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The term 'ancient astronauts' designates the speculative notion that aliens are responsible for the most ancient civilizations on earth. The most notorious proponent of this idea is Erich von Däniken, author of several popular books on the subject. His Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, for example, is a sweeping attack on the memories and abilities of ancient peoples. Von Däniken claims that the myths, arts, social organizations, etc., of ancient cultures were introduced by astronauts from another world. He questions not just the capacity for memory, but the capacity for culture and civilization itself, in ancient peoples. Prehistoric humans did not develop their own arts and technologies, but rather were taught art and science by visitors from outer space.
Where is the proof for von Däniken's claims? Some of it was fraudulent. For example, he produced photographs of pottery that he claimed had been found in an archaeological dig. The pottery depicts flying saucers and was said to have been dated from Biblical times. However, investigators from Nova (the fine public-television science program) found the potter who had made the allegedly ancient pots. They confronted von Däniken with evidence of his fraud. His reply was that his deception was justified because some people would only believe if they saw proof ("The Case of the Ancient Astronauts," first aired 3/8/78, done in conjunction with BBC's Horizon and Peter Spry-Leverton)!
Most of von Däniken's evidence is in the form of specious and fallacious arguments, but the idea for his claims may have come from the Cthulhu Mythos series of science fiction horror stories by H. P. Lovecraft. (See "Charioteer of the Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and the Invention of Ancient Astronauts" by Jason Colavito.) Von Däniken's data consists mainly of archaeological sites and ancient myths. He begins with the ancient astronaut assumption and then forces all data to fit the idea. For example, in Nazca, Peru, he explains giant animal drawings in the desert as an ancient alien airport. The likelihood that these drawings related to the natives' religion or science is not considered. He also frequently reverts to false dilemma reasoning of the following type: "Either this data is to be explained by assuming these primitive idiots did this themselves or we must accept the more plausible notion that they got help from extremely advanced peoples who must have come from other planets where such technologies as anti-gravity devices had been invented." His devotion to this theory has not dwindled, despite contrary evidence, as is evidenced by still another book on the subject, Arrival of the Gods : Revealing the Alien Landing Sites at Nazca (1998).
There have been many critics of von Däniken's notions, but Ronald Story stands out as the most thorough. Most critics of von Däniken's theory point out that prehistoric peoples were not the helpless, incompetent, forgetful savages he makes them out to be. (They must have at least been intelligent enough to understand the language and teachings of their celestial instructors--no small feat!) It is true that we still do not know how the ancients accomplished some of their more astounding physical and technological feats. We still wonder how the ancient Egyptians raised giant obelisks in the desert and how stone age men and women moved huge cut stones and placed them in position in dolmens and passage graves. We are amazed by the giant carved heads on Easter Island and wonder why they were done, who did them, and why they abandoned the place. We may someday have the answers to our questions, but they are most likely to come from scientific investigation not pseudoscientific speculation. For example, observing contemporary stone age peoples in Papua New Guinea, where huge stones are still found on top of tombs, has taught us how the ancients may have accomplished the same thing with little more than ropes of organic material, wooden levers and shovels, a little ingenuity and a good deal of human strength. Nova's "Secrets of Lost Empires" made no appeal to alien teachers in the attempt to figure out how the ancient Egyptians might have raised a giant obelisk, how the medieval warriors built their catapults and how & why the sculptors of Easter Island did what they did.
We have no reason to believe our ancient ancestors' memories were so much worse than our own that they could not remember these alien visitations well enough to preserve an accurate account of them. There is little evidence to support the notion that ancient myths and religious stories are the distorted and imperfect recollection of ancient astronauts recorded by ancient priests. The evidence to the contrary--that prehistoric or 'primitive' peoples were (and are) quite intelligent and resourceful--is overwhelming.
Of course, it is possible that visitors from outer space did land on earth a few thousand years ago and communicate with our ancestors. But it seems more likely that prehistoric peoples themselves were responsible for their own art, technology and culture. Why concoct such an explanation as von Däniken's? To do so may increase the mystery and romance of one's theory, but it also makes it less reasonable, especially when one's theory seems inconsistent with what we already know about the world. And why restrict one's examples to Egypt, Mexico, and other non-European countries? What about the builders of Newgrange or Stonehenge? The ancient astronaut hypothesis is unnecessary. Occam's razor should be applied and the hypothesis rejected.
books and articles websites
Erich von Daniken's
"Chariots of the Gods?": Science or Charlatanism? by Robert Sheaffer The Maya
"Astronaut" by Michael Finley Chariots of Lies:
the CorreX files by Paul Willis (The site is now known as the Correx
Archives due to legal threats from 20th Century Fox Alien Network for breach of
copyright) Sitchin's Twelfth
Planet by Rob Hafernik
Erich von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods?": Science or Charlatanism? by Robert Sheaffer
The Maya "Astronaut" by Michael Finley
Chariots of Lies: the CorreX files by Paul Willis (The site is now known as the Correx Archives due to legal threats from 20th Century Fox Alien Network for breach of copyright)
Sitchin's Twelfth Planet by Rob Hafernik