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Aliens in Ancient Art?

Because The Triangle is available over the Internet and, apparently, Google loves us, I get a lot of crazy e-mail from all around the world. Most of it is from teenagers demanding that I either stop writing or engage in some terribly unappealing activity. A smaller portion takes the form of elaborate, 10,000-word dissertations on the flaws of my articles, and don't think that UFO enthusiasts are above picking on grammar and punctuation. A tiny, tiny part of the e-mails I get are actually constructive criticisms or requests; it is to one of these that I am replying today.

Though I've long since lost the gentleman's name, someone asked me once what I thought of representations of aliens in ancient art. Today I'll confine my thoughts to the art of (so-called) "primitive" cultures. The UFO-related art of ancient peoples is substantially different from that of Renaissance art, which I think the original question was about anyway.

The first thing that I found when reading about ancient art and its ties to space people is that apparently, spiral designs appear in the art of every ancient culture. From architectural reliefs in a village on Malta to designs on the shields and weapons of ancient Danish warriors to Mayan and Aztec jewelry, spirals are all over the place. The UFO community would have you believe that this simple design is proof that our ancestors had contact with spaceships: The reasoning goes that since the galaxy we're in is shaped like a big spiral, as are a large portion of galaxies, and since spirals appear on items of religious significance in ancient cultures, that means that ancient peoples had contact with spacemen who had a thorough understanding of astronomy, and that they worshiped them as gods.

I have no proof that this didn't happen. Maybe they're right. Maybe people on some other planet conquered the extremely difficult challenge of travelling between stars, came to earth, and gave their knowledge of astronomical geometry to primitive earthlings, so that they could make their artwork look cool.

Sure, maybe that's what happened, but I for some reason fancy the idea that spirals are really simple shapes. They're one of the simplest shapes, and they look cool. There's no spacemen needed. Ancient peoples liked to doodle, and spirals are simple enough to be easy to make, but complicated enough to look neat. Which of these is more likely?

Another thing that the paranormal community likes to claim to be proof of ancient alien involvement is the representation of people. They just don't look right. Tiny statuettes from Mexico, called Nightmare Figures by some, fit the bill: They represent people, but with tiny, slotted eyes, huge heads, no nose, and a tiny mouth. The name is apt; these little guys are creepy as all hell. In Australia there's a park called Kakadu national park. It contains cave paintings made by the Aborigines, an ancient group that were the original inhabitants of the area. The UFO enthusiast is quick to point out that one painting, The Brothers of the Lightning, look like strangely shaped people wearing helmets. He won't be so quick to point out that the park is chock full of these pictures, and each set is wildly different from the next. Some don't look much like spacemen at all.

And this is the main problem with ancient art. It's all a question of interpretation. Where the UFO enthusiast sees a spaceman talking to our ancestors, I see a guy in a crazy hat. Others see other things. The Aztec Knight of the Eagle, for instance, looks like a man wearing a helmet that's shaped like a birds' head, with his face looking out from the beak. He looks, to me, more like a Mummer than a space alien.

But we're overlooking the core of the problem: Drawing people is hard. Try it for yourself. I can accept that ancient artwork of people doesn't look much like people, and it has nothing to do with spaceships. It has a lot to do with not being very good artists, by our standards. As always, I ask you to remember one simple phrase when thinking about this UFO hocus-pocus stuff: Which is more likely? That space aliens visited our primitive ancestors, who then painted or carved their figures accurately, or primitive peoples had trouble accurately representing human shapes in their artwork, so they stylized them a little bit?

It's been claimed that the statues on Easter Island (moai) are representations of alien visitors. Hey, if you think you can make a multi-ton block of rock look exactly like a real person, congratulations. More power to you. Not everyone has your incredible rock shaping skills, and I for one think it's pretty impressive that the Rapa Nui got as close as they did.

A common claim is that the similarity between cultures can only be explained by alien involvement. Peter Kolosimo, in his (insane, terrible) book Spaceships in Pre-History, spends a pretty good amount of time on the subject. Because complicated metal folding tables have been found both in Egyptian tombs and Danish graves, surely space aliens were involved. They brought their advanced table-making technology to the backwards people of earth, spreading the glory of their folding designs to yet another new world.

On the other hand, it's possible that everyone needs tables of one sort or another, and that they technology used in making a hinge or joint is not terribly complex. It's entirely possible, logical, and probable that the two cultures just designed similar-looking tables concurrently; again, there's no reason to bring spacemen into the picture.

But the UFO enthusiast says no, spacemen showed them how to build these TV dinner trays! Also, they gave them the secrets of architecture! Otherwise, how can one explain that there are pyramids in Egypt as well as in South America? Clear-cut proof that space people gave primitive people their knowledge.

Look. The triangle is a simple shape. It's as simple as one can get, other than a circle. Geometrically, it's also superb as a building shape because it takes loads so well. I don't think it's all that incredible that two cultures on opposite ends of the world came up with the concept of triangular buildings simultaneously. It's certainly something like a milllion times more probable that it's a coincidence than the influence of spacemen.

So there we have it. The next time someone tells you that space aliens visited ancient cultures and gave them all sorts of cool technology and knowledge, and that this is represented in their art, narrow your eyes and ask yourself "What is more likely?" Sure, it's possible that this spacemen theory is correct, but it's highly unlikely. You're more likely to get hit by lightening and then crushed by a meteor with a winning lottery ticket in your pocket than it is for this crazy theory to be true. There is nothing in artwork, architecture, or sculpture that can't be easily, rationally explained.

First Published in The Triangle, 1 January 2005