Aliens in History documentaries have become a sub-genre of their own, the recipe of which is relatively simple: take a crazy-eyed narrator, place him in a cluttered basement, ask him to spool out a theory weaving in all remote corners of the planet, sprinkle in humongous leaps of faith to taste. Let it stew for approx. 45 minutes.
It doesn’t take long for the utter madness to be discredited. The question is: what particular brand of insanity are we witnessing here and why is it so watchable?
The return of magical thinking
One of the cornerstones of any good “Aliens in history” documentary is turning to ancient texts, myths and legends in search of evidence. The line of argument then goes: what our ancestors interpreted as god-like beings must have been aliens, or what our forefathers identified as magic must have been a machine or technlogy of some sort.
Aside from the fact that these texts are clearly metaphorical or allegorical, what we witness here is no more than magical thinking displaced onto machines. If our culture places technology on the highest pedestal, than we our merely re-adapting old beliefs through the lens of our new ones. And our belief is no less a bias than that of our ancestors in this specific case.
Another hallmark of the “Aliens in history” genre is the focus on tools. The argument goes along these lines: our ancestors’ tools approximate the precision of a machine, that is impossible therefore aliens must have provided them with the technology to perform these tasks.
Yet again, the huge premium our culture gives to machines is to blame. In fact, it is only a recent fact that machine precision exceeds that of the artisan – and it is only true in certain cases. For the major part of the history of man, machines have tried to replicate the precision of the hand-held tool – not the reverse.
A further trademark of this sub-genre is the emphasis on function. The argument follows this noxious pattern: our ancestors’ structures have no clearly identifiable purpose, therefore let’s ascribe to it the farthest thing from which it could possibly have been.
Aside from the hazardous guesses ventured by the crazy-eyed narrator or his tin-foil hat-wearing accomplice, the problem with this argument is the very notion of function. Not only can ancient, sacred rationales for building structures not fit in to our utilitarian mode of thinking, our patchy knowledge of their societies don’t allow us to fully comprehend what social function they served.
In all of the above cases, the issue is the tendency to view our own cultural norms (be it the primacy of technology or our scale of what is useful and what is not) to past cultures. In trying to offer a “far-out” explanation, these goons only succeed at giving on that is painfully of its time and place…
Human, all too human
In other cases, the documentary plunges in a different but equally reckless confusion: mistaking natural human preferences for cultural norms.
The argument revolves around the stunning perfection of ancient structures: the proportions include a mathematical concept that they didn’t know at the time, this structure builds on principles of aerodynamics that they didn’t have a clue about, the alignment is actually aligned. Enter Aliens.
The fact that ancient structures include the Golden Number, the Fibonacci pattern, Pi, straight lines, bricks that fall into place is no sign of alien intervention. The simple truth is these numbers exist in nature – which includes the human eye – and were as observable then as they are now. The same impulse that later drove mathematicians to lay these principles and concepts on paper also drove these architects to lay them in stone.
A quick travelling accross a 3D map then drags us from one corner of a desert to the depths of a rainforest to show us the exact same principle being applied there, implying that these dots on the map were all in contact with each other or with some extraterrestrial force. If anything, these similarities are a testament to the unity of natural laws around the world and to the fact that humans have an equal readiness to identify these regardless of their cultural differences.
The answer is in the stars
These ancient structures, built on principles of harmony which transcend cultural boundaries in the human mind, are supposed to inspire awe and a feeling of connection to a greater whole.
After having been deemed incapable of fulfilling such an awesome task, perhaps the only consolation for our ancestors is that still to this day their structures continue to generate a feeling that remains common to all of humanity: the desire to be one with the universe.
In an ironic twist, the constructions that we will leave behind and that will encapsulate this search for a higher meaning to future generations may well be the sad sub-genre of the “Aliens in history” documentary. The pattern-seeking nature of the mind and its thirst for a higher, all encompassing power is what makes the documentary incredibly watchable today, and (sadly) for centuries to come…