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The origin of the fake unboxed aliens is wilder than actual aliens

The internet artist Zardulu — creator of Pizza Rat — has claimed that “the creation and perpetuation of myths is art of the highest form.”

Humans create such grand fakes, Zardulu argues, as a way of keeping the world weird and wondrous. But what happens when such pursuits of wonder collide with shameless opportunism and a willingness to exploit an era of misinformation — even if it means disrespecting and distorting the past?

These are the questions we’re driven to ask in light of two recently unboxed 1,000-year-old aliens, revealed to the world by a crew of conspiracists with a history of trying (and failing) to make 1,000-year-old aliens happen.

The Mexican Congress was holding a hearing on the existence of Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP), on Wednesday, September 13, when the alleged Peruvian aliens were hand-delivered in a dramatic coffin-like box. The box contained a pair of dusty figures with elongated skulls on hose-like necks. They had three fingers instead of the usual five, and bore a faint resemblance to Spielberg’s E.T.

Alas for truthers: These skeletons are not alien life forms. Instead, they are most likely a composite of pre-Columbian human remains and animal bones, all pieced together with some plaster.

But how they aren’t real is a story that’s frankly wilder than aliens.

In fact, these little guys appear to have been literally crowdfunded into existence in 2017 as part of an ongoing attempt to create the illusion that these hucksters are sitting on an ancient alien gold mine. And that’s just the tip of the alien scam iceberg. The full picture includes a long lineup of skeevy con men dedicated to passing themselves off as pseudoscientific “experts,” from media veterans to fake archaeologists and doctors with dubious degrees — all committed to insisting (even as a litany of real scientists line up to object) that their fake aliens are real.

That’s a lot to unpack alongside these two dubious extraterrestrials, so let’s take a closer look.

The origin story of these fake aliens

Yep, you heard that right: The unboxed “aliens” that caught the world’s attention in 2023 were allegedly “discovered” in pieces in Peru in late 2016 or early 2017. They were purportedly found among the burial grounds of the Nazca, and subsequently dubbed “the Nazca mummies.” The Nazca were an indigenous ancient Peruvian people known for creating beautiful geoglyph designs known as the Nazca Lines. They interred their dead in elaborately wrapped cloths, often posed in seating positions, much the way one of the original “aliens” was displayed.

In February 2017, a crowdfunding campaign for “The Alien Project” appeared. The project boasted its own website and held sponsored press conferences on the “Nazca mummies.” It promised “to determine, through extensive scientific analysis (mainly DNA and C14), the origin of the bodies and the mummified organs discovered in southern Peru in January 2016.”

“You can trust us,” the crowdfunding campaign read. “[I]f it is an imposture, or a fake, we will be the first to denounce it.” The campaign, however, went on to smugly assure their contributors, “If there is a fraud, we have not detected it yet.” The man behind the campaign, per the Alien Project website, is a pseudoscientist named Thierry Jamin, who bills himself as an archaeologist. (He’s not.) He’s also the purveyor of the fraudulent aliens.

The campaign refers to the “exceptional quality” of these figures: dog-sized skeleton molds of three-fingered beings that seem to have been shamelessly hodgepodged together from real disarticulated human remains, covered in white plaster, and presented to the world as though they were fully intact extraterrestrial beings that had been “discovered” in the Peruvian wilderness.

On its website, the Alien Project credits the origin of the mummies not to Jamin, but to a man named “Luis Quispe, a.k.a. Paul R.” Jamin describes Quispe only as the “holder of an incredible secret,” without elaboration, but says elsewhere that he is their contact with “grave robbers,” implying that Quispe is a kind of mummy-runner.

Yet in a 2017 blog post, the popular UFOlogist John Greenewald claimed to have tracked Quispe down and discovered that he was a YouTuber known for making videos of mummies that looked exactly like the Nazca mummies, in order to show viewers how such mummies could be created as a hoax. (Vox has reached out to Greenewald for verification.)

From the beginning, then, it would seem that the perpetrators of this hoax were in zero doubt about what they were doing. Jamin and his team of “experts” were from a community of UFOlogists and fraudsters with a long history of claiming fake doctorates or degrees from discredited schools and other sham credentials. Yet their alien investigation somehow raised $42,000 from over 1,000 contributors. And those contributors arguably got their money’s worth: Jamin’s pursuit to convince people the aliens were real evolved into an ongoing stunt that, despite the long and loud protests of actual scientists, ultimately led his creations to appear before the Mexican Congress.

Almost as soon as the alleged aliens became public, scientists pushed back against the hoax, pointing out that the “alien” remains appeared to be human. “This mummy is an archaeological mummy from which two fingers have been removed and the number of phalanges increased on the remaining three fingers,” the website Cientificos declared in July 2017 after consulting with researchers. Further research later determined the hand to be created from the bones of two different people, while a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Biology and Biomedicine further argued that one of the skulls had been constructed from “a deteriorated llama braincase and other unidentified bones.” (YouTubers have further gone into great detail to illustrate the process of alien fakery.)

Yet Jamin was undaunted — and he had help to boost his claims from a veteran media personality named Jaime Mussan. A UFO enthusiast whose YouTube conspiracy theory channel boasts nearly 1 million subscribers, Maussan has hosted a few conspiracy-theory-minded series, including The Third Millennium for Mexico’s TV Azteca. But despite gaining attention as a “journalist” — he was the subject of a 2019 documentary called Maussan’s UFO Files — his journalistic credentials seem scant and aren’t easy to verify.

Neither are the “discoveries” he’s claimed to make in the name of pseudoscience, nor the UFO frauds he’s championed, which allegedly stretch back to the 1990s.

These include greatest hits like:

  • Presenting a strange being dubbed the “Metepec Creature,” which turned out to be a skinned monkey.
  • Championing a hoax called the “Roswell Slides” in 2015 which purported to show a photo of an alien body but turned out to be that of a mummified 2-year-old boy. (Several of the people involved in this hoax would later attach themselves to the Nazca mummy hoax.)
  • Claiming to have discovered a “demon fairy” in 2016 which was revealed to be “some conglomeration of a bat, wooden sticks, unseen epoxy and other items designed to deceive” — but not until after he sold it for $10,000.
  • Gaining an entry on the UFO Watchdog Hall of Shame list for repeated UFO-related false claims and fraud attempts.

A demon fairy. I’m convinced.
UFO Watchdog

Undaunted by his previous failures, Maussan joined Jamin on his “Nazca mummy” escapade. Maussan made a video about the mummy for the website Gaia.com, a New-Age platform for “consciousness-expanding videos.” The video, Unearthing Nazca, repeated pseudoscientific speculation about the “Nazca mummies,” and came complete with a new narrative — now, instead of being discovered in 2016, as Jamin explained to viewers, the mummies had been looted in 2015 by a band of anonymous villains, the head of which was known only as “Mario.” One of the primary “experts” interviewed for the video isn’t even an archaeologist, but rather a Russian researcher who claims to have invented a camera that can photograph human auras and measure our feelings. Another researcher claimed that one of the aliens actually had a “cloaca” filled with “eggs.”

Despite its dubious sourcing and expertise, the video was a massive success for the website, racking up millions of views, but it also drew plenty of criticism. The Atlantic’s Christopher Heaney worried the series might be “an archaeological snuff film in disguise.” The World Committee on Mummy Studies (a real organization made up of archaeologists and related scientists) issued a stern rebuke of “the fraud of extraterrestrial mummies.” They pointed out that the fake aliens were most likely the remains of actual pre-Columbian mummies that had been “maliciously manipulated and mutilated” in order to perpetuate the fraud.

“This ‘production’ has violated numerous national and international norms that watch for the defense of Cultural Heritage,” the archaeologists wrote. “The criminal abuse of corpses for petty ends violates human dignity in a profound way. Thus, exploitation of pre-Columbian mummies carried out by this organization, attacks and particularly offends the Andean Culture, implying that its achievements were due to an alleged ‘alien aid.’”

These “aliens” are part of a long pattern of racism and erasure

This is the part where all of this gets less wacky and a lot less fun. Because even beyond the travesty that is disturbing individual disinterred remains lie the centuries of societal attempts to diminish the glory of pre-Columbian artists and architects and turn their works into inconceivable ancient alien wonders.

For instance, every few years, the same viral “discovery” recirculates around the internet: A series of ancient alien skulls with elongated heads. Here’s the skulls making the rounds in 2014, and again in 2021. Each time, the find gets passed off as if it were a new, shocking revelation.

In fact, these skulls were discovered in 1928 in the Paracas region of southern Peru, as part of the excavation of a mass grave containing over 300 similar bodies. The archaeologist who made the discovery, Julio Tello, believed the bodies to belong to an ancient pre-Incan culture, but controversy over the skulls and their elongated shape — specifically, the belief that they must be of some alien or inhuman origin — has obscured the facts about the Paracas culture through today.

What we do know is that cranial reshaping, in which children’s heads were reshaped from birth into the elongated forms we see in their skulls, was a widespread practice throughout Peru, as well as many other cultures around the world. As the Mummy committee notes, this common practice has helped fuel the narrative that indigenous South American cultures cannot be responsible for their own greatness. The History Channel is rife with claims that ancient world wonders are actually of alien origins, like this 2016 clip claiming that Peru’s Machu Picchu was built “with the help of otherworldly beings.” The Nazca Lines have also drawn frequent speculation from UFOlogists; since we have no clear idea what their purpose was (or if they indeed had a purpose at all beyond looking rad), the go-to explanation becomes aliens.

These racist myths are part of a broader tradition of racist phrenology — in which measurements of head sizes and shapes were (and regrettably often still are) used to justify claims of racial and ethnic superiority. As Heaney notes for the Atlantic, for most of the previous two centuries, scientists used the skull measurements of pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures to dehumanize them and erase them from their own accomplishments.

The presenters to the Mexican Congress were quick to default to this narrative as well. When they revealed the small figures to the politicians, Maussan and his assistants took care to emphasize that the alien bodies had been found “near” the Nazca Lines, as if something about the proximity of the bodies to the mysterious geoglyphs holds significance and boosts the likelihood of their extraterrestrial origins. They then repeated the false claim that the DNA is of inhuman origin. That claim was debunked first in 2017, and then again on Wednesday, by the very university that had allegedly performed the testing.

That university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), stated it had only carbon-dated the sample it had been given and had never issued a conclusion about its origin. Maussan further provided three different samples of DNA testing results that he claimed prove alien origins, even though each result declares the sample origin to be homo sapiens. Another expert pushed the repeatedly debunked claim that the “alien” had three fingers.

Mantilla further reportedly stated in his testimony that mainstream scientists had denounced his aliens as a fraud, but “they haven’t even come to see them” in order to conduct testing — a deep irony, considering that Maussan seems to have resisted the input of mainstream scientists from the outset. “He told me extraterrestrials do not talk to me like they talk to him because I don’t believe in them,” UNAM astronomist Julieta Fierro told ABC News.

The Peruvian minister of culture reportedly told journalists following the hearing that Maussan was tied to a criminal complaint regarding the incident, and stressed that zero Peruvian scientific institutions had supported Maussan’s claims.

In light of all this, and in light of the significant damage these fake aliens are wreaking on South American culture and heritage, it’s worth asking: Why was the Mexican government even holding a UFO hearing anyway?

UFOs are all the rage — but maybe they shouldn’t be!

It’s no secret that UFOs and UAPs — the fancier upgraded name for a flying saucer — have been grabbing headlines with regular frequency recently. It’s barely been a month since former US intelligence official David Grusch testified before the US House of Representatives that he had spent years investigating reports of strange flying objects for shadowy government agencies. It would be the stuff of conspiracists’ dreams — if any of it were true. Since all of Grusch’s information was secondhand or hearsay, however, the alien smoking gun still eludes us.

What is true is that the skies are more populated than ever with everything from stealth jets to drones to those odd Chinese spy balloons. All of this means that in an era where conspiracy theories are flourishing, there’s more fodder for alien conspiracies than ever before. At the same time, scientific breakthroughs in astronomy and space exploration are happening with more frequency than ever, so the possibility that we could come into contact with alien life has never seemed so near or been so exciting.

That’s one reason the presence of the obviously false little bodies at the Mexico congressional hearing was so frustrating to many onlookers, from die-hard UFOlogists who wanted better “evidence” to skeptics who just want fewer things to debunk. Indeed, UNAM’s astronomy institute put out a statement following the hearing that lightly shaded the entire endeavor by emphasizing the importance of scientific inquiry and quoting Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Meanwhile, hoaxers like Jamin and Maussan seem entirely undaunted by all the backlash. It could be that they, as Zardulu proclaimed, are simply trying to create a version of reality that aligns with the one they want to live in — a world filled with aliens and demon fairies. But if this is to be the form that modern myth-making takes, it will arguably take more than some epoxy and a deteriorated llama skull to create the wonder we want to see in the world.

The biggest irony of all is that that world, the world we erase and obscure when we fixate on aliens, is already more marvelous than we can fully comprehend. Consider again the Nazca Lines. They include everything from a giant cat to a wide variety of fun animals to a human whose head has twirled away from its body. The fact we don’t know what any of these images mean just adds to their appeal.

And the fact that they were created by whimsical, creative people thousands of years ago is all the more reason to strengthen our ties to our past, our shared cultural values, and to our shared humanity — not use pseudoscience to distort the truth that in the pantheon of incredible alien races, humans rank pretty high on the list.