L. A. Marzulli recently asked me to contribute to a newsletter he has created. I naturally agreed since he wanted some thoughts on the work of Zecharia Sitchin. Here’s my short contribution for PaleoBabble readers:
Zecharia Sitchin: Why You Can Safely Ignore Him
Although the name Erich von Däniken may be more familiar, Zecharia Sitchin is arguably the most important proponent of the ancient astronaut hypothesis over the last several decades. One cannot go into a Barnes & Noble and not find his books prominently displayed in the New Age section. Why? Because both Sitchin and his readers have cast him as something von Däniken is not: a scholar of ancient languages and texts. Sitchin’s name therefore carries academic authority in defense of the idea that extraterrestrials visited earth millennia ago, spawning the human race through genetic manipulation and fostering civilization’s major advancements, including Judaism and Christianity. That may sound silly, but tens of millions of readers take it seriously. But should they?
One of the advantages Sitchin has had over his career is the fact that few people could question his “translations” of ancient Sumerian tablets or the Hebrew Bible, or some obscure Aramaic text. He had readers over an academic barrel, not because his work was academically sound, but because these fields are so arcane. Realistically, how many people do this sort of work?
The answer is “not many,” but I’m one of them. Since 2001 I’ve tried to alert people to the fact that Sitchin is no expert in any ancient language. If he was, certain things would be transparent and true.
First, scholars provide their credentials to the public, not for the purpose of boasting, but to enable the non-specialist to verify expertise. It might sound trite, but this is one of the reasons doctors, lawyers and auto mechanics put diplomas, licenses, and certifications on their office wall. The public needs to know the one rendering a service is competent and willing to be examined for expertise. Sitchin has no credentials and has never offered any. All we have is the foreword to his books describing him as a journalist and an expert in a range of ancient languages. Just because his publisher markets his work well doesn’t mean it’s true. What Sitchin should do is tell us where he got his training so readers can verify his credentials.1
Second, genuine scholars don’t make mistakes in their areas of expertise that a trainee or beginner would commit. The ancient language blunders committed by Sitchin are truly startling. I’ve documented Sitchin’s inability to tell Aramaic from Hebrew, to understand simple Hebrew grammatical features (e.g., subject-verb agreement), and the fact that the Sumerians and Mesopotamians would disagree with his interpretation of their own vocabulary. This last example is the easiest for non-specialists to follow and judge Sitchin. The Mesopotamian scribes who inherited and utilized the Sumerian script for their own written language (Akkadian) created bilingual dictionaries (called “lexical lists” by scholars) between their language and Sumerian. Akkadian is very well known (it is related to Hebrew) and so we can get firsthand definitions to Sumerian words. Simply put, they are at odds with Sitchin’s phony translations.
Third, bona fide scholars are driven by the desire to be accurate. Hopefully the motivation is honesty, but at the very least, scholars know that other members of their guild will see their work and judge its quality. In academia this is called “peer review.” Scholars who want to contribute to their field offer articles and books that will be reviewed and publicly critiqued by their peers. Peer review is critical in fields like medicine since the ideas put forth in medical journals can mean life or death. That may not be the case in ancient studies, but peer review is the primary means to validate quality scholarship. A simple author search in a religion or humanities database available at any college or public library will reveal that Zecharia Sitchin has never put his theories forward in scholarly publications where they can be reviewed by experts in the fields in which he is supposed to be expert. Instead, he writes for the non-specialist who cannot evaluate his work. That Sitchin has no peer-reviewed publications is an indictment on his desire to have his work tested, and perhaps even his ability to write anything that experts would not think ridiculous.
Lastly, real scholars are careful with how they note and represent the work of others. Followers of Sitchin love to point out that he quotes a number of books written by Sumerian and Mesopotamian scholars, but they miss two important items: Sitchin often does not record full titles or page numbers (so he can be checked), and he to date has offered no instances where the scholars whose books he quotes agree with his extraterrestrial interpretations. It is simply dishonest to quote a Sumerian scholar in regard to the birth of Sumerian civilization and then later claim that source backs up his work in other regards. This is to create a façade of academic approval where none exists.
Should you worry about Sitchin’s vast output in defense of ancient astronauts? Only if you prefer to base your worldview on data that contains outright errors, or doesn’t exist, or that has never been subject to the scrutiny of knowing peers. The emperor simply doesn’t have any clothes.