Ancient Aliens and Astronomical Alignments

Advocates of the “Ancient Alien” theory point to numerous different types of evidence that the Earth was visited by extraterrestrials in the distant past. One of their most compelling arguments is based on the apparent alignment of certain ancient structures with stars and constellations. After all, if the alignments are real – and not just the result of random chance, as the skeptics claim – then what other explanation could there be? Stars mean outer space, and outer space means extraterrestrials. It’s a straight choice between believing in aliens and denying the evidence. Or is it really that simple?

Few people would deny that one particular subset of “astronomical” alignments does occur, namely those associated with the sun rather than the night sky. Even mainstream archaeologists can grasp the fact that seasonal movements of the Sun were relevant to ancient cultures. Hence they have no problem with things like the solar alignment of Stonehenge at sunrise on the summer solstice, or the creeping shadow serpent of Chichen Itza at the equinoxes.

It’s a different matter when it comes to night-time astronomy – things like stars, planets and constellations. That’s where the big divergence of opinion sets in. Mainstreamers have no difficulty accepting that Newgrange – a Neolithic site in Ireland that is older than Stonehenge – is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice. But to claim that the same site is patterned after the constellation of Cygnus – as some non-academic researchers have suggested – strikes them as preposterous. What possible interest could Neolithic people have had in stars that are hundreds of light-years away from Earth?

Cygnus is one of a number of constellations that seemingly crop up again and again in the design of ancient structures around the world. Another is Draco, which appears to be reflected in the layout of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia and the Serpent Mound of Ohio, both dating from around a thousand years ago. An even more famous example is the constellation of Orion. The three stars of Orion’s belt are reflected in the arrangement of the three pyramids of the Giza plateau, and also in the Thornborough Henges of northern England, which date from a similar period – around 2500 BC.

Pyramids and Orion

Alignment of pyramids with the stars of Orion’s Belt (public domain image captioned in Italian)

An important factor that has to be taken into account when analysing astronomical alignments is the phenomenon of precession. This occurs because the direction of the Earth’s north-south axis oscillates relative to the inertial frame of the stars with a period of approximately 26,000 years. As a consequence, while the constellations would have had the same shape thousands of years in the past, they would have appeared in a different orientation in the sky at a particular time of year.

The remarkable thing about the Giza pyramid alignment is that – taking precession into account – the match was most perfect around the year 10,500 BC. At the same epoch, another artifact at Giza, the Great Sphinx, would have been aligned with the constellation of Leo at dawn on the spring equinox – and the Sphinx’s lion-shaped outline is also reminiscent of the constellation Leo.

Conventional wisdom dates the construction of the pyramids and the Sphinx around 2500 BC, eight millennia after the period at which the alignments make most sense. There are a number of ways this discrepancy can be interpreted. Mainstream academics say there is nothing to be explained, because the whole idea of astronomical alignments can be dismissed as pseudoscience. Other theorists contend that the artifacts are actually much older than archaeologists believe. Another possibility is that the existing structures are correctly dated, but they were built on the site of earlier ones. Most intriguing of all is the possibility that the ancients understood the concept of precession – either through interaction with extraterrestrials, or simply from their own human intelligence.

The idea of ancient astronomical knowledge seems ridiculous to many people – professional academics and the general public alike. But this is an erroneous view, originating from the modern cultural perception of space and the stars.

Today, an interest in outer space is virtually synonymous with geekdom. The stars are associated almost exclusively with oddball preoccupations – science fiction, ufology, space travel, astrophysics, cosmology. The modern world sees such interests as strange and slightly pathetic. Even if proto-geeks with such interests existed in ancient cultures – so the argument goes – they wouldn’t have had the influence or resources to build vast stone structures based around their rather weird hobby.

UFO abduction

Contemporary society sees the subject of outer space as inextricably linked to UFOs and science fiction

It’s a mistake, however, to apply modern values to ancient cultures. Why is astronomy, in the modern world, seen as such a fringe interest? There are two reasons. First, it’s irrelevant to daily life, dealing as it does with objects that are hundreds or thousands of light years away, without any possibility of influencing human affairs. Secondly, it’s a notoriously difficult and boring subject, being based on abstruse branches of science such as nucleosynthesis, radiative transfer and orbital dynamics.

Neither of those things was true in the ancient world – in fact it was quite the opposite. In the days before street lighting and built-up cities, the night sky was ablaze with stars that looked almost close enough to touch. Many stars and constellations were given names based on the best-loved characters of mythology, so it’s ridiculous to suggest the ancients didn’t take an intimate, personal interest in them.

In the ancient world, too, the motion of the stars was the most predictable aspect of the natural world. Down-to-earth things like droughts, famines and plagues were totally unpredictable – and hence mysterious. The movement of the constellations, on the other hand, could be predicted with mathematical certainty. Nowadays people say “it’s not rocket science”, implying that anything to do with space is too difficult for an ordinary person to understand. But in ancient times the opposite was true. Space science was the only kind of science people could hope to grasp.

It doesn’t take a knowledge of advanced physics to track stellar motions. It just requires careful observation of the night sky, year after year, and for information to be passed down from one generation to the next. Even the mystery of precession would be within the grasp of meticulous observers. To suggest the ancients weren’t capable of this – as the mainstream archaeologists insist – is a double insult. It’s an insult to the intelligence of ancient people, and it’s an insult to astronomers for treating their subject as if it was a trivial irrelevance.

I don’t know if the Ancient Alien theorists are right or wrong – I’ve got an open mind on the subject. But there’s one thing I’m certain of – the debunkers who flatly deny the possibility of ancient astronomical alignments are dead wrong.

Night Sky

The night sky away from modern civilization is a very different sight (image: European Southern Observatory)

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Andrew May is a versatile freelance author and consultant with 30 years experience working in academia, central government and the private sector. He has authored "Pseudoscience and Science Fiction", "Conspiracy History" and "Museum of the Future" to name a few. He's also written magazine features and online articles on subjects ranging from military history and science to Fortean topics and New Age beliefs.
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