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.

The conflict with geology

Besides Poseidón there are other obviously fictional elements: there is no record of the prehistoric Athenian empire; if it had existed, its remains could hardly have been missed in a country so well-excavated as Greece. Critias is inconsistent: in Timaeus he lay awake all night trying to remember the story; in Critias he has it at home in manuscript. (The “old manuscript” is a common literary device, often used by Poe.) There are good geological reasons for refusing to believe that any island of continental size ever sank out of sight as a result of one or a few earthquakes. The material has to go somewhere, and vast gas-filled chambers deep in the earth would violate the known laws of physics. A volcanic eruption may make drastic changes over a few square miles, but appreciable continental changes take place over millions of years. Relative motion of parts of the earth’s crust during earthquakes (permanent changes, that is) are measured in inches or feet; the very severe San Francisco quake of 1906 produced relative movements of 22 feet.

The substance of myths

Atlantists who confer Atlantean origin on the Egyptians and Mayas infer that Noah’s flood and a Mexican flood-legend are both disguised traditions of the sinking of Atlantis. Now it is one thing to admit that myths, like all fiction, have a basis in fact, and quite another to think that one can reconstruct the fact from the fiction. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is based on certain facts. But a future historian, who knew nothing else about the twentieth century and tried to reconstruct the history of the United States from that novel, might easily conclude that Windrip the dictator was a real man but that Franklin Roosevelt was a myth, like Osiris. Myths may and generally do distort reality out of all possibility of recognition.

Myths are not handed down to posterity for the simple love of historical fact—a rare quality even in our culture. They are passed on because they are entertaining, and so provide a living for story-tellers, or because they are useful in answering children’s questions, serving as librettos for rites, or keeping the laity subservient to the priesthood.

The cultural arguments for an Egyptian-Mayan connection concentrate on, resemblances and ignore differences, which are so profound as to make the resemblances look petty and accidental. The New and Old Worlds had no food plants in common. It is incredible that if Atlanteans had colonized Mexico and Egypt, they would have taken wheat to Egypt and maize to Mexico but not vice versa. They had no domestic animals in common but the dog. The Mayans lacked the plow and the wheel. The Mayan calendar was drastically different from those of the Old World, being based on a year of eighteen 20-day months instead of twelve 80-day months. The Egyptian writing, Atlantists to the contrary, has been of no help in decoding Mayan inscriptions. Atlantean chronology, judging from the excellent Mayan system of dating, is wrong: the Mayan civilization arose about the beginning of the Christian era when Egypt was thousands of years old. We must conclude that the Mayans’ forebears arrived unburdened by food-plants, animals other than dogs, writing, or calendars—that is, as savages.

The linguistic arguments are like those by which people “prove” that the Lost Ten Tribes are the Aztecs or the Irish or the Burmese. You find two words in different languages having a similar sound and meaning, and conclude, that the two languages are related, under the mistaken impression that this is the science of philology.

Coincidence in language

The study of linguistic relationships is more complicated than that. There are almost sure to be a few apparent similarities in any pair of languages. “Ten” is dix in French and disi in Hottentot; “search” is examine in English and eggamen in Tuareg; “time” is hour in Szechuanese, and so on. The reason is that most languages have but 20 to 50 significant sound-units, and at least several thousand words. So some pseudocognates are inevitable by coincidence. To find linguistic relations, one must consider all the words in certain classes, such as numbers, colors, family relationships (“father” etc.), parts of the body, natural categories (“water” etc.), and so on.

Let’s do an experiment along these lines, which may shed light on the assertion of Le Plongeon that Mayan is one-third Greek, and of Braghine (who in his Atlantis book used forgeries of antiques for his frontispiece) and others that Otomi is Old Japanese:

English Greek Japanese Mayan Otami (Tepehua dialect)
two dyo futatu ca yojo
three tn mitu ox tiu
four tettares yotu can coojo
five pente itutu ho guitta
six hex mutu uac dato
seven hepta nanatu uuc yoto
eight októ yatu uaxac giato
nine ennea kokonotu bolon guito
ten deka lahun detdta

(The Japanese syllable tu is pronounced tsu, u as in “put.” Mayan x = English sh. There is another set of Japanese numerals borrowed from Chinese: iti, ni, san, etc.)

The English-Greek resemblance is obvious; but the other languages show no resemblances at all, as far as this table goes. Adding Chinese, Hebrew, or Aztec to the table does not help the Atlantists. This list is not a “disproof,” just a sample to show that the languages in question are not as similar as has been claimed. For an analysis of linguistic relations a much larger list of words would be needed, and also a study of phonology, inflection, and syntax.

When the American languages are so studied, these conclusions appear: Eskimo is related to the languages of Eastern Siberia, which is hardly surprising. The American Indian languages, however, show a wide diversity among themselves, and no clear relationship to any Old World language; some show grammatical features like those of the Ural-Altaic languages, like Turkish, which spread out from Central Asia.

Some Atlantists say that numerous inscriptions in Old World languages have been found in the Americas, though they usually neglect to tell us where these wonders are to be seen. When these cases of “Phoenician inscriptions” are investigated, they turn out to be something other than what was supposed. Dighton Rock in Massachusetts had its scratches attributed to the Phoenicians, Druids, Hebrews, Chinese, and Atlanteans, until Prof. E. B. Delaware, with black filling-material and a camera, disclosed the name of Miguel Cortereal, a Portuguese explorer who sailed for Newfoundland in 1502 and never returned. The Grace Creek Mound stone from West Virginia was analyzed as Etruscan, Runic, Phoenician, Old British, Celtiberic, and Greek, and when finally solved in 1930 proved to read, “Bill Stump’s Stone, October 14, 1838.”

Then what is there to the sunken continents and vanished civilizations? There is something, but we shan’t get it from Plato or from Donnelly.

It can be agreed that some of the present land was once water and vice versa. The difficulty comes in trying to find what parts of the globe were dry during a given geological period, say the Triassic. If a place has a fossil-bearing Triassic deposit on the surface, the answer can be easily determined. But if there is no such deposit where we can reach it, or if the area is at the bottom of the sea, we have to resort to inference to determine what the place was like in the Triassic. The farther back we go, the more scanty the evidence becomes and the more uncertain our inferences. But the problem is not hopeless. Much can be learned by studying the distribution of fossil organisms and the structure of the earth.

There is some geological evidence that the Azores Islands, situated about1000 miles west of Gibraltar, may be the remains of an island that was once as large as Spain. If anybody wants to call it Atlantis, there seems no good reason to object. But there is little likelihood of a prehistoric civilization there. Most of the geologists who think this land mass existed, believe it had sunk by the end of the Miocene period, some 15 or 20 million years ago, which was long before the appearance on earth of the most primitive men.

As for undiscovered civilizations, Europe has been well picked over, and sensational discoveries of high cultures there seem unlikely. The rise of the Mayans from barbarism has been fairly well charted. But Asia has hardly been scratched archaeologically. Within the last few decades an Indus Valley civilization contemporary with the Sumerians has come to light, and further discoveries are not unlikely. But we should not expect four-armed hermaphrodites with astral bodies and airplanes. They are more likely to be just people; the men tending herds and crops, building houses, and making utensils; women cooking and sewing; kings waging war and dispensing justice.

The most reasonable way to regard Plato’s story of Atlantis would seem to be as an impressive if abortive attempt at a politico-historical romance, based on materials of Plato’s own time and possibly also on traditions of Crete or Tartessos or both-a romance which has been kept alive partly by its literary merit, partly by its nostalgic emotional appeal, and partly by Plato’s philosophical reputation. That is no reason for not enjoying it. We enjoy Alice in Wonderland, though it isn’t history. And I’m sure Plato doesn’t care.

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