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What we really know about the past
Just before you read any further: This post contains pictures of human remains (skeletons), just fyi.
Okay, so just a quick note in apology to the three or four of my friends out there who still check this page hoping for more posts. I’m sorry for my absence. If you are still checking, it speaks volumes about your unwavering faith in humanity and you should be proud. Give yourselves a pat on the back. Or a high-five. Or a beer. Or what ever you feel is an appropriate reward. You have my permission.
So, I have been, believe it or not, actually working on a few things for this blog in order to shift it into some sort of gear other than ‘park’, but I’m not going to be posting any of those. Instead I want to talk about Aliens.
Yup. From Outer-space.
I just saw this. In case you can’t see the link, the headline reads:
“Freaky “Non-Human” Mummy Found In Peru”
Aliens! Finally proof! Or you know…. not. Here’s a picture.
Doesn’t look human, at least we are told that it doesn’t look human. So, is this proof in aliens visiting us? Are these Ancient Aliens?
Well, they’re not alone. Here’s another pic of an alien skull. This one from the Starchild Project.
Okay, one more.
Did you catch my clever trick?
That last picture is actually from the Wikipedia page on Hydrocephalus. But they all look pretty similar. That’s probably because the first two pictures are likely pictures of this same condition. I was planning on writing a brief explanation about why the mummy skull is probably just a child with this condition- but then I found someone who already has.
Dr. Steven Novella (from the NESS and the SGU podcasts- check them out if you haven’t already) wrote a very succinct description of hydrocephalus in the Starchild skull. If you want an explanation for the mummy skull, just read Dr. Novella’s work and replace the words “Starchild Skull” with “Alien Mummy”.
I do want to add one thing to Dr. Novella’s diagnosis. There is a cultural practise called cranial modification, or deformation, or head binding, or Cradle Boarding. Any way you say it- the process radically changes the shape of skulls. You can read about the process here. Some combination of these two explanations would easily explain the morphology of both of these skulls. It also helps that this practise was fairly common place in past societies, in fact the Andes is famous for it, while the Starchild skull was apparently found with an adult human skull that had been cradle boarded.
Put simply: modification is a cultural practise that makes skulls look alien.
There are a lot, and I mean a lot (seriously: I believe the technical term is a but- load) of alien/archaeological theories. The dudes from space have been credited with building Stonehenge. They are responsible for Nazca lines. The Pyramids.You name it. A ridiculous amount of people searching to explain complicated things in simple terms. However I’m not going to touch on these themes (much), except to say that Alien/Illuminati/Generic-Shadowy-All-Powerful-Beings have always been used to explain the complicated reasons for past events. Gods are the reason for lightning, monsters fighting result in lakes, and aliens built stuff that we can’t imagine people building. We even use Aliens to explain geological features on other planets! (By the way, if you’re not following Phil Plait’s blog, you should be!)
The actually reasons for these things is much more complicated and much, much harder to understand. No matter how complex a show like Ancient Aliens makes their argument, it is really quite simple: Aliens did it. But the real explanation for something like Stonehenge is embedded within thousands of years of complex cultural development, religious and spiritual beliefs, as well as economic and social motivations that are next to impossible to tease apart. It’s so much easier to look at it and say “Aliens did it” and then go for a beer. Even the human drive to jump out of plans, or explore space, or any of the other ‘God-like powers’ described in that History Channel show I linked to; it’s not some ancient alien DNA or what-ever the hell that show is arguing, but rather it’s in our best interest to do so. Though that answer requires you understand physiology, evolution, cultural dynamics, and psychology. I spent a week researching that post. I could have just wrote ‘alien DNA’ and cracked a cold one.
You’ll notice a theme throughout the posts on this blog: that we seek to justify our present beliefs by rooting them in the past. This alien thing is not really that different. It’s easy to interpret the past in support of your idea (what ever it happens to be) because it’s so damn easy to argue for mysterious origins of past behaviours. Heck, we like the mysterious- it makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Couple this with the commonly held belief that people in the past were stupid and presto(!)- aliens. Or Atlantis. Or whatever.
It’s weird: it’s easier for us to think that the ‘mysterious’ pyramids at Giza were built by aliens, rather than by a group of people with over a 100 years of pyramid building experience, and part of a tradition of tomb building that stretches back much, much further.
However, I don`t really want to get into writing posts explaining why shows like Ancient Aliens are wrong. There is a reason I didn’t call this blog “Not the History Channel”- its because I don’t plan on spending my time arguing against bad science and bad archaeology (which the History Channel is full of). Mainly because I enjoy writing about the complexities of archaeological interpretations, but also because there is already a group that deals with pseudoscience in archaeology. I think the guys over at Bad Archaeology are doing a good job, and you should go read their posts. But it’s not what I want to do.
What I want to talk about is not why claims of extraterrestrials in the past are wrong, but about why people feel the need to do this kind of thing at all. I want to add a level of complexity to the arguments present in decent shows (like a great deal of shows on Discovery). Shows like Ancient Aliens have so little foundation in any archaeological evidence and provided next to nothing to built from.
Remember the next time someone offers you a seemingly complex answer to some mystery, ask your self this question: Can that answer fit into a 4 second sound bite?
If it can, it’s probably not right.
EDIT: I just Posted this I wrote it a couple of days ago, and found this post, where Evan Bernstein comments on a Daily Mail article about the mummy. Though I agree with Mr. Bernstein that it’s nice to see the Daily Mail offer a more reasonable explanation than aliens, the article doesn’t really go out of it’s way. This article, unlike the other one I read, claims that the presence of molars is an adult trait. I can’t tell for sure, but looking at the picture, and counting the sockets, it looks like the molars are deciduous, or baby teeth. These erupt between the ages of 1 and 3. The bones of the skull don’t fuse until between 1 and 2 years, so claiming that these molars are adult is kind of weak.
EDIT #2: After speaking with my buddy Andrew Hickok, who is a professional Physical Anthropologist and Bioarchaeologist and has a great deal of experience with human remains and pathology. Drew suggests pituitary dwarfism (growth-hormone deficiency) and cranial deformation as an explanation for the Starchild skull and doesn’t believe hydrocephalus is a likely explanation for either skull. He did also mention the deciduous molar thing I mentioned above, but as I said before I don’t claim any expertise, and as such thought I would just pass along Drew’s (very) informed opinion. Because science is fun!