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The Past

Did extraterrestrials visit ancient Sumer?

Venerated astrophysicist Carl Sagan entertained the possibility.
Credit: Evdoha / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • It isn't unreasonable to speculate that aliens have visited Earth. If they arrived before the advent of writing about 5,500 years ago, we might never even know it!
  • Astrophysicist Carl Sagan considered the possibility that ancient humans may have recorded visitations from extraterrestrials. One account from ancient Sumer, of the fish-like creature Oannes, "deserves more careful study," he wrote.
  • While the tale is intriguing, Sagan recognized that there's no concrete evidence that aliens ever visited the ancient Sumerians.

It isn’t unreasonable to speculate that extraterrestrials have visited Earth. The Milky Way is aged and immense, with copious habitable planets, granting other intelligent species plenty of time to master sub-light speed interstellar travel and conduct ranging expeditions lasting centuries or more.

Imagine: if an intelligent extraterrestrial species briefly visited Earth once every 15,000 years or so, there’s no way we would know today. After all, the earliest writing only dates back to 3,400 BC, so if aliens landed and made a few quick pit stops before then, we wouldn’t be any the wiser.

But what if extraterrestrials did land on Earth thousands of years ago and their visitation was recorded in the early writing of the day? What might such a depiction look like? Venerated science communicator and astrophysicist Carl Sagan speculated on that very subject with colleague Iosif Shklovsky in their 1966 book Intelligent Life in the Universe.

“Such hypotheses are entirely reasonable, and worthy of careful analysis,” he wrote, before cautiously adding, “It is obvious that the reconstruction of a contact with an extraterrestrial civilization is fraught with difficulties. A simple account of the apparition of a strange being who performs marvelous works and resides in the heavens is not quite adequate.”

After all, ancient writings are full of fictitious, folklorish tales of deities and the supernatural. So what might set a potential extraterrestrial encounter story apart?

“A description of the morphology of an intelligent non-human, a clear account of astronomical realities which a primitive people could not acquire by their own efforts, or a transparent presentation of the purpose of the contact would increase the credibility of the legend,” Sagan said.

He went on to reference one story that lines up with those requirements, with a caveat, of course.

“I do not claim that the following is necessarily an example of extraterrestrial contact, but it is the type of legend that deserves more careful study.”

Sagan then described the legend of Oannes from Sumer, the earliest known civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, which flourished between roughly 4500 and 1900 BC.

Numerous ancient writers tell of a creature named Oannes, rising from a part of the Persian Gulf that bordered Babylonia, whose “whole body… was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail.”

According to the legend, Oannes bestowed upon the early Sumerians “insight into letters, and sciences, and every kind of art. He taught them to construct houses, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge.”

Other creatures in the likeness of Oannes are referenced in other ancient accounts, returning to check up on the Sumerians. They are called Apkallu.

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“Sumerian civilization is depicted by the descendants of the Sumerians themselves to be of non-human origin,” Sagan commented. “A succession of strange creatures appears over the course of several generations. Their only apparent purpose is to instruct mankind. Each knows of the mission and accomplishments of his predecessors.”

Notably, the Apkallu are never described as gods.

Again, Sagan recognized that talk of extraterrestrials in ancient Sumer was all just speculation, lacking the grand evidence necessary to substantiate such a bold claim.

“A completely convincing demonstration of past contact with an extraterrestrial civilization will always be difficult to provide on textual grounds alone,” he wrote. “But stories like the Oannes legend, and representations especially of the earliest civilizations on the Earth, deserve much more critical studies than have been performed heretofore, with the possibility of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization as one of the many possible alternative interpretations.”

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