“Ancient astronauts” is a popular trope in fiction and fringe historical theory that attempts to explain many of the historical coincidences of human civilization (i.e. pyramids on three different continents, common archetypes in creation stories, etc.). The premise is that sometime in our distant past a race of arbitrarily advanced, altruistic aliens visited Earth and either created us or provided us with the basics of civilization before taking off into the abyss. Fiction that uses the trope can range from our intrepid hero discovering the truth about our past, conflict over some ancient technology left behind or the aliens coming back to cash in on whatever it is they did to us.
As mentioned before this is a popular trope with multiple example across pop culture. H.P. Lovecraft gets a lot of credit for bringing the trope into the mainstream with his tales of ancient alien entities mucking about in Earth’s distant past. My first experience, however, began with Semper Mars by Ian Douglas along with its many sequels that make up the Galactic Marines series. This military SF is not only a love letter to the US Marine Corp, but also involves different alien races tinkering with our genetics, teaching us the basics of civilization so they can enslave us or trying to wipe us out of reality. Although sometimes a tad patriotic and other times in desperate need of a continuity editor, I generally enjoyed the series as it showed how humanity grew to take its rightful place in the cosmos.
Since then I have read many other variations on the theme. Most recently the trope popped up in Martinez‘s The Daedalus Incident and The Enceladus Crisis, Lovegrove’s Age of Shiva and Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning. Now as a fictional trope I don’t have any problems with ancient astronauts. Done well, it is a useful tool in creating a potentially exciting SF tale. That being said, holy crap the skies are getting crowded with prehistoric flying saucers. It seems every third book involves aliens intervening in our past for one purpose or another. I am burnt out on these stories and will probably turn down the next offer I get to review a novel about independent contractors from Mars working on the Great Wall of China.
Personally I would like to see more variations on the trope, such as the ancient aliens from Clarke and Baxter’s The Light of Other Days. Using a time-viewer our heroes discover that all life is descended from a single biological sample preserved by a race of alien beings who lived on Earth three billion years ago but were on the verge of being wiped out during an extinction level event. Unless I am completely off base, I always though these intelligent beings were not actually aliens, but had evolved on Earth yet were not advanced enough to escape their doom. These aliens are similar to the Silurians from Doctor Who.
Stories like that can have greater undertones than another tale about the umpteenth alien race that spends the time and effort developing interstellar space flight and travels across the cosmos just to show some under-developed Homo Sapiens how to use fire. Wait a second…why would the aliens take on such a great undertaking just to help out a primitive alien race? Do they not have their own version of the Prime Directive? They certainly wouldn’t need us for labor (they would have robots) or food (they probably couldn’t metabolize our otherwise delicious flesh anyway), so why do it? Do they just want company? Is it that lonely in the infinite abyss? Finding a good motivation for why the aliens would even bother with our mud ball is another issue that could ruin a good story that use the ancient astronaut trope.
That all being said, while I don’t have many issues with ancient astronauts as a fictional trope, as a historical theory it is complete bull plop. This fringe theory has been popularized on the so-called History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens. This show and the proponents of the theory attempt to prove that aliens have been intervening in our history since the beginning. Rarely do these “experts” ever provide any actual evidence to support their theory (believe it or not, like science, history actually requires evidence to support a theory) and outright ignore simple explanations for historical events, like how the ancient megalithic structures such as Stonehenge were created. Funny how most of the great megalithic structures like the pyramids of Egypt, the Easter Island heads and Machu Picchu in Peru, needed the help of ancient astronauts to construct them. Are they implying that non-whites need the help of otherworldly visitors because they aren’t smart enough to build big buildings? Hmm…
Bad science and racist implications aside, my biggest issue with ancient astronauts proponents is their inability to accept that sometimes things just happen in our chaotic history. In some ways its the non-religious version of creationism. Ancient astronaut proponents desperately need to have some greater force intervening in our lives, but they have replaced the divine for the pseudo-scientific. This incapacity is also present in other conspiracy theories and secret histories. Some people have such an issue with chaos that they will cling to the belief in some great force of order, even if such a force is utterly terrifying. In regards to ancient astronauts, we have to remember that Fermi’s question still stands unanswered. We may actually be alone in this universe, at least in terms of space-faring civilizations, but we may always have been alone since the beginning.
So try to avoid the ancient astronaut trope in your next story, unless you have a variation of the theme that has not been done before. The skies are crowded and full of crazy “scientists” who ruin it for us nerds.