SPSR - Some Observations from Archaeology and Religious Studies on ETI

Some Observations from Archaeology and Religious Studies on ETI
by James F. Strange
University of South Florida
Abstract: This paper addresses in theory and by example the situation created when human beings encounter remains suggestive of other human intelligence and then extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). From the point of view of anthropology, this is a familiar theme treated in theories of "contact" between two cultures which differ technologically. In the classic view, theories of contact are between living members of the culture or societies in question. In the current instance, it is the remains that we encounter, which changes the scenario somewhat, but which does not require revising the anthropological theories. In sum, those representing the less technologically developed culture respond with awe or fear when presented with evidence for a superior technology. Denial, flight, and other cultural disruptions accompany fear. Awe can be equally counterproductive. From the point of view of religious studies, the reactions to the evidence of ETI depend upon the operative religious understandings of the uniqueness of the human being in the universe. To state it simply: For representatives of religions which leave open the question of ETI or which actively support the idea in theories such as alternative worlds peopled with spiritual beings, contact is viewed as an open or even positive issue. For representatives of religions which assume that human beings are the unique intelligent life in the universe, contact is viewed negatively, as the implication is that current religious theories of the universe are defective or in error, which is impossible if the theories are sanctioned as "revelation."
© James F. Strange, 1994, All Rights Reserved.

What happens when human beings encounter remains or artifacts suggestive of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)? Is there any analogous situation in human life that would enable us to gain a useful perspective on this scenario? In particular, is it possible that the science of archaeology or the social science of anthropology, the parent of archaeology, can give us any guidelines? Does ethology or the study of animal behavior have anything to help us?

There are several theories and descriptions of cultural contact in anthropology, the parent discipline of archaeology. These insights are also maturing in ethnoarchaeology (Webster Evans and Sanders 1993; Sharer and Ashmore 1993). In general it is found that the contact of culture A with contact B will follow a predictable path, given the nature of the human being. In general, if the two cultures are in a position to compete for the same resources, then either (a) one culture will kill, scatter, or enslave the members of the other culture, as in the New World at the arrival of the Europeans (Clendinnen 1987), or (b) one culture will absorb or manage the other, as in the Roman practice of managing its "client states" (Luttwak 1976), or (c) the disadvantaged culture will flee from contact.

It is typical for the disadvantaged culture to work through this scenario in several steps. First, the members of the disadvantaged culture literally do not know what they are seeing at first contact. Often they stand frozen in fear or in awe of the others. Second, those who move first in the receiving culture are responding to mistaken identity. Members of the receiving group often think they see members of a cultural group that they know. They respond to the visitors in terms of the perceived identity of the visitors. If they--the known cultural group--are understood to be friendly, the receivers are friendly. If they are understood to be a threat, they are met with a hostile reception.

It is only when the receptive culture realizes that these visitors are new and previously unknown that things get interesting. Now the receivers attempt to understand the visitors in terms of other cultures whom they have dealt with. This is a period of trial and error in which the two cultures get to know one another. At this point knowledge is power, and it is in everyone's self-interest to get as much knowledge of the others as possible. That is, even the visitors need to know their hosts (Richter 1993).

With increased knowledge comes a fundamental decision on the part of the host culture. This is the decision whether the visitors are to be regarded as threats or not. With the identification of the visitors as threats comes fear, and with fear comes flight or fight responses, though denial is always a possibility. If the fear can be used or channeled in some positive way, then it may become a motive and a source of energy for the fight response. Those who come to terms with their fear are better able to understand what they see, and therefore less able to deny their senses, so it is advantageous to come to terms with fear.

All these responses can be seen in observations by ethologists of gorillas and chimpanzees, our native cousins. Montgomery reports that the great apes fled from Dian Fossy's presence at first (Montgomery 1991). The gorillas had ample experience with human beings as predators, and Dian Fossy was at first simply a predator, as far as they were concerned (Montgomery 1991: 261). Jane Goodall noticed that the chimpanzees were naturally cautious at first, but generally ignored humans if no threat was observed or perceived. (Goodall 1990: 238). This was also the relationship of chimpanzees to baboons (Goodall 1990: 124).

However, there is another response possible, and that is awe. It may be that culture B, the host culture, comes to understand that the power, mobility, and resources of culture A are simply overpowering. There seems to be nothing they cannot achieve. They are positively god-like in their attributes. In this case, awe borders on religious reverence, and in fact on occasion overflows into religious awe, reverence, and wonder (Pandian 1991). Indeed, Cortez and his men found themselves worshipped and held in religious awe by the inhabitants of Mexico. Furthermore, the American soldiers in certain parts of Melanesia found themselves in a similar situation in World War II. After they withdrew from certain local islands, the locals actually founded new religions, called "Cargo Cults", to worship the absent visitors and induce them to return with their heavenly cargos (Trompf 1990). It is possible that this parallels the awe-struck behavior of chimpanzees when faced with a thundering waterfall (Goodall 1990: 241).

Finally I point out that awe and approbation or praise--even joy--will seem to be the appropriate responses to the visitors if the host culture has (mis)identified them as the long promised bringers of salvation. In this instance, the host culture needs to have had a time-honored myth that promises that those who visited in the past and delivered salvation, knowledge, or cargo will come again at the appropriate time and renew their relationship with the host culture. Cargo Cultists now have such a myth. A similar hope surrounds the idea of the mahdi in Islam, the rightly guided one, who will some day return to establish justice (Rahman 1966: 209). The idea of the coming of the Messiah is, of course, a cardinal element in various forms of both Judaism and Christianity.


It is possible to argue by analogy that a similar pattern will be followed by human beings when and if they encounter artifacts, or perhaps merely one artifact, that stems from some extra-terrestrial intelligence. (May I remind you that the operant definition of an artifact in archaeology is an object that is made by humans. In this case I suppose we must extend the definition to include ETI as the agent of manufacture.) In this case we are dealing with an object or objects which we perceive not to be of earthly origin. We might come to that startling conclusion for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, we might recognize that the kind of technology required to manufacture this artifact is quite beyond earthly technology. But we might also recognize a material that we cannot use. (I am assuming that we have subjected this artifact to exhaustive analysis.)

First, we can predict that the person encountering this artifact will feel fear, awe, and bafflement, or some combination of the three. It is possible to separate out the situations in which only one of these might be found, and that is the purpose of the flow chart, to which I direct your attention.

If we feel awe and wonder as we turn this artifact over in our hand or in our mind, it is because we possess or think we possess a specific kind of knowing. We have an answer to the question posed in the chart, "Do we know what this is?" We know, or think we know, "We didn't make this. Some other intelligence out there made it."

We insist that this artifact is not human, I reiterate, because we are looking at a technology which we do not recognize, or we are dealing with materials on a scale (either quite small or very large) that we cannot handle. We may be recognizing a type of material which we have not mastered, or we may be overwhelmed by the aesthetics of this object. We may be bewildered by the purpose of the object, a purpose that eludes us in the 20th century. For example, we may deduce that this small object is designed to displace Jupiter from its orbit. Therefore, we conclude, those who manufactured this are far beyond us.

Notice that we have not yet perceived a threat. If we perceive a threat, all these emotions of awe and wonder are whisked away by fear, and fear disables a host of mild responses and enables a host of other, more violent responses. In fact, fear disables both the mind and the heart. We all know stories of the odd things people do in a panic, such as save the dirty dishes in the sink when there is a fire. Fear wonderfully focuses the mind, but usually not via our intellectual, creative, or spiritual faculties. Rather, our hormones and central nervous system simply shriek at us to get out of there or attack. Sometimes we suffer a kind of shut-down of our reasoning systems and we enter into denial. Parenthetically I notice that it takes about as much energy to shout in denial, "There is no fire!" as it does to shout in affirmation, "Get out! There's a fire!."

In fact, fear can be quite insidious, if we do not come to terms with it. Unabated fear has a way of reinforcing itself so that no need gets responded to except the fundamental need for security. The need for careful thought, or thoughtful exploration, or even dialogue about the problem is not met. After all, it was surely fear (and possibly other things) that kept Galileo's contemporaries from looking through his telescope, or from seeing what could not be there when they did look (Koestler 1959: 374).

We usually perceive two kinds of threats from those who made this artifact:

(1) We are defenseless before their technology. This is equivalent to the sinking realization of the Bronze Age Warrior, "We are defenseless before their iron spears."

(2) They are NOT like us, so they have no human feelings for us, and will treat us as available slave labor, protein, or chemicals. In the history of the human race, we treat inhumanely those whom we define as "other." Does it not follow that they will probably treat us the same way?

Nevertheless, even without fear, we may be overwhelmed, dazed, even overcome, i.e., our cognitive functions are reduced so that our visceral functions take over. On the other hand, there is a set of positive responses yet to mention. These responses go with a kind of conscious not-knowing. In this case we answer the question, "Do we know what this is?" with a strong "No." We recognize that it fits none of our categories, and we most decidedly do not know what it is. In this case we suffer bafflement and confusion. We may suspect or intuit that this artifact is not of this world, but we are overwhelmed. We see that this is an object or architectural artifact whose intricacy, beauty, materials, etc. we can describe, but which we simply cannot identify, as for example, the Coke bottle in the feature movie "The Gods must be Crazy."

But bafflement or confusion often gives rise to intense curiosity. If this is not anything like what I know, then what is it? What does it do? What is it doing here? What is it made of? Who made it? Where are they now? Why did they leave it here?

There is only one way to reduce the dissonance that we feel when we are at the mercy of our bafflement: investigate further, that is, explore. Mount an expedition, mount a slide, or mount a mule, but in any case take action. In this response we simply get on with satisfying ourselves that we can find out about this thing, this artifact, this manufactured puzzle. Also in this response we give expression to a kind of fundamental human optimism, a kind of hope that we will not remain stumped, and we need not be victims of our own lack of knowledge. There is more to learn, and we will learn it.

I would like to point out that awe and curiosity are great enablers. Perhaps they are as powerful as enablers as fear is a disabler. Awe and curiosity prompt exploration and investigation, two responses which lie at the core of science, religion, and art. Doubtless some will be surprised to find religion in this threesome, but think for a moment. Are not the claims of religion in effect awesome, testable hypotheses? And are not priests, rabbis, imams or Islamic clergy, and bodhisattvas or future Buddhas continually inviting us to satisfy our curiosity and enter into new realms of knowledge? Science, religion, and art, all three, oversee their own domains of knowledge, but with the same core of awe and curiosity.


In the present instance we are discussing our response to the possibility of an ETI artifact or of ETI artifacts on Mars, though artifacts on a grand scale (Crater and McDaniel 1999; McDaniel 1993; Carlotto 1991). What is an appropriate response?

It is quite possible that fear is the initial response. We may decide that the simple presence of something inexplicable in common scientific terms is a threat to the autonomy of science and scientists or to our well-being as scientists, or to the political advantage that science and scientists have in America today. In that case, flight, attack, and denial are predictable responses. We will not flee the putative artifacts or attack them, but we can preserve our peace of mind by fleeing the presence of those who suggest that the structures on Mars might be artificial, or we can attack them. Either way we are indulging our fear rather than giving expression to awe or investing in our curiosity.

In this vein I should mention that some have argued that we should not investigate ETI, as that could be destructive of organized religion, should the investigation lead to the actual discovery of ETI. Yet as early as 1982 the Gallup Poll of Religion reported that, on the average, 46% of Americans believed in life on other planets. This compares with 41-54% of American natural scientists and 25% of American medical scientists who believed in "human life" on other planets (Gallup 1982: 193, 208, 209, see APPENDIX). (I think that the addition of the word "human" in the question asked of natural scientists and medical scientists significantly lowered their positive responses.) On the other hand, recently the Bigelow Foundation asked 1,000 rabbis, priests, and Protestant ministers whether positive proof of ETs would have severe negative effects on the country's moral, social, and religious foundations. Fully 77% of the 230 religious leaders who responded disagreed or strongly disagreed. That leaves some 8% who agreed or strongly agreed that the discovery of ETI was destructive of religious faith and 14% who did not know (Alexander 1994). The opposition to ETI in American religion is most often from Christian fundamentalists, who have gone as far as to claim that UFOs are demonic (Pacheco and Blann 1993). Parenthetically it needs to be pointed out that most of the opposition to the concept of ETI comes from certain exclusivistic elements within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is unlikely that such opposition would come from Hinduism or Buddhism, given their cosmologies.

The Bigelow Foundation survey pressed the question with the rabbis, priests, and ministers. Even when a more contentious question was posed, namely, "If an advanced extraterrestrial civilization proclaimed responsibility for human life, it would cause a religious crisis," 54% of the clergy still disagreed or strongly disagreed. For years the American evangelist Billy Graham has insisted that his faith would not be undermined if extraterrestrial intelligence were encountered. In fact, he has suggested that UFOs might be angels (Fitzgerald 1979). Furthermore Michael Ashkenazi's research in Israel found that the major response to possible Communication with ETIs (CETI) was "amusement." This research was conducted as interviews with 21 Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and clerics (Ashkenazi 1992). Finally, John Whitmore has suggested that one type of possible CETI, namely, abductee reports, stem from the religious unconscious itself (Whitmore 1993). In other words, abduction reports are expressions of a religious tendency, not a scientific tendency. CETI, on the other hand, especially as we use it here, is science, not religion.

If we can set aside our perception of a threat or deal realistically with our fears, we may enable our formidable faculties of careful and sustained exploration and investigation, including archaeological exploration and investigation. Such reasoned responses in turn have the potential of moving us through awe to appropriate scientific, and yes, ultimately religious and artistic responses. In terms of archaeology, we need to mount a more detailed remote-sensing survey of the Cydonia plan on Mars via high-resolution satellite photography, infra-red analysis, soil-penetrating radar, and perhaps others that I know nothing of yet. We need more and better imagery at higher resolution.

If the results of those surveys are positive, then we have to travel to Cydonia. In archaeological research, we can inspect from the air or space all we wish, engage in fly-overs and satellite photography forever, but we will not have settled the question of human occupation or ETI structures without an on-site visit. In the normal state of affairs in archaeological investigation we walk the site after inspecting the results of remote sensing. We walk the site systematically, in a grid pattern, using the human eye, and sometimes dragging the sensors and cables for radar, magnetometers, and soil resistivity gear. There is no substitute for walking the site, and eventually engaging in systematic and controlled surveys and excavation, should the findings warrant it. It appears to me that this is the appropriate direction for further research.
I. Victoria Alexander UFO Religious Crisis Survey
Summary of "The Alexander UFO Religious Crisis Survey: The Impact of UFOs and their Occupants on Religion", The Bigelow Foundation, 1994, pp. 8-10.
1. "Official confirmation of the discovery of an advanced, technologically superior extraterrestrial civilization would have severe negative effects on the country's moral, social, and religious foundations."
Agree + Agree
Disagree + Disagree
Neither Agree
Nor Disagree
8% 77% 14%
2. "My congregation would perceive any contact made with a technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization, direct or indirect, as a threat."
16% 67% 16%
3. "The discovery of another intelligent civilization would cause my congregation to question their fundamental concepts regarding the origin of life."
12% 82% 6%
4. "If highly advanced intelligent civilizations exists (sic) elsewhere in the universe, the basic tenets of religion would be present."
70% 5% 25%
5. "Genetic similarities between mankind and an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would challenge the basic religious concepts of man's relative position in the universe."
9% 77% 14%
6. "If an advanced extraterrestrial civilization had religious beliefs fundamentally different from ours, it would endanger organized religions in this country."
14% 70% 15%
7. "Scientific confirmations of contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilizations probable in our lifetime."
13% 47% 39%
8. "It is unlikely that direct contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization has occurred or is currently ongoing."
59% 12% 29%
9. "My congregation would question their beliefs if an advanced extraterrestrial civilization had no system of religion."
11% 72% 17%
10. "If an advanced extraterrestrial civilization proclaimed responsibility for producing human life, it would cause a religious crisis."
28% 54% 17%
11. "I believe my answers to the preceding questions represent the views of my congregation."
69% 3% 28%
II. George Gallup, Jr., with William Proctor, Adventures in Immortality: A Look beyond the threshold of death. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1982, pp. 193-211, selected information
Human Live on other planets: Do you believe there is human life on other planets, or not?
NATIONAL 46% 41% 13%
Male 50 37 13
Female 43 44 13
White 47 41 12
Non-White 35 43 22
College 45 43 12
HS 49 39 12
Grade Sch 36 47 17
East 50 36 14
Midwest 45 40 15
South 37 48 15
West 54 39 7
Under 30 55 35 10
18-24 yrs 54 36 10
25-29 yrs 57 31 12
30-49yrs 47 40 13
50+ 38 47 15
Protestant 43 43 14
Catholic 52 37 11
1981 Survey on Beliefs of Leading Scientists about Life After Death
  Had A Religious Experience
That involves Christ
Human Life on other planets? Yes No
Yes   41 54
No   42 35
No opinion   17 10
1981 Survey on Beliefs of Leading [Medical] scientists about Life After Death
  Yes No No opinion
Human Life on other planets? 25 39 36


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