May 26 2017

Pyramid Homology vs Analogy

Pyramid nonsenseI saw this post on the Credible Hulk Facebook page today. It refers to an old claim by proponents of ancient astronaut theories that the fact that there are similar looking pyramids from different locations on Earth proves cultural contamination from an extraterrestrial source.

While this is a silly argument, it is interesting to explore exactly why it is silly. The underlying principles have to do with homology and analogy, and are exactly the same as they are applied in evolutionary theory. The displayed meme implies that because there are step pyramids in Mexico, Egypt, and Indonesia – countries too far removed to have had direct contact with each other – the idea of a step pyramid therefore had a common source.

This is similar to the evolutionary argument that because two structures look similar or serve a similar function, they must have had a common source, which means the feature was derived from a common ancestor. But we know that this is not always true. The wings of bats, birds, and pterydactyls have similar features, but not a common evolutionary origin. The eyes of vertebrates and cephalopods also have features in common, but evolved independently. But giraffes and humans both have seven cervical vertebrae.

So how do evolutionary biologists tell the difference? They try to determine if the features are homologous (derive from a common ancestor) or analogous (independent origins but similar structure). They can do this in a number of ways, either based on direct evidence or inference. Direct evidence would be finding a fossil of a common ancestor with the feature.

How to infer homology vs analogy is the more interesting question, and is more applicable to the pyramids. The underlying concept is this – are the similarities in structures necessary for function, or are they incidental? Animals are all subject to the same physical properties. The principles of lift and aerodynamics are not different for bats or birds, and therefore some aspects of wing design may have converged to an optimal form. In other words, the laws of physics are a common outside force driving morphology to a similar shape.

Another example are the streamlined shapes of dolphin and shark bodies. They evolved complete independently, but water dynamics provide the same sculpting force for both.

In each of these examples of analogy, however, details that are not under functional selective pressure will probably be different. Dolphins have horizontal tails while sharks have vertical tails. Bats, birds, and pterydactyls each have different finger arrangements. The cell layers of vertebrate and cephalopod eyes are reversed.

When arbitrary (not functionally necessary) details are the same, that suggests homology – common origin.

Archaeologists use the exact same principles when trying to decide if a technology or architectural design are homologous or analogous. This is a bit trickier for archaeology. We know, for example, that bat and bird evolutionary lines diverged long before either evolved wings. But cultural contamination can occur at any time. In fact homologous cultural features is one way to infer contamination. That is what the ancient astronaut proponents are trying to do here.

So the question is – are the three step pyramids displayed here homologous or analogous? The consensus of archaeological opinion is that they are analogous. The idea of designing a building like a pyramid is basic. As the meme says – it is an obvious way to pile rocks on top of each other so they don’t fall down. There may also be a survivorship bias, in that these are the stable structures that survived for thousands of years. These cultures may have built other structures that did not stand the test of time.

Are these step pyramids similar in random details, however? The answer is no. They differ in construction technique, number of steps, the structure at the top, and the presence and form of stairs. They differ in pretty much every detail. Only the fact of being a stepped pyramid is the same.

Step_Pyramid_of_DjoserWhat about the three doors? That part is fake. The pyramids area all shown from an analogous angle to enhance the similarity, and the three doors are photoshopped into place. If, for example, you look at the stepped pyramid of Djoser in Egypt, there are no such doors. The same for the step pyramid in Mexico at Chichen Itza. Those two seem to have been changed to make them look more like the third. Analogy was made to look like homology by faking it.

Many cultures also came up with quadrangular structures, with walls at 90 degree angles. That’s because it’s incredibly obvious. It is not a detail that suggests homology.

Further, there is also direct evidence for independent evolution. In Egypt, for example, there are many pyramids showing the evolution of the pyramid design and construction techniques over time. It’s all well documented – not much of a mystery there (unless all you know about Egyptian history is the Great Pyramids of Giza).

The other commonality between biological evolution and architectural evolution is this – the experts actually do know what they are talking about. It takes incredible hubris to imagine that you, as a non-expert, have cracked a massive mystery about human history that has evaded expert archaeologists around the world. Do you really think that no one has looked at the pyramids around the world and noticed their similarities and asked the obvious questions? There have been centuries of experts debating, discussing, and researching these questions.

Usually when amateurs disagree with the experts it is based on the ignorance and naivete of the amateurs. When confronted with expert opinion, the real crank will then claim a conspiracy. They disagree with me because there is a vast conspiracy to trick the public about this issue. Or they will simply assume that the experts collectively are closed-minded, and lack their brilliant insight.

The explanation is usually far simpler. If you disagree with the experts the chances are overwhelming you just don’t know what you are talking about.

15 responses so far

15 thoughts on “Pyramid Homology vs Analogy”

  1. Waydude says:

    The other part of this ridiculous assertion is the construction itself. Proponents of the AA will also tell you that the precision of the milling of the stone cannot be done even today! And some of the stones are just too massive to have been moved by ancient peoples.

    I’m not sure what logical fallacy that it, but a lot of times, current people tend to forget that thousands of years ago there were people just as smart as there are today. Sure, they didn’t have the use of a computer or a bulldozer or giant mechanized crane but they had other useful tools, skills, and ideas.

    Besides that, we do know some of the techniques the Egyptians used as one example. Its amazing what you can do with things as simple as water and a large workforce (who were not Jewish slaves, but that’s another article).

  2. stixx23 says:

    tale = tail.

    To Waydude: appeal to modernity?

  3. SteveA says:


    There was a really good BBC series a while back (whose name I’ve forgotten and for which Google refuses to provide any clues for) that looked at the assertion that indigenous builders weren’t skilful enough to build many of the ancient cities and monuments we see today.

    The example that sticks in my mind was an Inca city wall, where the contention was that ‘primitive’ craftsmen would have been unable to shape huge stones to such fine tolerances (in many cases it was impossible to fit a blade between adjacent stones).

    This was debunked in minutes by an American researcher who’d studied the problem. He showed it could be done easily with what was essentially a bent stick (for measuring) and a lump of rock (to bash out the lumps).

    Primitive tools, but applied with intelligence.

  4. Sarah says:

    I’ve always wondered if we’ll see examples of analogous structures in alien worlds with a developed ecosystem. For instance – on a terrestrial creature, would we see something that is structurally and functionally similar to a leg, even if the underlying morphology and biochemistry is radically different (alien, if you will)? Is a leg or an eye (or a fin or a flipper) just too useful not to have, or is it a bias of Earth’s particular lineage and there’s some other useful structure that might develop? There’s a lot of methods of locomotion on earth alone, after all.

  5. Sylak says:

    My girlfriend and I spent a month in Egypt in 2009, it was cool. I never believed or given any credit to ancient astronauts mumbo jumbo, but once you go there, it becomes so insulting for your intelligence. You can actually see the evolution of the techniques, the trial and error and the survivor bias. And yes the door on Djoser is definitely photoshop ( I could show you my Pictures of it). Djoser’s is the first pyramid, if my memory is correct. Before they were building mastaba (nig blocks of rock) , that you can actually see in the field around places like Djoser’s pyramid site. Djoser’s architect, imothep, had a bad ass idea “what if we pile up mastaba, so your grave will be super high to honor your great narcissistic self, oh great pharaoh.” Djoser was probably mind blown and they did it. They just pile up a type of construction they already knew, for centuries, how to build. Also, near the red pyramid ( a little bit south of cairo, it’s awesome because not a lot of tourists go there) you can see in the distance pyramids that are just rumble, failed ones and some that didn’t survived. The coolest, not far from there ( and you see it, nut can’t go near it’s illegal) there’s the “2 slope” pyramid. It’s the first attempt at a smooth pyramids by those pharaoh architects ( don’t know if it’s the first overall). Unfortunately, the angle was too steep. If they had continued, it would have collapse on itself. So, the pharaoh had them build a second one, the Red pyramid. Another interesting detail, in normal pyramid, the tomb is under the ground, giza is a exception because the tomb is at 2/3 the top, instead of underground. That’s because Kheops had a claustrophobic attacks thinking about himself underground. He had the design changed. All this is fascinating and it’s insulting that some people cannot think that human of thousands of years ago ( that were basically the same as us) we’re not intelligent enough. Nobody believes that Notre dame de paris was built by aliens, and it’s a freaking crazy feat they achieved with basic tech. But we have more direct evidence and report. Maybe that is why. There’s also the whole thing about some pyramid’s rock being some kind of concrete ( my architect brother is a advocate for this hypothesis). Those people were brilliant, had ressources and they had the conviction ( because, you know the king was a god) to do this. I rarely heard that the Horus temple, and the 30 meters tall Ramses II statue, which are imo the most impressive things in Egypt, were alien constructions. Those beliefs are weirdly selective. Excellent article, it’s very good exemple to illustrate the point. I’ve learned stuff today!

  6. BBBlue says:


    As a kid, I was always fascinated by stories in National Geographic about Machu Picchu; it seemed to be such a magical, mystical place. Visited there with my family many years ago and it was as fascinating in person as it was on the pages of a magazine. The feature I found most interesting was the quarry adjacent to the buildings with everything from raw boulders to nearly completed construction material. It’s so obvious now, but it didn’t strike me until that moment that the Inca’s had simply found a place with a beautiful view and plenty of construction materials literally underfoot, and took full advantage of it. Imagine you are royalty with lots of expert stone masons under your control, and you find a great spot strewn with huge boulders, granite outcrops, plenty of water, and a wonderful view with features you find magical. You start pounding granite!

    I’m not a spiritual person, but standing there, I felt a profound connection to the past. I could see the logic in the way the site was planned and the community constructed; drinking water system well separated from waste streams, a clear line drawn between the agricultural zone and the village, etc. If given the same resources, a modern-day civil engineer probably couldn’t do any better. I guess some people may consider that to be evidence of ancient astronauts; 500+ years ago, people weren’t that smart, were they? Yes, they were. Like the physical connections we have to the past through common descent, we can trace our accumulated knowledge through incremental engineering and technological advances. No ancient astronauts required.

  7. sarah_theviper says:

    Forgot about the Akkadian ziggurats in Iraq. I don’t understand why people would want to sell humanity short with the whole alien gambit. Off topic, on the 5-20 sgu podcaste the thing about some stroke patients going blind but still being able to perceive things. Goya went blind late in his life due to a mysterious illness, but he was still able to draw. His lithographs of bullfights were drawn blind, so could that have been the stroke thing.

  8. sarah_theviper says:

    Ooops never mind on the goya thing double checked my art history books, he was just half blind when he did the lithographs. His mysterious illness of about a month effected his hearing, sight, and balance happened earlier.

  9. slm says:

    I can’t find a direct link to this fellow, Wally Wallington, but he is in Michigan and alive. As a hobby, he likes to move large stones or other things (a barn) all by himself with very simple tools such as rocks and logs. Some are more sophisticated, but not by much.
    If he can move a 10 ton stone, then a whole bunch of Egyptians should be up to a pyramid or two.

  10. Sylak says:

    Not surprising. It’s known that with the right amount of water, not too much, the sand becomes really slippery and friction from the rock becomes minimal. So a few people can move it. But it’s people from thousands of years ago, that had centuries of trial and error, there is no way they could have figured that out by themselves! It must be extraterrestrial being.

  11. Sarah says:

    The ancient alien hypothesis is downright insulting to ancient peoples. Leave aside that the people promulgating it clearly have no idea of how archaeology is done, let alone engineering, they can’t even get basic facts right.

    I watched a three-hour takedown debunking the series online. It’s worth watching – just search for “Ancient Aliens Debunked.”

  12. Nareed says:

    Not to mention that the pyramids served different purposes (tombs in Egypt, temples in meso-America). Or that the Step Pyramid of Djoser was an early Egyptian attempt at pyramid building, evolved from the Mastaba-style tomb. Later the Pharaoh Sneferu built two pyramids attempting to get it right, the Bent Pyramid and finally the Red Pyramid.

    This is incredibly basic, elementary Egyptology, easily available in any popular history book on Egypt.

  13. clemence says:

    Another interesting article, Steve. I was having a FB argument recently about how different races evolved with greater or lesser intelligence in humans. I thought they were not connected but my opponent seemed to have good argument. Can anyone tell me where I might find correct data on this subject or does anyone have information regarding this?

  14. Lane Simonian says:

    I just noticed the caption under the various pyramids:

    “What does this mean?”

    “That exactly is the question you have to ask.”

    “It means that this is one of the best ways to pile up rocks and not to have them fall down for a long time.”

    I have nothing else to add.

  15. Sylak says:

    Ah thanks you, I had forgotten the name of the Pharoah that build the red pyramid. The first one is called the bent pyramid in English. I translated literally from French in my first comment “la pyramid à deux pente”. Those were pretty interesting to see in person!

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