Chariots of the Gods:
By Mark Plummer and John Happs
Mark Plummer, president of the Victorian Skeptics, and John Happs, president of the WA Skeptics, report on Erich von Daniken's ill-fated 1989 return to Australia. Their report originally appeared in the Skeptic 9(4), 5-6, Summer 1989. This version has been updated.
During the 1960s and 1970s Swiss-born Erich von Daniken (1935-) gained huge publicity with a series of books. In them he claimed that the ancients were too primitive to have constructed ancient monuments or invented writing and mathematics. Instead they had been assisted by intelligent extraterrestrials who had also improved the human gene stock by genetic engineering, and by breeding with earthlings. He was not the first author to make such claims. For example Pauwels and Bergier's The Morning of the Magicians, published in France in 1960, five years ahead of von Daniken's first writings, contains many examples of the "evidence" that he cites.
Von Daniken's series of books began in March 1968 with Erinnerungen an die Zukunft (Memories of the Future), and by December 1968 it was the best-selling book in West Germany. In 1969 it appeared in English as Chariots of the Gods? and was followed by nine more in English: Gods from Outer Space (1970), The Gold of the Gods (1972), In Search of Ancient Gods (1973), Miracles of the Gods (1974), Signs of the Gods (1979), Pathways to the Gods (1981), The Eyes of the Sphinx (1996), The Return of the Gods (1997), and Odyssey of the Gods (2000). Altogether von Daniken has written 26 books that have been translated into more than 20 languages and sold more than 60 million copies worldwide, most of it due to Chariots of the Gods? which sold 30 million copies.
Four popular books critical of von Daniken's claims. From left to right: an anthology edited by EW Castle and BB Thiering (1972), Wilson (1972), White (1974), Story (1976). The first three were published in Australia. The last is an almost page-by-page refutation of the statements made in Chariots of the Gods?.
In 1976 the USA-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was formed, and early issues of its magazine Skeptical Inquirer carried articles critical of von Daniken's claims. A BBC Horizon program on von Daniken's claims, filmed mostly in South America, was highly critical of his supposed proofs and was instrumental in destroying their credibility. By the 1980s von Daniken had slipped from the public limelight. In 1989 it was therefore surprising to learn that he was returning to Australia late in the year to film Aboriginal paintings in the Kimberley and make a national lecture tour. Fortunately we had enough time to gather critical material and send it to state branches, the media, and the Aborigines in the Kimberley where von Daniken was to visit.
Von Daniken's lecture tour began in Perth. On 20 November 1989 John Happs received a call from Perth's Channel 9 informing him of von Daniken's tour, including a lecture the following evening at the Perth Concert Hall. Von Daniken was also to be interviewed on the morning of 21 November by the television station. Would John like to follow on from von Daniken and respond to his claims? John said he would, but that he would rather debate von Daniken face to face. Von Daniken agreed to this and Channel 9 made the necessary arrangements.
Channel 9 TV debate
I sat next to von Daniken during our debate. He was invited to make his claims first so that I might respond to them. My first response was to remind people that he had served time in prison for embezzlement, fraud and forgery. He was then a hotel manager and had to finance his world trips somehow. So we should not feel confident about any claims he might make. I also reminded people that he had no formal scientific training that would qualify him for making his claims in the first place.
Von Daniken quickly pointed out that his fraud conviction had been quashed, and that it was all in the past. (In fact he did serve time but not the full three and a half years, because by then his substantial book royalties had paid off his debts.) He admitted that he was young and careless at the time he wrote Chariots of the Gods? (he was then 31), and that he had made a number of errors. I said that viewers of the BBC Horizon documentary on von Daniken would put the "number of errors" at about one error or distortion for every claim made.
At this stage of the debate I felt that the public might be getting a more balanced perspective. Unfortunately, after a mere ten minutes into our exchange, his tour guide said von Daniken had another appointment, so the discussion must end. Von Daniken seemed as surprised as we were, but I assumed he had merely forgotten his appointment. I tried to continue our conversation since I had prepared copious notes refuting von Daniken's claims of "hard evidence from around the world". But my attempt failed and von Daniken was duly escorted from the room.
The Channel 9 crew asked me to stay on for an interview that would cover the points I wanted to raise, so of course I agreed. These points included some of von Daniken's responses to criticism. For example, of Clifford Wilson's criticism of his claims about the pyramids, he said "Don't believe him -- he's a fundamentalist". But Dr Wilson is a former director of the Australian Institute of Archaeology. Of Thor Heyerdahl's criticism of his claims about the statues on Easter Island, he said "He is not a reputable investigator". Of his misquotations from the Bible, he said "I used a German Bible, which is obviously different from yours". As for those amazing plates of gold supposedly found inside a network of tunnels in South America, he had accepted them without actually seeing them.
More importantly, I wanted to talk about the Wandjina cave paintings in the Kimberley, where von Daniken had been photographing them, claiming they represented ancient astronauts as seen by Aborigines thousands of years ago. To him the haloes on the paintings were space helmets, and the lines coming from them were not primitive attempts at depicting hair but were antennae. If such literal interpretations by von Daniken were applied to the early cave paintings found in Europe and North America, it would mean that a long time ago there was a race of stick people living in caves who survived by hunting herds of anorexic buffalo.
Although my interview with Channel 9 took some time and was reasonably comprehensive, the actual segment shown on A Current Affair was very brief. Nevertheless the whole presentation was balanced. Once again the media had shown that things have changed since the original hyping of von Daniken's pseudoscientific nonsense.
Von Daniken's public lectures
Von Daniken then went to Adelaide. SA Skeptics reported that only 130 tickets were sold for his November 23 lecture in the Adelaide Festival Centre, which seats nearly 2000. The ticket revenue (at $31.95 per ticket) would have been no more than $4000, whereas the cost of hiring the Festival Centre was $4650, with media advertising probably adding another $2000. Von Daniken was staying at the best hotels along with his minder and tour guide. Clearly, his tour was in severe financial trouble.
On the day von Daniken was due to speak in Melbourne, Mark Plummer telephoned the promoters and challenged von Daniken to a debate. Mark also asked the promoters what sort of visa von Daniken was travelling on. They promised to call back. Next day they telephoned Mark and said von Daniken was ill and was cancelling the rest of his tour. Von Daniken left Melbourne on the first available flight, a Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore. Mark then visited the offices of the promoters, Eagle Corporation, and found many boxes of undistributed programmes. The glossy programme contained a prospectus for a proposed four-part TV series entitled Angels From Heaven.
Unfortunately for them, the promoters were about twenty years too late. Television networks are not interested in handling material from yesterday's man. In 1989 the ancient astronaut fanciers of yesterday had been replaced by the more mystical leanings of the New Age, although some delights such as pyramids survived in modified form. Today, nearly twenty years later, von Daniken's claims are forgotten. The poor response to von Daniken's 1989 tour indicates that, in the stakes to fleece the gullible, even front-runners don't last forever. Eventually reason and truth will prevail.