Picture of alien in spacecraft

Anthropology: UFO Sightings – Modern Psychosis or Ancient Phenomenon?

Though many seem not to have noticed, we have come to a pivotal point in human history regarding our search for extraterrestrial life. Or at least, ufologists would claim so, now that the Pentagon has declassified three UFO videos, taken from 2004 to 2015. By doing this, they have effectively given all ufologists the biggest gift. Indeed, by claiming there was no evidence to claim these were alien vessels, but, that there was also no evidence suggesting otherwise, the Pentagon reopened the same can of worms that popped open in 2019 with the Area 51-raid movement.

Though no one said verbatim those UFOs were alien technology, the movements and speed of the objects did not resemble anything human-made. And if they were, how come such technology has not already been used to improve our daily life, or at least for warfare? So, could we be on the brink of meeting our alien neighbors? Have they decided to pay us a visit right before climate change brings our species to extinction?

Some believe that, rather than a first contact, this could be the return of aliens to planet Earth. But where does that belief come from, and how has it been reflected in human behavior? Let’s dive into the various instances of alien encounters and UFO sightings in history.

UFOs in ancient and classical art

The idea that extraterrestrial beings have come to earth to guide humanity is far from new. In fact, UFOs can be observed in a significant number of paintings and ancient art. Such representations have nurtured the belief that the Gods and Goddesses humanity has worshipped were actually aliens. Hence, also, the reference to the sky, or the above, as the place where deities reside, and where we head after passing away.

Petroglyphs of Val Camonica

"Astronaut" rock art of Valcamonica
Petroglyphs of Val Camonica, Italy. The rock art seems to depict two astronauts.
Credits: https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2020/10/the-mysterious-petroglyphs-of-valcamonica-and-ancient-aliens/

If a modern observer were to stumble upon this rock art of Val Camonica, their heart would probably make a leap. Because this prehistoric art seems to depict two individuals wearing an astronaut suit. The bubbles surrounding their heads resemble a helmet. The carving also shows them holding tools in their hands. Could this represent an alien encounter? Or perhaps, a trip to the future?

The Japanese Utsuro-bune

Illustration from 'Ume No Chiri'
Illustration from Ume No Chiri, from 1844.  

The story of the Utsuro-bune is just as strange as its appearance. Various legends on the Usturo-bune tell that the odd object washed ashore in 1803, in Hitachi province. It was boarded by a young woman, who apparently did not speak Japanese and looked somehow “different” from locals. She had red hair and eyebrows and wore white extensions in a peculiar hairstyle. The woman kept a small box with her which she allowed no one to touch. Fishermen who discovered the vessel discovered various texts written in an unknown language. Some villagers speculated that she was a princess from a foreign realm, banished after committing a grand offense.

Le livre des Bonnes Moeurs

Cover of French Book
Cover of Le livre des Bonnes Moeurs by Jacques Legrand, 1338.
Credits: http://enigm-art.blogspot.com/2011/01/astronomie-dans-la-peinture.html

The cover of Legrand’s book depicts a huge hovering golden object in the background of a medieval scene. Religious apparition or UFO sighting? Or perhaps, an intersection of the two?

The baptism of Christ

Painting of the baptism of Jesus
The Baptism of Christ, Aert De Gelder, 1710.
Credits: https://newspunch.com/ufos-european-paintings/

UFO enthusiasts tend to speculate on the nature of disk-shaped and round flying objects in art. Usually, art historians interpret these entities as depictions of religious phenomena. In The Baptism of Christ, the light shone onto Jesus and John the Baptist indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. However, the striking resemblance of the heavens with a flying saucer could tell another story.

Of course, art is open to interpretation. What one sees as a UFO depiction, another might see as a metaphor, or a hyperbolized natural phenomenon. However, one must admit that the recurrence of UFO-looking entities in ancient and classical art can be very unsettling.

The issue of interpretation

But here is the issue with finding imagery of aliens in ancient arts: we might simply have fallen victim to our brain’s need for interpretation. Indeed, our modern society, the media and art have shaped our perception of UFOs and extraterrestrial beings. Therefore, when observing ancient artifacts, we tend to project our own cultural understanding and knowledge.

Instead, we should attempt to envision a piece of art within the context of a certain era. However, we really have no idea of what made the cultural and artistic fabric of ancient societies. Neither do we know the real purpose and meanings of these mysterious ancient art pieces. That is the case, also, for big constructions, such as pyramids or monoliths. So, was the art an actual depiction of reality, or the combination of two different important entities in the life of humans (for instance, humans and fish)? Likewise, was it meant to be taken at face value, or did it signify something more metaphorical? It is safe to say that we may never know for sure. However, interpreting them through our modern lens could lead to warping their original intent.

Dogon culture and alien proximity

Dogons in traditional attire
Dogons wearing a traditional attire.
Credits: https://intellivoire.net/mali-10-choses-a-savoir-sur-lastronomie-et-le-peuple-dogon/

The Malian Dogon tribe has always inspired the fascination of astronomy buffs. Indeed, the Dogons have shocked astronomers across the world for possessing very advanced astronomical knowledge way before the creation of modern space observation tools. The first recorded discovery of Sirius B occurred in 1867. And yet, the Dogons seem to have had knowledge of the existence of the star as well as its properties way before that, around 3,200 BC. They claim that the evidence of this knowledge lies in their oral traditions.

Dogons, like many other African tribes, have a rich oral tradition, meant to teach their culture and history from generations through fables, songs, historical accounts… Dogons believe that Sirius B – or Po Tolo, as they call the star – holds one of the most important role in the universe. But how could Dogons possess such a grasp of the meanders of space without having the appropriate tools to observe them? Well, that is where the conspiracy theory part comes in.

Controversial author Robert K. G. Temple believes that extraterrestrial beings gave the Dogons this precious knowledge. Comparing Dogon society to other ancient cultures, Temple used the legend of a Sumerian deity, Adapa, as evidence for contact between humans and super-intelligent alien species from Sirius.

The purported appearance of Adapa (also known as Oannes) could be reminiscent of one of our visions of extraterrestrial beings: the deity had amphibian, or fish-like features, and emerged from the sea to bring civilization to mankind. His strong relationship to the sea made him similar to the Nommo, the twin deities of Dogon cosmogony, which injected souls into the first humans. To Temple, the Nommo were not simple Gods, but extraterrestrial beings from Sirius, who had come to help kickstart human civilization.

Problems with the theory

Sceptics have attempted to debunk the belief that Dogons had obtained astronomical knowledge through alien contact. To do so, many have pointed out that ethnologist Marcel Griaule could have planted the idea of the existence of Sirius B in the Dogons. They believe Griaule suggested to them that the Nommo had an extraterrestrial origin, and gave them that knowledge. Additionally, the Sirius star system possesses virtually no habitable zone, which makes the possibility of this alien scenario very unlikely.

Modern UFO sightings

Image of the 2004 encounter with an unknown object
Picture of the 2004 UFO captured by a navy fighter jet near San Diego.
Credits: US Department of Defense, New York times.

If you have a hard time believing in the legitimacy of UFO footage, or if you doubt that aliens have ever had any contact with earthlings altogether, here are a few instances of UFO apparitions that could give you a different perspective.

The Aurora UFO crash

The Aurora UFO sighting (1987) definitely stands out from other UFO events, as instead of disappearing without a trace, the spaceship crashed. Townsfolk held a Christian service for the dead pilot and buried the supposed extraterrestrial visitor in the town’s cemetery. But, allegedly, the body was exhumed during the night.

The USS Nimitz encounter

In 2004, while flying above the Pacific Ocean, two FA-18F fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz noticed an oval object travelling under the surface. A few moments later, a white Tic-Tac shaped object emerged from the water. It resembled no other human technology, with no outward indication of the use of an engine, wings or windows. Attempts to intercept the object were made but to no avail. The UFO was reported to have been travelling as fast as three times the speed of sound.

The New Jersey Turnpike apparition

On July 14, 2001, motorists had the opportunity of witnessing a strange, yet awe-inspiring spectacle. In the sky, several orange and yellow lights formed a V shape right above the Arthur Kill Waterway. Many people have witnessed the strange event, including New Jersey Police Department officers, and some witnesses reported that the UFOs hovered no further than 2,000 above them. The event lasted approximately fifteen minutes.

Remaining sceptical

It is hard to really believe in the existence of aliens when so many UFO videos have very poor quality, and when so many famous accounts of UFO sightings offer no video proof whatsoever! Why is it so difficult to obtain clear images of the vessels? How come no one has ever gotten a close shot of the phenomenon?

There is, however, plenty of testimony from people who have seen UFOs. Or even, from individuals who claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrials. These people, who often tend to claim they have been experimented on, are usually deeply traumatized by such experiences. But is it legit? Or could it be the result of mental illness?

We can not omit the psychological component in ufology. Some people who claim to have had close encounters with aliens, sometimes to the point of creating a bond between them, could suffer from a mental disorder. Whether they have false memories of one or several events or suffer from psychopathology, many find it hard to cope with it. Likewise, the psychological phenomenon of “folie à deux” could, for instance, explain certain UFO events. Described as a “transference of delusional ideas from a person psychically ill to another person psychically healthy, who then accepts the delusional system of the ill person”, folie à deux could definitely serve as an answer for accounts of UFO sightings.

A philosophical perspective on UFOs

Man standing on a rock in front of the night sky
Photo by Ken Cheung from de Pexels.

The discussion on UFOs has gone from conspiracy theories to the US government admitting some sightings were genuine UFO events. So, we have seen the UFOs, but where are the aliens?

Indeed, people often speculate about the origin and nature of UFOs captured in video footage. But UFO videos rarely give us genuine information about aliens or evidence of their existence.

Let’s discuss the different hypotheses regarding the existence of aliens and their philosophical relevance.

The Fermi paradox

The Universe homes billions of solar systems and an even greater number of planets. The Milky Way alone, our “home sweet home”, contains at least a hundred billion planets. Some of these planets have existed for much longer than our Earth. So, if so many planets exist, and have existed for billions of years, how come we have not yet seen the proof of the existence of an alien civilization?

That contradiction sums up the Fermi paradox, named after the name of physicist Enrico Fermi. Indeed, if so many planets have existed for such a long time, there must be some habitable ones where life has been able to develop. And likewise, if life had appeared on said planets, some life forms would have evolved into intelligent alien species by now. Right?

Actually, things are not that simple. If an intelligent alien civilization does exist out there, they might face the very same physical boundaries we struggle to overcome. Indeed, we must consider the possibility that the technology for interstellar travel might simply not exist, and that such a thing is impossible.

However, one other theory argues that even if some alien species can create interstellar travel technologies, other obstacles to inter-species contact exist.

The Great Filter

A list elaborated by economist Robin Hanson goes into the various steps for a lifeform to reach the status of space colonizer.

  1. The right star system
  2. Reproductive molecules
  3. Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
  4. Complex (archaeatic and eukaryotic) single-cell life
  5. Sexual reproduction
  6. Multi-cell life
  7. Tool-using animals with intelligence
  8. Where we are now: a civilization advancing toward the potential for colonization explosion
  9. Colonization explosion (successful space colonization)

The Great Filter hypothesis postulates that we can consider at least one of these steps as highly improbable. For the ninth step in particular, it seems that few (or no) civilizations have reached that point. Otherwise, the Universe would be brimming with spaceships (said UFOs) and many planets would have been colonized. Therefore, it seems that something keeps hindering intelligent species from achieving that level. That something is believed by many to be a catastrophic event driving that species to extinction.

One thing we do not know, however, is whether we have already overcome the great filter, or if it lies ahead of us, ready to annihilate us like other hypothetical intelligent species. Some believe that the impending climate catastrophe will serve as a great filter.

The Dark Forest theory

The Great Filter offers a bleak explanation for the visible lack of alien spatial colonization. It explores the hypothesis in which intelligent alien species have disappeared before succeeding in colonizing space. But, another theory that could win the prize for the most terrifying alien scenario is the Dark Forest theory.

For years now, humans have been emitting radio waves and sending messages into the Universe, some specifically targeted towards possible alien species. We even launched a spacecraft in 1977, the Voyager probe, with the sole purpose of introducing ourselves to extraterrestrial species. Voyager contains several elements with information on the location of Earth, human civilization, our physical appearance, voices, cultures… Basically, we have sent a map and a clear indication of who we are in the confines of the Universe.

Photo of the Voyager probe
Voyager probe with its golden record.
Credits: https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/galleries/
Picture of the Pioneer plaque
The pioneer plaque, photo by Granger, 1972.
Credits: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/pioneer-plaque-1972-granger.html

According to the Dark Forest theory, this could have been a big mistake. Indeed, the theory argues that we have not heard of aliens not because they do not exist, but because they are intentionally remaining as quiet as possible. Why? Because they are protecting themselves from other dangerous, warmongering, predatory alien species, lurking around in space.

The Dark Forest theory came from the eponymous Sci-fi novel by Liu Cixin. In it, he compares the universe to a dark forest, where every civilization is “an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without a sound.” And if this was not frightening enough, he adds that “the hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him.

If that theory is true, the UFO footage released by the Pentagon means nothing good.

Over-estimating the frequency of life

But, something else we tend not to consider as a possible explanation for the lack of proof for the existence of aliens is that the appearance of life is not as frequent as we might think. Here again, we must understand that our perspective on possible alien life relies on our own experience on Earth and subjective vision of the Universe. Life and consciousness occupy such an important part of our world vision. It is the basis of our existence. It has allowed us to grasp and create so much, even as a seemingly insignificant spec in the whole wide Universe. So, the prospect of the Universe being completely barren aside from planet Earth is even more spine-chilling than the possible existence of Xenomorphs.

But even if lifeforms have indeed developed in other solar systems, what is to say that they have reached a level of intelligence allowing interstellar travel? Or if they have, what is to say that they even desire to travel to other solar systems?

Also, how should we define life? Is there a possibility that the life form we are seeking to discover simply does not present itself in the way we would expect? What if it is not just different, but completely other from life on Earth, and as a result, we would fail to recognize it as such? Of course, all things in the Universe must follow the same laws of physics. However, we should still consider that our quest for aliens might be built on anthropocentric criteria.

Conclusion: impact of UFOs on human culture

Should we get ready for the arrival of aliens? Whether that is the case, few people – surprisingly – seem to be interested in the topic. Because regardless of the amount of science-fiction people consume on a daily basis, we really have no idea what that could mean for the future of humanity.

What we can do, however, is remain open-minded, and learn to process the information we have in an intelligent way. All evidence is not proof. And all conjecture should not be taken as evidence. That does not mean, however, that all accounts about UFOs should be dismissed as a hoax or a hallucination. After all, we do not know everything about the Universe, and without a doubt, our perspective about UFOs will keep on shifting in the future.

Make sure to share your views on UFOs and extraterrestrial life to keep the discussion going.

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