UFOs versus the Rainbow Serpents


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


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. BLASe says:

    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. 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.

  1. January 31, 2008

    […] should def­in­itely go check it out, espe­cially the art­icle on Archaeoastronomy about Aborigines and UFOs and Archaeozoology’s post about Neolithic […]

  2. April 10, 2012

    […] that Jean Schneider has found some­thing not­able is because of a paper I read by Eirik Saethre on UFO beliefs in Australian abori­ginal com­munit­ies. They believed in UFOs, but there was a curi­ous bolted-on aspect to the way they were integrated […]