In Prometheus Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway are scientists who believe that life on Earth began in the stars. The Ancient Astronaut hypothesis has been a popular one with a section of the archeology community that is, shall we say, alternative in their beliefs. While the theory predated Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? propelled the whole thing into popular culture.
There are many supposed proofs for Ancient Aliens – from the Nazca lines which only make sense when seen from the sky to ritualistic elongation of skulls to resemble modern concepts of Grey Aliens to pieces of sculpture and art believed to depict spacemen – but the one that most influences Prometheus is the curious case of the Dogon People and their impossible knowledge of Sirius*.
The Dogon are a primitive ethnic group living in Mali, in west Africa. French anthropologist Marcel Griaule studied the Dogon for almost twenty years, and during that time he talked extensively with a blind wise man named Ogotemmêli, who divulged to Griaule supposedly secret knowledge of the Dogon elders. To Griaule’s surprise this knowledge included the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and the fact that Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, had at least one companion star. Ogotemmêli drew a star map of Sirius – which he called sigu tolo – and Griaule, a bit of an astronomy buff, recognized the very elliptical orbit of Sirius B, a white dwarf companion to Sirius A that had only been discovered in 1844 and that is not visible with the naked eye. According to Ogotemmêli this was lore that stretched back generations.
The blind man’s drawing.
The knowledge, Griaule was told, came from the Nommo, fishlike spirits who descended from the heavens amid fire and thunder. They gave the Dogon knowledge of the universe and life principles, and the Nommo were the first Hogon – a major spiritual leader – of the Dogon people.
To Robert Temple this all meant one thing: paleocontact. He attempted to connect the Nommo to the Babylonian figure of Uanna, a fishman who rose from the Persian Gulf to give wisdom to mankind. These, he claimed, were stories that grew out of real events – specifically visitations from advanced alien races**. He wrote a book called The Sirius Mystery, and for a brief moment it looked like he was on to something. Evidence grew even stronger when theories of a third star in Sirius, Sirius-C, started to arise. Slight disruptions in Sirius-B’s orbit made astronomers wonder if there was a brown dwarf in the system as well. This would make the Dogon’s claim of three stars in Sirius not only be true, but it would prove that the Dogons knew about it before anybody else.
Unfortunately the whole thing fell apart in 2008 when the Hubble telescope fairly conclusively proved there wasn’t a third star in the system. And the news just gets worse for The Sirius Mystery – follow up anthropological visits to the Dogon revealed that not only was Ogotemmêli the only guy talking up a three star system in Sirius, but that other tribespeople couldn’t agree on what sigu tolo was. Some said it was Venus, some said it was Sirius, some said it was invisible, all said they first heard about it from Griaule.
In Prometheus Shaw and Holloway are searching for signs of the Ancient Astronauts – they call them Engineers – who visited Earth before recorded history, and throughout the world they discover paleolithic imagery that illustrates a six world star system, much like Ogotemmêli’s drawing supposedly mapped out the three star Sirius system. While Ogotemmêli’s star map wouldn’t, in the end, lead you anywhere, the maps that the characters in the movie find bring them to LV-223, a moon orbiting a ringed world where they discover the truth about the Engineers. Or at least some of the truth. I think most of the truth will have to wait for Prometheus 2 and 3.
* There are other Ancient Astronaut things lurking in Prometheus. The most interesting is the giant head statue in the vase chamber (and on the poster). It very much resembles the Olmec head statues of Mesoamerica. These giant heads were carved by the Olmec people, proto-Mayans who mysteriously declined and disappeared. The heads are notable on their own, but they also became the center of historical conspiracy theories since the features of the Olmec heads look vaguely African. There were claims that Africans had come to Mexico, either on their own or with the help of gods from the sky – aliens.
** Even the very level-headed Carl Sagan felt that the Babylonian myth made an interesting case for paleolithic contact. The rest of it… not so much.