Either they were human… or we’re aliens

Malta’s temple-builders at least had the excuse of pre-literate ignorance. The alternative to the ‘alien origins’ conspiracy nonsense is that they were ‘just humans’, like us

Is that a human, or an alien cranium? And please note: I’m referring to the cranium on the billboard: and not the other specimen to the left (which actually belongs to Jose Herrera: and it’s no secret that he’s an extra-terrestrial... Photo: Reuben Piscopo/DOI
Is that a human, or an alien cranium? And please note: I’m referring to the cranium on the billboard: and not the other specimen to the left (which actually belongs to Jose Herrera: and it’s no secret that he’s an extra-terrestrial... Photo: Reuben Piscopo/DOI

I know it probably wasn’t the actual intention – I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, so I can’t really comment either way – but the latest display at the National Museum of Archaeology seems to have reignited that old conspiracy theory about whether Malta’s ancient temple-builders were…  um… ‘human, or alien’.

The same question is implicit in the title: ‘Alien Headaches? The Hypogeum Skulls Enigma’… and it is even raised on one of the exhibition’s own panels: featuring a close-up of one of the supposedly ‘elongated’ skulls, originally retrieved from the Hypogeum in 1904.

So… is that a human, or an alien cranium? And please note: I’m referring to the cranium on the billboard: and not the other specimen to the left (which actually belongs to Jose Herrera: and it’s no secret that he’s an extra-terrestrial… even because some of his past efforts, as both Culture and Environment Minister, have truly been ‘out of this world’…)

It’s hard to say just from a photo, of course – leaving aside that we don’t exactly have any other confirmed ‘alien skulls’ to actually compare it with…  or any confirmation that extra-terrestrials even exist at all (still less, what shape their heads might be)… but the longer I look at it, the more bizarre the interpretation begins to appear.

This, for instance, is from the same news item: “The skulls have long generated debate and interest due to the fact that Sir Temi Zammit described them as being ‘of the long-headed type’ during excavations in the first decade of the 20th century. On Monday the National Heritage Ministry said that people often ask to see the ‘elongated skulls’ and several film crews have included them into narratives that feature extra-terrestrial creatures...”

And yet… I mean, just look at that skull for a moment. Does it look ‘alien’ to you? Does it have horns… or antennae… or multiple eye-sockets… or, for that matter, any anatomical feature that even remotely distinguishes itself, at a glance, from other skulls we know to be ‘human’?

Erm… not really, no. If it really is an ‘alien skull’, the extra-terrestrial it once belonged to must have been pretty darn human-like in appearance… and in physical anatomy, too. After all, its bones seem to have been made of collagen and calcium phosphate… just like ours.

Strange, isn’t it, that a being which is supposed to have evolved in another part of the Universe, would also assemble its body parts from the same materials we use here (and not, say, a material that has no known counterpart on this planet: and, therefore, could only have come from outer space…)?

As things stand, then, there is no reason under the sun to assume that it is anything but a perfectly ordinary specimen of human cranium… only belonging to someone who lived between four and five thousand years ago: and whose head might have been, at most, a few millimetres longer (and narrower) than what we are used to today.

In other words, nothing that can’t be accounted for by a simple regional genetic variation, of the kind that is all too common among small, highly restricted gene-pools – both human and animal – the world over.

And I suspect that this is, in fact, the whole point of the exhibition itself:  i.e., to debunk this absurd ‘alien connection’ myth, once and for all, rather than to give it more credence (though whether it ends up unwittingly achieving the latter effect is another – and, sadly, legitimate – question).

When I interviewed the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage’s residence osteo-archaeologist Bernadette Mercieca in 2019 (not so much about the ‘alien skulls’, by the way… though, given the global interest, I felt I had to at least ask her about it) her answer was pretty clear:

“They are pretty normal crania. They are actually really, really normal. But it’s very easy to take a photo from a certain angle, and make them look ‘elongated’…”

Incidentally, I imagine this is also what Sir Temi Zammit meant, when he classified the Hypogeum skulls as ‘of the long-headed type’. Being an enlightened man, he would no doubt have been aware that the human skeleton varies from one part of the world to the other (and, even more so, from one historical epoch to another).

So he would have labelled them as ‘elongated’, in the same way as a taxonomist would classify a newly-discovered species according to its own physical peculiarities. And also, I might add, as different regional evolutionary differences are still being catalogued, and classified, to this very day.

For instance: at least twice in the last few years, European Union studies have identified today’s Maltese population (much to Boris Johnson’s relief and amusement) as being the ‘shortest and fattest people in Europe’.

Closing an eye at the sheer rudeness of it all (I mean: it’s not exactly ‘polite’ to keep reminding people of their physical imperfections, is it?)… what this also means is that there is a noticeable, measurable difference between the vital statistics of an average Maltese human being today, and other (presumably taller and slimmer) varieties of human being that currently inhabit the northern parts of the European continent.

So… um… does that make us ‘aliens’? Or does it simply mean that the genes which make people ‘short’ and ‘fat’ have been considerably more successful in Malta (over centuries’ worth of eating pastizzi, no doubt), than in other parts of the world…?

In any case: I could go on… for another problem with the ’alien hypothesis’ concerns the lifestyle of these (all-too human) people who lived here 5,000 years ago. Seeing as they are supposed to have come from outer space – suggesting the capacity for interstellar travel… which is already considerably more than our own, 21st century technology is capable of today – why did they also (very clearly) rely on purely Neolithic technologies to survive?

Recent studies (namely the Fragsus project) suggest that this population depended on agriculture and animal husbandry for their food supply. The large number of “mature, even old, female cattle and sheep bones and sieves”, as well as an abundance of pottery vessels, “might account for cheese making”.

Cheese-making, huh? Using pottery bowls…. I don’t know: sure doesn’t sound very hi-tech to me. You’d think that an alien civilisation, possessed of more advanced technology than we ourselves can even imagine, would have hit upon a slightly more efficient food production method than that…

Even the temples they left behind (which, bizarrely, have also been interpreted as ‘alien constructs’) seem to have built using archetypal Neolithic tools and techniques. We know from sites in Dingli, and elsewhere, that the monoliths used to build Hagar Qim were quarried using stone (and, at most, flint) chisels… a strange choice of masonry implement, given that the same ‘aliens’ must have been also capable of building entire spaceships: not to mention crossing the vast emptiness of the Cosmos to actually get here…

But this, I suppose, is also what makes the ‘alien’ interpretation so utterly irritating… at least, to people who are more interested in human beings, than in any amount of (purely imaginary) extra-terrestrials.

It is not just the shape of their heads – or the technologies that they used – that loudly proclaim the humanity of those predecessors of ours. It is also abundantly evident, from all the clues they’ve left behind.

Consider, for instance, this excerpt from the same study: ‘The people arriving to Malta with grazing animals 8,000 years ago burnt much of the natural vegetation around their settlements […] Cultivation, grazing, burning and drought caused severe soil erosion […] as centuries passed the soil erosion and climate conditions worsened, as evidenced by the different types of pollen in the soil, the diminishing number of tree remains, and the human bones wracked with evidence of dietary deficiencies…”

This led the researchers to conclude that: “human over-exploitation of natural resources in fragile environments invariably results in episodes of quite dramatic retrenchment, and even complete collapse.”

Be honest, now: how very different is that, from the situation facing today’s population of Malta: where we are likewise ‘over-exploiting natural resources’, to maintain what we all know is an increasingly unsustainable lifestyle?

While I’m at it: how different is it from the situation facing contemporary humanity as a whole? Then as now, we are confronted with challenges posed by climate change – most likely caused by human activity: which is highly unlikely to have been the case with our Neolithic forebears – and our only response likewise seems to be to stubbornly cling to the technologies we know: even if they are likely to bring about a ‘collapse’ of our own civilisation, in the fullness of time… just as it had done in the case of the temple-builders, five thousand years ago.

This similarity, alone, is enough to confirm that the owner of that supposedly ‘elongated skull’ was – and could only have been – eminently human. But there is, perhaps, a small difference between us (and I’m not talking about negligible variations in cranium-size, either)

No: the only real difference is that Malta’s temple-builders at least had the excuse of pre-literate ignorance – not to mention the lack of any real alternative lifestyle – to justify their (unintentional) mistreatment of the environment.

We, on the other hand, don’t. And this, ultimately, is what I think really fuels all this ‘alien origins’ conspiracy nonsense in the first place. For the alternative to that hypothesis is that they were ‘just humans’, like us. And we clearly don’t like to be reminded that – in some ways – humanity itself hasn’t really changed that much at all, in a full five thousand years…