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UFOs versus the Rainbow Serpents

January 28, 2008


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOne of the advantages of tripping to other libraries is that you get to browse journals you’d otherwise miss. One example is the Journal of the Royal Institute for Anthropology, which I wouldn’t see at Leicester. That is a pity because I’m missing some stuff like Close encounters: UFO beliefs in a remote Australian Aboriginal community by Eirik Saethre.

The community Saethre looked at is well qualified for the term ‘remote’. He was conducting research with the Warlpiri, an aboriginal people who live around 300 miles or 500 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert. The community he was in was created specifically to provide work for Aboriginals far from Alice Springs. However there is little work there to do, which leads to high unemployment and plenty of time for watching television like the X-Files. At night in this community it’s not uncommon to see UFOs. Saethre reports that he and other kardiya, non-aboriginals, were warned not to drive on their own at night or else they were risking alien abduction.

Saethre says he never saw anything he would regard as a UFO, but most of the people in the settlement were quite adamant about their existence. The age range of people seeing UFOs was from 12 to 51 and they were seen by men and women. Not only that, but only around half the claimed sightings were by sole witnesses. The UFOs were a localised phenomenon. Saethre visited other Warlpiri communities, but if peoples in these settlements mentioned UFOs, it was only in relation to Saethre’s home. The UFOs were also said to be specific in their targets. Kardiya could be abducted, but not Warlpiri people. The inhabitants in the UFOs recognised that the aboriginal peoples were where they belonged.

As for the people in the UFOs, the Warlpiri had some details. They were extra-terrestrial, travelling great distances. The X-Files had more or less got it right (Saethre 2007:909). It would be nice to neatly solve the mystery by tying the arrival of one with the other, but Saethre couldn’t get an accurate sense of time for when the UFOs first appeared. Odder was that they didn’t seem to have much effect on the lives of Aborginals. They were certainly scary to some witnesses, and most people would rather not see one but they didn’t seem to do a lot else. They didn’t bestow prestige or stigma. They didn’t steal or bestow wealth. The only way they really made much difference is that they were thought to take water from waterholes.

If all I told you about were the UFO encounters in isolation, then this would all seem to be mundane battiness. Immensely intelligent and powerful aliens travel the unimaginable distances of the universe -and when they choose to refuel with water the place they stop is the middle of the Australian Desert? As it happens the Tanami desert has regular floods, but even so there are better places on the planet to go for water. What makes the idea of water-powered UFOs remotely beliievable? This is the clever bit of the paper because Saethre intertwines the UFOs with the local Aboriginal cosmology.

It’s not just UFOs which take water. The warnayarra, the rainbow serpents which the Aboriginals believe in, are also capable of taking water down into the earth with them. You could argue that this too is batty, but this would be more obviously missing the point. The reason for the warnayarra is to explain a variety of natural causes and effects. Their existence in Australia isn’t explained by biology, it’s explained by culture. Looking more closely at the warnayarra reveals some interesting similarities with UFOs. Warnayarra can abduct Aboriginals, especially Aboriginal people who are outside their own territory. The warnayarra recognise local peoples as belonging to the land, but a man outside his territory can be in danger if he hasn’t been formally introduced to the local warnayarra by someone who belongs.

Saethre is able to draw up a series of comparisons between rainbow serpents and UFOs. In some ways they are thought of as quite similar. Neither is cursed for taking resources, they’re accepted as a fact of life. They both are tied to ideas of belonging to the land. In other ways they’re mirror images. Saethre notes that warnayarra take water down, while UFOs take it up. They are dangerous to different targets. They also seem to occupy different conceptual spaces. Despite operating in the same landscape, they don’t interact. UFOs seem to occupy an ambiguous social space. They’re considered as part of the landscape as other traditional Aboriginal beings but not fully integrated with aboriginal cosmology. Nor are they a cosmology bolted-on to the culture for assimilating Kardiya into aboriginal cosmology. Saethre observed aboriginal peoples talking about natural events and attributing their actions to aliens as other aboriginal peoples would to ancestor spirits.

Saethre’s conclusions are that declaring native and western beliefs as ‘incommensurable’ doesn’t work. Instead he argues that the UFO tales show that the local people are taking western concepts and re-casting them into aboriginal cosmology. Rather than simply being wacky, Saethre states that indigenous UFO beliefs offer a way of observing the interaction and acculturation which occurs between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

It’s an important point to bear in mind. Archaeologists routinely use ethnographies as the basis for analogies to explain archaeological deposits. It’s important to remember that peoples living now are not straightforward proxies for those living in the past. One easily recognised way is that hunter-gatherers today have been pushed out to harsher environments as modern society expands. In the Mesolithic and earlier hunter-gatherers would have had access to the most bountiful landscapes. At the same time we cannot think of hunter-gatherers of any period as living in an interchangeable timelessness. Saethre’s UFO study is a particularly effective demonstration that indigenous peoples today live in the 21st century just like everyone else.

Peer Reviewed Saethre, E. (2007). Close encounters: UFO beliefs in a remote Australian Aboriginal community. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(4), 901-915. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2007.00463.x

  1. January 28, 2008 5:52 pm

    This story is of great interest to me, as I thought the ufo’s in our tiny town were here because of an interest in our closed down mines. This sheds new light, as we have the largest natural lake in British Columbia. No wonder they spend so much time here. Thank you for the story and I hope many others believe the Warlpiri people. The X-files may be their only source of information on these objects.

  2. January 29, 2008 1:53 pm

    Interesting article. I wrote a chapter on the archaeological alignment of sites in the American Southwest. The Ancestral Puebloans were very aware of the cosmos. To translate that into our modern fascination with UFOs is a bit of a stretch, but there is still much to learn about the sky.

  3. Dan permalink
    October 26, 2008 10:17 pm

    Search Google using “12 364 Christmas” and you should
    find 6 or 7 of my comments on a UFO event that
    generated the symbolism of the 364 day year that
    relates to a perfectly accurate calendar of 2000 years
    ago. The comments are attached to a WordPress
    blog about the 12 days of Christmas relating to the
    number 364, which is hidden within the Great Seal
    of 1782-USA (do you know about the 1782 year cycle
    of the perturbations of the motion of the Moon?).

    The point is that Archeoastronomy is in a bit of danger
    because UFO and other supernatural events often
    have Astronomical symbolism hidden within the events.
    Stuff like Sun, Earth, Moon, Venus, etc. (REV:12 is a
    Biblical example; and likewise with the Book of Numbers).

    Think about the symbolic possibilities for the precession
    of the Earth’s orbit. It has been mathematically shown
    that at least a component of precession is caused by
    the Moon and the planets disturbing or perturbing the
    Sun’s gravitational field from perfect square law (which
    causes precession). This is a subtle hidden influence
    that makes a good physical analogy to subtle spiritual influences upon physical reality.

    Though such an idea is repulsive to scientific thought,
    this is another hypothesis and probable component
    of the ancient practice of connecting the planets, moon,
    etc. to mystical religious concepts.

    The proof has to do with such information being
    encoded in modern day paranormal events and
    literature. Take for example paper #67 in the
    Urantia Book. The book’s style looks to be totally
    in line with the modern mind, yet close analysis
    of the numbers contained therein reveals probable
    Venus-Earth symbols.

    One such modern event was UFO’s over Wash.
    D.C. on the night of the 176th anniversary of the
    re-wording/finalization of the Declaration of Indep.
    on July 19th 1776.

    The date encoding in this event reveals Venus-Moon
    symbols. I can explain further if anyone is interested.

    Yet another aspect has to with the Mayan symbolism
    mentioned in my 364 article comments. The 364 encoded
    event 364×260/1000 = 94.64 years into the 20th
    century connects to the Washington D.C. event that
    began over the night of century day number 19193.
    This number can be symbolically calculated from the
    17576 day Mayan religious cycle but that would require
    too much explanation. Instead let’s calculate the
    length of the year 2000 years ago in terms of correcting
    our 365 day year. First the 364 method:

    364 x 294/293 = 365.2423208.

    Add a leap day every 293 days. We can get the exact
    same answer by using the overnight day numbers of
    the 1952 and 1994 events (that are symbolically
    related to each other):

    10^12/(19193.5 x 34566.5) = 1507.267779 = N,


    365 N/(N – 1) = 365.2423208, as given above.



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