A Common Origin: Who Invented the Pyramids?

If you spend any amount of time on the internet, particularly Twitter, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this meme image. (Right)

What you’ll quickly deduce from the image is that someone, namely whoever made the picture, believes there to have been a common origin to the design of the pyramids, in Egypt, Asia and South America, among others.  That is to say that those people who built the pyramids at Giza, or Teotihuacan, or Cambodia, all worked off of the same blueprint.  Or in the simplest terms available, they all got the idea from the same place.

This idea, that all pyramids are connected by way of a common history, is part of a concept or school of thought known as Pyramidology.  Overall, this is a collection of failed pseudoscientific concepts covering everything from:

  • The Meteorological hypothesis – which discusses the geometric/astronomical alignment of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
  • The Numerological hypothesis – which discusses the esoteric geometric dimensions of the Egyptian pyramids, invoking the sacred cubit, which, surprisingly enough, was first postulated by Sir Isaac Newton.
  • Pyramid Power – which is ridiculous; but for those unfamiliar posits that the shape of pyramids engenders certain supernatural powers, such as healing, psychic enhancement and the generation of unspecified energies.
  • Pseudoarchaeological hypotheses – which includes the common origin idea and ancient alien hypothesis.

The scientific success of Pyramidology, or the lack thereof, seems to do little to dissuade the more credulous among us, for the above ideas permeate the Fortean community.  Of particular interest is the issue of common origin.

Ignatius L. Donnelly

You might guess that the father of ancient alien theory, Eric von Däniken, would have his hands in this, and you’d be right, but the idea didn’t originate with him.

19th Century author, amateur scientist and, of all things, US Congressman, Ignatius L. Donnelly is credited with the Atlantean hypothesis of common origin, not only for the pyramids, but for other key pieces of ancient culture.  He is also responsible for popularising the antediluvian civilization concept and he was a well-known proponent of the Shakespearean Authorship question.

In his 1882 book titled Atlantis, The Antediluvian World, Donnelly provided the basis for the hyperdiffusionist view of history, claiming that the common origin of the pyramids was the lost civilization of Atlantis.[1]  He says that the pyramids are the most visible example of Atlantean influence on other world cultures.  This idea is furthered by other proponents, such as Grafton Elliot Smith who claimed that small groups of people travelling by boat, spread the basic concepts of pyramid construction from Atlantis across the Fertile Crescent and into Asia.[2]

Von Däniken and other ancient alien theorists have further advanced Donnelly’s ideas, connecting the ancient cultures of Asia, South America and Egypt, claiming that the similarities between each demand the logical assertion that they were seeded by a single historical entity, in his case that entity was aliens and not the lost civilization.

At first glance these ideas may seem to have some merit, notwithstanding the fact that they are all unanimously considered pseudoscientific in academic circles.  Pyramids from all three cultures do possess a striking similarity, in that all take the shape of a pyramid.  Though that’s really as far as it goes.  Outside of their superficial similarities, the pyramids of the Mayan or Cambodian or Egyptian regions have drastically different styles and even purposes.  From the stepped pyramids of the Yucatan to the Smooth sided, gold tipped Egyptian pyramids, which long predate all others; from the four sided to the eight sided (The Great Pyramid of Giza is actually eight sided), they really only seem similar to the untrained and uncritical eye.

A famous picture depicting the eight sides of the Great Pyramid at Giza

One might be able to argue that the stylistic differences between cultures are the result of each culture assimilating the knowledge passed on in the ways suggested by Donnelly and von Däniken, but there’s a simple rebuttal that should be aesthetically pleasing to most Forteans, one that conforms to their favourite scientific/philosophical principle – Occam’s razor.  The simplest of all explanations for the similarity between pyramid structures around the world, is that, in construction, especially in megalithic construction, there are certain shapes that are more likely than others to be successful.  The square pyramid just happens to be the most structurally stable building shape known to man.  Not only is it stable, but it’s simple, easy to engineer and construct on a large scale.  It’s also likely to survive the ages, when constructed using stone (as they obviously were), in turn giving us many surviving examples to compare, as opposed to stick framed, wooden structures or even other less stable stone construction a la Greek and Roman ruins that are far younger and in much worse condition.  So it stands to reason that the use of pyramids in monuments, monuments that were intended to stand the test of time, would have been popular and that the genesis for this style of construction would have come out of independent common sense evolution of construction techniques.

A Mayan pyramid at Chichen-itza

The same is true for any number of other advancements in ancient culture.  Take the advent and rise of boats for example.  While there may have been a certain amount of regional knowledge trade among neighbouring tribespeople and villages, this relatively local spread of techniques for building boats could not account for the worldwide use of boats over time.  It is a certainty that many, if not most early boat builders came up with the idea independently.  And the similar shape of most boats of the time can be attributed to elements of necessity in their purpose and the environment in which they were used (on water).

While it may not be possible to prove beyond a doubt that these building practises arose in disparate cultures independently, the evidence for that being the case is quite strong, certainly much stronger than the alternative.  Notwithstanding the fact that there is zero archaeological evidence to support the existence of any mechanism for transmitting such knowledge across the globe, it simply isn’t necessary to invoke a grand conspiratorial knowledge base used by cultures that were geographically separated by thousands of miles and by geological barriers such as mountains, deserts and oceans.

As mentioned, Pyramidology, in its entirety, is widely panned as pseudoscientific nonsense, it holds to a romantic notion of connectivity, to each other and to the greater universe, but it’s not necessary.  Science provides us with the same connectivity, through anthropology, genetics, cosmology and physics, and these principles come with verifiable and repeatable explanations and evidence.  It may seem like men like Donnelly or Smith or von Däniken are pioneers in abstract thinking.  That they have unique and genuine insights into the mysteries of our past, but in most cases these people do nothing but muddy our understanding of history with unsupported claims and often, lies.


[1] Atlantis, the Antediluvian World, Ignatius Donnelly, 1882, p. 317

[2] The Ancient Egyptians and the origin of Civilization (London/New York, Harper & Brother 1911), p. ix

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *