Signs of extraterrestrial activity on earth have been documented for centuries. While many of the stories about ancient alien visitors seem dubious, some are certainly tantalizing enough to provoke speculation. In about AD 820 Archbishop Agobard of Lyon, France, wrote an intriguing account of beings who supposedly “fell to earth.” His book, De Grandine et Tonitruis (About Hail and Thunder), describes how a mob of superstitious citizens, driven by a widespread belief in airborne sorcerers called “the Aerials,” held three men and a woman in chains for several days. The locals claimed the four had descended from ships that were sailing in the clouds to steal their crops. But the prisoners insisted they were innocent country-folk carried away earlier by miraculous men who had shown them unknown marvels. The mob brought them before Agobard, who ruled that both sides were in the wrong, and the prisoners were released.

Was thus an extraordinary bout of mass hysteria or could it be evidence that aliens were visiting Earth? In ancient times the commonest visions in the sky were of burning torches, shields, swords, and monsters. Many might have been due to natural causes, such as comets, meteors or the weather. Yet some reports of unexplained and strange things in the sky have led to the belief that “ancient astronauts” existed.

Even biblical stories have been linked to extraterrestrial visits. In The Bible and Flying Saucers (1968), theologian Dr Barry Downing describes the complex visions of the prophet Ezekiel in about 600 BC. Ezekiel’s bizarre account of a fiery cloud with wheels an human-like beings who took him up to another world is remarkably similar to modern-day tales of abduction by aliens. And India’s Sanskrit texts, known as the Vedas, tell of flying machines called vimanas piloted by human-like races armed with powerful weapons.

In the first century AD the Greek writer Plutarch quoted a contemporary account of a battle at Aegospotami in September 405 BC, when Lysander, the Spartan commander, defeated the Athenian fleet: “For 75 days continually, there was seen in the heavens a vast fiery body, as if it had been a flaming loud, not resting, but carried about with several intricate and broken movements.” Perhaps the fiery cloud was a comet, but its intricate and broken movements make this unlikely. Centuries later in AD 776, Saxons were storming a castle at Syburg, on the River Ruhr in Germany, when they were terrified by images of two shields red with flame wheeling over the church.

The idea that early extraterrestrials left artifacts on earth was first put forward in 1954 by British writer Harold T. Wilkins in Flying Saucers From The Moon. Wilkins suggested that the famous Nazca lines of Peru, mysterious markings etched into the desert, were a landing guide for aliens. Later the Egyptian pyramids, the Easter Island statues, a Mayan sarcophagus lid at Palenque, and cave paintings of “spacemen” at sites in France, Spain, Italy, China and Australia were claimed by other authors to be the result of extraterrestrial activity. Books about the ancient astronaut theory had little impact until the 1969 publication in English of the best-selling Chariots of the Gods? By Erich von Daniken, who believed that ancient aliens came to earth to mate with humans, thus giving them advanced wisdom.

Von Daniken’s ideas were attacked by both theologians and scientists, who argued that his evidence was either non-existent or poor. Yet some curious circumstances are hard to dismiss. In 1976 Robert Temple’s book The Sirius Mystery described the primitive Dogon tribe of Mali in Africa, who have extraordinarily accurate knowledge about the star Sirius. Temple connects this knowledge to a Dogon myth about amphibious creatures who once landed in an “ark,” which produced a whirlwind of dust and “spurted blood,” interpreted as rocket exhaust. The Dogon believe that their civilization was founded by travelers from Sirius. Critics like astronomer Carl Sagan argue that the Dogon knowledge is not as precise as advocates of ancient astronauts believe and that it could have been acquired relatively recently from European travelers.

Author Samuel Rosenberg and others suspect that some tales of ancient aliens are hoaxes. The story about an old manuscript found in Yorkshire describing “a large round silver thing like a disc” flying over terrified monks at Byland Abbey in 1290 was said to have been invented by two schoolboys. Another story supposedly came from an Egyptian papyrus scroll dating from around 1500 BC. A huge circle of fire was said to have crossed the sky, followed by other apparitions brighter than the sun. This too is now thought to be no more than a hoax.

 

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