A strange statue turns up in New England. Its base is labeled with hieroglyphs, and the figure above it is obviously inhuman. The writing isn’t a match for any known language—but this statue isn’t the first of its kind the scientific community has seen. It’s similar to one presented to the annual meeting of the American Archaeological Society many years earlier; experts back then were unable to identify the art style or ancient culture to which it belonged. Soon, a third statue appears on a small island near Australia. Scientists conclude that the stone can't be found on Earth, and further research proves that the answer is obvious: Aliens brought the statue to Earth long ago.
Hopefully you don’t need to be told that the above account is entirely fictional—but if you watch the History Channel, it might ring some bells. The plot sounds eerily similar to those heard on Ancient Aliens, a show that bills itself as a documentary exploring the theory that aliens have been visiting Earth for millennia, leaving behind pyramids, stone circles, and crystal skulls along the way. It's not Ancient Aliens, though; this summary is actually the plot of “The Call of Cthulhu,” a short story published in 1928 by H.P. Lovecraft. The similarities between Lovecraft’s ideas and those of the people who produce Ancient Aliens aren’t a coincidence.
According to a 2018 survey, 41 percent of Americans believe aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past. Perhaps that explains the popularity of Ancient Aliens, which has been on the air for 10 years. Since 1968, when Erich von Däniken’s first book Chariots of the Gods? introduced ancient aliens to popular culture, the idea that mysterious prehistoric relics could potentially hide extraterrestrial secrets has wormed its way into the collective consciousness. It’s not hard to find a meme pointing out how similar the Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids are, despite being on separate continents, or a sci-fi movie that claims the Maya calendar contains prophetic knowledge of when the world will end. But these arguments aren’t based on archaeological evidence: As Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestrial Pop Culture argues, they trace back to Lovecraft.
While the modern craze for ancient aliens can be blamed on von Däniken, whose many books have sold tens of millions of copies and promoted the same ideas as Ancient Aliens—on which he is a consulting producer—he didn’t come up with the idea. Von Däniken was heavily inspired by two earlier writers, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (who reportedly threatened to sue von Däniken for plagiarism), and, as Colavito writes in The Origin of the Space Gods, Pauwels and Bergier cadged it from none other than H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft’s stories of gods from beyond the stars visiting a young Earth are fictional, and although he enjoyed crafting his own mythology, he never meant for anyone to actually fall for it. In 1934, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “We never, however, try to put it across as an actual hoax; but always carefully explain to enquirers that it is 100 [percent] fiction.” He even felt “quite guilty every time I hear[d] of someone’s having spent valuable time looking up the Necronomicon at public libraries.”
Pauwels and Bergier, though familiar with Lovecraft’s writings, apparently missed the memo. “They presented the themes found in Lovecraft as nonfiction,” Colavito writes of their 1960 book, The Morning of the Magicians, “speculating about such alternative history touchstones as the ‘true’ origin of the Egyptian pyramids, ancient maps that appear to have been drawn from outer space, [and] advanced technology incongruously placed in the ancient past.” Indeed, in the English version of Extraterrestrial Visitations from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Bergier writes that although Lovecraft was fiction, he collaborated with a known scholar on the Middle East, so “it is not impossible that at least a part of Lovecraft’s myth may be verified when the Empty Quarter is opened to exploration.”
Von Däniken and The History Channel popularized these concepts for a new audience, and many episodes of Ancient Aliens seem drawn almost directly from Lovecraft’s fiction. In the short story “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” (also known as "Under the Pyramids"), Lovecraft proposes that the Egyptian sphinx represented a real alien creature; in the episode “Mysteries of the Sphinx,” Ancient Aliens claims the exact same thing. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” follows explorers who discover prehistoric ruins created by extraterrestrials under the ice of Antarctica; the Ancient Aliens episodes “Pyramids of Antarctica” and “Return to Antarctica” hit the same themes. And, of course, Lovecraft frequently suggests that various ancient gods were really aliens, in stories ranging from “Dagon” to “The Call of Cthulhu” itself. The same theme appears in nearly every episode of Ancient Aliens.
Lovecraft and "The Other"
Lovecraft is famous today not just for his Cthulhu stories, but also for being a virulent racist. Racism was fundamental to his very conception of the world, and it found its way into his fiction. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example, a group of Cthulhu’s worshippers are described as a “hybrid spawn, [...] men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type.” Others are “foreign mongrels” and “swarthy cult-fiends” with “some peculiarly abominable quality about them which made their destruction seem almost a duty.”
Many of his stories boil down to the same plot: A white Anglo man is brought down by exposure to this Other—the thing that is different from you, and therefore scary in its foreignness. In “The Horror at Red Hook,” the Other is “dark religions antedating the Aryan world.” In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” Lovecraft targets interracial marriage (technically the story is about a town of half-human, half-fish monsters, but the metaphor is pretty obvious). And once, in “The Colour Out of Space,” the thing to fear is nothing but a strange color—a “diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth.”
No matter what form the Other takes, it’s always something strange, something outside, seeking to corrupt and contaminate white civilization. It’s xenophobia retold as sci-fi.
The Racism of Ancient Aliens
When von Däniken, Pauwels, and Bergier took their inspiration from Lovecraft’s ideas, they also—perhaps unwittingly—helped seed an undercurrent of Eurocentrism. Proponents of the ancient aliens rarely discuss the cathedrals of Europe or Rome's Colosseum—indeed, an analysis by archaeologist Kenneth Feder showed that only 4 percent of the examples in von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? came from Europe. In other words, according to the ancient aliens theory, the vast majority of the ancestors who needed help from outer space weren’t white. As Julien Benoit, a senior researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, writes at The Conversation, ancient alien theories “perpetuate and give air to the racist notion that only Europeans—white people—ever were and ever will be capable of such architectural feats” as things like the pyramids.
Thankfully, awareness about the racist roots of the ideas in Ancient Aliens seems to be on the rise. Some debunkers have taken on the show episode by episode, and the hashtag CancelAncientAliens has seen an uptick of use on twitter as archaeologists, writers, and others call out the show’s many inaccuracies. Because really, there’s no mystery to be explained. The archaeological record is clear: Black and brown humans were perfectly capable of building the pyramids, constructing Machu Picchu, or calculating the Maya calendar all on their own.
It’s only under the assumption that early humans were too stupid or too backwards for such achievements that you begin to believe that aliens might have been involved. Every iteration of the ancient aliens theory depends on denying the agency and abilities of our ancestors—and we shouldn't need extraterrestrial intervention to realize that that should change.
For more on the H.P. Lovecraft/Ancient Aliens connection, pick up Jason Colavito's book, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestrial Pop Culture , and check out his website, JasonColavito.com.