Peruvian archaeologists are tired of debunking claims of extraterrestrial influence on human history. In 1968, Swiss author Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? introduced the mainstream to the theory that the Nazca Lines, the massive geoglyphs in Southern Peru whose shapes are fully visible only from the air, were landing strips for “ancient astronauts.” Archaeologists calmly disagree, positing that they were astronomical designs that turned the desert itself into an observatory, or counter constellations matching the dark spaces in the Milky Way, or, more abstractly, cosmological figures meant to be seen by skyward deities, of which ancient Peru had many. 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull put a new spin on this old tale, including, for good measure, the large-skulled aliens that pepper North American abduction stories.
Now, Peruvian scientists are furious at a new and possibly pernicious permutation of the “ancient astronaut” theory. A web series named Unearthing Nazca purports to depict the investigation of a pre-Columbian and “humanoid” mummy. Archaeologists, who have been denied access to the mummy, worry that it is as old as the series’ creators claim, but that it is actually indigenous and Andean—a real human individual that has been mutilated to look like an alien. They worry that Unearthing Nazca is an archaeological snuff film in disguise.
The series’ success is also of concern. Since the series’ launch in June by Gaia.com—a website specializing in “conscious media, yoga, and more”—the teaser episode of Unearthing Nazca has been viewed 2.35 million times on YouTube alone. It starts with what at first seems to be a typical seated Peruvian mummy, arms wrapped around its knees, like a child waiting for its parent. Its head is elongated like those of other pre-Columbian mummies, whose societies artificially shaped their children’s crania to achieve ideals of beauty or represent group belonging.
The resemblance ends there. A Hans Zimmer-esque score throbs, and a Russian-accented expert in “bioelectrography”—who elsewhere claims to have photographed the human soul escaping the body after death—declares the mummy “one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century.” The camera orbits the mummy, revealing that it has only three long fingers on each hand and three long toes on each foot. Its elongated head has no nose, no ears, and large, heavy-lidded eyes. And its skin is an eerie, powdery white.
The video’s experts stop short of the A-word, letting a series of vest-wearing and white coat-clad “experts” claim that x-rays, CT scans, and DNA and carbon-14 tests of the mummy’s flesh reveal that this new “humanoid” or “organic creature,” whom they have dubbed “Maria,” is no fraud. To learn more, viewers were initially encouraged to watch the rest of the investigation behind Gaia’s paywall.
The English- and Spanish-language tabloids and YouTube channels that cover the “discovery” reliably fill in the blanks, guarding journalistic integrity with scare quotes: “The ‘Alien’ Mummies of Nazca,” trumpeted The Sun in mid-July, when the mummy’s most prominent promoter, a Mexican “ufologist” and TV personality named Jaime Maussan, produced photographic and x-ray “proof” of at least four additional more “reptilian” “humanoid” bodies.
Because of course: What else could they be?
Human beings, and indigenous ones to boot.
In 2015, Maussan tried to promote a photographic slide from the late 1940s that, he hinted, depicted the corpse of an alien child found in the American Southwest. More skeptical ufologists applied de-blurring technology to the “Roswell Slide” when it was released, and found that a previously undecipherable placard next to the body revealed that it was actually the mummy of a two-year-old Puebloan boy removed from the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in 1894. Returned to a National Park museum in 1938, the boy was repatriated to a local tribe in 2015. Incredibly, Maussan then offered $10,000 for information that might permit the Puebloan boy’s “location and recuperation.”
This inclusion of pre-Columbian Peruvians in science’s supposed cover-up of extraterrestrials echoes the previous collection and study of the indigenous dead. In the 19th century, Anglo-American and European craniologists and scholars who came upon artificially molded skulls in Peruvian tombs hypothesized that they were either the undeformed remnants of a lost and civilized people they named the “Ancient Peruvians,” or artificial deformations of later peoples inspired by those Ancient Peruvians’ natural forms. Archaeologists came to realize that “deformed” Peruvian skulls were bound and shaped from infancy, when cranial bones weren’t yet fused—with no change to cranial capacity and, judging from the monumental societies their elites achieved, without handicap to cognitive ability. But ufology’s rise after the “Roswell incident” of 1947 has resurrected the search for secret ancestors—and its less responsible practitioners have re-enlisted ancient Peruvian skulls as evidence of the presence of large-skulled “Gray Aliens.” They speculate that Peru’s greatest pre-Columbian achievements—including Machu Picchu, according to a theory aired on the History channel program Ancient Aliens—are literally out of this world, the product of a superior, extraterrestrial “race” or their borrowed technology.
The use of the word “race” is telling, as it suggests how the repurposing of older, European collections of non-European bodies and research upon them can reproduce old and debunked theories of racial deficiency: that indigenous Peruvians, in particular, could not have built such advanced, monumental societies on their own. (“Ancient astronaut” theorists claim evidence of extraterrestrial inspiration worldwide, but only indigenous Americans see their bodies and achievements remade as only explicable by alien presence.) From the 18th century on, Northern Europeans have accused the Spanish of exaggerating or misidentifying the origins of the Incas’ achievements. Alexander von Humboldt asserted that the first Incas were actually Chinese. Inca embalming of their dead was attributed instead to natural mummification by the elements or to the diffusion of Egyptian knowledge.
With the rise of specifically racialized science in the 19th and 20th centuries, evidence for Native American otherness was sought in the ancient Peruvians’ very bones. In the 1920s, one German scholar and future SS officer would seek confirmation that the Andes’ most megalithic cultures were actually Aryan or Atlantean, and that their elongated skulls were of a higher, Northern European race. More dismissively, earlier scholars took ancient Peruvian skulls’ distinctive size, shape, and possession of unique interparietal bones as evidence of a similarity to rodents and marsupials, a contradiction that undercut their attributed civilization. In his great assault on racial bias in the scientific estimation of intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Stephen Jay Gould famously claimed that the Philadelphia craniologist Samuel George Morton had “plummeted” the average size of Indian skulls in his collection by including a “major overrepresentation of an extreme group—the small-brained Inca Peruvians.”
Archaeology and museums have come a long way in their study and portrayal of an indigenous past in which Peruvians are proud, and conversations about the repatriation or more ethical study of the indigenous American dead are ongoing. (Simultaneous to Unearthing Nazca’s release, there was massive attendance at a new and decidedly non-extraterrestrial show on the Nazca culture at the Lima Museum of Art.) Gould’s use of Morton as an illustration of racial bias in science has also been debated—Morton actually used a grouped mean of the groups included among his “Americans,” controlling for the Peruvians’ greater presence so that their inclusion would not plummet the average.
Nevertheless, Unearthing Nazca is support for Gould’s larger warning against describing non-European bodies as deficient, abnormal, or non-human. The Internet in particular has provided a platform for claims of Peruvian skulls’ alien or alt-hominid abnormality that rely on the repetition of old scholarship without grappling with the racist presumptions behind the very metrics they used. Proponents of the idea that elongated Peruvian skulls were naturally occurring, for example, have embraced the work of Morton and his cohort, such as the Swiss author who compared the ancient Peruvians to marsupials. It also shows how zombified racial science—even when it claims not to be about race—might abuse actual human bodies.
It was for this reason that Unearthing Nazca broke Peruvian archaeologists’ studious reserve. The trouble began late last year, when the Peruvian YouTuber Paul Ronceros got local media to cover an earlier “alien” or “reptilian” mummy and separated three-fingered hand from Nazca, which he claimed were discovered by interested parties other than himself. At some point Ronceros brought that hand and the first “mummy” to a series of museums, including the natural history museum at Lima’s University of San Marcos, the oldest university in the hemisphere. According to that museum’s head of vertebrate paleontology, Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi—who is also an investigator affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York—Ronceros changed his story when challenged on the obvious fabrication, claiming that it instead was a pre-Columbian “representation” of alien life, made of a mixture of animal and human bones. Around this time, Maussan and fellow international UFO “experts” got involved, declaring that the mummies in question—they kept multiplying—were fabrications, possibly ancient, but that others were “genuine, non-human biological remains.”
That archaeological human bones may have been used to mount Ronceros’s “reptile” mini-mummy and its accompanying hand was bad enough. But Peruvian scientists held their fire in public until June, when Unearthing Nazca revealed the previously un-photographed “Maria,” whose dramatic resemblance to actual Peruvian mummies—down to an almost anatomically correct CT scan—suggested that she wasn’t a pastiche of animal and human bones, but an actual pre-Columbian Andean, looted and remade for the sake of a hoax.
Maria’s guardians have not let her be examined by established mummy experts. In late June, Peru’s Ministry of Culture announced that it was investigating the possibility that the composition of the mummies were the product of looting. And in July, the organizers of last year’s World Congress on Mummy Studies in Lima—Peru’s actual experts on pre-Columbian remains—denounced Unearthing Nazca, calling upon Peruvian authorities to investigate, find, and prosecute the mummies’ apparent makers for violating Peru’s laws against trafficking in pre-Columbian human remains, which are considered Peruvian cultural patrimony. The Congress’s organizers were particularly galled by the possibility that this assault upon the dignity of an actual pre-Columbian mummy bolstered believers—even in Peru—that Andean culture and achievements owed to “outside help.”
These Peruvian archaeologists and bio-anthropologists have been careful not to say who they believe is responsible for the suspected fraud; the experts on Gaia.com are likewise careful to say that “Maria” was “discovered” by “Mario,” a pseudonymous third party. When reached for comment, Gaia.com’s media representatives say that the organization has only investigated and reported “on facts related to artifacts presented to us,” and “arranged for independent testing including carbon-14 and DNA sequencing.” The on-camera experts involved in the investigation have apparently not been paid, and Gaia.com has never been “in possession of any artifacts.” During this story’s reporting, the paywall for the rest of the episodes of Unearthing Nazca was lowered, releasing them to the open web and possibly helping Gaia answer the charge that it continues to profit from an unraveling story.
But Peru’s mummy experts remain frustrated. In mid-July, one of Peru’s most respected bio-anthropologists, Elsa Tomasto-Cagigao, agreed to debate Maussan and another member of his team—a Mexican naval surgeon whose claims to be a forensic anthropologist have not checked out—live on Peruvian TV.
Maussan took the opportunity to claim that he and his colleagues were being defamed; that they never said it was an ‘extraterrestrial’; that they only sought the truth on whether or not it was a “human being.” But Tomasto-Cagigao wasn’t having it. She laid out the case clearly, patiently, unflappably, observing that no one in Peru’s actual scientific community of mummy experts had been consulted or had seen “Maria” or the actual x-rays other than what was flashed on Unearthing Nazca or in Maussan’s “press conferences.”
“And if they present them tomorrow?” asks the host.
“I’ll eat a cockroach, live, with mayonnaise,” Tomasto-Cagigao replied. “It is not just grave-robbing … Peruvian law says that to extract, alter, or manipulate cultural patrimony without the permission of the state is a crime.”
The interviewer tries to break in.
“I’m not saying that they did it,” she adds, refusing to look at the Unearthing Nazca experts, whose latest episode investigates a mummified pre-Columbian infant whose tiny hands and feet have, or were made to have, three fingers.
“But there’s a crime here.”