Monday, May 27, 2019

Revisiting Atlantis

I've recently stumbled across a video called "Visiting Atlantis", by George S. Alexander and Natalis Rosen ("A&R"). The pair advance the hypothesis that the Richat structure (aka "the Eye of Africa", alternately referred to herein as "RS") is the original site of the fabled city of Atlantis.

Actually, this has a lot of merit. And the video does ask the single best question a historian can tackle: "What does this mean for our understanding of ancient civilizations?" That's really the question that I'd like to explore today. In doing so, I'm going to approach this as if  Solon's account of Atlantis given to us via Plato is an accurate retelling. That doesn't mean it definitively is; but we're going to assume it is.

There are two reasons for doing so. First; unless you do, the conversation's over. Second; we don't really have any reason not to. In other places, where Plato uses a parable he simply tells you that. Here, he's claiming to pass on reputable information. He names his source (Solon). He tells you where Solon got that information (Sais, in Egypt). And though Sais is destroyed, at the time of Plato's writing it wasn't. So Plato, at the very least, believed what he wrote.

But, aside from some technical difficulties, there is a methodological problem with Plato's account, and it's a problem that's repeated in modern times by most researchers, including A&R in this documentary. Before I explore that, let's look at the "good stuff". I will neither be complete nor comprehensive here, as I don't have that kind of space or time. But I think I'll hit the important points.


Mauritania, showing the location of the Richat Structure.
From Google Maps

The Richat Structure in satellite imagery
The best explanation for the Richat Structure is that it is a collapsed, eroded dome of rock, caused by volcanism. In any event, it is a natural phenomenon. This shouldn't deter anyone from considering it as a site, as almost all cities are built on natural features. This one is singularly striking.

Plato describes Atlantis in two books: Critias and Timaeus. He claims to have gotten the information from Solon, a distinguished ancestor of his, by means of writings left by Solon. He further claims that Solon got his information from a temple in Sais, where there was a model of Atlantis. The wonderful thing about models and physical artifacts is that they pretty much provide their own description. 

Atlantis as described by Plato in Critias
The RS resembles the description of Atlantis in some very specific ways. Most of the geographic details are spot-on, save one, of which I'll have more to say. The archaeological details... mmmm... we'll have to talk about those.
  1. Atlantis was located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). So is the RS.
  2. Atlantis is sheltered by mountains to the north, and is open to the south in the direction of the sea. So is the RS.
  3. Atlantis is about 23 kilometers across. So is the RS.
  4. Atlantis is arranged as a central island and concentric rings; two of land, three of water. So would the RS, if there were water.
  5. Black, white, and red stones were prevalent in Atlantis. So too at the RS. Well, red and black. The 'white' ones are a judgement call. Let's call grey 'white' and give credit.
  6. There were two springs or wells on the center island, one warm, one cool, which provided fresh water. There is a fresh water well near the center of the RS that provides fresh water, though shallow wells in the surrounding area yield salt water. Other than at the center of the RS you have to dig very deeply to reach fresh water.
  7. The Atlanteans mined copper, tin, and gold. These are still mined in Mauritania today... but they're also mined in a lot of other places.
  8. The date given for Atlantis (10,000 years before Plato's time) coincides with the last African Humid Period. The RS preserves clear evidence of ancient rivers and extensive water erosion.

These are all discussed in the video.

The last geological feature is the elephant in the room: proximity to the sea. Of course, there isn't. In the video, A&R postulate that the ocean levels were some 300 feet higher than at the present, but that's quite a stretch. While there are shells found inland, the age of those shells aren't clear. Shells are basically calcium carbonate: a kind of rock. As such, they don't really need to be fossilized to be preserved. And in my own experience, while digging in the neighborhood of my parent's house in Columbia, South Carolina, I routinely dug up a multitude of seashells, though the ocean hadn't been anywhere near that area since the Mesozoic era. Dinosaurs used the beach formerly located at my parents' house. It's somewhat frustrating that A&R didn't provide the location of some of the features (the shells; a beached ship) that they depicted in the video.

Before I say another word, I'm going to take A&R to task on a point. In the video, they display the following image as they're describing how they encountered "boats beached miles from the water":
Dunedin Star, in Namibia

If they encountered this ship, they took the long way 'round.  The ship is the MV Dunedin Star, which ran aground on Namibia's Skeleton Coast, in the south of Africa, thousands of miles away, but certainly not "miles from the water". Here's CNN's image:
CNN published this image, with proper attestation

This video is full of stuff like that. Images just grabbed from wherever and stuffed into the narrative, as if they were illustrative. In a documentary this is unconscionable. If you were there with cameras and you encountered boats, then you show the boats you saw. You don't grab a stock image from the Web and use that instead. It undermines your credibility and becomes evidence against your position.

In any event, a beached modern ship on one coast does not count as evidence of a shoreline miles inland and 300 feet higher 12,000 years ago on a completely different coast. That shoreline may have been there then, but it may have been a million years ago, or 65 million years ago. It's up to you to put the event at the right time.

Vertical movement of Earth's landmasses
via Wikipedia
Estimating coastlines becomes a tricky scenario when we remember that ocean levels aren't necessarily reflected in the coastlines. Focusing on "sea levels" doesn't always cut it. For example, when a glacier melts, you might expect far more coastal flooding than you could actually get in the local area. Isostatic rebound occurs when the weight of all that water is removed from a landmass. It's due to the plasticity of the Earth, having a molten core and mantle. Water levels rise, but so does the continent itself.  So it's possible for the coastal effects to be felt much more greatly in areas that are nowhere near the site of the glacier. While isostatic rebound is commonly called "post-glacial rebound", let's remember that glaciers are water. We might ask whether the same thing could have occured in north Africa as the Sahara dried out; and if not, why not? In any event, the A&R hypothesis would require that the portion of the north African landmass on which Mauritania sits was far lower 12,000 years ago than it is today. That alone probably wouldn't be enough, unless it were also affected by other events associated with the Younger Dryas. For this hypothesis to hold, the coastline of Mauritania would have had to reach nearly to the town of Atar at the foot of the Adrar Plateau

But there's another possibility. Perhaps Plato, Solon, or the Egyptians just got it wrong, and "direction of the sea", didn't necessarily indicate "proximity to the sea".


Here's where things start to fall down. There are other features which do not match Plato's description at all. These descriptions, given in Critias, are not mentioned in the video.
  1. "First of all they bridged over the zones of sea which surrounded the ancient metropolis, making a road to and from the royal palace." There are no indications of any bridgework whatsoever at the RS.
  2. "And beginning from the sea they bored a canal of three hundred feet in width and one hundred feet in depth and fifty stadia in length, which they carried through to the outermost zone, making a passage from the sea up to this, which became a harbour, and leaving an opening sufficient to enable the largest vessels to find ingress.". There is no indication of boring on this or any other scale at the RS.
  3. "Moreover, they divided at the bridges the zones of land which parted the zones of sea, leaving room for a single trireme to pass out of one zone into another, and they covered over the channels so as to leave a way underneath for the ships; for the banks were raised considerably above the water." Again, there are no indications of any of this at the RS.
  4. "All this including the zones and the bridge, which was the sixth part of a stadium in width, they surrounded by a stone wall on every side, placing towers and gates on the bridges where the sea passed in. The stone which was used in the work they quarried from underneath the centre island, and from underneath the zones, on the outer as well as the inner side." There is no indication of any of this at the RS.
  5. "Some of their buildings were simple, but in others they put together different stones, varying the colour to please the eye, and to be a natural source of delight." -- there are a very few indications of buildings (UPDATE: here, here, and here (thanks Bright Insight)) but no indication of age, and nothing matching Plato's description. 
  6.  "The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum"There is no indication of this at the RS. 
  7. Plato goes on to describe numerous temples, often clad or surrounded in gold, of which not the slightest sign is indicated at the RS.
A&R describe more recent buildings of a primitive nature, built of stone, but chinked with mud rather than mortar, and hypothesize that the cataclysm would have destroyed all traces. I find this less than compelling. Archaeologists find foundations on the weakest of evidence. And here we're not talking about "a house", but "a city". Presumably we should find streets, earthworks, etc. Any long civic habitation should have signs of refuse. But we really have nothing permanent here that we can date to the period in question.

The region is littered with stone tools of a sort that we would expect to find from a stone age culture. We actually find many tools of many different epochs mixed together, and they weren't washed away. Rather, what we see is consistent with what is called "deflation" in archaeology. This is when sand and dust is blown away by persistent winds, leaving the heavier artifacts co-mingled on a harder surface. Rather than seeing the sort of stratification, or layers, that we normally use to date artifacts, the strata have been "deflated", leaving everything jumbled together. That's what happens in north Africa, where many tons of dust are blown into the Atlantic every year. You can see evidence of the scale of this in the satellite photos. But at the RS, we don't see evidence of middens (kitchen waste dumps), building foundations (on the required scale), or any of the mega-engineering projects described by Plato. They just don't exist. And of the many artifacts that have been found, none of them attest to a highly advanced civilization.

In short, I would say that the geography is compelling, but the archaeology is not.

A Crisis of Expectations:

So what does this mean for our understanding of ancient civilizations?

Every avid researcher of Atlantis is looking for an "advanced civilization", however it is they choose to define that term. A&R do the same. They mention alleged Dogon ancient knowledge of the star Sirius (something I take to have been debunked). They depict Atlantis as Plato described it, covered in gleaming metals with bridges and geometrically perfect water channels plied by trireme ships. They depict marble columned temples and colossal statuary dedicated to Poseidon. They show bridges supported by Roman arches.

None of that could be remotely correct.

Remember, Plato relates that Egypt began as a colony of Atlantis. And quite frankly, this might actually be true. The Sahara, as it moistened and dried over the millenia, acted as a sort of "pump" that drove the migrations of humankind, as well as our hominid ancestors. It's not at all incredible that Egyptians were the last migrants out of the Sahara at the end of the last African humid period. It's not at all incredible that they brought stories of a place that geographically resembles Atlantis; after all, such a place exists, and in a place where legend tells us Atlas reigned as its first king.

But we do know something about ancient Egyptians. We know of their building styles, for example. We know about the kinds of boats they built of papyrus reed. We know that the same kinds of boats are found halfway across Africa, in Lake Chad. So we need not look for Hellenistic architecture and Roman arches as today's artists fancifully depict. Such visualization are in no way credible. Nor need we look for any evidence of "Poseidon" as such. As Plato himself began his story,
"Yet, before proceeding further in the narrative, I ought to warn you, that you must not be surprised if you should perhaps hear Hellenic names given to foreigners. I will tell you the reason of this: Solon, who was intending to use the tale for his poem, enquired into the meaning of the names, and found that the early Egyptians in writing them down had translated them into their own language, and he recovered the meaning of the several names and when copying them out again translated them into our language. My great-grandfather, Dropides, had the original writing, which is still in my possession, and was carefully studied by me when I was a child. Therefore if you hear names such as are used in this country, you must not be surprised, for I have told how they came to be introduced."
-- Plato, Critias.
We can reasonably suppose that not only names were translations of translations. So were cultural descriptions. Each recipient of this story has translated the idea of "advanced civilization" into his own concept of what it means to be "advanced". Some people today fantasize that it must surely have included exotic lost technologies that we ourselves are only now beginning to envision. However...

About 12,000 years ago, at the alleged time of Atlantis, agriculture was just beginning to take root (pun intended) in Mesopotamia. At that time, a non-nomadic, sedentary colony was enough to count as being "advanced". If you built a structure at all, even if it be of unshaped stone chinked with mud, having no foundation, it was enough to count as a "palace". If you piled rocks into an altar, even if it be roofless under the stars, that was enough to count as a "temple". If you built a boat that could get you across the water, even if it be made of lashed reeds or animal hide, you had constructed a "ship". If you built a fortification of dirt and timber, you had built a "castle".

But if you wait a time and then tell someone these stories, they will imagine palaces, temples, castles, ships, and harbors in the shape of their own experience. They will add in details of the life not very different from their own. Innovation moved slowly in the ancient world, and the inhabitants didn't really imagine how greatly things could change. When they themselves pass on the inflated stories, they're not lying per se, and they're not including anything of their own invention. Rather, it's their lack of imagination that causes them to include only those descriptions of which they themselves are familiar. They depict "great" in terms they recognize as "greatness". Surely a "great civilization" couldn't be a village, or a tribe! But yes, it could, just as a "king" in ancient but historical times might rule over a single city.

A visualization filled with anachronisms.

A&R fall into this trap as well. They not only mix Egyptian and Roman culture into their visuals, but Babylonian and even modern as well. From their video:

Not. Even. Close. This is Greek, top to bottom.

According to the video, "Folk art depictions of the Nommos show creatures
with humanoid torsos and fishlike tails". This is shown during that narration.
The problem is, this is the Babylonian deity Dagon.
Nommo were not 'a' god like Poseidon, but is a collective noun for a
group of beings,  perhaps inspired by West African manatees.

Let me state though, that visuals aside, this isn't one of my usual debunkings. Alexander & Rosen are by all indications reasonable people who follow the evidence as it is presented to them (even though the evidence they present is suspect). I am probably more skeptical of some evidence than they are, but they do take time to at the very least mention where controversies exist, or where some evidence is problematic. Taking more time on the archaeology would have been nice, but it's their video, not mine.


Have we found Atlantis? Honestly, I think we probably have. But there are no secrets here. No advanced technologies, no lost knowledge. Unless, that is, you count the knowledge that a "golden age" is golden in hindsight, and that an ancient people might be rightly proud of what they accomplished, even if to our eyes it's not terribly noteworthy once the embellishments have been stripped away. But it's not really our eyes that matter, is it? It's theirs.

The story of Atlantis has been continually embellished over the centuries. But embellishments serve a distinct and valuable purpose. They tell us what these meager accomplishments meant to those who actually performed them. Think of what "advanced" means to you. Whatever it is, that's what stone tools and a few stone and mud houses meant to inhabitants of West Africa 12,000 years ago. Their vision was greater than their power, but so too was that of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and ourselves. This is likely to be true of all civilizations for the remainder of history, no matter how powerful they become. So show some respect.

Pin marks the spot.


Another commentator, on the Bright Insight channel on YouTube, sets great store on the fact that the Richat Structure is thought to be a volcanic dome, noting that volcanism can cause landmasses to rise. However, this completely ignores the timeframe. The RS was formed in the neighborhood of 100 million years ago, ± a few million years. This is far too long ago to account for any uplifting of the northwestern coast of Africa. Bright Insight seems to have been led astray by mention of the multiple intrusions and collapses that formed the structure, concluding that this explains the sinking of Atlantis. Sadly, no. This explains the geology of the structure, which existed prior to the alleged sinking. The mantle of the Earth is significant not because it just generally causes land to rise, but because its plasticity means the Earth can in fact regain shape after deformation, as we saw when discussing isostatic rebound.

Bright Insight also brings up the subject of non-fossilized whale skeletons found in "the deserts of Mauritania, and shows a website. Well, I visited that site. The page author was kind enough to have listed the exact latitude and longitude of the photo. (Latitude: 19°56'40.66", Longitude: -16°15'42.57"). Punching these numbers into Google Maps shows us exactly where the find was: Here.

Site of "ancient whale skeletons" "in the desert"

Yes. It's within a stone's throw of the beach, just as is the MV Dunedin Star on a Namibian beach, pictured earlier. What you don't get told is that African deserts go right up to the coastline. 
A reconstruction of Herodotus' map of the world

One other piece of evidence is the Herodotus map of the known (to him) world. I thought it was pretty common knowledge. Only four of Bright Insight's commenters mentioned it, but I think that sample's both weak and self-selecting. Looking outside of that channel there are gobs of references. And no: I don't think that the Nile ever ran east-west across the Sahara. The map attributed to Herodotus is a reconstruction. We have no evidence that he ever actually created a map, though he did discuss them. In that discussion, he reveals the limits of his understanding, which you can read about in this PDF. Also note that in these reconstructions, the map doesn't actually say "Atlantis". Rather, it is "Atlantes"; that is, "Atlanteans". It's not exactly a nit-picky point. Here's what Herodotus actually wrote (emphasis mine):

"...Near this salt hill is a mountain named Atlas, which is small in circuit and rounded on every side; and so exceedingly lofty is it said to be, that it is not possible to see its summits, for clouds never leave them either in the summer or in the winter. This the natives say is the pillar of the heaven. After this mountain these men got their name, for they are called Atlantians; and it is said that they neither eat anything that has life nor have any dreams." -- The History Of Herodotus Volume 1 (of 2) Translator: G. C. Macaulay
In other words, Herodotus' description has precious little to do with the lost city of Atlantis. It's an accident of linguistics, and getting too excited about it is analogous to wondering whether "martial law" is imposed by Martians.

Bright Insight is a personable enough fellow, and he has a lot of enthusiasm. I think he's letting that enthusiasm run away with him a bit. It's necessary to follow the evidence. All of it, not just confirmational evidence. Especially when it comes to subjects like this, you have to consider the source of the evidence; not just taking it at face value, but actually going to the source and seeing for yourself, to the extent possible. As I state above, I too think that the Richat Structure may have been the site described as 'Atlantis'. However, I think that a lot of our ancient sources are simply wrong on some important details, the reasons for which I give. At the earliest, our sources are 10,000 years more recent than Atlantis, after all. Then again, I'm of that age where the more excited someone is when making a 'find', the more motivated I am to invite them to ponder what exactly it is they found.

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