A photograph alleged to show one of the ‘Dropa stones’

A photograph alleged to show one of the ‘Dropa stones’

A number of publications, particularly on the Ancient Astronaut end of the Bad Archaeology scale, have repeated a story about some stones said to have been found in caves at Bayan Kara Ula in western China. The story became known in the west principally through Erich von Däniken’s second and third books, Return to the Stars and Gold of the Gods, although it appeared first in Robert Charroux’s work and has since become a staple of ufological literature.

The Bayan Kara Ula (Bayan Kara Shan or Bayan Har Shan) region (around 97°E 34°N), in Qinghai (Tsinghai) and Sichuan Provinces, contains the sources of the Tontian He (Yangtse Kiang) and Za Qu (Mekong) Rivers and until relatively recently, it was very isolated. In January 1938, according to the story, Chu Pu Tei (since 2009, a Chinese version of the name – 齐福泰, Qi Futai or Qifu Tai – has been in circulation), a Chinese archaeologist, made a remarkable discovery in caves in the region. The caves contained a series of graves, while their walls were decorated with drawings of people with elongated heads together with images of the sun, moon and stars. The graves were found to contain the remains of beings little more than a metre tall, with abnormally large skulls. The archaeologists also found a stone disk a little over 300 mm in diameter, with a hole in the centre. A groove on the surface of the disk spiralled outwards from the centre hole to the rim and back, forming a double spiral. Another 716 disks were found in the caves by subsequent investigations.

The disks were sent to a variety of scholars for investigation. One of them, Professor Tsum Um Nui of the Beijing Academy for Ancient Studies, found that the spiral grooves were actually a line of characters written in an unknown language. In 1962, he announced that he had managed to translate the disks. According to his translation, an alien spacecraft crashed in the Bayan Har Shan region twelve thousand years ago. The occupants, aliens called Dropa or Dzopa, could not repair their craft and tried to adapt to conditions on Earth. Meanwhile, the local Ham (or Kam or Kham, depending on the source) tribesmen hunted down and killed most of them. As the Ham were notably short people themselves, it is not clear whether the skeletons found in the caves were those of the Dropa/Dzopa or of Ham tribesmen. Supposedly, the aliens had intermarried with the locals, making identification of the origins of the skeletons more difficult.

The Professor’s publication of his results was greeted with disbelief and he was branded a liar. Resigning from Beijing Academy, he emigrated to Japan, where he died shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, Russian scientists became interested in the disks; several were sent to Moscow, where a chemical analysis found that the disks contained large amounts of cobalt.

One of ‘Wegener/Wegerer’s’ polaroids of two of the Dropa stones

One of ‘Wegener/Wegerer’s’ polaroids of two of the Dropa stones

In 1974, Ernst Wegener (or Wegerer according to some versions), an Austrian engineer, located two of the disks in the Banpo Museum (Banpo Bowuguan) in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. The museum director could tell him nothing about the disks, which had begun to deteriorate, but she allowed him to photograph them. By 1994, the disks had disappeared and, it is alleged, the previous curator had also disappeared. Banpo is best known for its Neolithic (Yangshao Culture) village, located about nine kilometres from the centre of Xi’an on the bank of the River Chanhe; the museum is built on the site of the village and is dedicated to objects excavated from it.

The real story

Although the story is rich in circumstantial detail, unlike so many in the Bad Archaeological literature, the detail turns out to be fiction. The earliest source for it is an article in Литературная газета (Literaturnaya Gazeta) of 9 February 1960, p 2, discussing the speculations of Matest M Agrest (1915-2005) that aliens might have visited earth in the remote past and left traces of their arrival. It was subsequently reprinted in its entirety as “Hypotheses, assumptions and guesses: does the trail lead into space?” by Valentin Isaakovich Rich and Mikhail Borisovy Chernenko in the magazine Новое Русское Слово (Current Digest of the Russian Press, a Russian language newspaper published in the USA since 1910, Volume 12 No 9 (30 March 1960), p 24-6). Intriguingly, this contained the story before the alleged date of Tsum Um Nui’s translation of the disks as related in later accounts. Some have suggested that Valentin Rich and Mikhail Chernenko never existed and were pseudonyms. However, they published a book in 1964, Сквозь магический кристалл: повесть о мысли (‘Through the Magic Crystal: a story of ideas’), on artificial diamonds, while Valentin Rich published Охота за элементами (‘The hunt for the elements’) in 1982 and В поисках элементов (‘In search of the elements’) in 1985 and so they appear to have been genuine popular science writers.

Two years later, the story turned up in the July 1962 edition Das Vegetarische Universum, a German vegetarian magazine, which published a story attributed to a Reinhardt Wegemann called Ufos in der Vorzeit? Die Hieroglyphen von Baian-Kara-Ula (‘Ufos in ancient times? The hieroglyphs of Bayan Kara Ula’). Intriguingly, the story is attributed to a news agency DINA, Tokyo; this is neither General Pinochet’s secret police nor the Mexican lorry manufacturer, so it is unclear what the acronym represents (it looks as if it could be the Deutsche Internationale Nachrichtenagentur, although if the agency ever existed, it has left no trace). The same story, from the same (apparently non-existent) news agency, again credited to Reinhardt Wegemann, was published in UFO-Nachrichten, a German UFO magazine, in July 1964. However, no trace of Reinhardt Wegemann can be found outside the story as published in Das Vegetarische Universum. The Belgian UFO organization BUFOI published a French translation in the March-April 1965 edition of its newsletter (number 4), to be followed by a Russian translation in 1967, bringing the story full circle.

The Russian translation was condensed by Vyacheslav Zaitsev in the English language magazine Sputnik: the Russian Digest dating from 1967, where it was called ‘Visitors from outer space: science versus fiction’. Sputnik is a sensationalistic magazine similar to Britain’s Daily Sport and the USA’s National Inquirer (please note that you may not be able to see its pages outside the USA).

What can we make of all this? Firstly, that the story has a very, very dubious pedigree. A speculative article by a pair of science writers seems to have been expanded by an unknown writer into the story published in the name of Reinhardt Wegemann in 1962. Whoever was behind this seems to have been disappointed by the poor take up of the story (a page in a vegetarian newspaper can hardly have had the impact the author of the hoax would have wanted), so he pushed it out again in 1964. Although rewritten, there is a clue in the text that it was originally prepared two years previously: it describes the expedition in which Chi Pu Tei discovered the discs as having occurred forty-five years previously, which would have placed in 1939, rather than 1937 as originally claimed. It seems that 1964 was a better year for tall tales involving crashed UFOs, as the story was taken up in a variety of publications. It was through one of these that Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s popularisation made it known to a wider world, including the up-and-coming Erich von Däniken. From there, the story blossomed, giving rise to at least two works of fiction, one of which was to foist the non-existent Lolladoff Plate on the gullible through the fictional Sungods in Exile.

The real Dropa

Tibetan nomadic herders, known as dropka

Tibetan nomadic herders, known as dropka

The Dropa turn out not to be the descendants of aliens, even mixed-race descendants, but an indigenous people of the eastern Tibetan plateau. Their name – which is better rendered Drop-Ka under the Gould-Parkinson system of transliteration for Tibetan – means ‘solitude’ or ‘inhabitant of high pasture lands’, a thoroughly down-to-earth description of semi-nomadic tribespeople of the plateau.

Worse, none of the names given in the accounts belongs to anyone who can be shown to have been involved archaeology or linguistics. Tsum Um Nui does not even appear to be a genuine Chinese name! There has never been a Beijing Academy for Ancient Studies and there are no records of an archaeologist named Chu Pu Tei: all stories with this name or its recent alternative spelling of Qi Futai relate to the Dropa Stones. The photos attributed to the otherwise unknown Wegener appear to be genuine, but they merely show stone disks with a hole in the centre and double spirals that were part of ancient snake cults and are known as Bi discs. One of the photographs of an alleged disk – not Wegener’s – shows it propped on a chair, clearly with a diameter much larger than the 300 mm claimed by the story. There is no mystery about a curator no longer being in post after twenty years: even museum professionals are permitted to change jobs, retire and die. In short, the details permit us to dismiss the story as science fiction.