May 17 2024

How Were the Pyramids Built?

The Egyptian pyramids, and especially the Pyramids at Giza, have fascinated people probably since their construction between 4700 and 3700 years ago. They are massive structures, and it boggles the mind that an ancient culture, without the benefit of any industrial technology, could have achieved such a feat. This has led to endless speculation, especially in modern times, that perhaps some lost advanced civilization was at work, or maybe aliens.

This view has been criticized as being partly driven by racism – whenever some amazing artifact of non-European culture is discovered, it must be aliens, because those savages could not be responsible. But also it reflects our general fascination with the idea of aliens or lost civilizations (like Atlantis). And perhaps mostly it results from the fact that modern cultures tend to underestimate the intelligence and ingenuity of past and especially ancient cultures. We have a bias that pre-modern people were all superstitious, simple, and generally ignorant – with a few exceptions, like ancient Rome (which is Occidental, so that’s OK). You’ll notice that no one thinks the Colosseum was built by aliens – those Romans were clever.

In any case, we also tend to underestimate how effective simple engineering principles can be. The ancient Egyptians had all six of the basic engineering tools at their disposal –  the wheel, lever, wedge, screw, inclined plane, and pulley. These tools can be leveraged to accomplish amazing feats – “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I will move the world.”

The ancients also discovered the power of water, with the oldest water wheel being about 6000 years old (wind power came somewhat after the Egyptians). This brings me to an interesting news item – scientists have discovered that the main cluster of Egyptian pyramids, 31 of them, currently lies along a remote strip of dry desert, but thousands of years ago there was a branch of the Nile (named the Ahramat, Arabic for pyramids) that ran right through that region.

This, by the way, is sometimes another reason for modern confusion – some may assume conditions in the past were the same as they are today. Or, more generally, we may just not know something about the ancient world, their resources and their abilities, and should not just fill in the gaps with aliens.

The researchers used radar satellite imagery, historical maps, geophysical surveys, and sediment coring to determine that there was an ancient river in that location. It has since dried up and been buried by sand, and so is not visible without using these techniques. But the Ahramat river branch would have run right along those 31 pyramids.

This solves a long-standing puzzle. We know that the ancient Egyptians had the ability and the person power to move large blocks of stone, but this is difficult and tedious. It is far easier to move stones along rivers. Why, then, build all these pyramids far from any water power? Well, they didn’t. They followed that ancient river branch building pyramids all along its shore, using the river to move the heavy stones.

They would still need all that muscle power to do the actual building, but at least they weren’t moving the stones long distances in the most inefficient way possible.

To beat this dead horse a bit further, though, this is a good example of why the alien hypothesis can be so counterproductive. First, it ignores a ton of actual anthropological and archaeological data. It’s often not even filling in real gaps, but making gaps by ignoring answers we already have. (Joe Nickel calls this the “unsolving mysteries” approach.) But when there are actual gaps in our knowledge, filling them in with the equivalent of magic does not lead anywhere. I know aliens are not magic, but they can be like magic in that we assume their technology was so advanced it was indistinguishable from magic. It also becomes an unfalsifiable hypothesis in that whatever evidence we find or don’t find we can make consistent with the alien hypothesis because they were clearly using advanced technology we can’t understand.

If instead we look for more prosaic explanations, we tend to eventually find them. We come up with actual solutions by doing real science.  The Ahramat river branch is just one great example.

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