Erich Anton Paul von Däniken (born 14 April 1935 in Zofingen, Aargau) is a Swiss author best known for his controversial claims about extraterrestrial influences on early human culture, in books such as Chariots of the Gods?, published in 1968. Däniken is one of the main figures responsible for popularizing the “paleo-contact” and ancient astronaut hypotheses.
Däniken is a co-founder of the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association (AAS RA), and designed the theme park, Mystery Park in Interlaken, Switzerland, that first opened on 23 May 2003. His 26 books have been translated into more than 20 languages, selling more than 60 million copies worldwide, and his documentary TV shows have been viewed around the world.
His ideas are largely rejected by scientists and academics, who categorize his work as pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology.
Claims of alien influence on Earth
Building on previous works by other authors (including Italian Peter Kolosimo, who was later critical of Däniken), Däniken claimed that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists, has entered the local solar system in the past, and that evidence of this past contact is abundant. He also speculates as to whether human evolution may have been manipulated through means of genetic engineering by extraterrestrial beings.
The evidence that Däniken has put forward to support his paleo-contact hypotheses can be categorized as follows:
- Artifacts have been found which are alleged to represent a higher technological knowledge than existed at the times when they were manufactured. Däniken maintains that these artifacts have been manufactured either by extraterrestrial visitors, or by humans who obtained the necessary knowledge from them. Such artifacts include the Antikythera mechanism, Stonehenge, the statues of Easter Island, and the Piri Reis map.
- In ancient art throughout the world, themes are observed which can be interpreted to illustrate astronauts, air and space vehicles, non-human but intelligent creatures, and artifacts of a high technology. Däniken also points out details that are similar in the art of unrelated cultures.
- Origins of religions might be a reaction to contact with an alien race by primitive humans. The humans considered the technology of the aliens to be supernatural and the aliens themselves to be gods. According to Däniken, the oral and literal traditions of most religions contain references to visitors from “stars” and vehicles traveling through air and space. These, he says, should be interpreted as literal descriptions which have changed during the passage of time and have become more obscure, rather than as symbolic or mythical fiction. One such is Ezekiel’s revelation in the Old Testament, which he interprets as a detailed description of a landing spacecraft.
Däniken’s first book, Chariots of the Gods?, was an immediate best seller in the United States, Europe and India, with subsequent books translated into 32 languages and selling more than 62 million copies around the world.
Däniken became popular in India during the 1970s, as a result of his books being translated into the Bengali language by the translator Ajit Dutta. School level students were the first major group of his believers in India. Däniken subsequently visited the Kashmir region to check for the presence of radioactivity in an ancient temple, where he believed that a spacecraft had once landed.
An exhibit, Un Monde Insolite, largely based on Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods was opened in Montreal, Canada, for several summers in the 1970s. The exhibit was located in a former pavilion of the Expo 67 exhibition. It featured replicas of various historical artifacts that Däniken claimed were evidence of past alien visitation.
In the 1960s, while working in hotels and restaurants across Switzerland, von Däniken was convicted of fraud, serving a prison sentence for defrauding his boss at one hotel. In 1967, soon after Chariots of the Gods? was published he was arrested and charged with fraud and tax evasion for non-payment of GB£7,000. During the investigation, authorities uncovered a large personal debt totaling about GB£350,000. Däniken was found guilty of embezzlement, and served more than three years in Swiss prisons. While in prison, he continued writing, and “Return to the Stars” was subsequently published.
Several scientists, such as Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii, have written about Däniken’s paleocontact and extraterrestrial visitation claims. Although Sagan did not rule out the possibility of visitation, he insisted that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, which Däniken fails to provide.
Däniken claimed that a non-rusting iron pillar in India was evidence of extraterrestrial influence. Later, Däniken admitted in a Playboy interview that the pillar was rusty and man-made, and that as far as supporting his hypotheses goes “we can forget about this iron thing.”
Some also question von Däniken’s credibility, as he has also knowingly put forward fraudulent evidence to advance his hypotheses, such as photographs of pottery “depicting UFOs”, supposedly from an archaeological dig dating back to the biblical era. The PBS television series Nova determined that this was a fraud, and even located the potter who made them. When confronted with this evidence, von Däniken argued that the deception was justified because some people would only believe his ideas if they saw actual proof.
In The Gold of the Gods von Däniken claimed to have been guided through artificial tunnels in a cave under Ecuador, Cueva de los Tayos, containing gold, strange statues and a library with metal tablets, which he wrote was evidence of ancient space visitors. The man who he claimed showed him these tunnels, Juan Moricz, told Der Spiegel that all of von Däniken’s descriptions came from a long conversation and that the photos in the book had been “fiddled”. Von Däniken eventually told Playboy that although he had seen the library and other places he had described, he had also fabricated some of the events to add interest to his book.
Some have accused Däniken of European ethnocentrism, and suggested that views such as his “constitute the ultimate in racism”.
Ronald Story published The Space Gods Revealed in 1976, providing an almost page-by-page refutation of the hypotheses and evidence in Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?.
A 2004 article in Skeptic Magazine states that Däniken plagiarized many of the book’s concepts from The Morning of the Magicians, that this book in turn was heavily influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, and that the core of the ancient astronaut theory originates in H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories “The Call of Cthulhu” written in 1926, and “At the Mountains of Madness” written in 1931.