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Archaeological Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ASETI)

(An excerpt from Heather's upcoming book, The Final Frontier: Xenoarchaeology and The Interplanetary Search for Lost Civilizations)

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(An excerpt from Heather's upcoming book, The Final Frontier: Xenoarchaeology and The Interplanetary Search for Lost Civilizations)

“The rest of the planets have their dress and furniture, nay and their inhabitants too, as well as this Earth of ours.” —Christiaan Huygens, 1690 CE. First theoretical physicist and founder of mathematical physics.

“Space: the final frontier,” was the phrase used to open the television show, Star Trek, in the 1960s. This was a unique decade in American cultural history, one that presented the world with a new range of astronomical possibilities. This was the decade of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, where each jockeyed to achieve firsts in spaceflight capability. This was also the decade of alien encounters, kickstarted in 1961 with the first widely publicized report of alien abduction by Betty and Barney Hill. It was the decade of the publication of bold and controversial alternative theories about ancient alien visitation, perhaps most notably Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods, published in 1968, which soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick’s earth-shattering film, 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968, to a public awestruck by a cinematic future vision of human potential by way of space travel, technology, and artificial intelligence. Space was on everyone’s mind and the mounting excitement over space exploration reached its summit with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. The promise of that decade could be summed up by the entirety of the Enterprise mission, “To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”

As the decades roll on, we’ve seen the ups and downs of space exploration and watched the United States government admit to the existence of UFOs, or as they are referred to now, UAPs (unidentified Aerial Phenomena). The public discussion of the UFO/UAP phenomenon is quite the paradigm shift. There was a time in the not-so-distant past that to admit you believed UFOs existed would have you laughed and mocked out of public life. Now, it seems that every day there are news stories about the latest development in the search for habitable planets and extraterrestrial lifeforms. Still, to suggest that there may be merit in searching for the remnants of more than just biological life, but civilized life, will attract ridicule in most circles.

Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray played a video of a UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena) during the first open congressional hearing about UFOs in more than 50 years. Creator: Kevin Dietsch | Credit: Getty Images 

Is it so laughable to think that in the enormity of the cosmos there could be or have been civilized life? Why shouldn’t we at least discuss the possibility of ancient extraterrestrial civilizations, rather than limiting the query to simply the existence of biological life? Suggesting there could be ancient archaeological sites or artifacts on distant planets will certainly have you mocked, shunned, or even attacked by those who proclaim to put reason over vision. Of course, one could argue that since there is yet no proof that life exists outside Earth, to question the existence of civilization would be putting the cart before the horse. Nevertheless, in my upcoming book, The Final Frontier: Xenoarchaeology and The Interplanetary Search for Lost Civilizations, I will present an argument for why we need to seriously address the archaeological search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ASETI) and xenoarchaeology.

There are very real questions to ask about the science, theory, development, and implementation of xenoarchaeological programs, as well as their implications:

What I hope to construct in my upcoming work is a higher resolution picture of the future of the social scientific exploration of space, but first, a clarification of terms is needed. I use the term xenoarchaeology in the title and throughout this book, but what in the world does it mean? Xenoarchaeology was once a hypothetical branch of archeology associated with artifacts from the past of alien civilizations found on planets, asteroid belts, or space in general. This term can be found in works of science fiction where the stories revolve around mysterious extraterrestrial artifacts. However, this term has been favored by scholars over “space archaeology” or “exoarchaeology.”

What is Space Archaeology?

Space archaeology has developed into a growing and substantial field. It does not address issues of extraterrestrial artifacts, but rather items left by humans in space. These items can include the American flag left on the moon by Apollo astronauts and what is sometimes referred to as “space junk,” satellites, and other man-made orbital debris. The preservation and study of these artifacts can offer archaeologists and historians insight into the activities, cultural heritage, and experiences humans have had in space.

What is Exoarchaeology?

Exoarchaeology (sometimes exo-archaeology), by contrast, is an older term used to describe space archaeology and xenoarchaeology. It has fallen out of favor as the field of space archaeology has become more precise in its definitions, goals, and methodologies. Exoarchaeology is not frequently used to describe xenoarchaeology because there have been debates over combining the prefix exo in with archaeology as being more accurately applied to the study of ancient human activities in space.

What is Xenoarchaeology?

In the existing scientific literature, the term xenoarchaeology is used to describe the study of material evidence of astrobiological activity, that is to say, artifacts left by living biological entities from space. The name comes from the Greek word xenos (ξένος), meaning “unfamiliar” and “archeology” which comes directly from Greek arkhaiologia meaning "the study of ancient things."

Xenoarchaeology is the best term to describe the overall search of the material evidence left by anything biological, but to narrow the conversation further to focus on the search for previous civilizations, I am introducing the term ASETI (archaeological search for extraterrestrial intelligence). ASETI is the research that takes place on Earth to locate extraterrestrial structures on the surface of celestial bodies in the cosmos.

In my proposed framework, ASETI works as a subfield or methodology of xenoarchaeology because much of the preliminary or reconnaissance research needed before embarking on a xenoarchaeological mission could be done on Earth using current SETI technology. Tools like the mediocrity principle, which states that if objects in a collection are more numerous than others, then the odds of drawing one of them is higher, and the Drake equation could be used when searching for artifacts since the theoretical and speculative areas of archaeology are designed to test uncommon hypotheses. This will be useful when alien artifacts become available for research if they haven’t already.

Currently, Xenoarchaeology is considered by some to belong to the realm of science fiction at best, and at worst, pseudoscience. This is not because of a body of evidence against the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence or civilizations, but rather because of a lack of evidence to support it. This lack of evidence is associated with a lack of technology and practical ability to do meaningful research and gain extraterrestrial artifacts for analysis. However, this absence of researchable material is not evidence of its absence.

Now, before you start thinking that I am spinning my wheels over science fiction fantasy, and wild speculation, let me point out that there have already been serious discussions about these ideas in academia and government. In 2004, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, a discussion was held on the topic named, Anthropology, Archaeology, and Interstellar Communication. This is another mainstream group working to understand how they fit into the future of space exploration. Academics in universities are not alone in their inquiry. NASA is keenly aware of the potential in this area and is working to understand this new way of thinking about SETI and trying to develop professional standards for the field (see, Harrison, 2011).

While this may sound like the plot for a Ridley Scott science fiction summer blockbuster, government scientists are taking this very seriously. According to NASA, empirical data from terrestrial cultures can be used by anthropologists to understand the evolution of technological civilizations, their nature, and their lifespan (Vakoch, 2014). A 2014 report by NASA claims that the evolution of technological civilizations is a question frequently dealt with by anthropologists and archaeologists. The potential benefit of engaging archaeologists in SETI initiatives has, according to NASA, been “realized since the early 1960s” (Vakoch, 2014).

To understand possible civilizations on other planets, we must study the objects left behind by extraterrestrials. This will prove to be a challenge logistically, practically, legally, and ethically. It only makes sense that the search for evidence should begin here on Earth. How will we begin? Is there already evidence of alien contact? Can the placements of megalithic sites or archaeoastronomy teach us anything about where alien civilizations may have flourished in the cosmos?

Implications

For my book, I’ve interviewed experts in space law from the Cleveland Marshall School of Law’s Global Law Space Center (GSLC), the only law school center in the United States dedicated exclusively to the study of the law of outer space. I found that there are not only many technological issues surrounding ASETI, but there are huge legal, ethical, and political problems with disclosing such game-changing information. Even if we understand the challenges leading up to disclosure, the question will remain, is what we are being told true, or is it merely a psyop meant to distract us from secret military research operations; a way to cover unaccounted for defense spending?

The search for civilization outside of our planet presents more than just technical or legal experts. It requires the input of quantum theorists, evolutionary biologist, and social scientists. It also requires the guidance of philosophers and theologians. In 2021, it was reported that NASA enlisted the help of 24 theologians as part of a plan to work out how the world's different religions would react to news about extraterrestrial life. The NASA-sponsored project was held at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University and was supported by researchers like Dr. Carl Pilcher, former Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and former Senior Scientist for Astrobiology and Science Director for Solar System Exploration (Burgess, 2021).

Although we seem to be in an age of obfuscation, distraction, and division, serious consideration about the possibility of extraterrestrial life is more socially accepted than ever. Institutions and thought leaders are not only open to the idea of extraterrestrial life, they are beginning to probe the mystery further. They understand that the very survival of our species could hinge on what we discover. The public has been open to the idea for a while. While the majority of Americans (65%) say they believe intelligent life exists on other planets (Kennedy & Lau, 2021), sociocultural stigmas remain obstacles to collecting data on UAPs, according to an unclassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (United State Government, 2021).

Knowing where we are heading and how fast, we must consider that ancient extraterrestrial civilizations may have existed. We must prepare ourselves for the psychological, cultural, and political implications, and what such discoveries mean to the future of humanity before it’s too late. Let’s boldly go where no man has gone before!

I discussed some of these ideas in more detail with Cliff Dunning on his show Earth Ancients. Here is the link to the interview.

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References:

Burgess, K. (2021, December 29). Heavens above: NASA enlists priest to prepare for an alien discovery. News | The Times. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/heavens-above-nasa-hires-priest-to-prepare-for-an-alien-discovery-sdczvwgqm

Harrison, A. A. (2011). The search for extraterrestrial intelligence: Astrosociology and cultural aspects. Astropolitics, 9(1), 63–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/14777622.2011.557619

Kennedy, C., & Lau, A. (2021, June 30). Most Americans believe in Intelligent life beyond earth; few see ufos as a major national security threat. Pew Research Center. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/30/most-americans-believe-in-intelligent-life-beyond-earth-few-see-ufos-as-a-major-national-security-threat/

United State Government. (2021, June 25). Preliminary assessment: Unidentified aerial phenomena - dni.gov. Office of the Director of  National Intelligence. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Prelimary-Assessment-UAP-20210625.pdf

Vakoch, D. A. (2014). Archaeology, anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Communications, Public Outreach Division, History Program Office.

Dr. Heather Lynn

Published a month ago