Ancient astronauts are conjectured extraterrestrial visitors to Earth in its distant past, whose existence was advocated by Peter Kolosimo in his 1957 book Il pianeta sconosciuto and later by the better-known Erich von Däniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods and its sequels. The ancient astronaut theory or paleocontact theory says that human beings are either the descendants or creations of aliens who landed on Earth millennia ago, or that much of our culture was given to us by extraterrestrial visitors in the time of pre-history.
The idea is viewed as pseudoscience (or pathological science) by most scientists and historians.
Adherents and evidence
Originally proposed in 1958 by the Russian ethnologist and mathematician Matest M. Agrest (born 1915), who asserted that the stone terracing at Baalbek had been used as a launch site for spaceships, and that the destruction of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah was the result of a nuclear explosion, "paleocontact" refers to all aspects of theories that advanced extraterrestrials have played an influential role in the human origin and development as a civilization.
Although not taken seriously by mainstream science, this theory has many adherents, and many variations. It has been popularized by best-selling authors such as Henri Lhote , Charles Fort, Erich von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin and Richard Hoagland. Additionally, the author Douglas Adams used a satirical version of the theory in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.
The evidence Däniken has put forward to support his theories can be categorised as follows:
- Artifacts have been found which appear to represent higher technological knowledge than is presumed to have existed at times when they were manufactured. Däniken maintains that these artifacts have been manufactured either by extraterrestrial visitors or by humans who learned the necessary knowledge from them. Such artifacts include Stonehenge, the head statues of Easter Island and the Antikythera mechanism.
- In ancient art throughout the world, themes can be observed which can be interpreted to illustrate astronauts, air and space vehicles, non-human but intelligent creatures, and artifacts of high technology. Däniken also identifies details that are similar in art of unrelated cultures, which he argues imply a common origin.
- The origins of many religions can be described as reactions to contacts of primitive humans with an alien race. In this view, the humans considered the technology of the aliens to be supernatural and the aliens themselves to be gods. According to Däniken, the oral and literal traditions of most religions contain references to visitors from stars and vehicles travelling through air and space. These, he says, should be interpreted as literal descriptions which have changed during the passage of time and become more obscure, rather than symbolic or mythical fiction. One such is Ezekiel's revelation in the Old Testament, which Däniken interprets as a detailed description of a landing spacecraft.
Since the publication of Däniken's books, no substantial evidence has been found to verify his claims, and experimenters and historians have made great progress in explaining how structures such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids were built. As a result, most historians regard his claims as pseudoscience or pseudoarchaeology, and are of the opinion that he is drawing far-reaching conclusions from little evidence while disregarding more likely alternative hypotheses.
Similar ideas could be found in the earlier horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, who was in turn influenced by Theosophy and Charles Fort. Some earlier sources--while not referencing ancient astronats per se--suggest the creation of some monuments was beyond human means, such as Saxo Grammaticus' suggestion that giants had created Denmark's massive dolmens, or in tales that Merlin had assembled Stonehenge via magic.
Evidence often consists of allegations that ancient monuments, such as the pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu in Peru, could not have been built without technical abilities beyond those of people at that time. Such allegations are not unique in history. Similar reasoning lay behind the wonder of the "Cyclopean" masonry walling at Mycenaean cities in the eyes of Greeks of the following "Dark Age," who envisaged the giant Cyclopes as builders of the walls. Among the Anglo-Saxons, who were skilled at carpentry but innocent of the arts of masonry, the Roman remains of Britain had been built with the aid of Gog and Magog.
While artifacts that would prove a contact with more-developed civilization have not been found, some authors think there is strong evidence of their existence. (See Anachronism and time travel.)
Many authors use ancient mythologies to support their theories, with the extraordinary adventures of various gods being interpreted as being modern technologies as seen from the perspective of a simple-minded earthman. One classical example is the Vimanas, flying machines that can be found in the literature of India.
Also, a frequent theme that can be encountered in many mythologies is a person who comes from far away as a god, or as the archetype of a "civilizing hero" brings knowledge to mankind. Prometheus is the best-known Western example.
Ancient astronauts in fiction
The ancient astronaut theory has also been addressed in science fiction, with both the original Battlestar Galactica and the 2003 remake exploring the idea that Earth was colonized by man millenia ago. The opening prologue of the 1978 series stated, "There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of human who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. They may have been the architects of the great pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive far, far away, amongst the stars."