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Revisited: Ancient Aliens Episode #1

Eric: So, I need to go on record and say when you suggested we watch Ancient Aliens, the first thing I wanted to ask was, did you vaccinate your kid? This whole show is a conspiracy theorists’ wet dream that full of confirmation bias. It’s got interesting facts and enough truth to be convincing, but the way the facts are interpreted are blatantly wrong. I wouldn’t accept this thesis from a seventh grader.

For instance, the Golden Flier and the bird carving. The argument is that ancient peoples had a carving that can scale up to actually fly. A glider. But every paper airplane I ever made was a glider. I’ve watched kids make dozens of kinds of paper airplanes, all of them with various degrees of success, out of cardboard, paper, kite materials, etc. Gliding through the air like a flying squirrel was never thought impossible at any point in history. On this show, however, their whole argument is that if it is advanced, it simply MUST be because aliens gave them the technology. By that logic, DaVinci must have been an alien. It’s a non sequitur.

By the way, did you vaccinate your kid?

Joe: oh, my yes, we vaccinate children and pets out here. We even got our son a special extra vaccination for measles when we were going to travel through the Philadelphia area, a bit early, because vaccinate your kids!

I think the show is absolutely fascinating, because it takes all the tools of propaganda and applies them to ridiculous conspiracy theories. Ergo, we can explore how the propaganda works to influence people in a very safe framework. No one actually believes any of this crap. I hope.

Look, this show came on the History Channel, of all places, back when it was a World War II aficionados dream station with hard facts and serious interviews and lots of footage from history. Then, this pig came out of nowhere, when X Files was cool, carrying the imprimatur of a previously serious cable network. The show runs like every cable documentary we’ve ever seen with a mixture of bad-cgi recreations, expert interviews, and extremely serious narration. It even opens with semi-legitimate scientists, with real degrees and real publications, who provide at least enough cover for the unspooling of the crazy to come to lead to some people possibly believing this wild malarkey.

So, episode one really focuses on feats of engineering, and intimations of aviation. They look at the physical construction of MesoAmerican and Egyptian ruins, and at some of the artifacts found therein. One artifact, in particular, appears to be a little toy plane. A replica was taken into a wind tunnel and shown to be capable of aerodynamic gliding, which seems like one could prove with a slingshot, more than a wind tunnel. But, I guess, the wind tunnel looked cooler.

Eric: That’s my paper airplane.

Joe: Okay, they actually suggest that the ancient Egyptians would use a giant slingshot to propel this glider, which means I’d expect to see the thing actually being propelled by a glider, but no. This was the respectable entrypoint, with actual scientists using scientific tools, to cover for the even more ridiculous notion of the ancient Indian Veda. Apparently, some gyroscoping chariot of fire UFO flew around the world in the land before time, hurrying from location to location on energy derived from the pyramids’ power plant feature, where energy was collected in a manner similar to that proposed by Nikola Tesla – harvesting electricity from the air with huge coils. This was obviously the true purpose of the pyramids, which couldn’t be a tomb because they had no buried body in them that anyone knew about at the time of the documentary. And, naturally, the fact that we don’t know how they were physically constructed indicates the presence of some ancient alien technology.

I was not convinced, of course. I can look at this thing and see how it is using its tools and how someone who is not innoculated against such things might fall for the propaganda. I think it sort falls into a racist way of viewing history. A bunch of white European men look at the achievements of cultures and communities that existed brilliantly outside of the narrative of Euro-Centric ascension, and cannot help but read into this the confirmation bias alien theory.

Eric: That’s an astute observation. White people didn’t do it so it must be aliens.

Joe: The fact that anything interesting exists early is evidence of aliens. Taking imaginative writing literally means, as well, aliens. But, there are other more interesting questions they sort of skip over to get to aliens, like a pre-existing culture that was on earth and slowly evolved into what we think about when we think about human society. The earth’s crust turns over, after all, and  though it takes a long while, eventually every fossil dissolves into magma. I think if we want to pursue evidence of some pre-pre-historical society, we look to things like language and the agricultural revolution. I think it is fascinating, for example, that every tribal conduit of organized society developed around a verbal language. We are evolutionarily visual, with two front-facing eyes for excellent depth perception and tiny, inefficient ears. Why do we talk to the inferior ears with our mouth, and not to the superior eyes with our nimble fingers?

Eric: The same reason birds call, I’m assuming. Sound covers vast distances and signals like that would be a huge evolutionary advantage for hunting.

Joe: Why did agricultural development seem to happen everywhere, nearly at the same time? Why do so many of our foodways look so similar, with a preponderance of regional grains ground into a powder that becomes “bread” of a sort? Why do we all sing songs to express joy and sorrow? There are more interesting and useful connections than mere engineering. Social technologies that are not even formal technologies anymore are the real measure.

Eric: I once had a science teacher that explained what separated a brilliant scientist from pedestrian: it isn’t the design of the experiment, it’s the conclusions they reach. This show poses some great questions that are indeed baffling, but the conclusions they reach aren’t the most plausible, easiest explanation.

The second half of the show goes into great depth about building techniques, bringing in a master stonemason to show some ruins with stonework that would be difficult to achieve without a CNC machine shop, let alone using hand tools.

Joe: Only one, though. There isn’t a shortage of great stonemasons, after all. And, again, it took generations to build a cathedral. It is not a question of difficulty so much as it is a question of how much time passed, and how much time it would take.

Eric: Exactly. The beliefs that inspired these magnificent works of architecture didn’t come into existence overnight. Myths and pantheons and beliefs take centuries to take root in a society. A better question to examine, rather than pondering if ancients were able to melt and mold rocks would be, throughout the time period this was built, was there substantial enough food sources to sustain such a massive undertaking? How many years would that take with primitive tools? What’s the fossil record show?

Joe: Hey, we weren’t convinced. People were. The famous “aliens” meme guy appeared prominently in this episode, and I think it would be fair to say he was most convinced. I like how you describe it as asking some great questions about things that are baffling, but drawing absurd conclusions from them. It feels like the great reason the show is worth watching. Fascinating questions and a cherry-picking of some lesser-known historical and anthropological errata leading into some really nutty and amusingly weird conclusions.

Eric: I heard Buzz Aldrin is on the next episode! Let’s do it.

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Categories: TV shows

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