Ancient mysteries

Who built the pyramids and how? The debate rages on YouTube.

Most “alternative historians” distance themselves from theories about aliens, but they’re still spreading damaging misinformation, archaeologists say.

Pyramid power plant, conceptual illustration.

Jimmy Corsetti spends a lot of time thinking about sharp edges. Specifically, the sharp edges of the hundreds of granite blocks stacked on top of each other to form the Valley Temple in front of the Sphinx in Egypt, which are cut so precisely that you can’t slide a razor or even a human hair between them.

In a video posted in November to his YouTube channel, Bright Insight, he shows photo after photo of the tight seams between blocks. Everything is so precise that the blocks, weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 tons each, “almost look fused together,” he says.

Most people who visit Egypt, or read about ancient Egyptian civilization in their middle school history textbooks, learn that the complex of pyramids and temples in Giza was built somewhere around 2500 B.C. Tens of thousands of workers labored with copper and stone tools to quarry limestone blocks from the surrounding desert plateau, or ferried granite in from hundreds of miles away using boats on the river Nile.

Corsetti thinks that anyone who believes this explanation either hasn’t been to Egypt, or hasn’t tried to cut a 50-ton granite block with a copper saw. In his mind, these monuments are evidence that the ancient Egyptians had access to some kind of technology that modern-day archaeologists haven’t yet discovered or refuse to acknowledge.

“You don't have to be a stonemason, archaeologist, or even a freaking rock scientist to comprehend that these tools here — copper saws and chisels — did not create the cuts of this level of precision,” he says in the video. “You need to look at this with open eyes and see that the mystery is here.”

Corsetti is in his early thirties, with a wide smile and an undeniably charming presence; one of his photos on Instagram shows him standing in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza wearing a fedora and carrying a whip, à la Indiana Jones. On YouTube, he speaks derisively of archaeologists and “mainstream” historians, but doesn’t like to label himself.

Jimmy Corsetti in front of the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, EgyptJimmy Corsetti

“I just say, ‘I’m Jimmy, and I think for myself,’” he tells me on a recent Zoom call from his home in Arizona. But he’s part of a growing group of social media influencers who identify as “alternative historians,” challenging widely accepted views about who built ancient megalithic monuments, and when, why, and how they did so.

Alternative theories about human history aren’t new. Since the 1800s, people have speculated that monuments like the pyramids of Giza could have been built by extraterrestrials or are actually the remnants of Noah’s Ark. In the 21st century, mainstream audiences have flocked to shows like Ancient Aliens, which premiered on the History Channel in 2010 and is now in its 17th season; among other theories, it posits that pyramids built around the world are evidence of interplanetary visitation.

Online, this idea has achieved meme status. Last year, Elon Musk tweeted, “Aliens built the pyramids obv.” The seemingly tongue-in-cheek tweet prompted an indignant response from the Egyptian government.

Some alternative historians are seeking to shed the “fringe” label, distancing themselves from theories about aliens and attempting to bring scientific methods to their work. (“I think humans did it, but I don’t think that anything should be taken off the table,” says Corsetti.) They’re finding a receptive audience and ready-made tools for sharing their ideas on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.

Bright Insight has more than one million YouTube subscribers. Other influencers, like Hugh Newman of the Megalithomania channel and Matthew Sibson of Ancient Architects, have in excess of one hundred thousand subscribers each. In our “post-truth” era, the alternative history field is experiencing a golden age.

Archaeologists call Corsetti’s way of thinking “pseudoarchaeology.” “Pseudoarchaeological claims are not actually archaeological,” says David Anderson, a Mesoamerican archaeologist and professor at Radford University in Virginia who has written extensively on pseudoarchaeology. “It's not just that they’re bad or unfounded or unsupportable. They make use of wildly different methodologies.”

For decades, most mainstream scholars have studiously ignored the phenomenon, fearing that bringing more attention to alternative theories — even to debunk them — would give them undue credibility. But faced with mounting evidence that these ideas are not going away, more are beginning to tackle alternative history head-on.

Their goal is to draw a clear line between suggesting new interpretations — grounded in common methods of assessing evidence — and spreading misinformation. But they’re also waging a war for the public’s trust, making the case that expertise still means something. It’s a battle not only to decide what’s true and what’s false, but over who gets to make that call in the first place.

Without having been there to witness who built the pyramids, who do we trust to interpret the evidence for us?

The Great Pyramid

On a Saturday in March, I find myself in front of a granite sarcophagus in the burial chamber of a 5,000-year-old pyramid, listening as a guide points to the object’s right angles and smooth finish as evidence of ancient mechanization.

This tour, organized by a Russian nonprofit called the Laboratory of Alternative History, is led by Ondrash Sabo, a 35-year-old former veterinarian from Ukraine with a narrow face and deep-set eyes. The 10-day excursion — with a price tag of $4,000 per person — features a visit to the pyramids and temples on the Giza Plateau, where about a dozen participants look for cuts in the rocks that they believe can’t be explained by accepted theories.

Groups like the LAH, which has been around since 2005, are seeing more people engaging with their social media platforms than at any point in their history. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, LAH was rapidly expanding its tours and expeditions, and in the last year, the group has been ramping up its offerings to pre-pandemic levels.

Laboratory of Alternative History tour guide Ondrash Sabo points out details on a pyramid capstone in the National Museum in Cairo, Egypt.Diana Kruzman
An LAH tour member shows off a pin from the organization.Diana Kruzman

While the LAH rejects the archaeological establishment, it eagerly embraces sciences like astronomy, geology, and engineering, relying on their insights to legitimize alternative theories. “We don’t think archaeologists are bad people,” Sabo tells me on our tour. “They do a lot — they learn how ancient people lived, what they ate. But they look at the texts, not the blocks. Engineers look at the blocks, how they’re assembled. Archaeologists need us to point them in the right direction.”

Archaeologists have considered the blocks, though. And for the most part, they have a fairly clear picture of who built the pyramids — and when and how — thanks to more than a century of fieldwork, says Dr. Ashraf Mohie El-Din, director of the Giza pyramids site for the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. From his office overlooking the Great Pyramid, he explains that early sites show that ancient Egyptian architects and engineers made mistakes when they first started building pyramids, but refined their techniques over hundreds of years.

The Great Pyramid, the source of much speculation by alternative historians, was the culmination of this work. In his 2004 book, How the Great Pyramid Was Built, engineer Craig Smith calculated that the pyramid was likely constructed with 15 to 17 physical “steps,” each containing 14 to 16 layers of stone blocks. He theorized that the architects would have made measurements at every step to make sure the pyramid was level. Teams of up to 180 men would have pulled the blocks on sledges along a path greased with wet clay, called talfa, making transporting them significantly easier.

Archaeologists reached their conclusions, El-Din says, by adhering to the scientific method and undergoing standardized practices like peer review. And they’re constantly uncovering new information and reworking old theories. In 2009, the discovery of a 5,000-year-old tomb near the Pyramid of Senusret II at El Lahun set back the date of that pyramid’s construction by a thousand years.

Excavations on the Giza Plateau since the 1990s have unearthed a “worker’s village” with tombs of builders and officials, pointing to a seasonal labor force of about 10,000 that toiled for 20 years. Workers were paid with bread, beer, and salted fish, El-Din says, a sizable salary at the time, particularly when annual Nile flooding left farmers with nothing to do. “Building a pyramid, it’s a national project,” El-Din says. “Everybody participated.”

Atlantis theories

The evidence that archaeologists have gathered hasn’t convinced alternative historians. Many still believe in ancient aliens, giants, or other extraterrestrial or supernatural explanations, and even those who present themselves as rational thinkers tend to leave such possibilities open.

But rather than promoting these theories outright, some of the most prominent alternative YouTubers focus on vaguer ideas about ancient history: Either human civilization goes back a lot longer than we think and highly advanced ancient people created the monuments that the dynastic Egyptians later took credit for, or the people we know as the “ancient Egyptians” had access to some kind of advanced technology that we aren’t considering. Either way, these theories make the argument that humans need to fundamentally rethink our narrative about the past.

Many of the alternative historians are asking important questions: How far back does human civilization go? How did ancient people achieve monumental feats of architecture? How do we know what we know — and what we don’t know — about where we come from and how we got here? But rather than turning to archaeology for the answers, they’re coming up with theories that are technically possible, but don’t have much in the way of scientific backing.

“I say, ‘Well, you can’t prove that there’s not a unicorn in a teapot that’s orbiting the sun. So let’s just assume that that’s true also.’”

“The example that I like to give is if somebody says, ‘Well, you can’t prove that Atlantis didn’t exist,’” says Jeb Card, a professor of anthropology at Miami University in Ohio. “I say, ‘Well, you can’t prove that there’s not a unicorn in a teapot that’s orbiting the sun right now. You can’t prove me wrong. So let’s just assume that that’s true also.’”

Archaeologists generally believe the first civilizations — defined as those societies with a written language — developed independently in the Near East, China, India, and Central and South America starting about 6,000 years ago, although there’s evidence that people were building complex urban settlements in places like modern-day Turkey thousands of years earlier.

But alternative historians argue that an advanced civilization existed at least as far back as 10,000 B.C., possessing technology equal to or surpassing today’s. Many believe this society spread its knowledge to others, a theory known as hyperdiffusion.

Alternative historians trace motifs common to cultures around the world, like pyramids, to a “root civilization,” which some believe is the mythical Atlantis mentioned in the works of Plato. There is no evidence for such a civilization, many contend, because a catastrophic event about 12,000 years ago destroyed everything except the biggest monuments.

One popular explanation is that a large asteroid or comet hit the earth and wiped out Atlantis in a great flood mentioned in the Bible story of Noah and elsewhere. Historians argue that Atlantis was a rhetorical device used by Plato, and there’s no indication it ever really existed, but believers take the Greek philosopher’s words literally.

Ben Van Kerkwyk, a YouTuber who runs the channel UnchartedX, describes the theory about the destruction of Atlantis as “well on its way to being mainstream science,” thanks to a real scientific debate over a historical timespan called the Younger Dryas, a period of rapid global cooling between 12,900 and 11,600 years ago. Scientists are still weighing possible causes of the Younger Dryas, including an asteroid impact, but alternative historians see the period as scientific support for their theory that a cataclysm ended Atlantean civilization.

Ben Van Kerkwyk in front of the Hawara Pyramid in EgyptBen Van Kerkwyk

Scholars of pseudoarchaeology, though, have demonstrated that such concepts are just recycled versions of older theories. “People were saying this in the 1700s, and people were saying this is in the 1800s, but the biggest difference is that now, between self-publishing and the internet, the audience is huge,” says Kenneth Feder, a professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University. “You turn on your computer, you type in ‘Atlantis,’ and it’s right there in front of you.”

The idea of a high-tech civilization vaporized by a comet 12,000 years ago dates at least to 1882, when Ignatius L. Donnelly, a Civil War–era congressman from Minnesota, published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. He argued that the lost city spawned ancient Egypt and other African civilizations, but that its people were a red-haired, blue-eyed “Aryan race.”

His influence has lasted a century and counting. His work inspired the British writer Graham Hancock, perhaps today’s best-known alternative historian, to write his first book, 1995’s Fingerprints of the Gods. In it, Hancock promotes the notion of a worldwide “mother culture” through observations from his travels around the world, connecting the stonework of Machu Picchu to the Giza pyramids. His books have sold more than seven million copies combined, according to his website.

Hancock inspired other alternative historians, and many still speak of him with reverence. Some of these newer practitioners have gone beyond books to spin their work off into real-life tours and expeditions. Brien Foerster’s company, Hidden Inca Tours, has been steadily growing for 15 years, taking groups mostly to South America, but also to Egypt. The 62-year-old, who lives in Peru, has written dozens of books and runs a YouTube channel with more than 360,000 subscribers.

Brien Foerster, a tour guide and author, holds an elongated skull found in South America.Brien Foerster

A carpenter who grew up in Canada, Foerster was convinced from the first time he saw the stone blocks of Machu Picchu that the Inca could not have built such massive structures without mechanized tools. As a trained craftsman collaborating with geologists and physicists, he sees himself as grounded in the unpretentious physical realities of building objects.

“All I do is show evidence — that’s it,” Foerster tells me. “You know, I don’t have an opinion about who did it. But I do have an opinion about who couldn’t have done it.”

‘Wait a second’

When Corsetti started his Bright Insight channel, he bet himself that if he tried hard enough, he could get a million views on a single video. He hit that benchmark five months later with a video about Nikola Tesla, which is when he realized YouTube could be a viable career.

Now his videos — each of which he painstakingly scripts, records, and edits over the course of several weeks — regularly get hundreds of thousands of views, and he’s collaborated with other YouTubers like Foerster. He typically reads news articles and watches documentaries to learn “mainstream” narratives about the topics he’s planning to tackle, then scours the internet for alternative explanations or comes up with his own. He’s also traveled to Egypt twice in the past year, and now incorporates more of his own photos and observations.

Corsetti compares himself to Galileo Galilei or Nicolaus Copernicus — individuals fighting against an entrenched way of thinking. That disillusionment with authority stems from a stint in the Army, where he realized that government narratives about the war in Iraq had obscured the truth about America’s motives for being there.

After spending several years as a retail fraud investigator, he went back to school and got an M.B.A., but the prospect of doing years of soulless corporate work left him restless. He thought about becoming a teacher, but was disheartened by the low salary. On a whim, he decided to try making informational YouTube videos to earn some extra cash — and was surprised to find that the ones that did the best were all about ancient history.

Ben Van Kerkwyk and Jimmy CorsettiJimmy Corsetti

Those were the most fun for him to make, too. His fascination with Egypt went back to the sixth grade, but he first started thinking seriously about alternative history after coming across one of Foerster’s videos in 2015. “That sent me down the path of looking into the methods that the Egyptians had allegedly utilized for these massive stone blocks, like bronze chisels and stone hammers and everything else,” Corsetti says. “I was like, ‘Wait a second.’ There was some real pushback to show that these methods aren’t feasible.”

Archaeologists have asked the same questions as Corsetti is asking. Experiments conducted with ancient tools back in the 1990s showed that copper saws can cut through granite with the help of abrasive sand. But this hasn’t convinced Corsetti or other alternative historians like Van Kerkwyk, who has argued that the process still would have taken too long to build the Great Pyramid in the 20-year timeframe that archaeologists say it was done.

Alternative historians say that challenging archaeological doctrine isn’t spreading misinformation, but providing fresh insight into a field that still relies on the basic timeline set down by its early practitioners, mainly British, French, and German explorers.

Van Kerkwyk describes his approach as embracing a marketplace of ideas; as he sees it, the truth will organically prevail. “People are able now to access a lot more information and a lot of different perspectives, and they can make up their own mind about what they think is truth or not within this field,” he tells me.

The problem, to the alternative faction, is that archaeologists are too confident. “It’s more honest,” Evgeniya Berezentseva, a participant from Russia on the LAH tour, tells me of the organization’s approach. “If we don’t know something, we should say we don’t know.”

That way of thinking has allowed ideas rejected by the archaeological community to take root in American popular culture and imagination. A 2018 Chapman University study examining paranormal beliefs among Americans found that nearly 57 percent thought that ancient, advanced civilizations such as Atlantis once existed; only the belief that places can be haunted by spirits was more widespread. Belief in Atlantean-type civilizations is the fastest-growing category, the study reported, having increased from just 40 percent in 2016.

Traditional forms of media like TV and radio still play a role, and the podcaster Joe Rogan regularly hosts Graham Hancock and other alternative historians on his show. (Corsetti made his first appearance in December).

But alternative history is flourishing in a larger climate of “alternative facts” and growing belief in misinformation and conspiracy theories, as well as distrust of traditional gatekeepers of information, including academics and scientists.

Social media didn’t create pseudoarchaeology, but platforms like YouTube and, increasingly, TikTok allow ideas that challenge the “mainstream” to spread more quickly and reach more people, according to Whitney Phillips, a misinformation researcher at Syracuse University.

“It’s not just that this content is easy to find,” she says. “The content comes to you.” Recommendation algorithms predict what people want to see and, once they show an interest, show them more and more of it. On TikTok alone, videos with the hashtag #ancienttechnology have been viewed more than 10 million times.

“The Internet has resulted in a boom for this kind of stuff, unlike anything we’ve seen since, I would say, the introduction of the printing press in the mid-to-late-1800s,” says Andy White, an archaeologist who works for the state of Illinois and writes about pseudoarchaeology on his blog. “It’s a new way of communicating, and there’s not a lot of fact checking going on.”

‘Not harmless’

Corsetti says his goal with Bright Insight is to make space online for people interested in ancient history that’s somewhere between Ancient Aliens, which he’s not a fan of (he believes the show distorts the facts and personally believes humans built the pyramids), and dry academia, which he thinks doesn’t acknowledge how many mysteries about the ancient past still remain unsolved.

He’s been surprised by the responses he gets from commenters who say he’s spreading misinformation, or make videos debunking his theories. “I’m not an expert,” he tells me. “I’m just an inquisitive person using my personality and my desire to share interesting, fun topics with others.”

But the spread of pseudoarchaeology has some worrying implications. In 2013, two German amateur archaeologists scraped off bits of paint from the Great Pyramid in an attempt to prove it was built by a high-tech ancient civilization, drawing fears that other priceless artifacts could be vandalized in the search for evidence for alternative theories.

And historians have pointed out the racism espoused by many early and contemporary alternative archaeologists, including the Swiss author Erich von Däniken, who has suggested that extraterrestrials may have genetically “programmed” a superior white race that built complex architecture around the world after an earlier “black race” failed to do so.

Historians have also criticized the underlying racist notions behind many assumptions that people living in South America or Africa were too primitive to create monumental structures like the ones that survive today. Alternative theories like the Moundbuilder myth in North America, which attributes the large earthen mounds encountered by Europeans to Vikings, Israelites, and basically everyone except for Native Americans, were explicitly used to justify oppression of Indigenous people and deprive them of their land.

“It’s not harmless fun,” White says. “There are very, very deep currents of racism that go back to the Victorian era, the age of European exploration, imperialism. A lot of these ideas are hundreds of years old, and they just keep being revived. They were invented in the first place to justify white supremacy, and in a lot of ways, they are still being used to do that.”

New research also connects belief in pseudoarchaeology to other alternative worldviews that can have real-world impacts, including conspiracy theories like QAnon. YouTube, which changed its algorithm in 2019 after facing criticism for promoting far-right content, actively encourages people interested in ancient aliens to explore other alternative worldviews and conspiracy theories. So do many of the guests who appear on Ancient Aliens, some of whom have explicitly endorsed QAnon.

“If you tell people that everything that mainstream scholars say about the past is a lie, then everything they say about the present is also a lie.”

Pseudoarchaeological beliefs featured prominently in the worldview of Jacob Chansley, better known as the QAnon Shaman, according to Stephanie Halmhofer, a graduate student at the University of Alberta. Many of Chansley’s social media posts, Halmhofer explained in a blog post, featured claims about a highly advanced ancient civilization and connected QAnon to the idea that the Egyptian pyramids are built along supernatural gridlines that radiate “earth energies.”

The QAnon connection is an extreme case; most prominent alternative historians take pains to distance themselves from politics and the far right. But researchers like Miami University’s Card fear that for some people, alternative history — especially the belief that archaeologists are conspiring to hide the truth from the public — can be a gateway to other kinds of misinformation.

“It’s not just, Did aliens build the pyramids?” Card says. “It’s, Did aliens or Atlanteans build the pyramids, and therefore everything today is a lie? That’s the important part. Because if the past explains the present, and you tell people that everything that mainstream scholars say about the past is a lie, then everything they say about the present is also a lie.”

Debunkers’ battles

Many archaeologists still believe that the best approach is to ignore the problem, that giving alternative theories professional attention only serves to legitimize them. Those who believe it’s necessary to engage often take an openly hostile tack. But neither method seems to have stemmed the flow of alternative theories, so a small but growing number of archaeologists have begun to advocate for some amount of direct engagement.

Some professional debunkers have made it their mission to post fact-based critiques of alternative theories as soon as they pop up, a tactic that quickly starts to feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Jason Colavito, an independent researcher, published a book last year addressing myths and misinformation about ancient Egypt. He and archaeologists like Carl Feagans, who runs a Facebook group scathingly titled the Fraudulent Archaeology Wall of Shame, blog about the latest examples of pseudoscience proliferating online.

“I know that it’s not going to go away — there’s always going to be somebody out there that has a contrary opinion,” Feagans says. “But there's a lot of fence sitters out there. And those are the people I try to write for.”

Feagans aims to use keywords that can lift his posts higher in Google results, in the hopes that someone searching for a pseudoarchaeological theory might come across his debunking of it instead. The work can get contentious. Feagans has been threatened with lawsuits, and Foerster, the tour operator, blocked him on social media. And after all that, his blog only gets about 5,000 visitors a month. One alternative history video on UnchartedX can get hundreds of thousands of views.

Other battles are fought on Wikipedia, where editors look to the consensus of professional archaeologists in deciding whether to label something “pseudoarchaeology” or list it as a credible theory. When Graham Hancock’s Wikipedia page was edited in 2019 to include references to him engaging in pseudoarchaeology, it set off a stream of furious commentary on Reddit, with one poster calling it “attempted character assassination.”

“Most professionals don’t talk to a popular audience. So when there’s a vacuum, the vacuum is going to get filled, and it’s been filled by a whole lot of nonsense.”

Feder thinks it’s most important for archaeologists to build trust with the public through popular media rather than publishing exclusively for academia. “Most professionals don’t talk to a popular audience,” he says. “So when there’s a vacuum, the vacuum is going to get filled, and it’s been filled by a whole lot of nonsense.” He’s hopeful that with media literacy and outreach efforts, public interest in archaeology can be turned toward academic sources.

Not everyone within the field agrees. Card tells me over Zoom that it’s hard to feel optimistic when larger phenomena, like the denial of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrate that people can easily ignore facts that they find inconvenient or distressing. “And when you see that, you’re like, Why?” he says. “Why am I teaching? Why did I get a degree? Why do we bother? I mean, it’s just demoralizing.”

He thinks it’s important to understand why people are drawn to alternative archaeology and the larger societal factors that have led to a growing mistrust in authority figures in general, and archaeologists in particular. Telling folks right off the bat why they’re wrong, he says, “just turns people off, and they won’t listen to you.” Instead, he argues, “You have to tell better stories. And you have to tell stories that make sense, but at the same time are also true. And that is not easy.”

Corsetti thinks the fact that his work is stimulating conversation, including among archaeologists, is a good thing. He welcomes their responses, as long as they engage with his ideas rather than try to prevent him from spreading them. And he thinks that even if he’s not accepted now, in the long run he’ll be vindicated. At the very least, he’ll have some fun and provoke some interesting debates.

He sees himself as being like one of his favorite historical figures, and the subject of his most-viewed video: Nikola Tesla. “He had lots of wild ideas that turned out to be true,” Corsetti says. “And people thought he was nuts, and it turned out he was totally right about — not everything, but most things. I think that what’s holding us back is imagination.”