Written by Hector Osegueda.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
It’s often the seemingly innocent ideas that cause the most damage. Ancient alien theories are among those ideas. We’ve all encountered one in particular; that immemorial and monumental structures, such as the pyramids at Giza, the Nazca lines in Peru, or the Moai of Easter Island, are products of extraterrestrial contact with past civilizations. This article isn’t trying to diminish the possible existence of alien life, but rather address the issue that for the most part is overlooked. That at its core, the notion that ancient alien visitors are the reason behind these structures is fundamentally racist.
The popularity of the theory exploded in 2009, when the History Channel aired the pilot episode for its show Ancient Aliens, introducing a large audience to the ideas of Erich Von Daniken, from who the show lifts most of its material. Daniken’s theories, dismissed by many scholars as pseudo-archaeological, revolve around the idea that structures, such as the pyramids of Giza, could not have possibly been built with the level of knowledge and technology available at the time to the Egyptians and other pre-classical civilizations. While far-fetched, the idea in itself isn’t crazy, rather that Daniken chooses to focus on non-European civilizations and attribute their architectural marvels to aliens. Proponents of the ancient alien theory would first believe that aliens came down, tinkered with these civilizations, and involved themselves in the construction of these structures for whatever reason, rather than accept the fact that the pyramids were constructed by quite capable Egyptians.
Believing in ancient extraterrestrial visitors and their influence on early humans isn’t dangerous. It’s the line of thinking and assumptions which are damaging, that these civilizations were too backward, primitive, or uncivilized to be capable of such accomplishments. Julien Benoit, a researcher at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, shares similar concerns about Daniken’s underlying ethnocentrism, “Firstly, these people try to prove their theories by travelling the world and desecrating ancient artifacts. Secondly, they perpetuate and give air to the racist notion that only Europeans – white people – ever were and ever will be capable of such architectural feats.”
The usage of ancient aliens as an explanation for pre-modern, non-white architecture functions as a racially motivated dog-whistle that diminishes and discredits accomplishments. It’s easy to dismiss this charge as one that lacks significance, but the fact remains that the ancient alien theory in regards to various cultures around the globe is a symptom of a substantial threat: the threat of cultural erasure. Playing into the trope that civilization is everything created by white Europeans, and that everything else is somehow uncivilized, is a problem society still deals with to this day. Those who propagate pseudo-archaeology are spreading misinformation that actively works against these historically marginalized and often oppressed cultures. No one will suggest that the Roman aqueducts or Coliseum were too gargantuan of tasks to be designed and completed by humans, so one can begin to see how problematic it is to suggest that architectural feats such as the Easter Island Moai or the Egyptian pyramids were perhaps created by alien visitors, and not their respective cultures.