The garbage theories of pseudoarchaelogists are proof that humans haven’t come as far as we think.
If you grew up in the United States or most any post-colonial nation, you grew up in a land where European heritage and white skin were considered the height of intelligence, innovation, and beauty—if not now, then at some time in your country’s recent past. There’s no doubt the privileging of white, European descendants has taken its toll. In the U.S., we’ve barely scratched the surface of the impact of racist policies that have destroyed Native American communities, enslaved African-descendants, and villainized immigrants from Asia and Latin America. But just as insidious are the impacts of racism and colonialism that were, and continue to be, baked into theories of science, medicine, and politics hiding under the guise of “objectivity.”
Probably all of us have been duped by racist science at some point, especially on the subject of ancient history. If you’ve ever been clickbaited into opening a story about how aliens actually built the Egyptian pyramids or how evidence of the lost city of Atlantis has been found, you’ve been a victim of racist, colonialist pseudoarchaeology. Pseudoarchaeologists eschew legitimate scientific proof in order to claim that only aliens or a lost race of supermen would have been capable of creating such spectacular places as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Palenque in Mexico. Their justifications always boil down the same way: dark-skinned people from South America, Africa, and Asia are inferior and therefore could never have been capable of building the ancient wonders of the world. While some pseudoarchaeologists were a product of their time—Europeans or European-descendents trying to understand new corners of the world in the 19th century—others are just modern-day bigots. And while not every pseudoarchaeological theory is inherently racist, they rely on fake or non-existent evidence and fail to take into account actual scientific proof.
As an archaeologist with a Ph.D., I’m a magnet for crackpot theories about ancient people. I get it. These ideas probe the mysteries of our universe. Aliens may very well exist and it’s true that we don’t know everything about the past, but mountains of rigorous objective scientific evidence proves without a doubt that the world’s ancient places were created by the people who once lived there, regardless of skin-color or how “civilized” they seemed to early European explorers.
There’s really only one actual mystery here, why racist and colonial theories about ancient (and modern) people are still so pervasive in the 21st century. From Great Zimbabwe in Africa to Mexico’s Teotihuacán, these are the most ridiculous pseudoarchaeological theories about the past, debunked.
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WHERE: Masavingo Province, Zimbabwe
One of sub-Saharan Africa’s most monumental ancient places, Great Zimbabwe was a city-state that, at its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, was a center of trade and royal power 10,000 people strong. But by the time Karl Mauch, a German explorer and geographer “discovered” the ruins in 1867, the stone fortress, temples, and residences had been abandoned for more than 400 years. A colonialist through-and-through, Mauch shied away from the most logical interpretation of the sites—that it was built by ancestors of the region’s indigenous Shona people. He literally could not imagine that dark-skinned Africans could have been responsible for constructing such a spectacular city. So who dunnit, according to Mauch? The city was built for King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the wealthy Old Testament king and his wife. Despite the absence of any proof for Mauch’s theory, Zimbabwe’s turn-of-the-century colonial community seized on the myth of the land’s biblical connections, denying Zimbabweans credit for their civilization until archaeologists finally proved them wrong nearly 40 years later.
Great Pyramid at Giza
WHERE: Giza, Egypt
With millions of two-ton rock-cut stones and a precise astronomical alignment, it’s hard to imagine the Great Pyramid was built without cranes and sophisticated construction equipment. So it must be aliens, right? It might be plausible if it weren’t for the extensive evidence of human contributions at the site—paintings of (human) pyramid builders, archaeological evidence from nearby worker camps, the 4,500 year old papyrus Diary of Merer which records the delivery of construction materials to the pyramid—and that’s just the start. So we’re to believe that aliens popped in, plopped down this giant pyramid and then left, not only failing to cause even a tiny blip in the cultural timeline but leaving behind sleight-of-hand evidence to point archaeologists to different conclusions 5,000 years later? Um, no.
WHERE: St. Clair County, Illinois, USA
In early colonial America, it wasn’t enough for European settlers to murder, pillage, and violently destroy the villages of thousands of Native Americans. They also had a grand old time simply denying that indigenous people were “civilized” in any way, shape or form. That was, after all, one of the major justifications for wiping them out (via assimilation or assassination) in the first place. But then, how to explain Cahokia, the largest ancient monuments archaeological site in North America? Giving Native Americans credit for building 120 massive mounds would be to acknowledge that they might be intelligent, resourceful and culturally unique. It would be to acknowledge that maybe they didn’t deserve to be destroyed and replaced by European culture. So in the 19th century, scholars constructed a myth to explain Cahokia while simultaneously justifying the government’s policies of eradication. It was a “lost race of Moundbuilders” who constructed the site—a fascinating, intelligent (and probably light-skinned) culture whom the Native Americans wiped out hundreds of years before the coming of the Europeans. And, so the thinking went, if those heathen Native Americans could destroy such an innovative culture, then what the U.S. government was doing to their communities wasn’t just justified, it was necessary.
WHERE: Angkor, Cambodia
Europeans were first introduced to the spectacular temples at Angkor Wat around 1860. Built in the 12th century, this complex was first constructed in worship of the Hindu God Vishnu and later transformed into a Buddhist temple by rulers of the Khmer Empire. But according to the French botanist who first wrote home about the site—a dude who made his living studying plants, not ancient cities—the Khmer people, who still lived in the region and worshipped at the temple had no relationship to its construction. Instead, he claimed, the great builders were some unknown race of white people, probably the Greeks (nevermind the fact the Greek heyday was several thousand years prior to the temple construction at Angkor). Not surprisingly, the botanist was wrong. There’s now mountains of evidence to prove that Angkor Wat and the other temples of the region were constructed by the Khmer and by the Khmer alone.
INSIDER TIPInfamous pseudoarchaeologist Graham Hancock claims that specific carvings from Angkor Wat, Egypt’s pyramids of Giza, and Bolivia’s Tiwanaku all point to origins in the mythical lost city of Atlantis. Science disagrees.
WHERE: Chiapas, Mexico
Since the 1960s, pseudoarchaeologists have been looking to drawings, symbols, and mythologies across cultures to prove their bogus theories. Among the most bizarre and most tenacious is the hypothesis that a drawing on the 1,500 year-old sarcophagus lid of Pakal, the great Maya king of Palenque, is an alien astronaut. The theory, developed by Erich von Daniken in his 1968 best selling book, claims that Pakal’s spaceman-like pose, combined with “rockets” carved beneath him, indicate that the city and its leader were influenced by aliens. On the lack of any other evidence of extraterrestrials in this massive city in the Mexican jungle, von Daniken remains silent.
WHERE: Toledo District, Belize
In 1924 Anna, the 16 year-old adopted daughter of British adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, found a crystal skull buried beneath an altar at the ancient Maya site of Lubaantun in southern Belize. Or at least that’s how the story goes. Because extensive studies have revealed that not only was the skull an exact replica of one found in the British Museum, but the elder Mitchell-Hedges purchased it at auction in 1943, almost 20 years after Anna supposedly discovered it. Anna, nevertheless, stuck with her story until her death in 2007. She claimed that the local Maya people told her as a girl that the skull was used in religious death rituals and was at least 3,600 years old. For years Anna kept the skull guarded from scientific studies that might, once and for all, prove that this was an object made in the modern era, but she couldn’t continue the ruse after her death; in 2008 an anthropologist proved the crystal skull was carved in the 1930s.
INSIDER TIPThe original crystal skull in the British Museum was also passed off as an ancient object—an Aztec artifact—when it first appeared in 1881. The antiquarian who brought it to light even attempted to sell the skull to Mexico’s National Museum but they refused to buy the obvious fake.
Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
This recently published gem of pseudoarchaeological theory from Robert M. Schoch is based on the garbage-science of cross-cultural comparison—pretty much the human society equivalent of identifying what object a cloud resembles. The 887 giant, stone moai statues on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) kinda look like ancient stone pillars erected 12,000 years ago at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey (well, minus the fact that they are far wider and have obvious heads, which the pillars do not). And if they look the same (even though they don’t), the two sites must have been created by the same people, right? Schoch doesn’t stop there. While archaeological evidence points to Rapa Nui’s colonization in 1200 AD, Schoch eschews science for his own highly suspect theory that the island’s writing system is actually more than 10,000 years old. And then there’s the “sky plasma” Schoch believes is recorded in Easter Island’s documents and buried beneath the Turkish pillars thousands of miles away. Can Schoch actually read this writing? No. Has he (or anyone) discovered evidence of plasma at Gobekli Tepe? No. Is Schoch full of it? Yes.
Petroglyph National Monument
WHERE: Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
In 2015, educator John A. Ruskamp Jr. claimed he had finally proven a theory that had long huddled on the fringes of actual archaeological science: that the Chinese visited North America long before Europeans. His proof? He had discovered carvings at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico that looked like some of the characters found in ancient Chinese script. More than 82 petroglyphs “prove” his theory, not just at Petroglyph but at other ancient Native American sites in the Southwest and, randomly, in Ontario, Canada. Actual archaeologists reject this hypothesis outright. Since there are trees and birds and humans in all ecosystems across the world, it’s not unusual for certain symbols to appear independently in cultures with no contact. Add to that the fact that there is zero evidence—no artifacts or skeletal materials or boats or ancient structures—of ancient Chinese visitors to the New World, and this thinly veiled racist theory in which a more “enlightened” culture schools a less “civilized” falls to pieces.
WHERE: Xi’an, China
U.S. Army Air Corp pilot James Gaussman never claimed the monument he saw flying over China during World War II was built by aliens, that theory came later. All he saw was a “great white pyramid” topped with jewels at least 1,000 feet tall (more than twice the height of the Great Pyramid at Giza). Gaussman wasn’t exactly a reliable witness—the pyramid, the 2,000 year-old mausoleum of Emperor Wu of Han, was low-slung and made of mud and dirt—but his account was a major influence on German travel agent Hartwig Hausdorf who speculated 40 years later that aliens built the structure. His book, Die Weisse Pyramide (The White Pyramid) was later translated in English under the title The Chinese Roswell. If Hausdorf is right—which, literally no one with any scientific background believes—the aliens were pretty busy in this area of the world, not just building but creating a plausible backstory to cover their tracks: Over 100 fangshang, or pyramid-shaped mounds, have been located within 60 miles of the city of Xi’an, each corresponding to the burial of a ruler of the Han Dynasty.
WHERE: Tiwanaku, Bolivia
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t aliens, concede the pseudoarchaeologists, but the precise placement of massive rocks in the stone structure at Pumapunku must be the work of some highly skilled, super-intelligent race of beings. Or maybe they aren’t stones at all. Maybe they are carefully molded concrete casts. There’s no evidence that ancient Andean cultures had this technology but they probably did in the lost city of Atlantis. Or maybe a lost race of Aryan supermen developed this technology and then disappeared off the face of the earth leaving zero evidence of their existence behind! Yeah, maybe. And if pigs had wings they could fly. Archaeologists not only have proof that indigenous human hands created this place, but they even know the quarry from which the stone was removed. There’s no mystery here, just racism.
INSIDER TIPAnother common bogus refrain about Pumapunku was that the site was built as a port. A port for what, exactly, is unclear seeing as the structure is in the middle of farmland with no water in sight.
WHERE: Sanliurfa Province, Turkey
There are some mysteries yet to be solved at Gobekli Tepe, a Turkish archaeological site that dates to the 10th millennium BC. Years of archaeological research on the more than 200 pillars erected in circles and rectangular rooms found here suggests Gobekli Tepe was once a sort of religious sanctuary. The pseudarchaeologists, though, they don’t buy it. Because this ancient place isn’t just alien-made, it’s where aliens created humans (or at least some distinct race of us). Were they benevolent overlords? Not so much: Humans at Gobekli Tepe, the theory goes, were slaves of the extraterrestrials, forced to mine the earth for their creators.
INSIDER TIPAnother questionable hypothesis about Gobekli Tepe points to the animals carved on the site’s pillars, a menagerie extensive enough to suggest to some impressionable armchair theorists that Noah’s Ark was real.
WHERE: St. Julian’s, Malta
In 1999, retired real estate investor Hubert Zeitlmair instructed his workers to search the water off the coast of St. Julian’s in Malta for evidence of past civilizations. There they discovered an underwater plateau containing boulders that appeared be laid out in circles and along a road. While it would have (maybe) been logical for Zeitlmair to propose that the site was the work of ancient islanders, he chose an unhinged explanation instead: Sometime between 12,000 and 10,000 BC, aliens built an ancient temple here that was submerged in the Biblical floods of Genesis. He reached the conclusion, he claimed, not based on scientific evidence (or, you know, logic), but because he had been guided by his “primeval ancestors,” including the queen of Atlantis (whom he had apparently once met on Malta). The response of the Archaeological Institute of America? “Chronology appears to be somewhat confused in Zeitlmair’s interpretation,” they say before going on to easily discredit the crazypants theories of this wannabe archaeologist.
WHERE: Nazca Desert, Peru
Hundreds of shapes and animals are carved into the high, dry, desert plateaus south of Lima. Most are massive—the largest spans nearly 1,200 feet across—but because they are so large in scale, they can be hard to see from the ground. The Nazca Lines, created between 500 BC and 500 AD, are a favorite example for pseudoarchaeologists because the only way to see the complete picture is from above. And if early Peruvian people didn’t fly, why make an image that can only be seen from the air? Obviously these geoglyphs must have been created by beings with flying machines, and since no one on Earth had planes or helicopters in ancient times, the artists must have been aliens. There’s just one major flaw to the theory (okay, there are several major flaws): all you have to do to get a view of the massive designs is walk up into the nearby foothills. While archaeologist can’t always agree on what the exact purpose of the lines was, they all agree that attributing these works to aliens diminishes the very real, very provable achievements of the world’s earliest complex civilizations.
INSIDER TIPOne fringe theory about the Nazca Lines developed by Jim Woodmann suggests that the Nazca people built hot-air balloons to observe the geoglyphs. He even made his own hot air balloon out of historical materials to test the hypothesis. His balloon flew, but to date, no evidence has been found that confirms that the Nazca used this technology.
WHERE: Mexico City, Mexico
In 2015, Mexican archaeologists at the ancient city of Teotihuacán outside Mexico City discovered traces of mercury beneath the site’s famous Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Speculation abounds as to what the quicksilver was doing in chambers beneath the temple but the least well informed comes from pseudoarchaeologist Frank Joseph. Because mercury was already being manufactured in Europe prior to its use at Teotihuacán, Joseph believes that the indigenous people of Mexico must have been taught about the element by white saviors from the civilized world. Oh, and quicksilver found at a mausoleum in China (actually it hasn’t technically been found but readings taken above the mausoleum indicate it’s somewhere underground), that too must have been the result of European technologies brought to the Far East in ancient times. Does Joseph offer any evidence to support his hypothesis, I mean, besides the fact that he thinks non-white Europeans are incapable of independently identifying and using mercury? He does not … probably because there is none.
Visočica and Plješevica Hills
WHERE: Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina
If you squint real hard, you might notice that two large hills just north of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina look a bit like man-made pyramids. Sam Osmanagich, a Bosnian-American businessman, certainly does. Since 2005 he’s been claiming that the hills of Visočica and Plješevica are ancient pyramids, the largest on Earth, built 34,000 years ago by the Illyrians, a Balkan ethnic group who lived around the 4th century BC. The date he assigns the pyramids is beyond ridiculous; 34,000 years ago humans hadn’t even developed agriculture yet, let alone were they building massive pyramids. Osmanagich even conducted excavations on the hills in 2006 in an attempt to prove his hypothesis. Ever since then, he has been not so secretly reshaping Visočica to look more and more man-made. The scientific community wants nothing to do with this dude, and the European Association of Archaeologists has called Osmangich’s work a “cruel hoax,” but the businessman hasn’t paid the naysayers much heed. In 2016, Osmangich completed an “archaeological park,” Park Ravne 2, on top of one of the hills where he holds meditation sessions inside for around 5,000 suckers a year.