Swiss Author Erich von Daniken’s idea that aliens visited our distant ancestors has inspired films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Prometheus and Stargate, dozens of Marvel Comics characters, and even a theme park in the middle of Blackpool.
Von Daniken has written over 20 books on the subject of ancient astronauts, with total combined sales getting on for 30 million copies worldwide. He’s also a regular guest on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens show.
In suggesting that Earth could have been visited by extraterrestrial explorers in the far distant past, he’s in good company.
Noted astronomer Carl Sagan suggested in a 1962 lecture that visitors from other worlds could just as easily have arrived thousands of years ago as they might today.
But von Daniken went a lot further, crediting extraterrestrials with kick-starting civilisation. Do his ideas actually hold water?
We’ve rounded up some of the bestselling author’s most dramatic claims, and given them a reality check.
Historians and archaeologists have refuted many of the stories in von Daniken’s books.
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In his breakthrough 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, he says for example that there is a 4,000-year-old iron pillar in Delhi that“never rusts”. But several metallurgists have pointed out that it is actually quite rusty, and only 1600 years old anyway.
He also claims that the iconic stone heads of Easter Island could only have been lifted into place by a UFO.
But Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated that the early inhabitants of the could easily have “walked” the stones into place, and didn’t need the help of an extraterrestrial fork-lift.
The Piri Reis map, a fragment of a world map compiled in 1513 by Turkish explorer Piri Reis, is one of the earliest world maps in existence.
It draws on explorations by Columbus, who had sailed to the West Indies around 20 years before the map was drawn, and various other sources dating back to antiquity in order to create a fair summation of how Europeans saw the world in the 14th Century.
According to von Daniken, it also shows a detailed view of Antarctica as it would have existed before it was covered in ice – during the age of the dinosaurs.
He theorises that the Piri Reis map was based on an earlier aerial photograph taken from a UFO hovering above what is now Cairo some time during the Cretaceous era.
The only flaw in his story that the map is not "absolutely accurate" as von Daniken claims, and his insistence on an ancient legend saying that a god gave the map to a priest appears to be completely fictional.
His theories about the great pyramid also ignores the long history of experimentation by Egyptian builders, and ancient texts showing exactly how they were built.
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But von Daniken won’t back down: “I was wrong in many details,” he admits. “But I was never wrong in the main story.
"The so-called gods were here and this I can prove. I have stonewall arguments for this.”
In his book The Gold of the Gods, von Daniken describes a secret cave in Ecuador filled with treasure, bizarre “alien” statues and an ancient library of metal plates.
He explains that the mysterious relics are proof that South America was once visited by extraterrestrials who left this hidden knowledge for mankind to discover.
But the local who told von Daniken about the Cueva de los Tayos, Juan Moricz, later revealed to a German newspaper that they had never actually been to the location and he had just had a “long conversation” with the Swiss writer.
In a 1974 interview, von Daniken insisted that he had visited the cave, but admitted but he had added some fictional details to the story to make it more interesting.
"In German we say a writer, if he is not writing pure science, is allowed to use some dramaturgische Effekte – some theatrical effects," he said. "And that's what I have done."
A few years later he retracted even that statement and made the entire adventure up.
In the mid-Seventies he told Playboy magazine that he hadn’t completely believed his own theories when he first started writing Chariots of the Gods, and had convinced himself more and more as he went along.
“When I wrote it I was not at all convinced,” he said.
“By the second book, Gods from Outer Space, I was more certain, but not absolutely. The basic thing is to be convinced that the fundamental theory is right, that we have been visited from outer space and those visitors altered our intelligence by artificial mutation. Of this I have felt certain for the past four years or so.”
In 1976, the book The Space Gods Revealed: A Close Look At The Theories of Erich von Daniken took a close look at the ancient astronauts theory and took it apart piece by piece.
In a foreword to the book, Carl Sagan – who was partly responsible fo the whole ancient astronaut craze in the first place – said von Daniken’s theories, based as they were around the idea that our ancestors were “dummies” was a sad reflection on the state of present-day thinking.
He added: “I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors”.
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