Erich von Däniken Kenneth L. Feder

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Kenneth L. Feder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is about as difficult for an archaeologist in 1979 to avoid the theories of Erich von Däniken as it was for a sixteenth-century European peasant to avoid the Black Plague. This analogy can certainly be extended to the dread experienced when faced with these representative phenomena. (p. 20)

[Chariots of the Gods?] was impossible to read in one sitting. It was easy reading in that the average syllable content per word approached unity. However, because so much of the information was erroneous in terms of misleading statements and out-of-context references, characterized by verbal sleight-of-hand or out-and-out untruths, a lot of time was wasted in teeth gnashing and walking around the room searching for the book after repeatedly throwing it against the wall.

I could differentiate at least three basic arguments presented in Chariots: (1) Human biological evolution was engineered by intermating with spacemen…. (2) There exist ancient prehistoric artifacts and structures that directly and empirically record the presence of aliens among us. (3) There exist ancient prehistoric artifacts and structures whose complexity and technological sophistication indicate "help from above" in the form of some sort of extraterrestrial Peace or Urban Job Corps. While the first two of these arguments possessed a charm unto themselves, I was repelled by the third construct.

Of the first two arguments, the first was just silly. The second appealed to those interested in inkblots (if you look hard enough at anything for long enough it begins to look like lots of things). It was the third argument that bothered me most. The basis of the third theory is simply that ancient, so-called "primitive" peoples were stupid and could never, by themselves, have accomplished the great feats of engineering, astronomy, and so forth, which are apparent in the archaeological record. It troubled me greatly, not so much that von Däniken could write a book like Chariots of the Gods?, but that millions of people would buy the argument as well as the book.

I initially regarded this third von Däniken argument as the ultimate extension of the hyperdiffusionist ideology. The diffusionist model was quite popular in historical and anthropological circles in the United States and Europe during the first three decades of this century. Ultimately, the diffusionist perspective was predicated on the assumption that people are essentially dull and unimaginative. From this, it was inferred that while cultures in various parts of the world had evolved along very complex lines, it was highly unlikely that these complexities had occurred independently. That is, it was assumed that there were a very limited number of cultural "hearths" and that all innovations (agriculture, writing, urban civilization) were developed at these hearths and spread out, or diffused from these places. (pp. 20-1)

Archaeology has shown the diffusionist model to be inconsistent with the data. Intensive archaeological analysis in the last several decades has shown that in most cases the complex developments seen in the Near East, Far East, and New World were the result of long, internal, cultural evolutionary processes. In fact, evidence of the wholesale movement of complex cultural traits does not exist until well after an area was well on the road to complex development. (p. 21)

Very much as did the extreme diffusionists, von Däniken posited a cultural hearth, a source of all development and innovation—except that the hearth was not on this planet. Instead, we must hypothesize a happy band of extraterrestrials proselytizing science and technology, returning again and again until Peking or Java or Heidelberg or Neanderthal Man (or Woman) could get it right. However, on a closer inspection of the evidence the wily von Däniken uses to buttress his extraterrestrial theory, I came to the conclusion that this explanation was in fact insufficient.

The implications of von Däniken's work and the reasons for its acceptance...

(The entire section is 1,161 words.)