Erich von Daniken, a Swiss high-school dropout, has made
millions of dollars from eight or more books written since 1968. These books
all make a remarkable and exciting claim. In von Daniken�s words, �Our
forefathers received visits from the universe in the remote past, even though I
do not yet know who these extraterrestrial intelligences were or from which
planet they came. I nevertheless proclaim that these strangers annihilated part
of mankind existing at the time and produced a new, perhaps the first, Homo
sapiens.� Each of von Daniken�s books � Chariots of the Gods?, Return to
the Stars, The Gold of the Gods, In Search of Ancient Gods, Miracles of the
Gods, Von Daniken�s Proof, Signs of the Gods, etc. � gives a different
version of this story, and each interprets the same �evidence� in different and
contradictory ways. In some versions of the story, creatures from other worlds
create humanity by genetic engineering of lower animals; in others they create
humanity by interbreeding with apes (evidencing a curious taste in women); in
others they are castaways who become humanity; and in still others
humanity is already well established, and the extraterrestrials simply give
them a boost from savagery to civilization. Von Daniken rarely tells the story
the same way twice, even in the same book. Nevertheless, the essence is that
extraterrestrials have had some impact on human history, and that there is
evidence of this influence.
In fact, it is the essentially unanimous opinion of
archaeologists and specialists in human pre-history that no such
evidence exists. Von Daniken�s arguments consist mainly of an appeal to
ignorance. He cites things that his poorly educated readers are unlikely to
recognize or know anything about. These are misrepresented, taken out of
context, or used as a springboard for wild speculations and non-sequiturs. Von
Daniken�s books also contain a large amount of outright factual error and
veiled racism. What they do not contain is any valid evidence supporting his
claims in any way.
Examples of Von Daniken�s �evidence� include:
The Bible is full of stories best explained by
assuming that the ancient Hebrews were in contact with extraterrestrials whom
they worshipped as gods. (His ideas about the New Testament are not clear.)
Intelligence seems to have appeared very
suddenly in our ancestors about 40,000 years ago. They suddenly began using
fire, bows and arrows, stone axes, and making sophisticated cave paintings.
A map made by Turkish admiral Piri Re�is in 1513
is �perfectly accurate � [about] even the contours of the Antarctic, so that
the originals must have been aerial photographs taken from a very great height�
In the Nasca Plain, a desert in Peru, there are
enormous markings; they are only comprehensible if the desert had been used as
a spacecraft landing field.
The immense pyramids of Egypt could not have
been constructed by primitive humans without help from extraterrestrials. He
claims that �ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a
fantastic ready-made civilization,�
The statues of Easter Island could not have been
made or raised by primitive men.
Certain ancient works of art clearly show space
ships and jet aircraft. One Mayan carving shows a �god� piloting a rocket ship
complete with acceleration couch, instrument panel, and exhaust flames.
The space gods dug gigantic tunnel systems under
Ecuador and Peru, where they stored fantastic gold treasures offered them by
The myths of all cultures concerning their gods
are distorted memories of extraterrestrials on the ancient earth.
None of this �evidence� is valid. For a detailed analysis of
von Daniken�s claims, consult books in the reference list. There is space here
for just a few brief comments.
One of von Daniken�s favorite ploys is to give a �gadget�
explanation for everything in a selected myth. This interpretation is always
based on our own present technology and not the hypothetical super
advanced technology of extraterrestrial space travelers. Thus, the Ark of the
Covenant was a radio transmitter/receiver (or a nuclear reactor). Aladdin�s
lamp was also a radio. Sodom and Gomorrah were devastated by a nuclear
explosion. Ezekiel�s wheel was a helicopter. The absurdity of this device can
be shown by making up your own �gadget� explanations for everything mentioned
in the Bible. The flaming sword used by the angel to bar Adam and Eve from Eden
was doubtlessly a flamethrower or perhaps a soldering iron. Jonah�s whale was a
submarine. The pillar of fire was a streetlight (or a MacDonald�s sign); the
raising of Lazarus, an application of heart massage; Ezekiel�s vision, a TV.
commercial! This is philistine provincialism, not evidence.
Another of von Daniken�s ploys is to allege that �our
ancestors,� especially those who were not white, were morons and filthy
savages, incapable of imagination, architecture, or discovery. But fire and
weapons were in use, not tens of thousands but millions of years ago and
by exceedingly ape-like human ancestors. It is nonsense to claim that we modern
citizens of developed nations are different in intelligence, imagination,
artistic yearnings, etc., from New Guinea tribes people, ancient Greeks,
ancient Egyptians, or cavemen living 40,000 or even 100,000 years ago. Even
�pre-humans� such as Neanderthal man did not differ significantly in appearance
or richness of culture from modern man. To deny this is to deny every discovery
of modern anthropology, but this von Daniken does effortlessly, since the facts
do not jibe with his racist fantasies.
All of von Daniken�s hard evidence vanishes instantly when
looked at in light of what we actually know. Consider Piri Re�is� map.
Examination of any clear reproduction of this map will show it to be extremely
inaccurate � more so than many other maps of the same period. A far more
accurate map appeared in 1559, drawn by Turkish cartographer Hadji Ahmed.
Furthermore, Piri Re�is gives all his sources in marginal notations on his map;
these include maps from the expeditions of Columbus � even so, the Caribbean is
While the purposes of the Nasca markings and the statues on
Easter Island have disappeared with the cultures that produced them, they are
in no way difficult to construct � even without extraterrestrial help. Two people
with pegs and string can lay out identical copies of the Nasca markings. Thor
Heyerdahl has filmed Easter Island natives carving and erecting a statue using
only the crude tools available on the island � stone axes, vegetable fiber
ropes, and logs. (Incidentally, the original statues are known to have been
carved mostly around 1500 A.D. � long after the time von Daniken claims space
gods were flying around.)
As for Egypt, it has a long, continuous historical and
archaeological record. The Egyptians left detailed accounts of their methods of
architecture, and of moving massive stones and statues. Also, there are
primitive early pyramids, botched jobs, quarries with tools still lying there,
wall paintings of engineering methods, mathematical texts setting architectural
problems for pyramid construction, and many other records of technology and
culture. There are few mysteries concerning the purpose, construction, or
properties of the pyramids � despite tons of rubbish produced by occultists and
crackpots claiming the contrary in the face of all the evidence.
To von Daniken, the sun or moon in any ancient work of art
is a �space ship.�� Bits of jewelry in
the shape of a fish or leaf are �jet aircraft.� A classic von Daniken howler is
his interpretation of the tomb lid of Mayan king Pacal. In this von Daniken
sees a �god� at the controls of his �spacecraft,� but one might just as well
see a limp figure in the clutches of a Hollywood movie monster or sci-fi robot.
What the Mayans intended the image to represent, judging by the rest of their
surviving art, was the descent of the dead body of King Pacal into the
underworld. He falls past the sacred Quetzal bird and the sacred corn plant
into the jaws of the Earth Monster waiting to devour him. All these images (bird,
corn plant, monster) are common motifs in Mayan art; there is no uncertainty
about what they represent.
Von Daniken�s story about �gold of the gods� has been
exposed as a hoax by the explorer Juan Moricz, from whom von Daniken got the
basic elements that were woven into the hoax. Von Daniken�s books are full of
outright mistakes, errors, and blunders that make it clear that he does not
bother to consult even the most readily available reference works. His
mathematical formulas lack equal signs; his rare references have incorrect page
numbers; he apparently does not bother to look at the maps he cites as
�accurate;� he does not bother to find out what is actually known about
archaeological sites that are important to his claims. He cannot be taken
seriously. He is not a scholar nor a scientist by any stretch of the
imagination. He has done nothing but misinterpret and obscure the work and
discoveries of others.
The first two of von Daniken�s books were heavily
plagiarized from two earlier books published in France in the early 1960�s (by
Pauwels and Bergier and by R. Charroux). The �ancient astronaut� claims were
old-hat even then. They can be traced back to the crackpot literature of the
Theosophist movement of the 1880�s; this resurfaced in the Shaver mystery of
1945, in the claims of �contactee� George Adamski in 1953, and is found in the
works of many writers about �flying saucers� in the late 1950�s and early
1960�s. In addition to his legal difficulties from charges of plagiarization
(he settled out of court), von Daniken was convicted for forgery and embezzling
money from a hotel which he managed, and served part of a 3 1/2-year prison
sentence beginning in 1970. However, since between 1968 and 1980 von Daniken�s
books were selling an average of 3.5 million copies per year, he was with his
royalties able to make restitution to the hotel and earn early release from
prison. Perhaps anyone who plunks down $2.25 for one of von Daniken�s works is
actually demonstrating that crime can be made to pay � and pay very well
References for further reading
Exploring the Unknown, C. J. Cazeau, C.J. and S.D.
Scott, Jr., Plenum, New York, 1979, Chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 14.
Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Kendrick Frazier,
(Ed.), Prometheus, New York, 1981. Articles by Omohundro, Story, Bainbridge,
Flim-Flam! by James Randi, Prometheus, New York,
1982, Chapter 6.
Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, W. H.
Stiebing, Jr., Prometheus, New York, 1984.
The Space Gods Revealed, Ronald Story, Harper and Row,
New York, 1976.
and Reality, Jeremy A. Sabloff, (Ed.), Freeman, California, 1982.
Some Trust in Chariots, B. Thiering and E. Castle,
Popular Library, New York, 1972.
The Past is Human, Peter White., Taplinger, New
ASTOP � The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience � has
prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of
teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker,
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