Conspiracy theories make the world go round (or flat). The greatest hits include the Illuminati, lizard people and Avril Lavigne being a clone, but none have endured quite like the theory that ancient aliens built the pyramids. The tin-foil belief has been kicking around since medieval times and now, thanks to TV series like Ancient Aliens – currently in its 16th season - it’s more popular than ever.
In July, 2020, tech edgelord Elon Musk tweeted “aliens built the pyramids, obv” and conspiracy theorist bed friend Joe Rogan has hosted a podcast with an autodidact who believes ancient civilisations ruled the earth. Believers aren’t just your classic conspiracy theorists, LSD heads or Louis Thereoux longform nut-jobs either. Mainstream international publications including the BBC and National Geographic have reported on the matter, and it’s also popped up on TikTok, which suggests people debate the theory across all walks of western (we’ll get to this later) life.
What they all believe, in one form or another, is that the pyramids in Ancient Egypt were built by outer-space terrestrials who likely use them as a way to monitor and observe planet Earth. But where, of every absurd belief in the world, did the idea that aliens built the pyramids come from?
To find out, I spoke to Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, who explained that – much like simulation theory, which Elon Musk also loves – “the most popular conspiracy theories are those which can’t be proven wrong, or theories that mainly just ask questions about what happened”.
When the mystery is as big as the Great Pyramid of Giza – the world’s tallest building for about 3,800 years and the only original wonder of the world still standing – it’s easy to see how conspiracy theories can stick like a bad case of super skunk-induced paranoia. These points don’t really explain the astronomical leap from “those who lived there did it” to “aliens did”, though.
I decided to poll my Instagram and Twitter following to see how many of the people I regularly enjoy beers with also harbour a belief that aliens knocked up the Egyptian pyramids and, if so, why.
Twitter came in at 24 percent, Instagram 42. Almost everyone who said yes said their primary reason for believing the conspiracy is the sheer scale of the pyramids and the lack of technology to build them at the time, plus some stuff about space (essentially: there’s a correlation between the location of the three largest pyramids in Giza and the Orion’s Belt constellation).
For Rhian, 21, from Cardiff, “it just seems impossible that any humans could have [built the pyramids] back then, they’re so intricately built and there’s a lot of mathematical clues supposedly built into them”.
Dr. Nicky Nielsen is an egyptologist at the University of Manchester who knows that the Egyptians built the pyramids themselves, as proven by quarries, diaries, tool marks and other forms of evidence. For the benefit of the theorists, I asked how humans could have lifted the giant stones used to build the pyramids (some weighing 80 tonnes, or around around 40 small elephants) into the sky.
“Pulleys,” he says calmly. “They could pull very heavy blocks up a very steep gradient using pulleys and a ramp. The actual ramp that's preserved is very steep, I think it's something like 16 degrees.”
Despite there being academic reasoning for how Egyptians built the pyramids – AKA the pulleys – people still believe aliens built or at least instructed the building and go on to make YouTube videos about the conspiracy, which then perpetuates the belief for a whole new generation of skeptics and extraterrestrial enthusiasts. We’ll never know the full story, so people fill in the gaps with the narrative they believe the most – which, for lots of people, goes back to aliens.
Tim, 25, from Northampton, says: “A theory I’ve thought of is that the pyramids might have been used like hands on a clock, so that aliens could measure the passage of time when observing Earth from the outside.” This, he says, is “why they are placed in such a specific position”.
For Rhian, the ambition of the task of constructing 400 foot high pyramids, coupled with how “there must be other forms of life out there'', suggests “there’s a fair chance extraterrestrials could have been involved. [The pyramids are] way beyond anything else of the time that we know about.”
But is it really true that we don’t know of any other elaborate structures from a similar, ancient period? Greek and Roman architecture are historically seen as ahead of their time, both beautiful and intricate, but no one suggests extraterrestrials came down and helped build the Colosseum.
“I don't think that the people who believe [that aliens built the pyramids] are all racist, but the conspiracy perpetuates a very Eurocentric view of other cultures – not just the Egyptians, but Mayans and Incas and whoever else,” says Nielsen.
“Aside from Stonehenge, European ancient monuments aren’t dragged into the whole Ancient Aliens debate, like the Colosseum, even though it's clearly a massive work of construction. It removes agency from indigenous cultures, and it takes their ownership of their own history away from them. Arabic writing from the time pretty unanimously says it was the Egyptians, but nobody bothered to check for a long time.”
When I raised this with Rhian, she says: “I hadn’t thought about that – it is problematic. All of the people I’ve seen mention the conspiracy are white, too. It is still the most impressive of all of the ancient buildings, though, so perhaps it could be the one aliens did help with… I’ll have to think more about it.”
Nielsen happily concedes that while there is evidence for many things, there’ll always be questions about how exactly the pyramids were built. “In 200 years, when something else becomes popular in culture, maybe that will be used as the alternative to Egyptians themselves building it,” he says, adding: “People will always have an alternative idea instead of accepting that non-Europeans are capable of building monumental architecture, which is, after all, the easiest explanation: the pyramids were built by the Egyptians. Because they were there.”