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UFO update: the rise, fall, and afterlife of Erich von Daniken's theory of extraterrestrial gods

A little more than 25 years ago, the manager of a first-class Swiss hotel wrote a worldwide best seller titled Chariots of the Gods?. Its author, Erich von Daniken, captured the public imagination with a dramatic presentation of the idea that extraterrestrials had left physical traces of their presence throughout the world. Chariots held, for instance, that the giant stone faces on Easter Island off the coast of Chile were probably constructed with the help of extraterrestrials; the long Nazca lines, crisscrossing the plains of Peru and only visible from the air, von Daniken said, were probably landing strips for their craft.

By the late 1970s, however, von Daniken's "ancient astronaut" theory was crumbling under an avalanche of criticism from archaeologists and astronomers. Today, few believe these extraterrestrial gods ever existed. But don't tell that to the 350 people who met in Las Vegas last August to attend the twentieth-anniversary conference of the Ancient Astronaut Society, or to any of the Society's 10,000 members in 93 countries worldwide. Twenty speakers, including numerous Ph.D.'s, engineers, and writers gave presentations that touched on everything from the "spaceships" of the Biblical prophet Ezekiel to the notorious "face on Mars."

Von Daniken's largest base of support, however, is not in the United States, but rather in Germany and other nations of Europe. In 1993, for instance, Europeans saw von Daniken star in a 25-part biweekly TV series titled On the Trace of the Almighty. And touring the cities of Europe, von Daniken still manages to fill 2,000-seat auditoriums. His last nine books, all best sellers in Germany, have also appeared in Italy, France, Holland, Spain, Greece--everywhere, it seems, but in the United States. England, and Australia. "I must be blacklisted in America," says the 58-year-old author with a chuckle.

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Despite such slights, von Daniken's belief in the ancient-astronaut theory remains firm. "Each and every one of my books has had to be better than the one before," he says. "We have had to come up with stronger proof each time out."

Of note are the new translations of some ancient Asian Indian texts von Daniken has commissioned. "They describe gigantic space cities that surrounded our planet thousands of years in the past," he says with great enthusiasm. "And from these cities, extraterrestrials used small vehicles to descend to Earth."

Carl Sagan, a major critic of von Daniken in the 1970s, says he has not changed his mind. One of Sagan's original objections was the underlying assumption that our ancestors were apparently too stupid to create the monumental architecture of our past.

"But it's never been my idea," von Daniken objects, "that ancient astronauts had constructed great buildings and temples. Mankind did. But why? Mythology and religion say they were dealing with the teachers that had descended from heaven."

Von Daniken's protestations are unlikely to sway his critics. "The whole ancient-astronauts hypothesis was based more on pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology than any reasonable hypothesis about extraterrestrial intelligence," says Kendrick Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer. "I just don't know anybody who takes this seriously anymore."

COPYRIGHT 1994 Omni Publications International Ltd.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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