The images are vivid, capturing the essence of exploration. Archaeologists digging up the remains of long lost civilizations. Anthropologists encountering exotic cultures with strange languages.
But do archaeologists and anthropologists have anything to teach the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), where encounters are at the distance of light-years, and a round-trip exchange could take millennia?
"Absolutely!" was the resounding response at a conference held last year of the American Anthropological Association. One of the best-attended sessions of that meeting consisted of papers from leading scholars who pondered the daunting challenges of reconstructing alien civilizations - at interstellar distances.
A month earlier, in November 2004, many of the same scientists had gathered at the SETI Institute for a symposium fittingly called "In Search of a Cosmic Rosetta Stone," a reference to the slab of basalt that provided the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Analogies of Contact
"The approaches we take as archaeologists in our search for peoples from another time and place may well offer some useful analogy to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence," suggested archaeologist Paul Wason, one of the participants. "Our work is conducted without the benefit of direct contact with living beings," he observed, which is akin to SETI's attempt to detect intelligence around distant stars.
But how can analogies help us anticipate contact with extraterrestrials?
For starters, by providing a case study of Homo sapiens encountering an alien intelligence, Wason explained. "The meeting of Neanderthals and sapiens may be a good example for analogy--for it was a meeting of two different kinds of consciousness," he added.
But be forewarned as we start to draw lessons for SETI from such encounters, Wason urged. The analogy may be humbling.
"It may be that in such a comparison of us with ETI, ...we are the Neanderthals," he said.
Our Place in the Universe
And yet, isn't all of this work premature? Shouldn't we wait until at least knowing that intelligence exists beyond Earth?
Psychologist Albert Harrison didn't think so. He argued that as we contemplate contact with other worlds, we have an opportunity to gain a better perspective on ourselves.
"Planned efforts to communicate beyond Earth should force us to step back and look at the big picture," said Harrison, a professor at the University of California at Davis. "Deciding what might be important for another civilization forces us to move beyond our pathologically narrow time span and develop a long term perspective."
Even if we never make contact, Harrison observed, we might reap significant benefits by pondering these issues now.
"Determining what we should say and who should say it could be a useful self-study that fosters self-contemplation and encourages consensus," Harrison noted. "These deliberations should encourage us to think about what makes us human, where we are going, and how we conceive of our place in the universe."