One of the most successful and influential of all Bad Archaeologists is the Swiss former hotelier, Erich von Däniken (born 1935). He caused controversy in the late 1960s with his popularisation of what has become known as the ‘ancient astronaut hypothesis’, although he was by no means the first to propose it. His first book, Chariots of the Gods?, published in 1967 after no fewer than twenty-two rejections, became a worldwide bestseller, thanks in no small part to its tone: a strident attack on hide-bound academia by one who dared to speak his mind. He was not the first fringe writer to adopt this stance and he has not been the last: expert bashing has become an important cultural cliché over the past half century or so. The ups and downs of his career have seen him arrested for fraud, become a global media personality and, ultimately, made him wealthy through the sale of over sixty million copies of his books. He has consistently claimed that the remains of ancient cultures can only be explained by extraterrestrial interventions in human history.
During an early career as a waiter, he was able to save for extensive travels in which he hoped to find evidence for an idea he had developed through reading the Bible (and, although he does not admit as much, it is clear from the outset that he got many of his ideas from his reading of the works of speculative writes such as Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, Robert Charroux and Peter Kolosimo): that extraterrestrials had meddled in human history. The piece of evidence he considers the most convincing that he has ever produced is the cover slab of the tomb of the Lord Pacal in the Pyramid of the Inscriptions at Palenque, weak stuff though it is. Moreover, his description and interpretation are not original: they derive from an article by Guy Tarade and A Millou in an Italian magazine Clypeus, published in October 1966. He saw it as a representation of a humanoid being in a space capsule and it became the cover image for the hardback publication of the English edition of Chariots of the Gods?. Subsequent books took his search for evidence farther afield and he even dabbled in analyses of religious visions (Miracles of the Gods) and Greek mythology.
The spacemen gods
Like so many fringe writers, von Däniken cannot accept that ancient peoples had spiritual experiences or imaginations. Whenever people in the past wrote about ‘gods’ and ‘heaven’ they were thinking about how to express their incomprehension of vastly superior technology.
Because the gods of so many ancient cultures are associated with the sky or with objects in the sky, such as the sun and moon, von Däniken believes that there must be a literal connection. In a late twentieth-century context, they can be identified with the beings that were being recorded from the early 1950s onwards as pilots of Unidentified Flying Objects, who claimed to those with whom they made contact that they had come from other planets. Although von Däniken remains surprisingly agnostic about UFOs, the connection is clear: the gods of ancient myth were space travellers whose craft are identical with those phenomena that UFO enthusiasts regard as historical records of ‘flying saucers’.
Human artefacts record their presence on earth
Von Däniken uses an assortment of out-of-place artefacts and spectacular monuments to provide evidence for his thesis. He seems to regard all of them as human creations, albeit aided or inspired by space travellers (unlike Alan Alford, who claimed that the Great Pyramid had been built by the Anunnaki as an apparatus for splitting water molecules to provide hydrogen fuel for spacecraft…). Nevertheless, he believes that the artefacts he uses to suggest alien contact could not have been developed the peoples using them: the ‘Batteries of Babylon’, for instance, cannot be an invention of the Persians of the first millennium BCE, but must be a degenerate version of something originally more sophisticated of extraterrestrial origin. Most of these pieces of evidence involve the same argument: these creations are too complex to be the unaided products of ancient humans because those humans lacked the technical expertise to create them.
Much of the argument is almost racist: the people of distant times lack the mental capacities of the alien ‘gods’ – just as the people of distant places in more recent centuries were claimed to lack the mental capacities of the ‘superior’ Europeans who ruled them.
Among the artefacts, though, are pieces unknown to conventional archaeology, such as the gold objects allegedly found in cave systems in Ecuador. In addition, for the most part, he provides no references to where the material has been published or where it can be viewed. This poses problems for the serious researcher who may wish to follow up claims about specific pieces of evidence. Parts of Chariots of the Gods?, for example, consist of lists of artefacts that are effectively meaningless as they lack any contextual information or detail.
The gods themselves left nothing behind
Whilst some sceptics might consider it necessary to identify the products of the aliens themselves, this does not appear to be a problem for von Däniken. He seems to believe that, unlike humans, the space travellers were able to do all sorts of things while on earth that have left no trace in the archaeological record. The only evidence is evidence by proxy: the anthropogenic material he identifies as inspired by the aliens.
Genetically modified humans?
Like a number of fringe writers, von Däniken has immense difficulties with the origins of the human species, as well as of human civilisation. He finds the transition from archaic to modern forms to be too rapid to be accounted for by evolution and is evidently troubled by the common assertion of religions that humans have been created in a god’s image. To him, this is evidence for the special creation of humanity. Where he differs from the creationists, though, is in his insistence that when ancient texts speak of ‘gods’, they actually mean ‘astronauts’ (hence the subtitle of the English translation of Chariots of the Gods?: Was God an Astronaut?). Humans were created in the (relatively) recent past by the selective interbreeding of spacemen with proto-human females.