Ken Feder is a guest contributor for this Ohio Archaeology Blog post. Ken is a good friend and a fellow crusader against pseudo-scientific claims relating to the ancient past. We worked together to address the outrageous claims made in the Lost Civilizations of North America DVD and we’re both participating in the Myths and Mysteries in Archaeology lecture series at SunWatch Village next year.
Ken’s topic for the lecture series, scheduled for Saturday, January 19th, will be “Amorous Astronauts, Inkblots, and A Low Opinion of Our Ancestors:the Ancient Aliens Fantasy.” His blog post is a tantalizing preview of his presentation.
After reading his description of a Close Encounter at the remarkable Palatki Heritage site in Arizona, I’m sure you’ll want to join me for his program in January. It’s sure to be informative and great fun!
Help!!! Im Being Followed by Ancient Aliens!!!
The Palatki site is located in the Coconino National Forest, just west of the town of Sedona, Arizona. In a region where people can visit the massive cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, few bother making the trip to this tiny jewel of a place with its swirl of massive red rocks enveloping the living space of the ancient Sinagua people. Only about 50 or 60 tourists visit the site each day, so at any particular time you pretty much have the place to yourself and the one or two volunteer docents who monitor it.
As a result, I was more than a little surprised during a recent visit when a tour group approached, huffing and puffing up the trail to the site. I was even more surprised when one of the people in the group walked up to me as I was admiring one of the beautiful ancient rock art panels and said: Hey! I recognize you! Youre an archaeology professor, arent you? Ive seen you on TV.
Imagine my reaction. Im 6 miles up a dirt road in the middle of Arizona, and my television fame precedes me! I replied politely, even enthusiastically, Yup. Thats me.
Wow! How wonderful running into you here. I just saw you on a show about that scientist who believes in ancient astronauts. Whats his name?
Do you mean Erich von DÃ¤niken? I asked.
Yeah, thats the guy. Von DÃ¤niken.
Von DÃ¤niken isnt a scientist. Hes a fantasy writer as far as Im concerned.
Well, you really should reconsider your skepticism. After all, theres some very good evidence for those ancient astronauts visiting earth. First of all, how do you explain the fact that the Maya had a base-12 number system? Doesnt that prove that the Maya were an alien race with six fingers on each hand?
Actually thats not the case, I pointed out, the Maya didnt have a base-12 system. Theirs was a base-20 system.
Okay, base-12, base-20. Whatever. Its just that the Maya system allowed them to count so high, so much higher than would be necessary for a simple farming people. It just doesnt make any sense.
Look, I patiently explained, the Maya developed an impressive numerical system. So what? The fact that they could count high is in keeping with their brilliant architectural, artistic, engineering, and calendrical achievements. The Maya were smart. That proves they were, well, smart. That doesnt prove they were extraterrestrials.
Oh, okay. Well, I just think you need to keep an open mind.
My mind is open, always, I just havent seen any evidence to support the ancient astronaut hypothesis.
We shook hands and, grinning, my new friend walked away.
My encounter exemplifies so much of what is wrong about the ancient astronaut belief. Lets ignore the inconvenient fact that there is absolutely no material, archaeological evidence for itno laser guns found in neat stratigraphic context next to the bones of woolly mammoths; no light sabers secreted in Egyptian tombs; and no Star-Trek-like communicators reverentially placed in Hopewellburial mounds. Theres another thing just as fundamentally wrong here: There is no need for a hypothesis of technologically sophisticated aliens dispensing knowledge to ancient human beings. The archaeological record shows clearly that our human ancestors were enormously intelligent and resourceful. They were more than capable of developing sophisticated technologies on their own. Rather than exhibiting a pattern of new ideas appearing magically and without antecedents at ancient sites, the actual record shows lengthy developmental sequencesin the domestication of plants and animals, the evolution of Egyptian pyramids, metallurgy, and so on. The development of these things didnt occur overnight, they werent air-lifted to Earth from another planet. Instead, the stories of these accomplishments are filled with the very human pattern of trial and error, fits and starts, missteps and leaps forward. To assume that the achievements of ancient humanity were made possible by visitors from outer space is to grossly underestimate the intelligence and capabilities of our ancestors and to ignore the enormously fascinating, actual archaeological record. And you dont need six fingers on each hand to understand that.
Kenneth L. Feder is Professor of Anthropology at Central Connecticut University. He is the author of several books, including Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology and the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: from Atlantis to the Walam Olum.