We've been conjecturing about life on Mars for centuries. In popular culture, the concept of intelligent life on Mars was championed by astronomer Percival Lowell in the late 1800s and his theories on the Martian canals. Science fiction writers -- always game for some reckless conjecture -- took up the banner from there.
Perhaps the most famous Martians in the history of sci-fi and popular culture, the invaders in H.G. Wells' 1898 novel "War of the Worlds," have since spawned dozens of films, TV shows, comic books and one very famous radio drama.
Telescopic observations of Mars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries appeared to show long surface lines that some believed were man-made (well, Martian-made) irrigation canals. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made this map of Mars from his notes on the telescope images.
Science fiction writers often depicted Martians as an advanced humanoid race intent on conquering Earth. In "Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars" (1938), Azura Queen of Mars subjugates her own Martian people. Ray Bradbury would later conceive of a kinder, gentler race in "The Martian Chronicles."
ohn Springer Collection/Corbis
Space explorer stories were a regular staple in the pulp fiction magazines of the early 1900s, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was another author to speculate at length on Mars' inhabitants. His Martians included the six-limbed, green-skinned Tharks and humanoid Red Martians.
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The so-called Grey Alien is a kind of archetype image of an extraterrestrial -- not necessarily from Mars -- that has arisen from fictional depictions, alleged alien abduction stories and conjecture on what an advanced race of beings would look like.
On July 25, 1976, NASA's Viking 1 orbiter captured the above image on the surface of Mars' Cydonia region. The infamous "Face on Mars" prompted decades of speculation, although scientists have long dismissed the image as an example of pareidolia; e.g. seeing shapes in the clouds, or Jesus in your toast.
Legendary Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones created the character of Marvin the Martian in 1948 as a foil for Bugs Bunny. As devotees of Saturday morning cartoons know, Marvin is forever plotting to destroy the Earth by way of his Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Apparently, we obstruct his view of Venus.
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Director Tim Burton played around with B-movie tropes and pop art notions of Martians in his 1996 film "Mars Attacks!" Brian De Palma followed up a few years later with "Mission to Mars," a huge critical and commercial bomb. (Although the French critics liked it -- really.)
Bureau L.A. Collection/Sygma/Corbis
As is its eternal wont, pop culture is constantly recycling its own ideas -- Martians included. In 1999, Christopher Lloyd starred as the titular alien in director Donald Petrie's reboot of the 1960s TV show "My Favorite Martian," which was itself inspired by earlier pulp sci-fi stories.
Earlier this week at a UFO conference in Mexico City two photographs claimed to have been found in a trunk in Sedona, Ariz., and depicting an alien body that crashed in Roswell in 1947 were revealed. It has created quite a buzz among UFO believers and others, but there are good reasons to question the claim.
According to the Daily Mirror, the photos “were found by former journalist Adam Dew, who has taken steps to verify the pair of alien snaps and said Kodak experts had dated the film to 1947….The photos were supposedly found in Arizona, hidden in a collection of snaps owned by oil geologist Bernard Ray and his wife Hilda Ray, who have both died.”
Assuming that a representative from Kodak authenticated the film as old stock dating back to the 1940s doesn’t mean that Kodak “authenticated” the subject of the photo; all it means is that it’s a genuine old photo, and not, for example, on film produced in the 1980s.
If it’s a genuine old photo, what could it be? An important clue about the real explanation can be seen in the photos, since the small figure appears to have been photographed in a display case (it even has what appears to be a sign explaining what it is, though the image is washed out and the quality is not good enough to read it).
It doesn’t look alien so much as a skeletal human with a large head, which is characteristic of a child’s body. And that’s likely what it is: a child’s mummified body. In fact, it is not the first time that a mummified child’s body has been mistaken for an alien. Long-dead bodies with deformed skulls have previously been mistaken for extraterrestrials, but there is nothing unusual about finding deformed skulls in the Americas; archaeologists have found them for years.
Cranial deformation is a widely known practice, and in 2012 archaeologists in Mexico found a burial ground of twenty-five skeletons; of those, more than half showed intentional skull deformation. Mummified fetuses and babies have been on display in museums around the world for decades, including in South America.
If it is indeed a mummified baby corpse, it would be only the latest of many to have been reinterpreted as something unknown or mysterious. Earlier this year a pair of mummified cats found in Chile was mistaken for the mysterious vampire creature called the chupacabra. The felines had disproportionately large heads compared to the rest of their bodies and were likely kittens.
Part of the reason that these objects seem so bizarre and mysterious is that very few people outside of the fields of archaeology and anthropology are familiar with the process and appearance of mummification.
For most people the word “mummy” evokes bandaged, slow-moving monsters from ancient Egypt. We typically think of bodies being reduced to a skeleton not long after death, but in fact bodies may be preserved for centuries or millennia, either through intentional preservation (such as mummification) or because the environment where a person died helps preserve the bodies (for example high in the cold Andes mountains, or in deserts where the lack of moisture inhibits decay-causing bacteria).
Adult mummies are strange enough, but baby mummies are even rarer and stranger looking. Because babies have disproportionally large heads as compared to the rest of their bodies, their dessicated remains seem all the more inhuman. A Reuters news story featured video of UFO proponent Richard Dolan at the conference claiming, without providing any evidence or documentation, that unnamed experts somehow ruled out the mummy explanation.
Of course extraterrestrials have never been proven to exist, and no photographs of alien bodies have ever been authenticated, and thus the belief or assumption that aliens would have disproportionately large craniums is sci-fi pop culture speculation promoted in entertainment media ranging from “The X-Files” to Steven Spielberg’s seminal 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
If the “standard” alien depicted decades ago -- and since embraced by UFO buffs -- had an unusually small head and three legs, for example, this and other mummified babies would not be associated with anything extraterrestrial.
Even if it is a genuine extraterrestrial, there’s reason to doubt that the carcass was recovered in Roswell in 1947: None of the original eyewitnesses to the debris found on the New Mexico ranch described any alien bodies or even spacecraft. In fact the first person to find the wreckage described it as “made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks.”
This very closely matches the top-secret Project Mogul weather balloons and radar reflectors that the Air Force identified in 1994 as having crashed in Roswell. The wild stories of recovered alien bodies didn’t appear until 30 years after the supposed crash.
It seems very likely that the new Roswell alien slide is not new, not from Roswell, and not an alien. Just because the images aren’t really of an alien body doesn’t mean that they are fake. It seems plausible that Dew or someone else found them and jumped to the conclusion that they were of an alien. And of course the most famous story of aliens occurred in Roswell.
Because the original photographer had died -- and the photo presumably had no captions identifying its subject or any other information about when or where it was taken -- the gap in information was filled with whatever wild speculation or meaning anyone wanted to give it.
“New” information about the now 68-year-old crash still surfaces now and then, and this surely won’t be the last claimed photo or video about the incident.