Lost Continents

Ever since the days of the Greeks, people have tried to prove that thriving civilizations once existed on huge islands that have since sunk beneath the sea.

Donnelly argued that small islands have disappeared in eruptions, so why not a continent? He cited many alleged resemblances between the appearance and cultures of the peoples of the Americas, Europe, and the Near East, and insisted that, therefore, the civilizations of all must have come from Atlantis. His arguments are not impressive when scrutinized. The common origin of Europeans and American Indians is argued from the fact that both practiced marriage and divorce, that both used spears, and that both believed in ghosts and flood-legends. Such argument merely shows that these people were human beings, for all these attributes have been found all over the world, in Asia, Africa, and Australasia as well as in Europe and the Americas.

The imagined continent of Mu, sometimes called Pan or Lemuria by the occultists, in the central Pacific, where it is unlikely that any continent ever existed. Another “lost continent” proposed by the Scottish mythologist Lewis Spence linked the Oriental zone with the Australian and thus disregarded one of the sharpest faunal boundaries recognized by scientists.

His “proof” of the relationship of Egyptian and Mayan writing is to take the phonetic values given the Mayan characters by Bishop Diego de Landa, line them alongside the Egyptian signs, and concoct “intermediate forms” to reconcile their glaring differences. He did not know that de Landa’s “Mayan alphabet” was a hoax played on the bishop by the Indians, who hated him for having burned nearly all their native literature.

Donnelly’s linguistic arguments are of similar worth. He gives a comparative table of Chinese and Otomi words, which does not inspire confidence when we discover that his Chinese words for “head,” “night,” “tooth,” “man,” and “I” are wrong, or at least not the standard words in the Chinese National Dialect (Donnelly: ten, siao, tien, tin, nugo; Standard Chinese: tou, ye, ya, ren, wo). In the Otomi language of Mexico, as in Chinese, the pitch at which a syllable is pronounced makes a difference in the meaning. Some speculators have inferred herefrom that Otomi is related to Chinese or Japanese, a surmise that is not borne out by even a slight acquaintance with these languages. Several African languages also have tonal distinctions.

For all its faults, Donnelly’s book became the New Testament of Atlantism, as Timaeus and Critias are its Old Testament. Year after year Atlantists repeat that Otomi is archaic Chinese or Japanese.

Modem Atlantism has been incorporated into the doctrines of the occult societies, which have much more colorful stories to tell than did Plato—of Atlanteans with airplanes and vast magical powers, and bisexual Lemurians with astral bodies only. Outside of occultism, Atlantism is a fairly small cult, comprising a few writers and their faithful readers. Even if Plato’s story were true, there would not be much one could do about the sunken continent.

In Europe secular Atlantism has been more ambitious. Clubs like the Société d’Etudes Atlantéenes have been formed. The members have gone on picnics with Atlantean emblems in their buttonholes, printed Atlantean stamps, and met periodically to read papers. At a meeting in France in 1927, a heretical faction threw stink-bombs into a discussion of ancient Corsica.

One can treat the “problem” of Atlantis in several ways. One can analyze Plato’s story as a piece of fiction, or search for a real ancient culture corresponding to Plato’s confederacy. One can investigate Atlantic islands or land bridges from the point of view of geology and biology or, like the occultists, swallow Plato’s tale whole and expand it by inspired imagination.

We have scientific Atlantists, pseudoscientific Atlantists, and occult Atlantists. Of the first, many seek an ancient culture that could have inspired Plato, without necessarily implying an Atlantic island that sank. In 1679, Olof Rudbeck “found” Atlantis in Sweden, and since then it has been “found” in Tunisia, Nigeria, South Africa, Ceylon, and elsewhere. We are embarrassed by a multitude of theories, many of which might be correct; but they can hardly all be true at once. The leading localities contending for the honor of being the proto-Atlantis are Minoan Crete and Tartessos.

The resemblances between Crete and Atlantis include sea power, imperialism, public works, and the ceremonial use of bulls. Tartessos, the Biblical Tarshish, was a flourishing city-state in southwestern Spain, the affinities of whose people are not known. About 500 B.C. the Carthaginian admiral Hamilco went out there with a fleet. He returned with a cook-and-bull story, adopted by Plato, about impassable shoals west of the Pillars. This now looks like Carthaginian propaganda to discourage commercial competition in those parts. Thereafter nothing is heard of Tartessos, and Hamilco is suspected of having liquidated this particular competitor in the course of his expedition. Tartessos suggests Atlantis by its location, wealth, and mysterious disappearance. There are resemblances between Atlantis and Tartessos on one hand and Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians in Homer’s Odyssey, on the other. Connections between real Crete and Tartessos and literary Atlantis and Scheria are possible; we shall probably never know to what extent Homer, or Plato, or both, got their ideas from Crete, or Tartessos, or both.

According to Lewis Spence, the lost continent of Atlantis was inhabited by members of the Cro-Magnon race, which is known through authentic investigations to have inhabited western Europe in the Old Stone Age. Geologists, however, are unconvinced that there were any large land masses in the Atlantic during man’s period on earth.

Another approach is that of the English zoologist H. E. Forrest, whose The Atlantean Continent submits a North Atlantic land bridge taking in Iceland. There probably has been such a bridge in geological times. But Forrest wants his bridge in the Pleistocene period, which only ended quite recently, and his arguments, largely based on distribution of species, turn and rend him. He relies on plants, arthropods, and fresh-water fish, which are slowly-evolving organisms, some of which may have been about what and where they are since the Mesozoic period, some 60 million years ago.

For tracing the opening and closing of land bridges, the distribution of the large land animals offers the best evidence, because these creatures move about rapidly on land but cannot cross wide stretches of water by flying or swimming or floating as seeds or riding on driftwood. This sort of evidence and the facts of geology indicate a definite bridge in the Pleistocene era connecting Siberia and Alaska, but none between Labrador and Europe.

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