Maybe Not

Brian Fagan is the author of numerous books, including "The Rape of the Nile" and the forthcoming "Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nin~o and the Collapse of Civilizations."

Peru's Nazca lines are one of the great wonders of American archeology and remain somewhat of a mystery, although less so than investigators on the lunatic fringe would have us believe. This much is known: About 1,000 years ago, the ancient Nazca people of southern coastal Peru created a web of intricate lines on the desert pampa by sweeping away the topsoil to form rectangles, spirals, triangles and straight lines. Many of the lines make little sense on the ground, but from aloft they coalesce into birds, monkeys and other animals, even plants. Similar geoglyphs depicting humans, llamas and sometimes mythical beings occur in many parts of the Andes. Aerial photographs and satellite imagery have revealed not only more figures at Nazca but also more than 800 miles of straight lines, some of them as long as 12 miles. Some lines radiate from hills interconnected by more linear marks and may have served as paths that led to better-watered areas in the arid landscape. The precise meaning of the Nazca lines will probably always elude us, but there is no question they are linked to ancient Andean religious beliefs that forged the close ties between the living and spiritual worlds that most Native American religions have. Perhaps, for example, the famous Owl Man figure on the pampa at Nazca depicts a shaman passing between the living and spiritual realms as he turns from human into animal.

Archeologists are not alone in being fascinated by Nazca. Inevitably, the mysterious lines have attracted all manner of pseudoscientists and cultists. Back in the 1970s, Swiss writer Erich von Daniken, a passionate believer in extraterrestrial visitations, claimed that the Nazca lines and other famous archeological sites reflected visits by astronauts from other worlds who became the creators of the ancient civilizations. His best-selling books, especially "Chariots of the Gods," acquired a cult following among space junkies and people impatient with the slow-moving, cautious ways of science. Now Von Daniken has returned to Nazca with a refined theory. "Arrival of the Gods" is definitely a cult book aimed at the faithful, for he obviously feels safe enough to concede that he is entangled in a "strange spirit road of hallucinations" as he contemplates the lines. He abruptly trashes scientists, who have studied Nazca; their efforts to use radiocarbon tests to date the figures, their careful analyses of ceramic shards at various sites, and their thoughtful dissections of Native American religious beliefs. And he sees conspiracies everywhere, especially when his efforts to carry out field research are stymied: "I would love to [do the research]--if only I were allowed to. . . . I can think of better ways of spending my time than languishing in a Peruvian lockup!" Undeterred, Von Daniken embarked on extensive aerial reconnaissance, photographing lines and figures from the air (the book is well-illustrated). Herein lies the central argument of his thesis: The figures could be understood only by someone who could fly over them.

Von Daniken's research cuts a broad swath across Nazca. He visits a collector of clay figurines depicting animals and humans and of engraved stones with animals and even a human figure bearing a "telescope," which appear to be blatant forgeries, and reports unverified discoveries of vaults of skeletons (now, of course--how oddly convenient--lost) more than 100,000 years old bearing "facial forms almost unknown on earth" that were found way back when by a prelate with an interest in archeology who has, naturally, since died. Meanwhile, we are told, the narrow-minded archeologists "carry on snoozing in their blissful dream world, in their psychological shaman-jungle of misconceptions." And they continue to write "regurgitated nonsense."

As if his discoveries and dismissals aren't enough, he then proceeds to his own folderol. He has identified "antenna-beings" with hats and feelers, presumably astronauts, which even he admits resemble figures on Nazca clay vessels. But he calls them flying gods, visitors from elsewhere, his scenario leaping from ancient Peru to Indian epics for analogies. The weird gets weirder when he identifies patterns of points and lines in the desert as a millenniums-old visual approach side indicator system used for landing ancient aircraft. According to Von Daniken, Sanskrit literature describes "three towns in the heavens" from which aircraft called vimanas landed on Earth. The author insists one of these landed at Nazca in search of minerals, creating a trapezoidal indentation on the ground, and the local people watched in amazement as "human-like beings with golden, shimmering skins" walked around, mined for metals, then flew away in their heavenly chariot. The ancient astronauts soon returned, built landing aids, then eventually left forever. The awe-struck Native Americans revered Nazca as a place of pilgrimage, and generations of pilgrims built figures and runways as a sign for the gods to return, but alas, they never did.

Von Daniken is never at a loss. He even persuades a model-making friend to build a reconstruction of an ancient airplane modeled from a golden insect ornament from Bogota. Presto! The ancient flying machine flies successfully and becomes the logo of the "Ancient Astronaut Society." Now we are promised a theme park to commemorate the ancient space travelers.

"Arrival of the Gods" is a grotesque parody of scientific inquiry devoid of any intellectual credibility or literary merit whatsoever. The book is typical of the genre, with its haphazard and uncritical use of an astonishing range of sources from all parts of the world in order to fashion an implausible jigsaw puzzle the author claims is science. This is not science; Erich von Daniken has raised his astronaut theories to the status of a cult, with himself as the Great Prophet. Gullible believers will buy this delusional piece of fiction and believe it is the literal scientific truth. What they will read is not even well-written or imaginative science fiction.

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