Aliens Among Us: Extraterrestrial Anthropology

By Emma Louise Backe

I’ve always been something of a science fiction geek, but it wasn’t until my senior year at college that I realized the synergy between the science fiction genre and anthropology. Part of the reason why science fiction has been such a boon for anthropology, and why so many anthropological science fiction stories are written, lies in the fact that science fiction is a useful tool to think about culture from an outsider’s perspective. Quite apart from the world building aspects of the genre, the presence of aliens provides readers and audience members with figures, indeed, whole populations, with which to think through alternative notions of humanity. As Slusser and Rabkin write, “The alien is the creation of a need—man’s need to designate something that is genuinely outside himself, something that is truly noman, that has no initial relation to man except for the fact that it has no relation” (1987, vii). Even though the word anthropology comes from the root “anthropos,” meaning men, aliens have a rich history within the anthropological world, and are increasingly figuring into future anthropological considerations.

Perhaps the most well-known and fantastical connection between aliens and anthropology are the “academics” known as Ancient Astronaut theorists, often featured on the History Channel show Ancient Aliens. The basic premise of the show, founded upon the fantastical theories of Erich von Däniken, is that human civilization developed and progressed with the assistance of extraterrestrials. Examining a variety of archaeological sites, artifacts, and objects of material culture from around the world and across the history of human habitation, Ancient Astronaut theorists postulate that monuments, technological innovations and artistic traditions were all informed and supplemented by alien contact. Incapable of explaining how the rocks used at the temple complex of Pumapunku, Bolivia were cut so precisely by “primitive” peoples, the immediate conclusion that always seems to be reached is that aliens swooped in and ushered our human ancestors into the practices of modernity.



Futurama, via The Musical Archaeologist

Futurama, via The Musical Archaeologist

While a highly entertaining show, the “experts” featured lack credible historical, linguistic, anthropological or archaeological training to substantiate their claims or their cultural assessments. In fact, many of the arguments employed by regulars like Giorgio A. Tsoukalos commit and espouse ethnocentric ideals and problematic theories about cultural evolution debunked and discarded decades ago. Much maligned for their theories, rhetorical and investigative strategies amongst academics, Ancient Aliens has nonetheless generated renewed interest in archaeology and provided a platform for practicing anthropologist to explain the true mysteries underlying the Aztec Empire or ancient Medieval illustrations of orbs hanging in the sky. Archaeologist Kenneth Feder at Central Connecticut State University has written several books, articles and conference papers on the subject of Ancient Astronaut theory, utilizing the fallacious tenants as a pedagogical tool for his students and the wider public. The show has opened up an opportunity for anthropologists to talk critically, yet inventively, about what it truly means to study cultures, both past and present.

Heavily racially coded, Sie kamen von Kendarkos demonstrates the overt conflation of alien and Other, via

Heavily racially coded, Sie kamen von Kendarkos demonstrates the overt conflation of alien and Other

The figure of the alien as “Other” has also been used to discuss the history of colonization, cultural imperialism and xenophobia. Aliens have been used by many science fiction writers to explore the alternative possibilities of human evolution and cultural divergence, such as the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). The Cthulhu mythos spawned by H P. Lovecraft instills his stories, and often his readers, with a cosmic horror over the ghastly, aquatic race dwelling beneath the Earth’s crust. His alien race disrupts the ascendency of humans and jettisons theories of human excellence and power. Ridley Scott’s Alien series, particularly the prelude Prometheus (2012), proposes that humans were manufactured by aliens, not unlike some of the theories postulated on Ancient Aliens. The essentials of human biology and heritage are subsequently muddied, promulgating divergent genetic as well as cultural consequences for human life. Others have used the alien as Other figure to provide commentary on imperialism. Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal’s Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World (2007) and John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008) both explore the intersections between science fiction and colonial/post-colonial theory, particularly in relation to subaltern social groups. According to Asoka Jayasekera and H. G. Wells’ biographer Michael Foot, The War of the Worlds (1897) was written as a condemnation of Britain’s imperialistic activities against the Aboriginal community in Australia. Book One, Chapter One of War of the Worlds is narrated thus: “And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” demonstrating the overt parallels between the alien invasion and British imperial practices. Wells’ book, and later radio dramatization, inverts the positions of conquerors and the conquered. Similarly, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) makes a direct connection between the ghettoization of a displaced alien race, the refugee “Prawns,” and South Africa’s history of racial apartheid.

The alien also destabilizes certain paradigms regarding time and human familiarity. Some alien races undermine the essential ideology of chronological time taken as fact by many Western cultures. Anthropologists have long studied the various ways that time is understood, expressed and acted upon from culture to culture, indicating that past and future are mutable, unwieldy concepts that cannot necessarily be applied cross-culturally. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) both invent alien cultures incommensurate with the linear progression of time Western society adheres to, but rather exist in multiple dimensions of time simultaneously. What is more, other science fiction authors, such as Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (1986), create classifications for foreignness to deal with confrontations of alien species, depending on levels of intelligence and consciousness. All of these science fictional representations reconfigure the evolution of the human species, our place within the universe, and our treatment of the Other.

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull via

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This fascination with the extraterrestrial has spilled into other disciplines as well. C. G. Jung, fascinated by the profusion of UFO rumors during his time as a practicing psychologist, speculated in his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1979) that UFO’s were “visionary rumors” (8) which occurred due to the emotional tension, cosmic anxiety and psychic fragmentation of contemporary society. He does not try to make claims about the ontological reality of extraterrestrials, but rather investigates their role as symbols throughout human history as manifestations of the unconscious and archetypes that “possess a numinous quality, a feeling-value” (1979, 34). According to his line of theory, unidentified flying objects are a part of a collective psychic projection. Jung’s work on archetypes combines his avant-garde approach to psychoanalysis with folkloric motifs, as well as the belief in a collective subconscious that Claude Lévi-Strauss also shared in his work on myths. Indeed, encounters with extraterrestrials have been a great source of interest for folklorists, who have collected many first hand and friend of a friend accounts of close encounters of the third kind, tracking common motifs, symbols and cultural variations in alien accounts.

Anthropologists like Margaret Mead also closely aligned themselves with science fiction writers in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a time when the nature and production of ethnography and fieldwork were changing. During the time, a group of anthropologists thought that it was very important to participate in the creation of fictionalized alien life, to promote anthropological awareness and propose new methods of studying, interacting and representing the Other. She, along with her husband Gregory Bateson, attended a number of seminars on cybernetics and launched an anthropology of futurology committed to social change (Collins 2003). Books like Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction (1987) emerged from this extraterrestrial anxiety.

More recently, anthropologists have become less concerned with aliens as epistemological symbols and more interested in aliens as a lived reality. The conference CONTACT, described as “a unique interdisciplinary conference which brings together some of the foremost international social and space scientists, science fiction writers and artists to exchange idea, stimulate new perspectives and encourage serious, creative speculation about humanity’s future…onworld and offworld,” was started by anthropologist James J. Funaro. Other anthropologists have devoted their research to studying UFO cults (Balch & Taylor, 1977) and the emergence of Scientology, a religion started by famed science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and intimately linked to belief in extraterrestrials (Velásquez 2011, Wright 2013). Social scientists are also interested in the groups of believers that coalesce around extraterrestrial hot spots like Roswell to share abduction stories or uncover governmental-alien conspiracy theories, the nature of their belief and the types of evidence that serve as proof of the existence of aliens. Eric Goode has written about epistemological approaches to interpreting alien abduction stories, indicating “What is important from the perspective of a social scientist is how and why the tale that aliens crashed in the desert arose, why does it seem credible in certain circles, and what role it plays in contemporary culture” (2012). He elaborates, “For many observers, aliens are contemporary angels possessing wisdom humans need but lack. It is an ingredient in affirming group solidarity and distinguishing believers (who are wise and virtuous) from nonbelievers (who are fools, knaves, and narrow-minded dogmatists), stressing the superiority of the former over the latter. It is a means by which the “we are not alone” notion is made manifest and, simultaneously, an assertion that our earthly imperfections could be rectified by the wisdom of infinitely superior, superhuman, almost supernatural beings” (Goode 2012), echoing some of the same existential concerns Jung postulated.

Some medical anthropologists and historians have also begun to connect abduction stories with the phenomenology of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations (Hufford 1989, Davies 2003). Finally, several anthropologists are positioning themselves as intergalactic emissaries, emphasizing that anthropological training perfectly prepares its practitioners for respectful, diplomatic contact with creatures vastly different from those of our own culture, if not the human race. Indeed, “Anthropologists in particular can attest to just how difficult it is to understand an intelligence different from ones own, whether that is manifested in the vocalizations of primates, the artifacts of Homo erectus, or the lives of Amazonian Indians” (Drummond 1996). If ET does phone home, anthropologists want to be the ones who take the call.

E.T. via


Whether or not aliens exist as provocative symbols, figures of alterity, or interstitial subjects, anthropologists are interested in how we construct, treat and interact with the Other. As Battaglia notes in the introduction to E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces,

the idea of the extraterrestrial is shaped in response to inadequacies of cultural models for explaining lived experience—or, more exactly, the parameters of lived experience. Where E.T. culture recognizes a marked ambiguity, contingency, and power structures of unknown origin and dimensions, other explanatory systems might find miracles, spirit possession, and the like. It is when attempts to comprehend social worlds draw us off our common maps of connection with other earthly beings, when we move out of sight of our internal and external structures for making sense of our relations, that we enter worlds apart. Entering these worlds is one thing when it is we who are going there, together. (2005:9-10)

The way a culture crafts alien life helps to reveal many of the ideologies underlying that society. Why do we construct alien races? How do their physical manifestations, their benevolence or antipathy toward humans, and their social structure reflect our own insecurities, curiosities or fears? Why has the belief in extraterrestrials persisted across time and space? How are certain groups or communities shaped by beliefs and encounters with “alien” life? If there is life outside of our universe, anthropologists may extend the purview of what it means to study mankind. But for now, suffice to say, there will always be aliens among us.

Works Cited 

Ancient Aliens (2010- ). The History Channel.

Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Seeing is Believing: Visual Culture and Ancient Aliens.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Terraforming the Imagination: How to Build a Convincing Fictional Universe.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Balch, Robert W. & David Taylor (1977). “Seekers and Saucers: The Role of the Cultic Milieu in Joining a UFO Cult.” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 6. pp. 839-860.

Battaglia, Debbora (ed.) (2005). E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces. Durham: Duke University Press.

Blomkamp, Neill (2009). District 9. Tristar Pictures.

Bradbury, Ray (1950). The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday.

Card, Orson Scott (1986). Speaker For the Dead. New York: Tor Books.

Collins, Samuel Gerald (2003). “Sail On! Sail On!: Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2. pp. 180-198.

CONTACT: Cultures of Imagination (2015).

Davies, Owen (2003). “The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations.” Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 2, 181-203.

Drummond, Lee (1996) “Where Is Everybody? Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Anthropology News.

Goode, Erich (2012). “What About Roswell? The Persistent Appeal of UFO Stories.” Psychology Today.

Hoagland, Ericka & Reema Sarwal (2007). Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World: Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film. McFarland.

Hufford, David J. (1989). The Terror That Comes in the Night. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jayasekera, Asoka (1998). “Literature: Imperialism and War of the Worlds.” Inter Press Service News Agency.

Jung, C. G. (1979). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton University Press.

Newitz, Annalee (2013). “Anthropologists explain how to approach aliens parked in orbit.” io9.

Rieder, John (2008). Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Scott, Ridley (2012). Prometheus. Twentieth Century Fox.

Slusser, George E. & Eric S. Rabkin eds. (1987). Aliens The Anthropology of Science Fiction. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Velásquez, Giselle (2011). “Inside the Church of Scientology: An Ethnographic Performance Script.” Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 9. pp. 824-836.

Vonnegut, Kurt (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Delacorte.

Wells, H. G. (1895). The Time Machine. 

Wells, H. G. (1897). The War of the Worlds.

Wright, Lawrence (2013). Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. New York: Random House LLC.


About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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