What sort of Earth would it be, colonized by aliens?

Readers of this blog will know I believe there are extremely strong clues that BSG takes place in our far future, that Kobol is a future colony of Earth, and that there probably never was a real 13th tribe -- it's just a cover story for the true origins of humanity. (Well, I got that last part wrong...)

However, a lot of viewers still expect we'll see a plot more akin to the original Battlestar Galactica, where "life here, began out there." In that show, all the events took place around 1960, and Earth really was a lost tribe of Kobol. That plot turns out to be scientifically ridiculous, since there is massive evidence that we, and all the other life on this planet evolved from single celled organisms right here on this planet.

But, I have been asked, "could this be an alternate reality?" A fictional Earth, not the same as ours, in which we really are the descendants of ancient alien colonists. So I set out to explore how close you could come to our Earth in the BSG:1980 scenario.

The answer depends a lot on when you want the colonization to have taken place. Just 4,000 years ago, as told in the current Battlestar, requires immense hoops to be jumped through. It's easier if you go back further, before recorded history and before civilization. But there's a bigger problem which occurs much later.

Blinded with science

Around the 18th century, we get wise. We start discovering lots more archeology and lots more science. We start to understand fossils. But in the colonized world there are no fossils -at least of life similar to us. No 50,000 year old archaeological sites. None of that. But examination of fossils forms the basis for much of our biological knowledge, and has played a major role in the battle between religion and science over control of the major schools of thought.

The fossil-free world would have a very different scientific history. Religion would be stronger -- it could point to proof of a creation story -- for a long time. This is not our world, and the more people learn, the more it differs.

Eventually the scientists have to figure out the truth. That's sure to happen when they look at DNA. Because they would see that many of the lifeforms on Earth, such as the plants that made the oxygen, are not related to the life that came in the colonial ship. Frankly it's surprising we could even eat them when we got here, but let's just take that as a given. If there were animals here when the colonists arrived, this will be even more striking, and the fact that they are unrelated will be clear to scientists much earlier.

It's also a stretch to not have this alternate world's scientists, if they are like ours, not find any evidence of the former advanced culture at some point. Especially since, in the show, some of their language and religion survived. In particular, we have to explain why a spacefaring culture left no high orbit satellites, and never made anything on the moon visible to our space probes. There are possible explanations, but they are stretches. But again, let's take them as a given.

Once the scientists discover the truth, then history starts to diverge even more. So even if you write the story to follow our history until the 18th century, you can't make it to our time, because our science was learned from fossils and evolution and many other things.

Human migration

Human history goes back hundreds of thousands of years to Africa. If you are willing to make the colonists arrive about 80,000 years ago, in Africa, you can write a story similar to ours. Later than that, it's much harder. Human migration from Africa created a variety of distinct ethnic, racial, technological and linguistic groups, and their migrations can be traced in the slow drift of these things as they moved.

To make this story work with a later colonization, you need many colonizations. One ship, with a very particular genotype and with a completely different set of animals, would land in Australia. A ship of black people would land in Africa. Amerinds would land in the Americas, white Caucasians in Europe and Asian ships in Asia. Each of these ships would need to have different levels of technology and a different language. That's a problem, because as interstellar travelers, they would all be starting from high technology and then collapsing. There would need to be 3 different writing systems. Some of the sub-colonies would have to fall so far they lost writing altogether, along with many other technologies. They must forget how to make sailing ships so that they never visit their brethren.

Overall, to date the colonization after the start of the real human migrations that formed our races, languages, technologies and cultures becomes very, very difficult and contrived.

Colonists could land 80,000 years ago, in Africa, suffer a great fall, and then spread out in a pattern similar to how it went on this planet. Though in that case, it's a bit hard to explain how colonists who believed in Greek and Roman gods 80,000 years ago only kept that religion in one small sub-group.

The Animals

Another problem is presented by the animals. Of course, there had to be life on Earth when the colonists arrived, to provide food, and air to breathe. But we see our animals in the show, like cats and dogs and horses, so they must also be colonists too. But these animals had their own migration patterns, different from those of humanity, and their distribution on the planet should match humanity's quite closely if they too are colonists.

And then there is the question of native Earth animals, if there were any before the colonists arrived. (If not, they needed a Noah's Ark set of ships, or a genebank and highly advanced technology. And not even that would work as Earth's plants and animals are inexorably co-evolved, unable to exist without each other.) Problem is, those native animals would not be much like the colonists. While many aspects of our bodies are dictated by universal needs, many are not. Yes, you can expect life on other planets to develop binocular vision and moving on 4 legs or 2. You can expect alien flying creatures and other creatures filling the niches. But you should not expect a nose and mouth that go through the same tube, or a tongue that can choke you. Or our particular type of eyes, with the blood vessels on the insides of the retinas. The list of our features common to life on Earth that were matters of fortune, rather than inevitability, is long. And the native life would be different from the colonists in almost all of these.

This is not just something for scientists to observe. As well put in "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond, the animals we had available to us for domestication played a large role in our successes and failures as different tribes and peoples. An Earth with different animals, or a different distribution of Animals, turns out to be almost unrecognizable on a political scale. Wars and nations have all depended on their animals (and their microbes, too.)

Really distant colonization

If you want to go back really far, at least a billion years, then you can propose Earth life as not being native. And in fact, many scientists do. This is the theory of Panspermia. It involves life of Earth being seeded at the microbial level. Some wonder if life on Earth could have come originally from Mars, or somewhere else in the solar system. Or if life is found on Mars, if it might be from Earth.

However, this is not the alternate Earth described in TV shows like BSG:1980 and Star Trek:The Next Generation. (Yes, while the original Star Trek got it right, TNG showed a galaxy where all the humanoid beings had been seeded by a powerful ancient race. I hope you now see why that's bogus.)

Carefully managed seeding

You can do a bit better if you imagine a race of truly ancient aliens who seed the planets in stages. For example, they could seed the first microbes a billion years ago, and do further seedings to assure that the life that appears on Earth is all related -- it just evolved elsewhere. Various plants and animals could be brought as chosen.

But even this is hard to do. Genetic drift is quick. Just look how quickly animals on an island can differ from the rest of our world. Look at Australia, where mammals diverted for only a short time on the geologic scale. The animals seeded by aliens would be far more different than we are from a platypus.

This does allow fossils, but doesn't match with the fossils we have showing the slow ascent of man, from proto-ape ancestors, to the earliest australopithecus and other proto-humans. And our obvious cousins, the apes, and their history.

Faking it

Of course, it is a valid plot if you make everything be a vast conspiracy. And we do love our conspiracy plots. So all the fossils in the ground, the distribution of animals, the shared DNA among all Earth creatures, great and small, the patterns of human migration and history -- this could all have been faked by an alien conspiracy. But that's not what we have here, and it's a really very different kind of story.

Why is it so hard to write this alternate history?

The idea that humans, and major animals all came out of an "Ark" is a very old one. It turns out to be nonsense; there is tons of evidence that we're the result of a billion years of evolution. But unlike many nonsense ideas, this one is still believed by a significant portion of the population for religious reasons. So it keeps coming up again and again. Because of that, scientists have taken a lot of effort to debunk the ark theory. Far more than they normally would for a nonsense idea.

In fact, it's safe to say that the ark theory is the most debunked idea in the history of, well... history. Trust me, you can't make it work. Armies of the most skilled creationists have tried to make it work, and they can't. It's a fable, and it has no place in a realistic SF story.


So no, you can't have an Earth anything like this one which is really the result of alien colonization and described in the original Battlestar Galactica, or even as described in Star Trek. It would be a planet of different races, nations, cultures, languages and technologies from ours. The same geography, but little the same at the human level. And this is not a very satisfying "alternate reality" because it says little about our own.

Of course, SF and especially TV SF break this rule all the time. But it's bad writing. Sometimes it serves a dramatic purpose, it is the very premise of what the writer wants to explore, and in those cases we accept it. But in BSG there is no reason for it.


I tried to do the same analysis you did here and I must say you did a much better job of it than I could have.

The only other thing I might throw into your analysis would be the Toba populations bottleneck theory. Wikipedia has a great entry on it, but basically, about 60-70,000 years ago, the human population on Earth was dropped to as little as 10,000 to 100,000 mating pairs of humans. The theory is that Toba, a supervolcano, erupted and essentially caused mass dieoffs of life on Earth. Around that time, is when the population bottleneck occured.

I started thinking about this event in terms of an advanced civilization living prior to that on Earth. What would be left of such a civilization? Suppose there was a New York City somewhere on the plantet 70,000 years ago and it was destroyed/abandoned at that time. Over 70,000 years, what would be left? The answers I come up with is "very little". Steel framed buildings would rot by then. Glass would be broken and buried. Cement and concrete would erode by then. The only thing I can think of that would last that long would be non-reactive metals- gold lets say, in the form of coins? Plastics? What about the bones of the dead? Well, we don't find them today from the people that lived back then, why would it surprise us if there was nothing left from a NYC type city? Depending on the location of such a city, it may be that such a place would be under water now.

I also thought about it in terms of a nuclear holocaust instead of a Toba volcano. There is little scientific study about it since there is no credible thought in the scientific community that such technology existed back then. But what if it did? What would be left of a society that nuked itself to death 70,000 years ago? Essentially the answer above - not much. If humans had been advanced enough to build nukes, there would be little left after such a war.

And given that there are about 50,000 people in the Rag Tag fleet - 20-25,000 mating pairs? Well... things that make you go "hummmmm..."

Not a lot of buildings. I think some stone structures might well exist, though buried. Structures in desert climates (like the pyramids.) Coins. Old nuclear reactors. And of course stuff on the moon and in geosync orbit, though they might have not had satellites.

But yes, while it requires a few unusual conditions, you could have colonists arrive 70,000 years ago. The problem is the animals. Our animals are the result of patterns of evolution and migration over much more than the 70,000 year history of human migration. But they are just like us. If you write humans as arriving in Africa 70-100,000 years ago, the animals have to arrive with them. But the animals on real Earth didn't spread that way, and they evolved their traits based on the places they evolved in, and in concert with the other life there.

The real problem with an arrival in the past are the things seen on the Galactica and Pegasus. I’m talking about things like Cain’s Weapon Collection (Thompsan Machine Gun and pistols) and the US Air Force Chevrons. These things are left over from their past which is mostly our past but this stuff is still in use in our time. I don’t believe these things would be re-created 70’000 (or any time) later. BSG is out future.

Yes, the show is crawling with things from our era. However, charitably, many can be accounted for as just translations and TV-SF vagaries. We don't assume they are really speaking English (though quite possibly they are) though it's harder for Baltar to quote Shakespeare.

I have to say that some of the points are very good but I still think it is possible. Life could have been evolving on this planet prior to it being colonized.

I think the point of a NYC type civilization existing is very good. There was a show on one of the discovery channel type things that talked about the earth after we are gone. At the time I felt it was extremely dumb but with that point it makes more and more sense. I also thing space is irrelevant because after 70,000 years gravity would pull all the space garbage into the atmosphere.

Good column though

Life evolved on the planet before colonists (ie. us) would thus not be related to us. But we're related to all the life on the Earth, very closely related in fact. And it's been here for billions of years. Thus, so has our ancestry chain been here billions of years.

What if part of the cycle is the complete annihilation of everyone on both sides maybe in a big bang that restarts the cycle, maybe even it is the rock that hits a planet and begins the primordial soup process. The reason why everything repeats itself like names for constellations, clothing, songs, religions and the like are because of a stream of consciousness in the DNA of the universe, in the case of the big bang example, or in the basic fiber of the primordial stew.

I think the idea that everyone will live in the end is jumping to a conclusion. Maybe they do discover our Earth, but as a rock that hits the planet billions of years before now.

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