For those of you who have somehow missed it, History (AKA The History Channel) has this series on called “Ancient Aliens.” It’s what you might, at best, call a speculative/alternate history show, in which various “experts” postulate that human history and development may possible have been influenced by the guiding hand of extra-terrestrial visitors. Naturally, it’s a big hit for History while leading to many famous/infamous Internet memes.
Let’s get something out of the way first: You can believe that life beyond Earth exists and not believe a single thing “Ancient Aliens” proposes. You can even believe that Earth has been visited by intelligent beings from other solar systems and dismiss everything the show proposes. The show does not do anything to either prove or disprove the presence of life outside of Earth. That tagline on the DVD box? It’s a ruse. They don’t touch on who these aliens were or why they were here.
Instead the show focuses on proposing alternate hypotheses for various archeological, anthropological, cultural and historical relics, texts and artwork. The short version: either extra-terrestrial beings created them or they influenced their creation on primitive humans. This can extend to massive sites such as Puma Punku in Bolivia and the Nazca lines of Peru or to smaller evidence like ancient Sanskrit and Hindu texts or hieroglyphs in Egypt. They might present how conventional archeologists or linguists perceive the evidence before moving on to how this site or this piece of ancient text ties into their “ancient astronaut theory.” (Aside: it’s not a theory. It’s a hypothesis).
Not surprisingly, there’s been a movement by some scientists and filmmakers to rebut the proposed ideas of Ancient Aliens. The show is often rejected as far-fetched at best and as straight up false at worse. The most recent effort centers around a recently-released film on YouTube that’s called “Ancient Aliens Debunked.” The work of Chris White, the film dissects some of the claims made by the show and its stars regarding famous sites, artwork and literature that has been used by Ancient Aliens to support its claims. And let me tell you that he is thorough.
The movie is divided into 3 one-hour parts. Part 1 deals with famous archaeological sites that have been featured on the show like Puma Punku, the Pyramids of Giza and Baalbek. Part 2 touches on some of the pieces of ancient artwork that have been said to feature ancient alien tech like the Nazca lines, the Tolima “Fighter Jets” and the Egyptian light bulbs. Lastly, part 3 takes on ancient art and literature that’s said to feature aliens or UFOs, whether it’s Middle Ages paintings, Hindu texts or those infamous Crystal Skulls. Throughout the film, White presents the claims that the show makes and then proceeds to refute them with data collected from a variety of academic sources. You’ll also see commentary from Dr. Michael S. Heiser, a linguistics, history and Biblical scholar, who has made it a life’s work to refute the claims of Zecharia Sitchin, a writer of books since the 1970s who was amongst the founders of the “ancient astronaut hypothesis” and whose works remain the source for many of the ideas within Ancient Aliens.
For the most part, White does a great job of explaining why Ancient Aliens is incorrect in their assessment of their “evidence.” Take, for example, the Tolima “Fighter Jets”. The Tolima were a pre-Columbian South American tribe. The “fighter jets” were found amidst hundreds of other golden figurines that depicted other sorts of animals common to the Tolima. According to Ancient Aliens, this figurine is one of ten or so that are not depictions of any animal known to the Tolima. Therefore, it is depictions of an ancient airplane – and if that’s the case, the only source for this kind of knowledge is extra-terrestrial. White responds by explaining that 1) there is no evidence of the Tolima knowing anything about the kind of technology Ancient Aliens state they were depicting, 2) their figurines were depicting objects out of nature and he gives examples of the kind of fauna that were known to the Tolima and 3) the model that Ancient Aliens makes out to prove the Tolima “fighter jet” is aerodynamic has been changed sufficiently to be made that way.
White goes step-by-step in every section of his dissertation. He cites sources for his points. He takes what the Ancient Aliens “experts” say and challenges it. When he needs a little back-up, he brings in Dr. Heiser to support his point or quotes from amongst the myriad of experts that refute what Ancient Aliens is saying. This evidence-based takes stands in stark contrast to Ancient Aliens’ experts who often provide their opinion without much sourcing. The only moment where White’s own personal biases come to the forefront is in the last section, which touches upon the myths of the “Nephilim” (the giants from the Bible’s Genesis chapter) which Sitchin claims were alien beings from a planet beyond Pluto and that the Bible stated were wiped out in Noah’s Flood. White’s Christian fundamentalist values do come forward there to propose that there’s as much evidence for a real Biblical flood as there is for aliens. But before he goes down that road, he first asserts that it’s as likely that it’s just a story that other civilizations copied and told as part of their own. Even that shouldn’t stop you from watching the film if this sort of thing is your fancy. If you’re interested, here’s the link to the complete film. Do note, it’s over 3 hours long!
To me, the greater question has to be: why is Ancient Aliens so popular? The science is spurious at best. The show provides no hard evidence for their hypotheses. It’s just “there’s this odd thing that linguists and archeologists have looked at and said it’s one thing, but never mind that idea. It’s aliens. Aliens in the past.” I get why History keeps showing it: it’s a success. The show has fans and it brings in money. It’s also indicative of their need for programming that attracts eyeballs. History’s programming can be split into three branches: high-concept historically-based material like America: The Story of Us and Engineering An Empire, reality TV fare like Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People and pseudo-science entertainment like The Nostradamus Effect and Ancient Aliens.
In their defense, History is hardly alone. Discovery and National Geographic – the other major “educational entertainment” networks have similar shows that touch upon similar topics: aliens and UFOs, conspiracy theories, Biblical prophecy and apocalyptic prophesies, ghosts and demons and exorcisms. I’ll grant you that neither one of them has generated an Internet meme, but that’s no defense. We are talking about channels that have slid into featuring whatever they can to make ends meet and have forgotten what it is they’re supposed to be giving the audience. It’s one thing to give people pseudo-science when you at least make it pass a muster test of facts. But to just present whatever you want and not worry about how it devalues your network?
What’s more reprehensible is that it continues the feeding of a pervasive mindset in America. Namely the “I’ll disagree with the facts and the science because it doesn’t fit my worldview regardless of evidence” idea that many have. It’s filtered into every aspect of our lives and our society and we act like there’s nothing wrong with it because we don’t want our views challenged. But that’s what science is, in fact, all about. Whether evolution or the presence of ghosts or alien technology in the past, ideas must be presented, must be tested and must pass their test or they are discarded. It’s why we don’t think the Earth is the center of the universe anymore. It’s why we don’t think sperm carry tiny humans. It’s why we don’t think extra-terrestrial beings have ever visited Earth or humans – whether yesterday or today.
Shows like Ancient Aliens are junk food for the mind – the educational equivalent of a Doritos Loco Taco. It doesn’t push thinking further, in spite of what its proponents and fans would claim. It allows for people to keep thinking the same thing over and over, with any proof of its failings dismissed as either entrenched thinking or an inability to imagine. Maybe “Ancient Aliens Debunked” is nothing more than the opposite side of the coin. Ultimately, I would like for networks like History to demand stronger and more strict analysis of their shows. After all, if extra-terrestrials really did visit the ancient past, wouldn’t it behoove its proponents to provide as much data as possible that can pass the test of others?