The notion that ancient monuments, myths, and artworks reflect the visitation of Earth by alien beings is not one that is taken very seriously in the world of scholarly history, nor much outside of it, either. Still, it is one of those fictions, like astrology or vaccine scares, that continue to float through popular culture and appeal to some people because they offer simple answers to difficult questions. Who built the pyramids? Who drew the Nazca lines? Aliens!
It’s easy to dismiss ancient aliens as just another silly idea that most people don’t take seriously, but even silly ideas can be insidious. How we think about people in the past shapes and is shaped by how we think about people in the present. Especially when we’re looking to the past to inspire works of speculative fiction, we have to be conscious of the assumptions that underlie our ways of interpreting and explaining history. As harmless and even goofy as the ancient alien hypothesis may seem, it operates on a logic that is fundamentally racist and entangled with imperialist ideology.
I’ve written before about the dynastic race theory of Egyptian history. In brief, Europeans of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries didn’t believe that Africans were capable of creating an advanced civilization on their own, so they invented a superior race of foreign invaders who they believed had conquered and ruled Egypt, bringing their advanced culture with them. This theory justified European imperialism by creating a historical precedent: the brown people of the world needed superior white rulers to teach them how to be civilized, both in the past and the present.
The racism and imperialism inherent in dynastic race theory is obvious to us today, but the ancient alien hypothesis rests on the same assumption: that those people couldn’t possibly have been capable of creating such sophisticated artworks, monuments, and cultures on their own. Although ancient alien crackpots can conjure little green men to explain anything from the past, you’ll notice that the popular examples are all things created by non-Europeans: the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Maya and Aztecs, the Nazca lines, the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) stone heads, and so forth. You don’t often hear arguments that aliens built the Parthenon in Greece or the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
(The one European monument that regularly gets the ancient alien treatment is Stonehenge, which is a complicated case. The invasion theory of European history, which also clings on in popular culture despite being thoroughly discredited in scholarship, posits that the people who built Stonehenge were overrun and replaced by invaders from continental Europe, which makes them not really like modern Europeans and Euro-Americans. Some versions of the invasion theory even explicitly call the pre-invasion population non-white.)
But, some might say, that’s just because we know who built the Parthenon and we don’t know who built the pyramids, so the alien hypothesis is just filling in a mystery. Except that we do know. Egyptians built the pyramids. Mayans built the Maya temples and Aztecs built the Aztec temples. The Nazca people created the Nazca lines and Polynesians erected the stone heads on Rapa Nui. We have a pretty good understanding of how and why they all did those things, too, even if we’re still piecing together some of the details. None of this has ever seriously been in doubt. There is no mystery, just a reluctance on the part of white westerners to acknowledge the cultural attainments of non-white non-westerners. No aliens need apply.
The ancient alien hypothesis does much the same work for a modern audience that dynastic race theory did for an earlier one: it reassures us descendants of European imperialists and colonizers that the peoples our ancestors conquered, subjugated, and destroyed weren’t really up to snuff anyway. They didn’t build great monuments, figure out sophisticated mathematics and physics, or organize labor on a massive scale, space aliens did it for them. They didn’t compose great works of literature and mythology, they just handed down hazily-remembered stories about men from the sky. Invoking ancient aliens saves us the trouble of respecting other peoples’ cultures or acknowledging the tragedy of their destruction by assuring us that they don’t really count.
Thoughts for writers
We have a responsibility to the people of the past and to our audience in the present. False interpretations of history have underlain some of the worst atrocities that human beings have committed against one another. We have a duty not to perpetuate harmful assumptions, even when they come dressed up like silly alien stories. This duty lies upon us even when we aren’t doing serious scholarly study and are just mining history for interesting storytelling material. The stories we tell matter.
This doesn’t mean that ancient aliens are off-limits for storytelling. I have no doubt that there are good fantasy and sci-fi stories to be told about aliens visiting Earth in the past, stories that don’t deny the agency, ingenuity, and persistence of ancient peoples. Let’s see some of those.
Image by Erik Jensen, based on “Ancient Aliens Guy” via Know Your Meme
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.
What if your “ancient aliens theory” is very important traditional lore passed down to you by your Native American elders? Or what if you are from the Dogon tribe of Africa? Those are some pretty big holes in your theory there.
I’ve never encountered an ancient alien story that wasn’t a Western creation, but I’d be delighted to discover one. It would make for a fascinating comparison. Every supposedly indigenous “ancient aliens” story that I’ve run across has turned out, on closer inspection, to be a Western implant or misinterpretation.
The Dogon astronomical beliefs are a classic case. French anthropologists who visited the Dogon in the early twentieth century recorded Dogon astronomical lore including some features (dimmer stars near Sirius, rings around Saturn) that are not observable with the naked eye. There are many possible explanations for these beliefs: they may simply be fortuitous, the French anthropologists may have misunderstood their interviewees, or–perhaps the most likely–the Dogon may have learned about these phenomena from earlier Western visitors. This possibility is strongly suggested by a couple of facts. First, the Dogon astronomical lore contains nothing that was not known to western astronomers at the time. Second, Dogon informants told later researchers that they learned about these astronomical phenomena from Western visitors–some have even said they learned about them from the French anthropologists themselves. The Dogon also never claimed to have learned about the stars from aliens. The first person to suggest that they had was a Western author, Robert Temple, in 1976.
All the cases of ancient alien claims in the Americas that I know about are a similar Western impositions, but I’m certainly not going to argue with any Indigenous people who say that they learned it from their elders. I would, however, wonder where their elders got the idea from. For many oppressed peoples, there are practical advantages to learning to talk about yourself in the same terms that the dominant society talks about you. “This is what the White people think about us, so you’d better smile and nod and hope they don’t shoot you” could very legitimately count as important traditional lore in some circumstances.
Nevertheless, I certainly haven’t heard everything. If there is a truly indigenous “ancient aliens” story out there somewhere I would love to hear about it.