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Ancient Aliens is a science fiction mockumentary television show currently airing on H2, an offshoot of the History Channel. It is currently in its seventh season, having been on the air since its original pilot episode in 2009. The premise is simple: that throughout recorded (and even unrecorded) history, extraterrestrial biological entities have been visiting the planet Earth and guiding its progress for unknown reasons. To add an air of authenticity, Ancient Aliens features contributions from real ancient astronaut theorists such as Giorgio Tsoukalos and Erich von Däniken, the latter of whom literally wrote the book on the subject. The plot is convoluted and somewhat difficult to follow; fans of Lost would even find themselves confused. It is frequently unclear what the actual motivation of the aliens is. Are they trying to help or hurt humanity? Do they care? Does it matter? I find that the show loses focus by trying to incorporate far too many elements into the story into one over-arching worldview. Extraterrestrials are said to have been responsible for -- among many other things -- the construction of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, Constantine the Great's conversion to Christianity, the Nazca Lines in Peru, human evolution through interbreeding (referenced in the Bible as the Nephilim), various plagues, nuclear warfare in Vedic India (approximately the 1700-500 BC), and just about any other major historical event.

Ok, so Ancient Aliens isn't really a mockumentary. Contributors like Tsoukalos and von Däniken earnestly believe the things they're saying and the History Channel has given them a platform to disseminate their views in a largely uncontested manner. Alternative explanations for the things the ETs are supposed to be responsible for are either not aired or dismissed out of hand. Ancient Aliens frequently uses straw man arguments to show why its explanations are superior to those of conventional scientists, historians, and archaeologists.

Let's look at the Nazca Lines, for example. Here's the Ancient Aliens explanation for how they came to be and what their significance is. The Nazca Lines are huge pictures of animals drawn in the sand of the Nazca Desert in Peru. Some of these are over 600 feet across and while the images aren't especially complex, they clearly required planning and at least some semblance of the ability to draw a straight line. You can't really tell what the images are from the ground, so whoever made them clearly had some expectation that the designs would be viewed from up above. Whoever made the designs must have been the same people who needed to see them. Considering the lines are dated to about the 5th century, well before the advent of human flight, the question becomes who? Well, obviously people can't see them, so they would have had to have been meant for beings capable of both flight and of comprehending what they were seeing. The gods in the heavens? Hmm, maybe, maybe. But there are also long straight lines that intersect with the designs that go on for miles. These are not naturally occurring. What they resemble most closely are runways at airports. Do gods need runways? No. But beings piloting flying machines do. Not only that, but the mountaintops where the lines are present are often completely flat, and even today, we would only be able to completely flatten mountains with a huge amount of effort and complex machinery unavailable to the Nazca people 1500 years ago. Obviously this is all the result of the activities of an advanced civilization. Aliens.

Of course, all of this does nothing to explain what the Nazca Lines are. The Nazca Desert is an extremely inhospitable place. It has received virtually no precipitation for thousands of years. There is no wind there. The designs themselves could be easily made by a team of two or three guys (or gals!) with sticks and they most likely were. All you have to do is put your stick about three inches into the sand, walk forward, drag the stick behind you, and you're already well on your way to making a Nazca design. The reason why it's this easy is because the top layer of the Nazca Desert is comprised of red pebbles and the dirt underneath is white. Because of the lime in the dirt, the new lines are able to harden in a remarkably short period of time. One person could probably do the whole thing, but it would make sense to get a buddy to help you out to keep your lines straight and to measure the distances appropriately. And while you can't tell what the designs are from the ground, that doesn't mean you have to be flying to see them; you just have to stand on one of the many hills overlooking the desert. Because we know from contemporary pottery that the Nazca people did, in fact, worship many animalian deities, the figures do have some type of religious significance. But what about the runway strips? Well, interestingly, the Nazca desert is situated between two ancient sites. One is a settlement where people actually lived, the other was a temple complex. Great numbers of people would walk from the settlement to the temples in a processional manner, meaning usually in straight lines. Knowing that making the Nazca designs requires little more than some sticks, what do you think the effect on the desert's topography would be if hundreds or thousands of people shuffled their feet in the dirt for miles at a time every couple of months? As for the flat mountaintops, they're called plateaus. They exist all over the world without the intervention of an advanced civilization. Indeed, plateaus have been features of the natural landscape before there was any kind of civilization.

The important thing to realize in this example is that Ancient Aliens refutes arguments nobody is making. Nobody asserts that the plateaus of the mountains in the Nazca Desert were leveled by anything other than erosion over god knows how long, yet suddenly we're introducing earth-moving equipment into the picture to provide a better explanation. Also, the Ancient Aliens crowd is the only group saying they must be seen from the air. I mean, realistically, we don't even know if they were supposed to be seen at all. Maybe the act of making them had ritual significance and no thought was given to what would happend afterward. The fact that people walked all over them (or ETs landed their craft on them, your choice) demonstrates that they weren't these inviolable pictograms. Maybe some people just made them for fun. Unlikely, but who knows? But the fact that they can be seen by standing on hills and looking down at them would have been known to anyone and everyone in that area.

The ideology behind Ancient Aliens -- and there should be no doubt that it is ideological in motivation -- is ultimately derived from a now largely discredited theory devised by a group of 19th century German Biblical scholars known as the astral myth school. An offshoot of the Panbabylonian movement that sought to explain the Old Testament as being largely based on ancient Babylonian religious beliefs and practice, the astral myth clique took it a step further. Knowing that the Babylonians were excellent astronomers, these scholars put forth the idea that the learned sages of Chaldea were not really talking about literal gods when they invoked the names of Ishtar, Marduk, or Nergal. The astral mythers said that the gods were really names for planets and stars and that their various stories were really encoded descriptions of astronomical phenomena repackaged for a less sophisticated audience. This Zodiacal view was then applied to every religious or mythological tradition in the ancient world; the Trojan War was thus reinterpreted as an epic description of the movements of the stars and constellations over the course of thousands of years.

While the astral myth theory and Panbabylonism overall eventually gave way to more nuanced theories explaining the origins of the Bible, early ancient astronaut theorists generally accepted the proposed relationship between Babylonian astronomy and the early forms of Judaism. The Azerbaijani-born author and journalist Zechariah Sitchin (1920-2010) was the Paul of Tarsus of the ancient astronaut religion. With the possible exception of Erich von Däniken, nobody has evangelized this idea more frequently or more vocally. From a very early time, he latched onto the theory of the Sumerian origins of the Judeo-Christian worldview. He took the idea further, however, by saying that the gods were not planets and stars, but rather extraterrestrial beings who traveled to Earth. In particular, he latched on to the class of Sumerian gods called the Anunnaki, who were the offspring of the sky god Anu. This connection is underscored by the literal meaning of the word "Anunnaki," which is "Anu's seed." Sitchin for some inexplicable reason translated the word as "those who come to earth from the heavens" and equated them with the Nephilim. The word "Nephilim" is of uncertain derivation, but may come from a word meaning "fallen" in a very archaic form of Hebrew. Then again, it may not. Regardless, the Nephilim are described as "sons of God" who married and had children with mortal women. These children are described in the bible as having been "giants" and "mighty men of old...men of renown." While there are only two instances of the word being used in the bible, there were many extra-biblical traditions about the Nephilim, one of which says they were rebellious angels. The Nephilim and their offspring were allegedly the real reason the Hebrew God flooded the planet in the book of Genesis. They all perished in the cataclysm.

Like the Nephilim, there are many contradictory traditions surrounding the Anunnaki. Sometimes they are fertility gods, sometimes they are gods of the underworld, sometimes they are workers, sometimes they are masters. The closest they come to the Nephilim is one tradition in which the Anunnaki have created a class of workers who rebel against them. The Anunnaki listen to their grievances (or destroy them, depending on your interpretation) and create humans to do their agricultural work for them. Whether you see a connection between the heavenly horndogs and the world's first union busters is up to you. Oh, by the way, the Anunnaki/Nephilim are from a previously unknown planet called Nibiru that only completes a full orbit of the sun every 3,600 years and they came here to take all of our gold. Human beings were genetically engineered to do the dirty work of mining the gold. The divine god-kings of the ancient world were really middle managers installed by the Anunnaki to serve as their intermediaries on Earth. Eventually the Anunnaki destroyed themselves through a cataclysmic nuclear war in the year 2000 BC.

"Wow," you might say, "that's incredible! I'd love to see the ancient sources that describe this stuff." And you're not alone! So would lots of people, but unfortunately, no sources exist to back up the idea that the ancient Sumerians or Babylonians or Hebrews (or anyone else for that matter) accepted or even conceived of the existence of a planet (or even a place) called Nibiru from which a class of deities, angels, or beings originated. Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest in any tradition that the Anunnaki or the Nephilim had an insatiable lust for gold that could only be fulfilled through creating humans to go out and mine the stuff for them. And I doubt it needs to be said at this point, but there's no evidence of nuclear warfare before 1945. For Sitchin and his disciples at the History Channel, however, the proof is self-evident.

In reality, it's obvious that while Sitchin had at least a fair understanding of ancient myths, he was unable to read Sumerian, Akkadian, or any other language written in the cuneiform script. This obviously presents a problem in trying to fully elucidate a worldview based on primary sources written almost exclusively in those languages. Indeed, his bizarre mistranslation of the word Anunnaki is not unique; the god Ea was called bel nimiki, literally meaning "lord of wisdom," though Sitchin says it means "lord of mining." There is no evidence in any known inscription from the ancient world in which Ea is associated with mining anything of any type, though he is repeatedly demonstrated to be shrewd and intelligent. The idea that the Anunnaki/Nephilim mined gold is therefore based on Sitchin's incorrect (and frankly fraudulent) mistranslation of Ea's common epithet. But this of course brings up the question as to why they were mining all this gold in the first place. Sitchin alleges that Nibiru's atmosphere was dissipating and that gold was part of it. Therefore, they needed the gold. To put back in their atmosphere. What?

Even if it is 100% true that Nibiru exists, its atmosphere is made of gold, and that the gods of the ancient Mesopotamia were aliens from this planet who needed gold to save their world, why did they have to expend all the resources to travel to our planet to do it? Asteroids are literally filled with minerals and metals. In fact, it's likely that most of the gold on our planet's surface came here as a result of asteroid impacts. Surely a race of beings advanced enough to travel from beyond Pluto and have sex with our women would have been advanced enough to do basic geological surveys on astral bodies closer to home. But whatever.

The impetus for Ancient Aliens being made an ongoing series was the History Channel's attempt to rebrand itself. It was known derisively for years as the Hitler Channel since it seemed like every fucking show on the station related in some way to World War II. In fact, in 2002, I looked at one 24 hour period of the channel's programming and a full 14 of those hours dealt with WW2. Now obviously that's hardly a scientific examination of the channel's programming choices, but I doubt that figure would shock anyone reading it. It's clear that the original target demographic for the History Channel was people who were either actually in World War II or people who wished they could have been (on which side is unclear). Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily, but it doesn't exactly rake in the advertising dollars unless they come from people who want to help you get your diabeetus testin' supplies or who want to know if you've ever thought about taking advantage of a reverse mortgage. Other shows included History's Mysteries (dealing with mysteries from history), Modern Marvels (about various scientific and engineering achievements from the modern world), and various specials and miniseries about specific time periods or subjects (for example, the Crusades, the Presidents, etc.).

Close to 20 years have gone by since the History Channel's debut in 1995. It was rebranded in 2008 as simply History. I will still refer to it as "the History Channel" because I take the channel's motto "where the past comes alive" very seriously. Around this same time, the channel became flooded with a slew of really unusual shows. Gone were old favorites like Hitler and the Occult, Hitler's Henchmen, High Hitler, Hitler and Stalin, and the Plot to Kill Hitler, and instead we were inundated with things like Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, UFO Hunters, Swamp People, the Nostradamus Effect, and the cream of the crop, Ancient Aliens. The channel (and its affiliate networks) changed their programming format to emphasize reality television, sensationalistic pseudohistory/pseudoscience, and the occasional big event special miniseries. This was an attempt to expand their audience and capture more lucrative demographics. Considering the ratings for these shows are consistently higher than other things they previously aired, it's hard to argue with success.

Of course, I'm going to do it anyway. While there isn't anything particularly "historical" about any of the programs I mentioned other than in the most literal sense because some of them feature things that happened, I don't really have a problem with the reality-based shows. I don't watch any of them or enjoy them, but I don't think they're necessarily hurting anybody. And hey, if someone is watching Pawn Stars and Rick brings in an expert to authenticate an obscure historical artifact he's genuinely excited about, it might make someone out there go "wow, that's pretty interesting, I might check that out." By contrast, Ancient Aliens puts lies into people's heads. It encourages a type of philistinism about history and culture and dismisses all of humanity's hard-won accomplishments by saying aliens did it.

And I think that's the key to the appeal of Ancient Aliens. If I told you how the pyramids were really built, it would probably bore you to tears. Instead of describing the decades-long process of transporting the huge stones used to construct them into the middle of a godforsaken desert and then building ramps to place them on top of one another like a series of steps and then using smaller stones to fill in the gaps between the "steps" to give the appearance of a smooth ascending angle because the Pharaohs were consistently trying to outdo one another in the grandiosity of their tombs, I could weave a fantastic story about how an advanced race of ETs came here and built them because...well, I don't really know why they would want to build giant triangles out of rocks on this planet, but ancient minds were far too primitive to do it on their own, so obviously aliens did it.

The world is a simultaneously complex and banal place. Going into too much detail about something confuses the shit out of people and makes the subject boring. Plus history isn't a convenient narrative; it's driven by people and people are crazy creatures. Not everything that happens is going to make sense or seem logical or fit into a neat story. So I could tell you how the Mahabharata was the ancient Hindu version of the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the collected works of William Shakespeare, and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms all put together and that might impress a bit of its importance on you. But the thing is almost 2 million words long. You're never gonna read that. You probably think it has no application to your life. But what if I told you that the Mahabharata describes a nuclear war? What if I said these supposed heroes and gods flew around in Star Destroyers like Darth Vader? What if I told you that this stuff really described the final cataclysmic civil war between the Anunnaki?

In reality, this idea about nuclear weapons is derived from two completely unrelated lines in the text taken out of context. The first refers to the god Vishnu as having a face brighter than a 1000 suns and the the second makes a reference to a plague of rats gnawing off people's fingernails and eating their hair, but the motif of a blinding light and hair falling out is consistent with atomic weapons, so hey, let's not think about the other stuff. This stuff isn't open to interpretation, it's literally written in the book. But our friends Erich and Giorgio desperately need this textual evidence to back up their other bizarre claims, and people are suckers for a weird and incredible idea, so no harm no foul, right?

Ironically, Ancient Aliens actually aired an episode describing precisely why the worldview it promotes is both harmful and foul. The title of the episode, "Aliens and Deadly Cults," sums up the problem pretty nicely. The Heaven's Gate cult subscribed to broadly similar ideas outlined in Ancient Aliens and almost everyone involved in the group committed suicide in 1997. The Raël cult is the same, and it has repeatedly claimed it is attempting to clone a human being in contravention of the laws of most industrialized countries and solicits money from its members and the public at large to carry out this task (in addition to the accusations of sexual abuse on the part of the group's leader against his female members, including children). Where do I even start with Scientology? I'm not suggesting that watching the next episode of Ancient Aliens will turn someone into a cult leader, but it's difficult to say that the ideas put forward by the show's contributors have not, in some way, helped bring about the things I've just described. I would say, at any rate, there is a clearer connection between the ancient astronaut hypothesis and the Heaven's Gate cult than there is between aliens on an essentially invisible planet and the construction of the Pyramids.

Still, I encourage everyone to watch the show at least once. Unlike Giorgio Tsoukalos, I'm not going to tell you what to think about the subject. Hear them out and see if the sources they describe back them up. In many instances, they do not, but at least you'll know both sides of the story. And that's one more side than what the History Channel -- where the past comes alive -- is willing to entertain.

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