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Belief in Prehistoric Nuclear War Reveals Modern Fears

What's behind strange theories that ancient civilizations engaged in nuclear warfare? A follow-up to "Ancient Atom Bombs."

Nuclear blast over Nagasaki, 1945.

> Get my FREE, expanded eBook Ancient Atom Bombs HERE

by Jason Colavito
Originally published in The Canadian (March 2008)

In February 2008, global dignitaries gathered to inaugurate the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a repository for plant life designed to withstand nuclear war so survivors could restart civilization with healthy seeds. Magnus Bredeli-Tveiten, who oversaw construction of the vault, told the Associated Press that he expected it to last as long as the 4,500-year-old pyramids of Egypt. However, for a certain percentage of the public, ancient civilizations like Egypt are just one key to a nuclear war that already happened-thousands of years ago.

Believers maintain that in the distant past either extraterrestrials or a lost civilization like Atlantis detonated nuclear weapons, producing terrible devastation. This disaster was recorded, they say, in the Bible, Hindu scriptures, and world mythologies. Sodom and Gomorrah felt the sting of nuclear weapons when “the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens” (Genesis 19:24-25).

The ancient Indian Mahabharata was said to describe a “single projectile charged with all the power of the universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as ten thousand suns rose in all its splendour.” To believers, these sound like eyewitness accounts of nuclear bombs being dropped from above. To sceptics, these sound like imaginative interpretations of the equivalent of prehistoric science fiction.

No mainstream scientist or historian endorses the idea of prehistoric atomic bombs, and nearly all experts believe the evidence cited to support the idea is misinterpreted at best and fraudulent at worst. For example, believers hold that deposits of 28-million-year-old glass found buried in the deserts of Libya are the result of ancient atomic bombs that melted the desert sand. In fact, according to geologist Evelyn Mervine, the glass (while still not completely understood) is likely the result of either a meteorite impact or volcanic action.

What is interesting, though, is not the alleged evidence for ancient atom bombs but rather why people come to embrace a belief in the existence of nuclear devastation in the remote past.

Those who support the theory tend to be believers in a lost civilization like Atlantis or in extraterrestrial intervention in ancient history, the so-called “ancient astronaut” theory popularized by Swiss hotelier Erich von Däniken in the 1960s and ’70s with his book Chariots of the Gods?, its sequels, and movie adaptation. It was von Däniken who introduced mainstream audiences to the idea (borrowed from the French writer Robert Charroux) that the “aliens” had blown up Sodom and Gomorrah with atom bombs.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics to tell us just how many people today believe that the ancient world experienced nuclear war. We do know that surveys conducted by anthropology professor Kenneth L. Feder found that in the 1990s anywhere from a quarter to a third of college students believed Atlantis existed, and a third or more believed “aliens from other worlds visited the earth in the prehistoric past.” By 2003, belief in ancient astronauts had fallen to less than 10%, but more than a third still believed in Atlantis, today often seen as a hotbed of advanced (and atomic) technology.

Though the Atlantis legend has its origins in an unfinished work by Plato written more than 2,500 years ago, the modern version of the Atlantis legend begins with Ignatius Donnelly, an American politician who wrote Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882 to prove that the lost continent was very real and was the origin of all European, Asian, and Native American civilizations.

Donnelly was the first to equate Atlantis with the destructive power of advanced weaponry. In the book he discusses an event from the Bible when “a fire from the Lord consumed two hundred and fifty men” who led a rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16:31-41). Tellingly, though, Donnelly interpreted this event through the lens of the technology of his time: “This looks very much as if Moses had blown up the rebels with gunpowder.” He also thought gunpowder was responsible for explosions in India and Atlantis.

Though Donnelly believed Atlantis was roughly as sophisticated as the pre-industrial Europe of the eighteenth century, those who built on his work steadily expanded the wonders of the lost continent to include everything from lasers to anti-gravity devices to nuclear power, keeping the mythical Atlantis one step ahead of modern technology. By the time of von Däniken, Donnelly’s quaint ideas about gunpowder had gone out the window. Instead, von Däniken argued that biblical explosions, like the one at Sodom, were effected “deliberately, by a nuclear explosion.”

Granted, even nuclear scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, noted the (thematic, not literal) similarities between passages in the Bhagavad Gita and the destructive power of atomic weapons, but why was it that in the 1970s ancient texts started to seem like historical records of nuclear war?

Ironically enough, von Däniken provides the answer to this question.

“[S]ince the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan,” he wrote, “we know the kind of damage such bombs cause and that living creatures exposed to direct radiation die or become seriously ill.”

Because the nuclear age had produced horrors on a scale previously unimaginable, and because nuclear war was a very real possibility during the Cold War (the Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred just six years before von Däniken published his first book), it made sense that some would begin to look for mythological and historical precedents for otherwise unprecedented events. This relationship between modern technology and the ancient atom bomb theory has kept it current even as so many other “alternative” beliefs of the ’70s -- like psychic spoon bending, EST, and pyramid power--have lost their currency.

In fact, the same day that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened, an article appeared on the American Chronicle website declaring that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Atlantis and the lesser-known lost continent of Mu were all the result of ancient atom bombs. Like von Däniken, author Paul Dale Roberts immediately understood the connection between his reconstruction of the past and his concerns about the present.

“The world is in dire straights (sic) …With the threat of terrorism, crime, global warming, wars and the rumours of wars, new diseases arising, we are facing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Roberts’s description of ancient atomic warfare leaned heavily on the work of the field’s most popular author, David Hatcher Childress, a self-described Indiana Jones who has investigated what he sees as nuclear anomalies in the ancient history of humanity. In a chapter of his 2000 book Technology of the Gods, he discusses his belief that a nuclear war was once fought in what is now India, among other places. He quickly connected the dots to events then in the news, the development of nuclear weapons in the 1990s in both Pakistan and India, countries that had previously fought several (non-nuclear) wars.

“The echoes of ancient atomic warfare in south Asia continue to this day with India and Pakistan currently threatening each other,” Childress wrote. “Ironically, Kashmir, possibly the site of an earlier atomic war, is the focus of this conflict. Will the past repeat itself in India and Pakistan?”

(Full disclosure: Childress has publicly criticized my earlier discussion of his theories in my 2005 book entitled The Cult of Alien Gods as inaccurate because it linked him with those who believe in alien visitations in the remote past. Childress had published a book entitled Extraterrestrial Archaeology speculating that aliens left structures on the moon and Mars thousands or millions of years ago. He now claims that ancient anomalies are the work of a lost super-civilization.)

Mr. Childress has appeared in countless television documentaries to testify to the advanced state of ancient technology, and cable channels like the History Channel and the Sci-Fi Channel have been complicit in popularizing the story of ancient nuclear weapons, the myth of Atlantis, and the “reality” of ancient astronauts. The echo chamber of the internet reinforces these beliefs among the core of believers. And ancient mysteries sell better than science.

“I have to wonder,” geologist Mervine wrote in 2005, “what inspires such crazy notions and how people such as Von Daniken and Childress manage to sell so many books. Certainly, far more copies of a single one of their books have been sold than, say, all the editions of my igneous petrology textbook.”

For Mervine, the answer comes from the explanatory power of fringe theories, which offer a one-size-fits-all explanation for the otherwise complex and difficult tangles of ancient history. It’s easier to say the aliens or Atlanteans did it than to study the intricacies of history.

While this may be true for the Atlantis theory or the ancient astronaut theory, for the specific case of ancient atom bombs, it seems that contemporary anxieties are being projected backward into the past. Until the first nuclear blast in 1945, no human civilization had possessed the power to completely destroy civilization, but imagining such a civilization in the deep past serves two powerful purposes.

First, it provides a morality tale for the modern world. A great civilization (human or alien) once had the power to destroy the world. They misused the power and destroyed themselves. We must therefore avoid their fate. Second, it provides a comforting ray of hope. Although early human civilization had been destroyed, we are still here today. Humanity can and will survive nuclear war, and the species will go on.

The story of ancient atomic bombs, therefore, is a morality tale with a promise for redemption. It tells us that we will be ok even when the technology we create threatens to destroy us. For this reason, the modern myth of ancient atom bombs continues to ricochet around the internet, cable television, and “alternative history” publishers and likely will for years to come.

© 2008 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.