Graphic from The History Channel
Since 2010, “Ancient Aliens” has proven to be a solid ratings winner for both The History Channel and the A&E Network. This is despite the show’s reliance on unique and often unproven theories; in fact, one of the show’s biggest criticisms is how the show presents these theories as if they were indeed factual in nature (the low-end production values didn’t help, as noted in this review published in the McGill Tribune.)
I admit I’ve watched a few episodes of “Ancient Aliens” with a sense of bemusement on random late nights. But as my interest in history grew in my later years, I realized there was a deeper undercurrent of something more disturbing within shows like “Ancient Aliens” – the whole concept that ancient peoples (especially those of indigenous or non-Caucasian societies) couldn’t have possibly built all the fantastical structures themselves.
This concept is hardly a new one – despite their own encounters with savagery, disease, and superstitious beliefs, European societies developed a sense of superiority which led to a cultural imperialism – in the four centuries between 1500 and 1900, European powers had conquered 84 percent of the globe.
In reality, what was presented to them in lands outside their borders was merely different. The judgment of inferiority was strictly their own creation, and it led to laughable, dire, and sometimes fatal consequences for the eventual colonists.
For example, the original Pilgrims to Massachusetts couldn’t make heads or tails of farming the soils around their new home, and half of them didn’t survive their first winter in North America. If it weren’t for the assistance that the Wampanoag Tribe had given to these first European visitors, they almost all would’ve certainly perished.
Similarly, the first British visitors to Australia downplayed what the Aboriginal peoples of the land had done to subsist and use the land’s resources efficiently. Author and filmmaker Bruce Pascoe notes numerous examples of this phenomenon in his book “Dark Emu”; the following is but one of many passages denoting such:
“When in 1845 (explorer Captain Charles) Sturt first saw the harvested grass Panicum Laevinode (used by the Aboriginal people for baking, possibly for tens of thousands of years) near Lake Torrens, he found it spread out to dry and ripen on the sloping banks of a stream. It’s significant that the people were engaged in a harvest while Sturt and his party were struggling to stay alive. “The heat during the day had been terrific…we were unable to keep our feet in the stirrups, and the horses perspired greatly.” One of the party, Poole, suffered so badly from the heat and scurvy that his muscles stiffened and the roof of his mouth fell away. He was sent back to base, but died on the way.”BRUCE PASCOE, “Dark Emu”
Some claim Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag, literally lost his head in the Philippines on his attempt to circumnavigate the world, courtesy of Mactan tribe leader Lapu Lapu (the true reason behind Magellan’s death is in reality somewhat muddled), and the initial efforts of Conquistador Hernán Cortés were seriously imperiled after “La Noche Triste”, when his party was attacked and were chased out of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1520 (as it turned out, disease rendered the Aztecs unable to mount a defense when Cortés and other indigenous peoples who were enemies of the Aztecs came back a year later to retake the city.)
Despite some setbacks, the colonizers would not be denied in the end. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were then exploited for gain, with many forced into labor to fill the coffers of treasuries thousands of miles away. As noted in author Jack Weatherford’s book “Indian Givers”, precious metals made the transoceanic journey in cargo holds incessantly for the next few centuries. As Weatherford wrote, “Between 1500 and 1650, the gold of the Americas added at least 180 to 200 tons to the European treasure.” In fact, there was so much gold from the Americas that even churches became tributes to gold as much as God: “(Churches) put gold leaf on the ceilings, added golden cherubs in the corners, strung vines of golden grapes between them, and puffed up golden clouds to fill any unadorned spaces,” Weatherford states.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what would become the United States adapted this attitude quite easily. “The Trail of Tears”, the result of the forcible removal of Native Americans off their traditional southern U.S. lands, was caused by a number of things, including the colonists’ feeling that members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Crow and Seminole tribes (which became collectively known as the “Five Civilized Tribes”) were incapable of being integrated into society and inferior in general.
My parents’ home country of The Philippines gained extra scrutiny through this prejudicial lens. Journalist and Buzzfeed Editor Albert Samaha’s new biography release “Concepcion”, a beautifully written treatise on he and his family’s experiences immigrating to America, contains several quotes which reflected the sentiment of many United States citizens once the U.S. gained control of the island chain after winning the Spanish-American war at the end of the 19th century.
Writer Rudyard Kipling, from his poem “The White Man’s Burden”: “(Filipinos are) new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child.”
U.S. Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana: “What alchemy will change the Oriental quality of their blood, and set the self-governing currents of the American pouring through their Malay veins?”
U.S. Major General/Medal of Honor winner William Rufus Shafter: “It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.”
United States Soldier Song Lyrics: "Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos! Cut-throat khakiac ladrones! Underneath the starry flag, Civilize them with a Krag!”(note: a Krag is a U.S. military-issued repeating rifle)
It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the countries who traveled far through often treacherous conditions to find and plunder the riches and resources of far away lands are aghast that the peoples from those same lands are trying to gain some semblance of a living from them nowadays. These folks, classified as aliens by the United States in immigration law, often share the derision that was heaped on past immigrant populations by many of the majority White populace.
Would the people of Mexico and parts south be motivated to pursue their fortunes these days if all those tons of gold had stayed in their hands? Or for that matter, the copious supply of silver pulled from Bolivia’s Cerro Rico (the largest singular source of silver ever found in the entire world) and the mines of Northern Mexico weren’t elsewhere (per Weatherford’s book, so much silver was plundered from the Americas that it led directly to the devaluing of silver compared to gold, and started the collapse of the Spanish Empire, whose fortunes were mainly centered on that precious metal.
Similarly, how would fortunes of Native Americans changed if they were able to keep their lands (in the example cited above, the Cherokee peoples attempt to adapt European norms like Christianity and keep their lands in the “civilized” manner (going through the US justice system) proved unsuccessful, as then President Andrew Jackson basically refused to enforce a Supreme Court ruling allowing Native Americans to keep their lands) or had been compensated fairly in other circumstances (in 2016, the U.S. Government was found negligent in paying 17 tribes “just compensation” for use of their lands over a number of decades and was ordered to pay the tribes nearly $500 million; some people have calculated the true amount not paid was in the billions of dollars, however.)
All suppositions to be sure, but when it’s all taken into account, no one should be surprised at the way things are right now. Not even aliens of the extraterrestrial variety would be surprised, I would imagine.