Xenoarchaeology: Reality and Fantasy

3 05 2012

Archaeological evidence of extraterrestrial involvement with ancient human civilizations, as seen in the movie, “Prometheus.” (Credit: Fox)

Cultural Xenoarchaeology

For reasons I can’t immediately explain, (the recent rash of technical publications addressing the concept of “xenoarchaeology” or “non-terrestrial artifacts” nonwithstanding,) there is a tantalizing idea cropping up in a number of recent and upcoming films and television programs.  (See: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, Ancient Aliens.)

This concept, simply, involves the discovery of archaic evidence of the existence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and/or evidence of physical interactions of ETI in Earth’s (and mankind’s) past.  All of this, arguably, might be lumped under the auspices of the protoscience Xenoarchaeology.

Perhaps this increase in popular consumption of the idea that aliens have been around longer than we have indicates a mounting social awareness of cosmic deep time and the possibility of extraterrestrial life as it is stirred together with our classic, collective existential questions: “Why are we here?” and, “Are we alone in the universe?”

However, these pop-culture expressions and depictions of xenoarchaeology stray pretty far afield of what “scientific xenoarchaeology” would actually look like.

Separating Xenoarchaeology Fiction from Fact

In most part built upon ideas originally popularized by Erich von Daniken decades ago, (and fictionally by H.P. Lovecraft before him,) these modern concepts invoke the assistance of ETI in the development of human civilization as the “gods” of the religions and mythologies of antiquity.  However, this view has long since been shown by archaeologists to be entirely speculative and lacking in any direct, physical supportive evidence, (i.e., it is pseudoarchaeology.)  This stands in contrast to the physical archaeological evidence that does exist to directly support the idea that we humans created civilization, agriculture, the pyramids, etc., without need of assistance.

While the idea of meddlesome, elder-brother or mentor-type ETI is admittedly thrilling, the concept as it relates to xenoarchaeology does not automatically become scientific and in fact differs significantly from the groundwork currently being laid out for scientific xenoarchaeology.

Allow me to provide a few examples of where reality and fantasy diverge:

  • The practice of much fictional xenoarchaeology takes place on Earth, whereas future scientific xenoarchaeologists will likely find their skills of most utility on other worlds during in situ investigations.
  • Fictional/pseudoscientific xenoarchaeology typically centers on terrestrial features of human civilization, (e.g., pyramids, temples, large-scale geoglyphs,) whereas proposed xenoarchaeological investigations will likely center on extraterrestrial features of a possible artificial nature on other worlds.
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology usually assumes the involvement of ETI with a given feature of interest and works from there, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will be required to rule out all other natural planetary, biological, and geological possibilities before hypothesizing ETI.  (In fact, ruling out features as xenoarchaeological in nature and disproving those making pseuarchaeological claims will probably be the most frequent uses of the existence of a true, scientific practice of xenoarchaeology.)
  • Xenoarchaeologists of popular fiction conduct investigations with their bare hands, whereas scientific xenoarchaeologists will primarily use remote sensing techniques, (satellites, robotic rovers,) to investigate/collect data.  (Or, if they are very lucky, they might one day even conduct work from within a spacesuit or biological quarantine facility.)
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology attempts to find evidence of ETI in terrestrial archaeological sites or artifacts, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will rely on the fact that ETI was not involved in terrestrial archaeological sites and artifacts in order to construct relationships and methodologies that will be useful in the evaluation of a potential site of completely alien/unknown character. 

I could go on, but hopefully the potential difference between xenoarchaeological reality and fantasy, (like popular depictions of most sciences,) has been made clear.

Why Xenoarchaeology at All?

When considering the concept of scientific xenoarchaeology, invariably the question arises: “Is there a need for xenoarchaeology as a science at all?” 

Admittedly, this question is a good one.  Pseudoscience aside, there are currently no pressing sites of xenoarchaeological interest.  Why, then, expend the effort?

Well, let me first point you to the established field of astrobiology.  This is a field devoted entirely to the origin, evolution, and possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Associated with the field are multiple related academic journals, societies, and even college degree programs. 

Astrobiology is legitimate.  Yet, we have yet to discover even the smallest extraterrestrial microorganism.  Yes – Astrobiology, the scientific study of alien life, is currently conducted in spite of the complete absence of the known existence of alien life.  The field thrives regardless.  Why?

Astrobiology thrives because its underlying assumptions are viewed to be scientifically sound.  Life occurred on Earth, and considering the pantheon of worlds being discovered around other stars, by all modern physical and biochemical reckoning, signs seem to point that it will only be a matter of time until we discover life elsewhere.  (By similar reasoning, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] continues its vigilant watch for technological [radio] signs of life in the galaxy, and few nowadays write off the pursuit as being in vain.)

The assumptions underlying the scientific development of xenoarchaeology are, indeed, indentical to those above.  And further, given the ambiguity of the term “intelligence” and modern knowledge of many cosmic threats that can cause mass extinctions, (novas, gamma-ray bursts, asteroid impacts, etc.,) it seems even more likely that material evidence of extinct extraterrestrial life will be encountered prior to the fortuitious discovery of life itself while it is still alive. 

That is, if I were a gambling man, I would wager that xenoarchaeologists get an opportunity to evaluate ultimately definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life prior to astrobiologists.

Xenoarchaeological Relevance

In the final analysis, popular depictions of xenoarchaeology are useful in that they engender a more sophisticated (if not completely sensationalized) view of our place in the cosmos and the possibility of intelligent life in it.  On the technical side, considering the current absence of evidence of extraterrestrial life, xenoarchaeology as a scientific pursuit is equally justifiable to astrobiology and SETI. 

Further, I would argue that like astrobiology, taking the time to rigorously conceptualize a scientific field tangential to those that exist but centered in an extraterrestrial context will help us see ourselves from a clearer scientific vantage; this will invariably serve to enhance our understanding of terrestrial archaeology, anthropology, biology, and yes, even astrobiology.  (Developing an additional means to address some of the planetary pseudoscience out there, e.g., Martian Cydonia, can’t hurt, either.)

And who knows?  Perhaps our space exploration investigations are only a rover or two away from the discovery of that first Martian or Titanean burrow or petroglyph, which history will remember as a moment that literally changes everything. 

My view is that it’d be far better in the event of such a discovery to be proactive and have scientific xenoarchaeology prepared, (in at least a cursory sense,) instead of being reactive and leaving the scientific establishment scrambling to catch up. 

In this sense, perhaps science could stand to learn a thing or two from Hollywood.



3 responses

6 05 2012

Interesting article. Some comment on your examples:
Points 1&2: True. However, the fundamental reason why the ‘practice of xenoarchaeology’ takes place on earth at the moment is because we are unable to go elsewhere to do it…
Point 3: There will need to be a massive increase in specific knowledge of the vagaries of other solar systems and planetary bodies in order to do that. Right now, we don’t even understand enough about how our own planet works let alone start to make calls on others plants or star systems from a geological or biological point of view…
Point 4: The reason xenoarchaeologists conduct investigations with their own hands in a fictional setting is because it makes for good drama. Lets face it – if they used robots or remote sensing it isn’t exactly going to rivet an audience to their seat for 100 minutes is it….
And… your last point is contingent on your first one. If the first is satisfied (i.e. investigations occur elsewhere) then the last becomes unnecessary…

7 05 2012


Thanks so much for reading as well as for taking the time to offer your thoughts! I have a few counter-thoughts based on your points, which I think might add clarity to my intent.

Re: Points 1&2, my point was to differentiate the popular depiction of xenoarchaeology versus how it will actually likely find utility. For instance and in an overt sense, no serious archaeologists or planetary/space scientists are going to conduct a “xenoarchaeological” investigation of Egyptian artifacts, (re: Stargate.) When a serious xenoarch investigation occurs, I argue it is much more likely to take the form of an assessment of an apparently-improbable landform or possible geoglyph on another planet, like Mars.

Re: Point 3, I would actually argue the opposite: that planetary science is advanced enough to supply the necessary understanding, if persistent, to make a determination to rule out ETI. Take the cycloids, or “Cycloidal Ridges” of Jupiter’s moon Europa as a prime example. The features are highly-ordered and geometric, “geoglyph”-style double-ridged curvilinear arcs tens of miles in scale that sweep across the moon’s surface in a shockingly artifical fashion. At the time of initial discovery, they even apparently defied the physics of natural processes, as both convex and concave arcs were discovered in each hemisphere. This alone could have supported a sloppy predisposition toward an ETI-based interpretation. However, persistent analysis identified tidal forces from Jupiter as the culprit, not ETI. (This occured more than a decade ago, and quantum leaps in planetary science since that time have proven that the field is becoming very adept at nailing down how planets do, can, and cannot work.)

Re: Point 4, conceded. =) This is actually part of the reason I was attempting to illustrate the difference. I wanted to highlight that those who become interested in the idea of xenoarchaeology in a serious, scientific sense should not necessarily get their hopes up for a “hands-on” field investigation.

Re: Point 5: Not necessarily, though I see that my intended point wasn’t necessarily clear. On the one hand, if we were lucky enough to physically intercept a potential artifact, either intentionally (sample return) or unintentionally (meteor, crashed ET space junk, etc.,) then the last point is not necessarily contingent on the first one. However, for the most part you are correct and this point was intended to highlight that xenoarchaeology, instead of attempting to prod conventional archaeology to find ‘strange’ evidnece at the margins, will rely on a robust conventional archaeology to provide the foundation and tools that will be credibly applied in a new context should xenoarchaeology ever be brough to bear on a suspected ETI artifact or site.

I must thank you again for taking the time to offer your thoughts, as I hadn’t considered cycloids as an example of planetary science and apparent artificial landforms until now, which I think may be deserving of its own post! (The story is a fascinating one…)


8 05 2012

Hey Ben,

Thanks for the thorough reply. Most interesting. 🙂 To respond in kind:

Points 1&2: Agreed. That said, a realistic and comprehensive assessment of a landform, or geoglyph – to do the investigation full justice, really requires a Xenoarchaeologist to actually be there (like an archaeologist at an excavation rather than watching it on youtube….). Whilst it is possible to do it remotely I do not believe, in the interests of the scientific method, that a remote approach would be adequate – at least with the current technology available to us. Of course, there is also another consideration: Xenoarchaeology and science. It is hard enough getting Archaeology recognised in scientific circles, let alone an extra terrestrial version of it…

Re: point 3. I take your point. Yet, it is still a moving feast. Isn’t it? You said it yourself. Initial conclusions given the state of knowledge at that time could have pointed toward an ETI based interpretation. Fortunately someone wasn’t ‘just satisfied’ and kept persisting with their analysis (the scientific method once again manifesting its influence – thankfully). The accumulation of knowledge, granted, is moving at pace, yet we are still learning and our understanding wavers somewhere between a vague inkling and a rudimentary understanding of the intricacies of the universe (or multiverse) within which we live. It wasn’t that long ago that our understanding of the universe tended more towards the astrological rather than the astronomical…. 🙂 Also, while we may have a reasonably good understanding of planetary geology – our understanding of other aspects of matter is sadly lacking. We’re still learning about our own sun. Arguably an advanced civilisation may well have mastered the art of stellar manipulation or manipulation of higher forms of ‘matter’ (or energy). For all we know Dyson spheres could be the rule rather than the exception – hence dark matter….. directly unobservable, but there nonetheless… In short, the multiverse is a garden of delights and we are only just starting to recognise what is fruit, let alone pick it…. The question begs – would we realistically even recognise an example of Xenoarcheology if it slapped us in the face? (which I believe you have already touched on).

Re: point 4 – yes, I imagine that much of it will be number crunching, data analysis and pattern recognition… in the forseeable future at any rate. It staggers me that humankind can be so myopic to believe that it is okay to have all its eggs in one basket. We had an opportunity to get off this rock in the 60’s and ignored it in the interests of sticking with an economy of scarcity and greed. Rather than that of abundance.



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