A previous post of mine explored historical myopia- the idea that today is always worse than the past. An example I used was air travel; the common refrain today is that flying is as glamorous as a Greyhound bus, while air travel decades ago mirrors an episode of Mad Men.
We take the “good” part yet dismiss the context, the fact that only a tiny percentage of Americans could afford to fly decades ago. Along with other tropes such as the loss of family dinners, mom & pop stores, and the soaring costs of everything from soap to automobiles this form of historical myopia draws on our own experiences and those of no more than a generation or so before us.
There is another manifestation of this phenomenon and perhaps the best example is the current love affair people have with aliens and their supposed interventions with ancient civilizations. I realize this is a humorous and possibly trivial illustration but it is part of a broader idea that humans too often tend to view the past through the lens of the present.
The ancient alien sensation is not new and just one of innumerable stories throughout time seeking to explain the mysterious and unknown. What has changed is the rapidity at which these myths spread in our modern age via books, television, and the internet.
The bible of ancient alien theories is Erich von Däniken’s, Chariots of the Gods?, first published in 1968. It has sold millions of copies and spawned a popular 1970 documentary that garnered an Oscar nomination (the bar must have been set really low back then). Von Däniken has no training in archaeology or history; he wrote the book while working as a hotel manager in Davos, Switzerland.
He was also arrested and imprisoned on several occasions for theft, fraud, embezzlement, and forgery but despite a complete absence of knowledge or training and an impressive rap sheet, the book became a bestseller. I’m not suggesting he be put to the noose but how in the hell do we as humans consistently buy into crap like this from a guy with literally no authority on the subject of ancient history?
His most infamous assertion is that the pyramids of Egypt were too complex and too massive to have been built by mere humans, without even the wheel, and therefore must have been constructed with the help of little green men from the sky. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built around 2550 BC during the reign of the pharaoh Khufu. It is of a scale that is hard to imagine- it weighs 6.5 million tons, compared to the Empire State Building’s measly 365,000 tons. At 455 feet it was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 (just over 900 feet and 9440 tons).
The Great Pyramid would be an impressive feat if built even today but E.T. had no part to play. There is a wealth of evidence found throughout Egypt charting the developments leading to Khufu’s pyramid. The earliest Egyptian tombs were little more than a hole in the ground with a mudbrick slab, a mastaba, as a cap. Over time mastabas became larger and more elaborate and eventually someone thought “What if we stack mastabas on top of each other?” This led to the step pyramid of Djoser, completed around 2650 BC and soon after came the bent pyramid of Sneferu ca. 2600 BC. It was an early attempt at a smooth-sided pyramid but half-way into construction someone realized that the angle was too steep and instead of starting over they simply lessened the angle. Just a few decades later the accumulated knowledge of the past centuries came together and the Great Pyramid rose over the desert.
It is curious that of all the TV shows, websites, and books on these far-fetched theories, the ancient Romans and Greeks are conspicuously absent. Could it be that the philosophy, architecture, laws, and language of those two great civilizations are the root of our society? And that we see that influence still today? Is the Parthenon or Coliseum any less incredible than the pyramids? No, but it is mundane in comparison and lacks the “alien” quality of other civilizations.
How many movies come out every year featuring Hercules and so many other Greek/Roman gods and demigods? O Brother, Where Art Thou? is merely a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’s long, epic journey to reunite with his wife after the Trojan War. The main character (played by George Clooney) is named Ulysses Everett McGill, Ulysses being the Romanized name of Odysseus.
The Egyptians, Maya, Aztec, and others are ripe for nonsensical claims because those civilizations are mysterious and still little understood by archaeologists and historians. The aliens are not beings from outer space- they are us. We are much more willing to believe fantastical stories of the Maya because they seem so alien. Their language is still an enigma, so is it any wonder that people can find astronauts and space ships in their pictographic language?
The only difference between us and our ancestors of thousands of years ago is time. We have both the knowledge of countless previous generations and the technology to disseminate that knowledge to every corner of the globe. Consider this scenario:
You and your spouse have just had a baby. You’re sitting on your couch one night when a portal opens next to you. It connects to the past, 200,000 years in the past. There is a newborn baby wrapped in an animal fur lying on a bed of leaves. You reach through and pull the baby into the present just before the portal closes. You raise the child and yours as siblings. That “ancient” baby has the same capacity for intelligence as yours and the same chance to be smart, dim-witted, or the next Einstein, the DNA is exactly the same as ours. They are us and we them.
The distant past can be mysterious but it is not unknowable and no amount of aliens, magic, or midichlorians is necessary to understand or explain the amazing accomplishments of our distant ancestors. Facts, evidence, and most importantly context must guide our understanding. Remember to always bring the “but” to the present.
I can’t believe that a society without the wheel could build something as incredible as the Great Pyramid but there are countless ruins across Egypt that chart its gradual evolution..
Flying today is like moving livestock. It was so glamorous 50 years ago but only a small percentage of people could actually afford it.
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