Cave Paintings, Betty & Barney,
and an Old Titan Lost to Fiction
Among several pseudo-scientific arguments Ridley Scott used to anchor his latest sci-fi flick, Prometheus, were ancient cave paintings and distant binary-star systems. Thus the event that triggers the action itself is the discovery of such hidden paintings, which according to the main characters, could not have been done by humans, and their depiction of a faraway planetary system.
Of many very old cave paintings found throughout Earth, there’s one that does seem to have been done by a non-human species. But by Neanderthals, not aliens, though. And the depiction of a star alignment on a wall may have been based on the Zeta Reticuli incident, when the binary system located 39-light years away, became part of the controversial first reported case of humans abducted by aliens, in 1961.
Apart from these two near misses, the movie got pretty much everything else wrong, which is disappointing in so many levels to not being worth discussing here. Then again, it’s just a movie. To cut the British director some slack, even if he never makes another film, he’s still the author of two definitive takes in the canon of sci-fi entertainment, Alien and Blade Runner.
INCIDENT IN LANCASTER
The story of Betty and Barney Hill had already so many iconic details about it, even if at that Sept. 19 night, they had encountered just a big cow in rural New Hampshire, not a UFO. Any reason for them to be hit by the glare of the media at that point in their lives would have inevitably shifted to a racially tinged tale, regardless of the details.
But so it happens that the interracial couple was riding their 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air when they saw a bright light that stopped their car and interrupted their lives for good. From then on, what happened was either an extraordinary event, with all sorts of social and even geopolitical implications, or a case of temporary delusion. Either way, they were both forever psychologically scared.
For America, the time was ripe for threats. There was the risk of becoming co-participant of the global annihilation of the planet, due to its escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union, and of being teared apart by a simmering and violent struggle for racial and civil rights. Between these two brackets of fear, it was also a time of great prosperity and scientific progress.
The couple’s narrative of what happened that night is now part of the vocabulary of UFO sightings and the even harder to prove numerous reports of abduction by aliens. They claimed that there were somehow hypnotized and forgot most of what happened during the few hours that they couldn’t, otherwise, account for.
They did report the sighting, even if at that point they were having second thoughts whether to go public with their story. If their case opened the book to similar narratives, the response they got from local authorities and military also became textbook for the roll of dismissive counterarguments that have been used since to similar stories, with more or less success in burying their content.
DORMANT MEMORIES & DISTANT STARS
Within a few years, at first through Betty’s notes and sketches she made based on a series of intense dreams, and then through hypnosis sessions, they put together a consistent, if somewhat imprecise, narrative of their abduction, by what they described as non-human figures. Their account was graphic, detailed and highly embarrassing to them, complete with the anal probes and vaginal sampling that are now routinely included in the so called abduction literature.
Among such recovered memories, Betty’s managed to also draw a map of a star system that was supposedly shown to her by the aliens. It took another seven years, and an amateur astronomer, to construct a theory, and find possible candidates, to the configuration. From the get go, though, Marjorie Fish’s study, pointing to the Zeta Reticuli system as a probable candidate for the origin of the aliens, faced criticism.
But despite heavyweight figures such as Carl Sagan dismissing it, and other competing theories and the possibility the planetary system drawn by her was our own, it’s Ms. Fish’s assumption that has prevailed to this day. It does make a pretty convincing case, as it takes the approximate distance from our Sun and other reinforcing factors into account.
Nothing about the Hill Abduction, as the case became known, will ever be etched in stone. With both Betty and Barney dead, along with most of the main characters of the story, only a trip to the stars would be able to settle the matter, or not. Since there are no plans for such a long trip in the works, chances are that whatever happened that night in New Hampshire will remain a mystery.
As it’s been said, the time was perfect for that kind of conspiracy, and sci-fi writers were busy fueling the public’s imagination with their tales of intelligent, interstellar beings coming to visit Earth, and lending it an oversized importance that we honestly doubt it has, in the big, astronomical scheme of things.
One last, usually ignored curiosity about their imprint in pop culture: of all names that there are, Betty and Barney had to also coincidentally share theirs with the town of Bedrock’s second-most important couple, the Rubbles, best friends of the Flintstones. The long-running Hanna-Barbera animated series was probably playing the night the Hills left their car and entered the history books.
THE TALENTED CAVEMEN
At the time of that series, set at some generic ‘Stone Age,’ the concept of ‘modern humans’ hadn’t yet been adopted by archeologists, and Neanderthals were still believed to be our immediate ancestors. As it turns out, they were members of a separate species, and lived at the same time as our own for thousands of years, except that in different continents.
One thing we do share with them: we all always liked to draw on the walls of our dwellings. And now, with the help of a new dating technique, scientists are theorizing that such habit may have started even earlier than initially thought, when humans were still back in Africa. Neanderthals had been already in Europe for a couple of hundred thousand years, at least.
A recent analysis of the famous paintings on the Altamira cave, in Spain, for example, reveals that they may not be ‘authored’ by humans, since the depictions’ revised age would predate our arrival on the continent by several thousand years. This being a new technique, the findings still await confirmation.
It’s quite an interesting development, though, along with recently uncovered signs elsewhere, indicating that they also may have interacted and even mated with modern humans. But it’s one thing to built a fictional narrative from the point of view of these cave paintings. It’s another, entirely, to add a star map to the depictions, and a leading character who believes them to be ‘an invitation’ to us.
FILLING THE GAPS
Indeed, it’s quite a mash-up, Mr. Scott. And it doesn’t add up, of course. In fact, fans of the Alien saga were unhappy even with the way the director attempted to tie the knots of the various narrative strains, into a progressive view, albeit parallel, of the history of humankind. According to them, he failed on that too, and the movie’s convoluted ending accomplishes nothing of sorts.
But it’s just a movie, for crying acidic tears out loud. Scientists have the humility of admitting that, even if we put together everything that’s known about our own history, the result would be equally convoluted, and the many holes in the timeline would be enough to derail any attempt at another mindless summer blockbuster. That’s when directors invent, whereas scientists can’t.
Then again, while archeologists hope the next dig will uncover the missing pieces in their reconstruction of our past, movie directors just need to come up with a few ideas for a sequel. And perhaps a third and final chapter. Which, of course, is never final. Anyway, there’s one thing they both need to be armed with in order to succeed: an enthralling story line.
And that’s what Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, has plenty of, and Prometheus, the multimillion dollar movie, couldn’t muster. Whereas Shelley‘s account is a match to the myth of the Greek Titan, said to have given humans the gift of life and fire, and for been severely punished for it, many wonder what the movie may have added, if anything, to our popular culture.