Sure, the Maya built pyramids, and had amazingly accurate solar and naked-eye astrological calendars that stretched 64,000 years into the future, but were they dreaming of something even more amazing? Like space travel?

In 1949, a Mexican field archeologist named Alberto Ruiz discovered a hidden passage beneath the Temple of Inscriptions in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, in the State of Tabasco, Mexico. The long passage led to a hidden room beneath the central plaza of the city. In the hidden room was the elaborately-carved sarcophagus of K'inich Janahb' Pakal, or Haneb Pakal, 11th ruler of Palanque, who lived from 26 March, 603 to 31 August, 683 CE.

The most striking aspect of the sarcophagus was the carving on its lid, as it seemed to show the ruler operating some sort of machine. This machine has been interpreted as a spacecraft.

Archaeologists—being the healthy skeptics that they are—have interpreted the carving so: Pakal is descending to the underworld, Xibalba, via the tree of life. But why would a tree need flames to propel it?

Charles William Johnson, a favorite crackpot of mine, has published a detailed interpretation of the carving on his website Here are the highlights.

The carving can be divided into 4 main sections.

  1. The bird figure which hangs above the spacecraft looking down.
  2. The canopy of the spacecraft, through which Pakal looks.
  3. The spacecraft’s engine, on which Pakal reclines.
  4. The housing of the spacecraft, which contains the engine and Pakal, and on which the canopy rests.
Johnson also notes some interesting details about the carving.
  1. There are flames at the bottom of the image, suggesting propulsion.
  2. Pakal has a small triangle fitted into his nostril: a breathing apparatus?
  3. His hands and feet seem to be resting on control mechanisms. (Not neccessary for a tree of life.)
  4. Pakal is sitting in a position similar to that of modern astronauts, which best supports humans at multiple-G force speeds.
  5. There appear to be hinged elements throughout the spacecraft, suggesting a mechanical, rather than artistic, design. (Johnson even shows that by moving the elements of the carving according to these joints, the vehicle can be modified for takeoff and landing, like a Transformer.)
Others have suggested that the bird figure on top is either extraterrestrials which Pakal visits, or a God guiding his navigation.

Perhaps the most famous case for the Pakal-as-astronaut interpretation can be found in Erich von Däniken’s dodgy 1968 publication of Chariots of the Gods, in which Däniken cites the Palenque lid as one piece of evidence that mankind is descendant from ancient extraterrestrials.

Even if we bow to Occam’s Buzzkill and admit that the Maya probably didn’t have actual spacecraft, it’s possible that this was simply Mayan science fiction and/or hypothetical invention, similar to Da Vinci’s Flying Machines or Jules Verne’s Moon Gun. Its presence on the lid of the sarcophagus of the greatest Palenque ruler suggests to me he may have been the world’s first (great) science fiction geek.