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Chariots of the Gods – Erich von Daniken **

When I saw this book in a publisher’s catalogue, I couldn’t resist reviewing it. It was a book that blazed large in the bookstores in my childhood, though for some reason I never got round to reading it. Many would argue that it has no place here. But it was an attempt at popular science. Those who have never ventured into its pages would, perhaps, be surprised to learn that within a few pages we have a brief explanation of special relativity and even the formula for time dilation. Of course you may well dispute von Daniken’s thesis and/or methods, but I think it is bad practice to criticize a book you haven’t even bothered to read. So here goes.
I was a little unnerved by the introduction, which is rather heavily spattered with exclamation marks in a way that rather suggests ‘here be crackpot theories’, but I persevered. Von Daniken starts fairly well. He argues that there is a good probability that there are planets with life out there in the universe. He then, rather cleverly, points out what it would be like for the inhabitants of a planet who are at an equivalent development to our stone age if astronauts turned up. Leaving aside the rather cringe-making 1960s ideas of what such astronauts might do (including ‘A few specially selected women would be fertilised by the astronauts. Thus a new race would arise that skipped a stage in natural evolution.’), the picture he paints isn’t stupid.
Admittedly the predictions of technology seem quaint now (and this is part of the book’s entertainment value). He suggests that by 2100 a giant spaceship could be constructed on the moon, the size of an ocean liner. (Apparently we would have the technology to build spaceships on the moon by the 1980s.) This ship would be powered by a ‘photon rocket’ that enabled it to get to nearly the speed of light, which sounds more than a little imaginative.
The other point von Daniken has that makes a lot of sense is that prehistory (he says history, but I think he primarily means prehistory) has been assembled from a lot of pieces like a puzzle, and the way it was assembled was based on certain assumptions. He argues that we should use modern science to transform our view of prehistory, which I think, to be fair, we have done since his day.
Then things start to get a bit worrying. He comes up with the first of a number of assertions about ancient wonders that he says show that ancient people had capabilities far beyond those that were possible without the help from extra-terrestrial astronauts. In reading this now we have a huge advantage over the reader of the 1960s, who could only absorb these claims in wide-eyed wonder if they had not got appropriate expertise. Now it’s easy to nip onto the internet and check them out. So, for example, his first wonder is the Piri Reis map, a 16th century map that von Daniken claims is uncannily accurate and even shows the contours of the Antarctic, which would be unknown for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, even a brief Google search comes up with plenty of information demonstrating that the map isn’t uncannily accurate, but is quite wrong in many places, and shows that the part interpreted as the Antarctic is much more likely to be (and a better fit to) parts of South America.
Then he gets onto what is probably his best known assertion – that the Nazca lines in Peru are a stone age landing strip for spacecraft. Indubitably he is right that they were not roads (as he tells us they were identified at the time by archaeologists – I don’t know if this is true) but sadly his explanation is unnecessary. As has been demonstrated time and again, just because an earthwork can’t be seen in all its glory from ground level, doesn’t make it unattractive to make. A much more likely model for the Nazca lines is the massive markings on the sand that children often make at the seaside. They aren’t trying to attract spaceships. (For that matter, it is very unlikely that a space travelling vessel would need an airstrip.) It’s fun for a moment, but von Daniken has very little to argue in favour of his idea other than a slight visual resemblance.
Much of what follows falls down on the classic error of assuming that everything recorded in the past was literally true. Human beings are story tellers. We tell stories that aren’t true, both for education and for entertainment. We paint pictures of non-existent scenes. We read books, watch TV and movies where hardly anything bears resemblance to reality. Yet those who fall for this mistake, von Daniken included, assume that everything portrayed in ancient cave paintings, carvings and writing had to be true. Remove this assumption and much of his argument through most of the book falls away.
Overall, then, it would be impossible to call this a good book. Yet it is fascinating to read, in part because it is now such a period piece, but also because it had such an impact at the time. von Daniken was putting forward a theory that wasn’t unreasonable, but that in the end didn’t have much in the way of solid evidence to back it up. What we are left with is something rather like the works of Freud. These ideas have no scientific basis and are mostly nonsense, but we can’t ignore the impact they had on twentieth century culture.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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