Thursday, 29 September 2011

Aliens vs Mayans

I'm not one for a conspiracy theory. Conspiracies are seductive and slick, but the truth is surely always actually a messy contradictory affair. So I am happy to debunk a cosy little theory that I knitted together on Twitter this morning.

It started with this Guardian article which relates, with a remarkable lack of cynicism, that the Mexican government is cooperating with a new documentary movie which will reveal how aliens interacted with ancient Mayan people. No, really.

Producer Raul Julia-Levy said the documentary-makers were working in cooperation with the Mexican government for what he said was "the good of mankind". He said the order to collaborate had come directly from the country's president, Álvaro Colom Caballeros.

"Mexico will release codices, artefacts and significant documents with evidence of Mayan and extraterrestrial contact, and all of their information will be corroborated by archaeologists," he said. "The Mexican government is not making this statement on their own – everything we say, we're going to back it up."

(Well, Caballeros is actually the president of Guatemala, which is also involved apparently, but never mind that.) You can't see me, but I am still rolling my eyes in disgust at this, but please, I have to deal with the speck in my own eye before I can take a chainsaw to theirs.

In a nutshell, this article caused me to 'go off on one' on Twitter and I mentioned at one point that this was an indication of the awful state of the Mexican tourism industry: that they were now so desperate to make people visit their country that they were prepared to "literally say anything". And, thinking that I really had to get this off my chest properly, I then sauntered over to Google to find a lovely graph showing how US and European tourists were avoiding Mexico.

Well, guess what. I couldn't find one. No one would deny that there are massive problems. This from the Washington Post, April 2009, reveals the impact of Swine Flu, with resorts running at 20% occupancy rates. And this was after the effects of drug cartel violence had begun to be noticed, as this (from the same month) shows. I'm guessing the global economic hoo-ha doesn't help much either.

But things have been improving, albeit from a catastrophically low base. The LA Times reported that visitor numbers for 2010 were up 17.8% on the previous year, in fact, with the trend set to continue in 2011.

So, despite 35,000 deaths over four years, a US State Department travel warning, slashed prices and a promotional tour to the US during which the president Felipe Calderón has resorted to pimping a PBS travel series, I draw the line at accusing the Mexican government of conspiring to fraudulently claim the country contains sites of contact with extra-terrestrials in order to boost tourism.

Because the whole thing is preposterous.

As the Guardian later makes clear, despite the fervent publicity-garnering quotes from the producers, the highest ranking name attached to the project from the Mexican government is Luis Augusto García Rosado, minister of tourism for the Mexican state of Campeche. A glittering career awaits, presumably? But surely nobody with pretensions to political credibility is going to want to be connected with this.

I haven't seen the film, no-one has yet, and I reserve the right to change my mind once I have. But the likelihood that they will be able to produce the sort of evidence that would persuade me is very very small.

What annoys me most about the 'aliens/early civilisation' theory is that we are so ready to belittle the incredible achievements of these societies. Like us, these people struggled against disease, weather, competitors and yet with rudimentary technology produced some of the most amazing artefacts in human history. Archaeologists and historians devote their lives to understanding what these people believed and thought, and how their societies functioned. But we, knowing better, feel the need to attribute the credit to unknown magic powers. It's as if sites like Stonehenge, the Pyramids, the Nazca Lines or Chichen Itza weren't impressive enough by themselves.

But then conspiracy theories are, of course, the preserve of those who are never satisfied with what's staring them in the face.

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