemporary space-god authors, seems to stem from two  coincidences. Inexpensive editions of his first two books became available shortly after a multimillion-dollar film with a stunning visual impact was released (April 1968), namely Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film depicts unseen space aliens stimulating ancient African ape-men onto the path leading to ourselves. Immediately following Kubrick's film came massive publicity leading up to the first manned landing on the moon, in July of 1969. Thus a double publicity blitz served to put Von Däniken's potential readers into a frame of mind sympathetic to ancient astronauts and space travel in general. Nor did Von Däniken's almost moronically simplistic presentation scare any readers off who had hesitantly started the books.

    Unseen space aliens educate apemen using an enigmatic slab-like device, in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.


    In more recent years, two other Space God writers have also attracted attention: Robert K. G. Temple in The Sirius Mystery, (1976), and Zecharia Sitchin, in a large number of books beginning with The Twelth Planet (1976). According to Temple, members of the Dogon tribes who live in Mali (the Sahel, North Sahara) have astronomical knowledge so sophisticated they must have gotten it from visitors from outer space in times past! Temple assumes the visitors came from a planet orbiting the nearby double-star Sirius, since Sirius supposedly occupies a unique status  in their religious teachings.  There are too many problems with this claim even to summarize. First, no account of Dogon astronomical knowledge is found earlier than 1950; the “knowledge” is that of very basic 17th to early 20th Century earth-based  astronomy, such as that Jupiter has 4 moons (in fact it has nearly 10 times that number!). In 1991 it was revealed by anthropologists that the Dogon in fact consistently claim that all their knowledge of astronomy came from Marchel Griaule, a Frenchman who lived with the Dogon for 30 years beginning in 1931. It was also discovered that Temple's “research” was done at the suggestion of Arthur M. Young, a member of a religious cult which believes that the gods of ancient Egypt were beings from the solar system of Sirius.

    Sitchin claims, despite knowing no languages other than english and Hebrew, and being trained only as an economist and journalist, that he and he alone can interpret clay cylinder seals and tablets from Sumer and Assyria, which somehow tell the pictorial tale of how beings [the Anunnaki] from the distant planet Niburu came to earth 450,000 years ago to create the human race and guide the origins of human civilization, before destroying themselves in a nuclear war 4000 years ago. Sitchin's mythology seems to have been adopted by a contemporary Space God religious cult of French origin, the Raëlians. The unsung ancestor of all space-god cults is of course the late-19th-century science-fictional religion of Theosophy, which seems almost forgotten today, despite its role in creating the so-called New Age... and popularizing the ancient astronaut theme more than 110 years ago! Von Däniken himself, for example, often managed somehow to quote from the completely imaginary Book of Dzyan, which Madame Blavatsky herself is about the only one ever to claim to have actually seen! A number of flying saucer books published in the early 1950s, by British Theosophist Desmond Leslie and American saucer cult leader George Adamski, by Harold T. Wilkins, by Daniel Fry, by George Hunt Williamson, and by Morris K. Jessup, are based on Theosophical ideas and summarize, at least briefly, the essence of the Theosophical Space God scenario. There is a very obvious relationship between such Space Gods pseudoscience and an appalling, fundamentalist-religion-based pseudoscience known as Intelligent Design. The hypothesis of the human race being created by Space Gods a la Von Däniken has the same amount and quality of completely bogus “evidence” backing it, when compared to the equally ignorant and obscurantist claims of the Intelligent Design movement.

    The ancient astronaut/space god scenario has been on the back burner in terms of popularity within pseudoscience, during the past decade, but a big revival might be predicted in the summer of 2012 with the release of a new movie, Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott. At least as far as trailers can be trusted, the film has space aliens interacting with or creating early humans, ultimately leading to an interstellar expedition to re-establish contact.

    References for further reading—

  • “Ancient Astronauts,” by Thomas E. Bullard, in Encylopedia of the Paranormal, ed. by Gordon Stein, Prometheus, NY, 1996, pp. 25–32.
  • Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, by Kenneth L. Feder, Mayfield, CA, 1990.
  • Lines to the Mountain Gods, by Evan Hadingham, Random House, NY, 1987.
  • Between the Lines, by Anthony F. Aveni, UT Press, TX, 2000.
  • Exploring the Unknown, C. J. Cazeau, C.J. and S.D. Scott, Jr., Plenum, NY, 1979, Chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 14.
  • Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Kendrick Frazier, (Ed.), Prometheus, NY, 1981. Articles by Omohundro, Story, Bainbridge, and Ridpath.
  • Flim-Flam! by James Randi, Prometheus, NY, 1982, Chapter 6.
  • Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, W. H. Stiebing, Jr., Prometheus, NY, 1984.
  • The Space Gods Revealed, Ronald Story, Harper and Row, NY, 1976.
  • Archaeology: Myth and Reality, Jeremy A. Sabloff, (Ed.), Freeman, CA, 1982.
  • Some Trust in Chariots, B. Thiering and E. Castle, Popular Library, NY, 1972.
  • The Ancient Visitors, Daniel Cohen, Doubleday, NY, 1974.
  • The Past is Human, Peter White, Taplinger, NY, 1974.

  • Net Links:
  • Early contributors to the Space God mythology!
  • Skepdic entry on Ancient Astronauts!
  • Our hero's own website.
  • Debunking the claims of Z. Sitchin.
  • Carved spaceman in 12th Century Spanish Cathedral?
  • Ancient Egyptian Helicopter?
  • The History Channel should be known as the Pseudoscience Channel.
  • NASA efforts to deal with space-related pseudoscience.
  • Skepdic entry on Sitchin.
  • The Imaginary Planet Nibiru.
  • The Greek Myth of Prometheus; A Titan, rather than a God, he created the human race and later showed mankind the use of fire.  Sound familiar?
  • Pseudoarchaeology has a long history.
  • Doomsday predictions spinning off from Ancient Astronaut fantasies and similar bogus lore.
  • More on the same topic.
  • Instead of von Däniken fantasies, why not ponder a genuine archaeolgical mystery?
  • Crystal skulls fit right into the Ancient Astronaut/New Age mythologies.
  • Famous archaeological hoaxes.
  • And how about the Voynich Manuscript?
  • Acknowledgments: This material was originally written by Profs. Ronald Wyllys and Rory Coker of the University of Texas at Austin.

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    Blavatsky, Queen of Pseudoscience!
    Cities on the Moon?
    Creationism and “Intelligent Design”
    Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience!
    ESP Experiments!
    Flying Saucers (1947–1985)
    Fortean Phenomena
    The Fourth Dimension!?
    Gods from Outer Space!
    Kirlian Photos and the Aura!
    Martian Canals!
    Monsters! and Ape Suits!
    Mystery Spots?
    Mystical and Bogus Physics!
    The New Age!
    Postmodernism versus Science!
    Pyramid and Crystal Myths and Powers!
    Medical Quackery!
    Psychic Detectives!
    Pyramid and Crystal Powers!
    Science Fiction and Pseudoscience!
    Our Space Brothers!
    UFOs 1985-2005