ASTOP: Ancient Astronauts

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets.  In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.

Complete list of fact sheets.

Erich von Daniken, a Swiss high-school dropout, has made millions of dollars from eight or more books written since 1968. These books all make a remarkable and exciting claim. In von Daniken’s words, “Our forefathers received visits from the universe in the remote past, even though I do not yet know who these extraterrestrial intelligences were or from which planet they came. I nevertheless proclaim that these strangers annihilated part of mankind existing at the time and produced a new, perhaps the first, Homo sapiens.” Each of von Daniken’s books — Chariots of the Gods?, Return to the Stars, The Gold of the Gods, In Search of Ancient Gods, Miracles of the Gods, Von Daniken’s Proof, Signs of the Gods, etc. — gives a different version of this story, and each interprets the same “evidence” in different and contradictory ways. In some versions of the story, creatures from other worlds create humanity by genetic engineering of lower animals; in others they create humanity by interbreeding with apes (evidencing a curious taste in women); in others they are castaways who become humanity; and in still others humanity is already well established, and the extraterrestrials simply give them a boost from savagery to civilization. Von Daniken rarely tells the story the same way twice, even in the same book. Nevertheless, the essence is that extraterrestrials have had some impact on human history, and that there is evidence of this influence. 

In fact, it is the essentially unanimous opinion of archaeologists and specialists in human pre-history that no such evidence exists. Von Daniken’s arguments consist mainly of an appeal to ignorance. He cites things that his poorly educated readers are unlikely to recognize or know anything about. These are misrepresented, taken out of context, or used as a springboard for wild speculations and non-sequiturs. Von Daniken’s books also contain a large amount of outright factual error and veiled racism. What they do not contain is any valid evidence supporting his claims in any way.

Examples of Von Daniken’s “evidence” include:

None of this “evidence” is valid. For a detailed analysis of von Daniken’s claims, consult books in the reference list. There is space here for just a few brief comments. 

One of von Daniken’s favorite ploys is to give a “gadget” explanation for everything in a selected myth. This interpretation is always based on our own present technology and not the hypothetical super advanced technology of extraterrestrial space travelers. Thus, the Ark of the Covenant was a radio transmitter/receiver (or a nuclear reactor). Aladdin’s lamp was also a radio. Sodom and Gomorrah were devastated by a nuclear explosion. Ezekiel’s wheel was a helicopter. The absurdity of this device can be shown by making up your own “gadget” explanations for everything mentioned in the Bible. The flaming sword used by the angel to bar Adam and Eve from Eden was doubtlessly a flamethrower or perhaps a soldering iron. Jonah’s whale was a submarine. The pillar of fire was a streetlight (or a MacDonald’s sign); the raising of Lazarus, an application of heart massage; Ezekiel’s vision, a T.V. commercial! This is philistine provincialism, not evidence.

Another of von Daniken’s ploys is to allege that “our ancestors,” especially those who were not white, were morons and filthy savages, incapable of imagination, architecture, or discovery. But fire and weapons were in use, not tens of thousands but millions of years ago and by exceedingly ape-like human ancestors. It is nonsense to claim that we modern citizens of developed nations are different in intelligence, imagination, artistic yearnings, etc., from New Guinea tribes people, ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, or cavemen living 40,000 or even 100,000 years ago. Even “pre-humans” such as Neanderthal man did not differ significantly in appearance or richness of culture from modern man. To deny this is to deny every discovery of modern anthropology, but this von Daniken does effortlessly, since the facts do not jibe with his racist fantasies.

All of von Daniken’s hard evidence vanishes instantly when looked at in light of what we actually know. Consider Piri Re’is’ map. Examination of any clear reproduction of this map will show it to be extremely inaccurate — more so than many other maps of the same period. A far more accurate map appeared in 1559, drawn by Turkish cartographer Hadji Ahmed. Furthermore, Piri Re’is gives all his sources in marginal notations on his map; these include maps from the expeditions of Columbus — even so, the Caribbean is almost unrecognizable.

While the purposes of the Nasca markings and the statues on Easter Island have disappeared with the cultures that produced them, they are in no way difficult to construct — even without extraterrestrial help. Two people with pegs and string can lay out identical copies of the Nasca markings. Thor Heyerdahl has filmed Easter Island natives carving and erecting a statue using only the crude tools available on the island — stone axes, vegetable fiber ropes, and logs. (Incidentally, the original statues are known to have been carved mostly around 1500 A.D. — long after the time von Daniken claims space gods were flying around.)

As for Egypt, it has a long, continuous historical and archaeological record. The Egyptians left detailed accounts of their methods of architecture, and of moving massive stones and statues. Also, there are primitive early pyramids, botched jobs, quarries with tools still lying there, wall paintings of engineering methods, mathematical texts setting architectural problems for pyramid construction, and many other records of technology and culture. There are few mysteries concerning the purpose, construction, or properties of the pyramids — despite tons of rubbish produced by occultists and crackpots claiming the contrary in the face of all the evidence.

To von Daniken, the sun or moon in any ancient work of art is a “space ship.” Bits of jewelry in the shape of a fish or leaf are “jet aircraft.” A classic von Daniken howler is his interpretation of the tomb lid of Mayan king Pacal. In this von Daniken sees a “god” at the controls of his “spacecraft,” but one might just as well see a limp figure in the clutches of a Hollywood movie monster or sci-fi robot. What the Mayans intended the image to represent, judging by the rest of their surviving art, was the descent of the dead body of King Pacal into the underworld. He falls past the sacred Quetzal bird and the sacred corn plant into the jaws of the Earth Monster waiting to devour him. All these images (bird, corn plant, monster) are common motifs in Mayan art; there is no uncertainty about what they represent.

Von Daniken’s story about “gold of the gods” has been exposed as a hoax by the explorer Juan Moricz, from whom von Daniken got the basic elements that were woven into the hoax. Von Daniken’s books are full of outright mistakes, errors, and blunders that make it clear that he does not bother to consult even the most readily available reference works. His mathematical formulas lack equal signs; his rare references have incorrect page numbers; he apparently does not bother to look at the maps he cites as “accurate;” he does not bother to find out what is actually known about archaeological sites that are important to his claims. He cannot be taken seriously. He is not a scholar nor a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. He has done nothing but misinterpret and obscure the work and discoveries of others.

The first two of von Daniken’s books were heavily plagiarized from two earlier books published in France in the early 1960’s (by Pauwels and Bergier and by R. Charroux). The “ancient astronaut” claims were old-hat even then. They can be traced back to the crackpot literature of the Theosophist movement of the 1880’s; this resurfaced in the Shaver mystery of 1945, in the claims of “contactee” George Adamski in 1953, and is found in the works of many writers about “flying saucers” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In addition to his legal difficulties from charges of plagiarization (he settled out of court), von Daniken was convicted for forgery and embezzling money from a hotel which he managed, and served part of a 3 1/2-year prison sentence beginning in 1970. However, since between 1968 and 1980 von Daniken’s books were selling an average of 3.5 million copies per year, he was with his royalties able to make restitution to the hotel and earn early release from prison. Perhaps anyone who plunks down $2.25 for one of von Daniken’s works is actually demonstrating that crime can be made to pay … and pay very well indeed.

References for further reading

Exploring the Unknown, C.J. Cazeau, C.J. and S.D. Scott, Jr., Plenum, New York, 1979, Chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 14.

Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Kendrick Frazier, (Ed.), Prometheus, New York, 1981. Articles by Omohundro, Story, Bainbridge, and Ridpath.

Flim-Flam! by James Randi, Prometheus, New York, 1982, Chapter 6.

Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, W.H. Stiebing, Jr., Prometheus, New York, 1984.

The Space Gods Revealed, Ronald Story, Harper and Row, New York, 1976.

Archaeology: Myth and Reality, Jeremy A. Sabloff, (Ed.), Freeman, California, 1982.

Some Trust in Chariots, B. Thiering and E. Castle, Popular Library, New York, 1972.

The Past is Human, Peter White., Taplinger, New York, 1974.


ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (