Aliens, Pyramids, and Granaries? What on Earth Was Ben Carson Thinking?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Seventeen years ago, Ben Carson delivered a commencement address at Andrews University that featured a very unusual theory: Maybe Joseph built the pyramids to store grain.

The speech itself, dug up by the ever-enterprising Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed, was framed around Carson’s trademark inspirational stories. “I thought that I would talk about my own personal philosophy for success in life,” he told the graduating class. “Think big.”

He used Joseph to illustrate the point. “Here was a man who was basically able to save the entire world with his big thinking,” he mused. Joseph, in the biblical narrative, oversees the accumulation of grain reserves in Egypt sufficient to last through seven years of brutal famine. But then Carson seemed to go off-script, extemporizing to make the point that Joseph’s faith and big thinking had enabled him to do remarkable things:

My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.

And when you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they’d have to be that way for a reason. And various scientists have said, “Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that’s how they were”—you know, it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.

It’s hard to know what to make of any of this. Who, other than Erich Anton Paul von Däniken, are the “various scientists” who believe that aliens built the pyramids? Was Carson up late the night before, watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel?

The idea that the pyramids were actually Joseph’s granaries has a somewhat more reputable lineage, tracing back at least as far as the sixth century, when Saint Gregory of Tours wrote:

They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen to the present day.

A variety of medieval chroniclers echoed or expanded on that speculation. But there’s a reason that the theory was later abandoned. Pyramids don’t actually have tiny openings. They aren’t hollow. And, no, they weren’t used to store grain.

There are many reasons not to read too much into this. Carson delivered the speech 17 years ago. The bulk of what he said—think big—was as anodyne as most other commencement addresses. He was speaking to a friendly crowd. (Andrews describes itself as the “flagship university” of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, of which Carson is himself a member, and had previously given him an honorary degree.) His speech was laced with personal asides and humor.

But as Carson tops national polls in the Republican primary race, he’s suddenly the subject of heightened scrutiny. He’s already fending off questions about his endorsement of the putative nutritional supplement, Mannatech. And the very last thing he needs right now are additional questions about his ability to discriminate between reasonable science and errant quackery.