From their hat, or possibly another location, History Channel producers have pulled this gem: Ancient peoples were too stupid to do anything worthwhile without aliens, for whom great distances were a trivial matter thanks to wormholes. They have managed to get six seasons out of this premise on Ancient Aliens, perhaps the most pitiful pseudoscience program today – quite an accomplishment considering the competition. The basic idea is that visitors from outer space, rather than humans, are responsible for the major accomplishments of long-ago civilizations.
Until being eclipsed by The History Channel, the most prominent proponent was Erich von Däniken. His ideas are mostly the result of selective use of data, but he was caught in one instance of fraud. He had photos of pottery decorated with spaceships and aliens, and claimed to have found this during an archaeological dig. NOVA traced the pot to a contemporary source.
So he either just makes the stuff up or bastardizes ideas from Buck Rogers and H.P. Lovecraft. He mixes fact and fiction, rummaging through archeological sites and finding artifacts, but automatically attributing any advanced technology to ancient astronauts. Like any self-respecting pseudoscientist, he reaches his conclusion, then searches for it.
Von Däniken regularly relies on a pair of logical fallacies: The appeal to ignorance and the false dilemma. He uses both in this typical sentence about the Nazca Lines: “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.” So he dismisses the idea that ancient peoples could have drawn giant animals on the ground, but presupposes the existence of an unproven super species using unknown technologies. There is a third option, which is that the ancient people of Peru were more advanced than what von Däniken acknowledges. Whenever we have a gap in our knowledge of past cultures, von Däniken is there to plug it with ancient astronauts.
Some of his claims are impossible to disprove, but not all of them. For instance, he asserted a Mayan design depicted an astronaut, even though the accompanying text identified it as a Mayan leader. This is a typical tactic, employing a creative interpretation of artwork, such as presupposing an Aztec chiseling to be of a helicopter, when it could just as easily be of a locust. In fact, the artwork he cites as depicting aliens is consistent with religious myths, such as deities or a ruler ascending to heaven. He claims this is reversed, that alien visitors became gods in subsequent religions. This is negated by the fact that plenty of religions have crept up since without alien visitation.
If we ever figure out how Nazca, Stonehenge, and Moai came to be, it will come from National Geographic, NOVA, or Mythbusters, not some guy chasing down Zontar, the Thing From Venus. Anthropologists visiting primitive peoples have noted their creative use of pulleys, levers, water, brains, and brawn to accomplish what we would have suspected to be beyond their grasp.
Underestimating primitive cultures is a hallmark of the Ancient Astronaut Association. For instance, Robert Temple deduced that the Dogon people of Mali knew more about astronomy than their locale and education would suggest. He mixed translation errors and native myths to fuse another tale of alien visitors.
The only proponent to offer a specific launching point for our ancient house guests is Zecharia Sitchin. He asserts they hail from Nibiru, which he has lying beyond Pluto. Astronomers have no evidence of such a place, but Sitchin is undaunted by this refutation. He claims Sumerian texts tell the story of 50 Nibiru inhabitants coming to Earth 400,000 years, eventually somehow creating homo sapiens. This was based on his ignorance of ancient languages and an extreme desire to believe. It is worth noting that ancient astronaut hunters never interpret a literary work about extraordinary qualities to be a myth or tale, but always a literal occurrence.
They will also point to similarities in art around the world to suggest aliens had taught the same techniques to different cultures. This is a baseless and desperate attempt to make something fit. Why not take it further, and declare than any differences in art are proof that multiple alien cultures have visited?
Artwork isn’t the only thing they misinterpret. For instance, science has demonstrated that the human brain has undergone rapid evolution. Ancient astronaut proponents insist this resulted from extraterrestrial creatures tweaking the DNA of our ancestors. So they don’t believe human evolution could explain rapid growth, but they are OK with evolution being so complete in another species to allow for DNA manipulation and the controlling of natural selection.
While there are gaps in our knowledge of past civilizations, the motif of mankind’s existence shows slow, steady advancement. There is never a quantum leap that would be consistent with being enlightened exponentially by benevolent beings from a faraway galaxy. Even the Incas, Greeks, and Romans built on established knowledge and added to existing fields.
Man has always show ingenuity, harnessing fire and doing the same with the electron. Over the centuries we have seen the advent of the wheel, farming, art, medicine, mechanics, engineering, transportation, education, diplomacy, amusement, mass communication, animal domestication, weather forecasting, disaster response, and justice systems. And unless the likes of Hammurabi, Faraday, and Tesla were aliens, humans did it.