Some years ago I took an undergraduate course at the University of Colorado that dealt with the topic of archeoastronomy (Course Website). We discussed some of the various ways that people in ancient and modern times have considered their place in the cosmos through their observations of the night's sky: including the megalith constructors of ancient England, Polynesian navigators, the alignment of the Egyptian pyramids, and the mythologies of the aboriginal people from Australia. I have always found these considerations to be quite fascinating. From the mythologies built around constellations and the movements of the stars and planets to architectural alignments with the heavens, I think one of our greatest connections with our ancestors from across the planet is our awe and wonder when we ponder the cosmos through the night's sky. I recently decided to go back and fully read the text that was required for this undergraduate course. That book, Early Man and the Cosmos by Evan Hadingham, was a bit dry and somewhat dated (published in 1984, when I was only finishing my first orbit around the Sun) but I found it to be an enjoyable and fascinating read. The book focuses primarily on the megalith constructors of ancient Great Britain, the people of the American southwest (Chumash, Zuni, Hopi), and the ancient Mayans, though the author does a good job of placing these people and their understandings of the heavens within the greater context of our modern knowledge and the development of astronomies and astrologies in various forms through history. Hadingham presented the brief history of lord Pakal, a Mayan ruler from the 7th century C.E., and his decorated sarcophagus lid in a section of the book subtitled "Lords of Palenque". Although Hadingham reviewed what real archeologists and historians make of the artwork on the sarcophagus and it's context within Mayan culture, the author made mention of the claim in Erich von Däniken's 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? that the sarcophagus depicts the great Mayan ruler blasting off in a rocket.
K'inich Janaab' Pakal (also known as Pacal) was a ruler of the Mayan land of Palenque beginning some 1400 years ago. During Pakal's reign over Palenque, he had the Palace of Bàak' expanded and he came to be revered by his people. After his death, Pakal was deified and many of his descendants would claim their right to rule through their connection with him. Pakal was entombed in the Temple of Inscriptions, but his tomb was not discovered by modern scholars until 1948. The iconography in Pakal's tomb depicts the various connections between the great ruler and the mythological considerations of the cosmos by his people, but the iconography in the tomb that has been of the greatest interest to scholars comes from the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus:
The sarcophagus lid appears to show Pakal at center as he makes his journey into the world of the dead. Growing around him is a world tree, a common depiction in ancient Mayan art, with its roots growing down into the underworld and it's branches extending toward the heavens. Around the edges of the lid are depictions of the Sun, Moon, and stars as well as those of ancient nobles, perhaps real Mayan rulers or mythological figures.
The proponents for the existence of ancient aliens see the depiction on Pakal's sarcophagus as being something different. They suggest that the lid shows Pakal sitting within a spaceship, with exhaust coming out of the back of the capsule, Pakal's hand on controls, and his foot on some kind of a pedal for controlling the ship. It sounds like a connection that could only be made once the space age began and that it exactly the case:
Erich von Däniken suggested that the image depicts Pakal as a spaceman sitting in a pose similar to that of the Mercury astronauts from the early American space program.
The Ancient Aliens show and the claims from proponents of those ideas are pretty easy to debunk. Indeed, Chris White has a great 3-hour film where he breaks down most of the ideas of ancient aliens. The film and relevant information for each major claim from ancient aliens can be found at White's website Ancient Aliens Debunked. White has a fantastic breakdown of the claims about Pakal's sarcophagus:
As many of us know, it's a natural human tendency to see what we want to see when we look at our world. We have a proclivity for seeing things like faces in burnt toast, in clouds, and in inanimate objects in our lives. When we have mental filters in place for what the world around us should look like, we are then more likely to view the world in that way. It's not too hard to see then how a fairly uneducated person like Erich von Däniken could look at Pakal's sarcophagus and see an image that reminded him of the reclined Mercury astronauts blasting off in their space capsules. The Mercury program had been widely known at the time that von Däniken wrote his first book on the subject. Erich von Däniken has long stood by his claims (he even built a theme park to present his ideas as though they are fact), but it's seems like the real problem is that von Däniken can't see past his own personal experience having spent most of his life in the 20th century.
It's a good exercise in critical thinking to try to step away from the world we know and to attempt to view the cosmos through the lens of another culture at another time in history. That's part of why I enjoy learning about ancient peoples and their considerations of the heavens. As a scientist, I work within the current paradigm of scientific thought and application, but to truly appreciate what modern science is and how it works, it's good to think about all human endeavors to understand our universe. The final words from Evan Hadingham in Early Man and the Cosmos iterates this point beautifully:
"When we consider ancient astronomy, we begin to value the complexity and logic of other schemes of thought besides our own. We realize that our framework of ideas developed from only one system of thought out of many that have passed into obscurity. The perspective of other peoples, sometimes glimpsed across a gap of countless generations, reminds us of the shortcomings of our own outlook, and there are indeed many others. Such an awareness may be essential for our own survival"
“Deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”
Many of us can sometimes be too quick to judge proponents of the ancient aliens ideas. Much like people who believe in ghosts, fairies, gods, faith healing, homeopathy, or the power of prayer, the proponents of the ancient aliens hypotheses have viewpoints about our world that they feel are justified and they are trying to make sense of the world for themselves within those viewpoints. The separation of science from pseudoscience comes in the rigor and method of acceptance and denial in science and the lack thereof in pseudoscience, yet it has been a complicated and non-trivial affair for philosophers of science and scientists to truly determine how the demarcate science and how to fully describe science. Science itself covers a range of approaches and considerations. Who's to say that the science we practice now will be anything like the science practiced by people to come centuries or millennia from now? In some ways, we scientists are also guilty of building up mental filters that control how we allow ourselves to see the universe. Although ancient aliens ideas have no legitimacy in the sense of the history they present, they are still important concepts in our modern history as they represent the growing want of many people to know what extraterrestrial life may be like and whether or not we are alone in the universe. If anything, I wonder if some of these ancient aliens ideas may be a way for some people to try to build a connection with the greater cosmos. Those of us who consider ourselves communicators and educators of science should approach such ideas as ancient aliens in that respect and show the public that we can know about our connection with the universe through science. Even though we haven't yet discovered any evidence for alien life to exist and there's most assuredly no evidence that aliens have ever visited the Earth, that doesn't mean it's not fun to think about the possibilities for other life in our universe.