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The Science Behind the Fiction: Is there any truth to the myth of Atlantis?

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Jun 16, 2021, 12:05 PM EDT

Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney Animation Studios’ 41st feature film, did not get the love it deserved at the box office. Twenty years later, it has earned something of a cult following but was largely ignored in theaters, bringing in only $186 million against a budget of between $90 and 120 million. In that respect, the film mirrors its inspiration, only really finding popularity years later.

The film, starring Michael J. Fox, Leonard Nimoy, and Jim Varney, among others, actually exists. It’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, and it’s awesome. The “real” Atlantis, on the other hand, is another question entirely. Could it have existed? And if so, what might have happened to it — and the supposedly advanced civilization that inhabited it?

COULD ATLANTIS HAVE EXISTED?

The answer to this is a tentative yes — although, we shouldn’t give that possibility a whole lot of weight. Science, as a rule, doesn’t deal in absolutes and doesn’t prove negatives. There almost always remains a possibility that something could exist beyond the boundaries of our understanding. But the existence of Atlantis, especially as described by Plato, defies probability.

If Atlantis really existed, no one wrote about it until Plato, who did so 9,000 years after its destruction. This, in and of itself, is cause for skepticism. The existence of a vast, advanced civilization should have found its way into contemporaneous historical texts, even without it mysteriously vanishing. Once it sunk into the sea, it absolutely should have been spoken about long before Plato. That’s the sort of thing that makes you sit up and take notice. If you’re a historian circa 10,000 BC, you write about the utopia that vanished beneath the waves. That’s strike one.

Furthermore, the modern interpretation of the tale didn’t pick up steam until the late 19th century when Ignatius Donnelly, a congressman and amateur historian, wrote a book about Atlantis entitled The Antediluvian World. Donnelly laid the groundwork, describing Atlantis as a civilization to be emulated, the one from which all later civilizations sprouted. Looking back to Plato’s account, it’s clear that Atlantis is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of hubris and excess.

Most scientists, archaeologists, and anthropologists believe Plato’s account was allegory: a way to express the ideals which stretched throughout his work. Little more than a parable to illustrate the way a civilization should be built, by describing the way one can fail.

Plato describes Atlantis as an island continent larger than Libya and Asia combined. Not a small place, to be sure. Then, by way of earthquakes and floods, the whole of it disappeared into the sea. It’s true that much of the ocean floor is still hidden from our view, but advances in technology have provided a general picture of what’s beneath the waves. If there were a continent, or even a reasonably sized city, to be found, it’s entirely likely we would have found it.

NATURAL DESTRUCTION

Supposing Atlantis did exist, is it possible for something so large to vanish overnight? It’s unlikely. We’re not talking about a small island. While geological events can be incredibly destructive, even a combination of earthquakes and tsunami waves is unlikely to wipe away an entire landmass.

Credit: Monsù Desiderio/Public Domain

Still, the geological record does give hints of events that might inspire these sorts of tales. One research group investigated a potential event 73,000 years ago which might have sent 38 cubic miles of landmass into the ocean.

This event is significantly smaller than what is described by Plato, but events like these could serve as the nugget of truth which eventually evolves into myth.

Humans have a tendency of settling near water. We need water to survive, and access to fresh water for drinking and seawater for food sources has always drawn populations. These environs, however, come with a certain amount of uncertainty.

Waterways are volatile when compared with dryer climes. Natural erosion has a way of changing landscapes over time, but flooding, earthquakes, and volcanoes allow for waterways to move in violent ways. Without question, human history is littered with geological events which may not have wiped out entire civilizations but at least wreaked serious destruction. These events, over generations, retold through oral histories, may have a way of becoming larger than life.

While there’s very little probability that Atlantis actually existed, we have good reason to believe it may have been inspired by stories handed down, generation after generation, warning of the ill-tempered nature of our planet.

ANCIENT TECHNOLOGY

The other major element of the Atlantis story involves their technological prowess. Not only were they washed into the sea, but the destruction of their civilization meant the loss of advanced technologies. Plato describes Atlantis as an island nation more advanced than their contemporaries, drunk on their abilities. Greedy.

Their destruction was punishment from the gods for their behavior. It’s easy to see how the story is almost certainly a morality tale, warning of the necessity to adhere to strict morals lest we trigger the wrath of the gods.

If Atlantis existed, and if they controlled advanced technology, we should be able to see some evidence of that. Particularly when dealing with time scales in the thousands. But even over the course of millions of years, advanced technology leaves a signal we should be able to see from a modern vantage point.

There is some evidence that ancient civilizations were more technologically advanced than we typically give them credit for. The Antikythera mechanism dates back roughly 2,000 years and was probably an analog computer for determining the position of celestial events including solar and lunar eclipses as well as the position of planets. Its discovery among a shipwreck suggests its use as a navigational tool.

There is some evidence, though unconfirmed, that batteries and steam engines date back thousands of years, long before what we typically consider to be the modern technological age. These discoveries open up the possibility that technological advances may have occurred much earlier than we previously expected. And, given the sporadic nature of the archaeological record, may escape our view.

Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Adam Frank, astrophysicist from the University of Rochester, met in 2017 to discuss the ways in which they might be able to discover the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations by measuring the sorts of planetary climate changes we see on Earth, on other worlds.

During that discussion, Schmidt asked an unusual question: How do you know we’re the only time there’s been a civilization on our own planet?”

Their exploration resulted in a paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology. That paper introduced the Silurian Hypothesis, a nod to a Doctor Who episode introducing a race of technologically advanced reptilians pre-dating human civilization. The central idea is that, given long enough time scales, evidence of technological societies vanishes. And the time scales need not be very long. The spotty nature of the geological record is such that evidence tends to disappear, with only small percentages surviving. That said, there are signatures that might make themselves apparent to an explorer looking for the right things.

Whether or not advanced societies, pre-dating our modern civilizations, existed on our planet remains an open question. Still, there’s no significant evidence that a land-mass such as Atlantis existed at all, nor that a society of sufficient advancement existed at the time.

Regardless, Plato’s warnings of human hubris and its potential consequences remain worthwhile, particularly as the effects of our technology have an increasingly negative impact on our environment.

Here’s hoping we learn those ancient lessons and avoid disappearing into the vanishing geological record.