You probably remember sitting in science class, listening to your teacher explain how humans came from monkeys who came down from the trees, lost their tails, and started walking upright. If you pursued the topic any further, you would also remember hearing about the many different species of human which emerged over the last few million years, including a brand new one just recently found in a cave system in South Africa. Or perhaps, your biology teachers thought that evolution was a bunch of atheistic, heretical hokum they were sent by God to defeat as they preached from the blackboard about the Fall of Man at the Garden of Eden, and swore up and down that science proved human evolution to be impossible through the technobabble that is modern day Intelligent Design.
But what if you weren’t sure if the scientific explanation for how humans came to be was satisfactory because it had too many gaps in the theory for your liking? We may have a lot in common with apes, but we did invent written language and have imaginations that have quite literally taken us to other worlds. Sure, a chimpanzee, may be smart enough to live in a mini tribe, conduct warfare, and use primitive stone and stick tools. But when was the last time one walked on the Moon, or sent a custom-built robot to the outer reaches of the solar system while piloting another robot on the surface of Mars? Sounds like the creationist route is up your alley, but at the same time, can you really be expected to believe in an invisible, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity with all the contradictions this entails?
No, there has to be something else to turn to, something with a solid scientific backing, well within the realm of plausibility, but still possessing almost magical qualities that could explain how humans went from living in caves to written language, complex culture, and eventually, computers, rockets, and tinkering with genetic engineering. Enter a group of ufologists who are known as ancient astronaut theorists. They’ve scoured the world for clues, and they’re pretty sure they know exactly what happened to supercharge human civilization. While the story varies from telling to telling, the broad outline goes something like this…
Tens of thousands of years ago, a faraway planet called Nibiru was dying. Its occupants, an advanced, ancient civilization known as the Annunaki, needed gold as a key ingredient in a plan to save the planet’s atmosphere. As they traveled through the solar system, they finally settled on a world that seemed fairly rich with it, and where they found a weird, hairless ape that seemed to have potential. Well versed in genetic engineering, these aliens intervened on evolution’s behalf and started boosting our brainpower until we were just smart enough to do complex mining and construction without their direct and constant oversight, but still pliant enough to be under their control.
They made us build pyramids all over the world for purposes lost to time — although to be fair, pyramids were a great way for ancient cultures to construct massive monuments and temples because their shapes are self-stabilizing. And the ancient visitors went further. Stonehenge, Atlantis, the Moai of Easter Island, and countless geoglyphs drawn for purposes known only to them and their ancient workforce were also their doing. In fact, according to ancient alien theory adherents, just about any puzzling or incomplete archeological discovery or strange legend uncovered by anthropologists is a clue to the aliens’ presence. Even smudges on old paintings are held to be proof of UFOs flying around Renaissance Europe.
We learned from the aliens as well. Their construction techniques were at least partially passed down through the generations, much of their technology was adopted for our use, and we were clever enough to write down what they taught us on temple walls, while recording what they looked like and how they came to Earth in carvings, paintings, pottery, and statues. And thousands of years engendered an odd closeness as some humans and aliens interbred, something we supposedly recorded in our holy texts in which “fallen angels” and mysterious creatures have their way with men and women to conceive either extraordinary hybrids, or beings that appear humans but are gifted with incredible intellect or abilities.
Then one day, they left for a whole multitude of reasons. Perhaps they succeed in their mission, or their Alien Imperial Accounting and Budgetary Office got enough of the Annunaki higher-ups to defund the Earth project. Perhaps they failed and decided to try their luck elsewhere, with a different species, perhaps one with more useful limbs. Or maybe they never really left at all and are currently using their human-alien hybrids as puppet rulers to keep us in line and on task before they return with another grand master plan. Or maybe they’re actually in the middle of brokering some sort of an agreement with the aliens who started vising Earth after detecting our nuclear weapons tests.
There are so many conspiracy theories here, many of them contradictory, even in their internal logic, it’s pretty much impossible to piece together a coherent narrative. But the bottom line for those who doubt that the powers of natural selection and genetics can give us modern humans but can’t bring themselves to believe that it was a deity snapping its fingers/tentacles/rays of light, here’s the alternative: aliens capable of routinely doing things we’re only now beginning to understand. We’re exploring genetic engineering, spaceship construction, propulsion using technology like solar sails, plasma, and antimatter engines, cyborg augmentation, and living on other words. To ancient humans, wouldn’t a species routinely capable of all this seem like gods coming down from the heavens?
As far as ideas go, it’s not exactly a terrible one. In fact, there’s not much in it that would be impossible as far as we know. Intelligent life forms evolved on Earth and one of them even managed to make it into space. Certainly, other worlds could be habitable for other intelligent life which could one day also make it to space. Considering that tens of thousands of years is not even a blink of an eye on a cosmic time scale, an alien species that’s been traversing the cosmos for 30,000 years is completely plausible. They could even detect our little blue planet and come check it out if they were close enough and had the tools and determination to find other habitable worlds, much the same way we do.
But the same odds and demographics of the universe that make the Annunaki so captivatingly plausible, also make them extremely rare, so much so that the chances of our species even existing in the same time frame are beyond slim. They’re almost literally astronomical. When we look at the numbers, by the time the first humans made the first cave painting, a million alien species could have risen and collapsed into extinction. And by the time humanity as we know it no longer exists, a million more would have yet to even evolve. The idea of Annunaki scientists spotting our planet at just the right time and being far enough along in their technological development to come here and tinker with our genes, requires a lot of proof.
You need far more than the Rorschach ink blots of pottery and ancient texts that we can infuse with modern interpretations, and by ignoring that our ancestors were also creative and wrote plenty of fiction and fantasy we should never take literally. Much of the ancient astronaut theory as outlined by Erich von Däniken, Robert Temple, Zecharia Sitchin, and their disciples, rests exactly on that: taking every piece of ancient or tribal folklore literally and at face value. It’s like failing to make a distinction between the Canterbury Tales, and a historical tome about life in Dark Age Europe. It also seems that Däniken adopted works of fiction into his narrative, specifically the tales of sci-fi horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.
But the new wave of ancient astronaut theorists like Lloyd Pye and Nick Redfern are pretty sure they have something a lot more compelling than semi-literal, badly translated ancient tales. Pye’s definitive proof is a 500-year-old skull of a young boy he calls The Starchild. The skull is odd to be sure, with a distorted head and weirdly shaped eye sockets. Squint and apply your imagination enough, and a reconstruction of the child resembles a cross between a human and one of the Grey aliens of UFO folklore. Pye, to his credit, went out of its way to get the skull tested in several laboratories and has confirmed that the boy’s mother was a human, and he has the typical X and Y chromosomes. Now, he’s looking for what he insists has to be the alien DNA of the Starchild’s father.
Seems like a straightforward hypothesis, except for one little snag. If the Starchild has a Y chromosome, it means that something human must have contributed it. When we allow for a human father, the boy’s story becomes a lot less mysterious. He more than likely died of congenital hydrocephalus, an excessive buildup of fluid in the brain. The cerebrospinal fluid would have deformed the skull, giving it the domes, enlarged appearance in the front compared to the relatively flat back of the head. Likewise, the pressure could have affected the eye sockets and sinus cavities, which would have looked normal to outside observers, but would be deformed inside, something that would have become apparent if he survived and matured.
None of his features necessarily merit alien genetic material to explain them. Neither do the many South American skulls we know for a fact to be a product of extreme physical manipulation to make the elites look alien to their subjects as they became adults according to the writing of the people who actually did it. And if we entertain Pye for a minute and say that the Starchild had alien DNA, what would it look like? It’s not just a matter of whether we can recognize alien genes, it’s the very chemistry in question here. Alien life doesn’t necessarily even have to be carbon based and its method of passing on hereditary information might look similar to ours in molecular structure but made of completely different molecules.
We’re used to all genetic material on this planet being carbon-based with either a ribose (as in RNA) or a deoxyribose (as in DNA) sugar as the basic scaffolding for amino-acid combinations formed by five different nucleotides, the what should be by now familiar A, C, T, G, and U. But consider a hereditary mechanism that didn’t evolve alongside ours for at least 3.5 billion years. Not only might it have very different orders of nucleotides and encode completely different amino acids, but it might be based on completely different sugars like cyclohexane, therose, or glycol. Instead of carbon, the ladder to which the gene encoding mechanisms are attached could be made of silicon or even titanium. And all of these changes mean that any interaction between our genome and an alien one just can’t happen.
Consider that for any two different species on Earth to successfully hybridize without a sterile offspring, they must not be more than a few thousand generations apart. And that’s with genes that have been around since the dawn of life on Earth. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, humans have a better chance of reproducing with an octopus than with an alien because we at least evolved on the same planet. No matter how many ways you look at it, alien chemistry and genetic drift make interstellar mating impossible. Well, at least as far as Pye’s theories are concerned, because where he leaves off, Nick Redfern picks up by repurposing the often mentioned and quickly forgotten part of ancient astronaut canon.
Ask yourself the following. If humans were engineered by the Annunaki, why wouldn’t they continue to tinker with us after we have been around for a while? And if they just kept on messing with our genes, shouldn’t there be telltale signs of this manipulation? Instead of outright mating with us, the aliens could’ve simply changed our DNA with something much along the same lines we would use. By taking a very benign virus that can bypass our immune systems, hollowing its genes out, and inserting the genes they want expressed instead, then infecting a subject with the modified strain, they should successfully change the subject’s genome.
Viruses would do exactly what they evolved to do. They would take over a host cell, add their genetic payload to the DNA inside so the cell begins manufacturing the right proteins and more viruses, then spread to new cells. This is essentially how we’re trying to make gene therapy work, and are seeing some promising results, although immune response is still an issue. Now, by running with this idea, we could look for viruses coursing through our bodies and find the one that looks to be a descendant of something that may have modified our genes. We can already turn back time, genetically speaking, for viruses. We just need to know which genes were modified in order to find the culprit, and Redfern thinks he found just the mutation.
The smoking gun for alien genetic engineering, as he claims, is in those with what’s known as an Rh negative factor in their blood cells, approximately 10% of the population. Since the majority of humanity is Rh positive, clearly the negatives are signs of something amiss. Furthermore, he claims, since Rhesus monkeys, after which this blood group was named, are Rh+, having Rh- humans seems like an obvious deviation from our evolutionary path. That’s how you prove an alien bloodline without the David Icke method of dragging in the Illuminati and relying on video artifacts his fans claim show signs of humans spontaneously turning into lizards while the rest of the sheeple watch in a trance, right?
I’ll certainly give Redfern points for being creative, but the fact of the matter is that an Rh- factor is not the smoking gun for genetic engineering he seems to think it is. The Rh blood group is a very complex set of proteins and antigens and the positive vs. negative evaluation actually rests on the presence of just one antigen, D, out of 50 known to exist as part of it. There are Rh factor incompatibilities during pregnancies, which is how this blood group was discovered; Rh+ mothers were losing their Rh- fetuses for seemingly no reason as their bodies were antagonized by what they perceived as foreign antigens rather as a future human, which Redfern claims is proof that human bodies know that Rh- factors are unnatural.
However, if we consider a full list of complications that occur during pregnancies and apply the same logic, we’ll have hundreds of potential signs of alien engineering which are really most easily explained by quirks of individual biology. If they couldn’t, we’d have to conclude that the aliens were using their C team to do these experiments, and they ignored the same problems in most other mammals when they were doing their preliminary research that covered much of our evolutionary past since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Problematic, messy, or outright failed pregnancies aren’t exclusive to humans, so if we use Redfern’s logic, aliens tinkered with the genomes of every living thing that gives live birth.
And there’s more. The Rh factor was indeed named after the Rhesus monkey, but not because of our evolutionary similarity. The monkeys’ blood was used in the preliminary research to isolate and study it. We’re so far separated from each other after tens of millions of years of genetic drift that we can’t draw the kind of strong, definitive correlations between them and us as easily as Redfern does. In the end, we have a test for a single antigen missing from 10% of the population, opaquely named after a monkey used to help us study a blood group, and an explanation for one of many quirks during pregnancy that hardly requires alien intervention. Not exactly the compelling stuff he advertises it to be in his book Bloodline of the Gods.
Why didn’t he target the CCR5 gene that gives less than 1% of the population immunity from HIV? It’s certainly very unusual. Why not ask if the genes that cause progeria, the disease that very rapidly ages children, as evidence of the Annunaki trying to understand how aging in humans worked to manipulate our lifespans and making an error they couldn’t fix? The Rh factor seems like a very obscure, technical, and unlikely target. It confers no real biological advantage, doesn’t enable any special traits, or play a role in anything other than immune response. Surely the Annunaki would’ve went for something more worth their time than manipulating the genes for one antigen, wouldn’t have they?
Really, this is the biggest problem with the ancient alien theory and every Blank of the Gods book that crowds the shelves nowadays. Under a thin veneer of plausibility is wishful thinking and literalism which assumes that our ancestors were dull, creatively vacant automatons only capable of transcribing what they saw exactly as they saw it, despite leaving us with millennia of obviously satirical works and jokes about sex and politics that really aren’t all that different from the jokes we tell each other today, and that any genetic or morphological anomaly we’ve found throughout history that can’t be explained by the ancient astronaut theorists — whether it can be explained by actual scientists is irrelevant to this modern mythology — is a smoking gun for alien engineering and influence.
Just as religious zealots like to claim that something happened because a holy text says so and there is no other way to interpret it, or because they can’t explain something, it must be a deity, ancient astronaut theorists just substitute aliens for a relevant god. Just because it’s scientifically plausible, in fact almost infinitely so, doesn’t mean it happened. At the same time, I understand why it’s so appealing to so many. We want our species to be special and if we can’t believe that it was chosen by a creator god to play a key role in the fate of the universe, then at least we could be the product of alien tinkering.
This is especially true for those of us who were born far too late to explore the world, but far too early to travel to other planets and beyond. And if instead of tailless apes with a nearly hairless body and overclocked brains, we’re actually biological machines created by an ancient, extraterrestrial empire, we at least have some consolation that one day, we’ll expose the secret and use it to get the technology to become interstellar Magellans in our own right. Otherwise, how sad would it be if humanity evolved over millions of years, explored the planet, ventured out into space, built monuments that lasted for thousands of years, and ended up sitting in gray cubicles, tinkering with spreadsheets no one cares about in cubicles the color of sadness?
But until we find a flying saucer buried among ancient ruins, or make contact with an alien race that admits to tinkering with our bodies, however, all of these ideas will be just that: the wishful thinking of those aspiring to be a little more than ordinary, run of the mill products of biology within several standard deviations of ability within the entire human population. It may be depressing to think about, but that’s nature. It does what it does and cares absolutely nothing for our desires, and for all the inspirational quotes about how we’re literally the product of stardust and are a part of the universe exploring itself — both of these being absolutely true — it all comes down to the simple fact that we’re only as interesting and full of potential as we make ourselves.
[ main illustration by Byzwa Dher ]