Atlantis Rediscovered?

Has Geology Found the Lost Continent of Atlantis?

Atlantis is one of the stories of our collective past upon which the Western civilization was built. Every modern society has origin myths, that define and describe the character of the people themselves. Stories of the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian bible, medieval tales of Robin Hood, and the Gilgamesh epic are examples of the west’s historical background that have been investigated archaeologically.
The study of archaeology owes a lot to the process of seeking the truth of the tales in the historic and religious documents of our past.

More recently, scientific methods have been used to identify places or events in the past. Consider the studies indicating that poisonous gases created the visions of the Oracle at Delphi, or the studies concerning evidence for ancient floods in the Black Sea that may have been the basis for Noah’s flood from the bible. It’s what we do. We’re interested in our past, we want to know the truth of those stories our ancestors told us. Few people would argue that the stories might have some truth to them, fewer still would argue that they have a lot of folderol in them as well. To effectively seek the past, you have to figure out what works in those stories and what doesn’t.

The Atlantis Hypothesis

In July 2005, a conference entitled The Atlantis Hypothesis presenting multidisciplinary papers on the potential for the geological truth of Plato’s tale of Atlantis took place on the Greek island of Milos.
One of the papers presented was a report by Marc-Andre Gutscher, a geologist of the prestigious French research institution Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). The original hypothesis came from Jacques Collima-Girard, who took selected elements of Plato’s story, and identified a sunken island west of the Straits of Gibraltar as a potential candidate for the location of Atlantis.
Dr. Gutscher followed through on the argument, completing a bathymetric investigation of the island, and producing quite an interesting paper, Destruction of Atlantis by a Great Earthquake and Tsunami to be published in the journal Geology in August 2005.

Atlantis, for those of you visiting from another planet, is the legendary utopian society that sank below the surface of the ocean, never to be seen again. As described in Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias, around 12,000 years ago, there were two great civilizations: Athens and Atlantis. Both of these societies were what anthropologists call socially-stratified—there were classes of people, including artisans, farmers, warriors, and royalty. Both societies farmed and raised cattle. They both built temples and meeting halls. They both mined silver and gold; they both made bronze and tin as well as silver and gold objects. They had horse-drawn chariots, they built bridges, aqueducts, canals and roads, and had ships to conduct international trade. Atlantis, so Plato said, was a trading and commercial center with an urban lifestyle and a ruling class. The city-state was located on an island the size of Libya and Asia combined, outside of the Pillars of Hercules (believed to refer to the Straits of Gibraltar).
Athens ruled the eastern side of the Pillars of Hercules—the Mediterranean Sea. The people of Atlantis were directly descended from Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. An extended war broke out between Atlantis and Athens. The civilization fell into decadence and Zeus punished them, sending a great earthquake, and Atlantis sank beneath the waves of the ocean in the space of a day.

The story of Atlantis was reported by Plato in the 4th century BC, who said he read it in the writings of Solon (6th century BC), who had originally gotten the story from the Egyptians. It’s a great story, and it has great resonance today, particularly after the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Indonesia in December 2004. But, was Atlantis a reality, was it really destroyed, and if so, when, where and how?

This is what the conference at Milos was to find out.

The pieces of the Atlantis puzzle that Drs. Collima-Girard and Gutscher took for their research were the physical location of the action as described by Plato (outside the Pillars of Hercules), the geological history (destroyed by earthquake and tsunami), and the timing (12,000 years ago). They pinpointed a sunken island called Spartel Bank, located in the western Straits of Gibraltar, that sank about 11,600 years ago. Since Spartel Bank is between 50 and 130 meters below the current water level, no one has looked for cultural remains, but… there it is, right place, right condition, right time.

7,500 Years Too Early

But is it the right time? If Plato’s timing was right, he was wrong about all of the societal description of the communities. Simply put, 12,000 years ago, there were no stratified societies (ranking is in evidence no earlier than 8,000 BC), there were no cities (the first was Catalhoyuk, 6300 BC), there was no monumental architecture (megalithic tombs, 5000 BC).

There were no domesticated cattle (southwest Asia, 6000 BC), there was no bronze production (5000 BC), there were no domesticated horses (Ukraine 4000 BC) or wheels (Mesopotamia, 3000 BC). No roads (Sweet Track, 3000 BC), certainly no canals, aqueducts or bridges. No ships (Egypt, 2600 BC). In fact, according to all the archaeological evidence gathered to date, 12,000 years ago, every single person on the planet was a hunter-gatherer living in an egalitarian band.

The primary point of Plato’s story is not the destruction, but the activities that led up to the destruction. The societal conditions described for Atlantis and Athens by Plato cannot be any earlier than 2600 BC; 4000 BC, if you leave out the transportation network. But since the transportation network made the war with Athens possible, if you’re going to look for Atlantis, look in the Mediterranean or environs, and look for destruction on a pretty massive scale, but, especially, look no earlier than 2500 BC.

What About the Minoan Culture?

It seems clear that Plato got his dates wrong. Bad news for Drs. Collima-Girard and Gutscher, that rules out Spartel Bank, which was underwater and uninhabitable by 11,600 years ago. One idea that has been kicked around for a long time, and meets the criteria established in the paragraph above, is the Minoan culture on Akrotiri, whose cataclysmic end occurred in eruptions in 1500 BC. The Minoan culture is actually quite a good fit. The Egyptians knew about the Minoans; the site of Tell el-Daba has Minoan frescoes, and both cultures were quite involved in international trade throughout the Mediterranean Sea, as is apparent from the Qantir glass workshop.

Whether the legend reported by Plato was based on the Minoan culture and its destruction or not will never be known for certain. However, it is certainly a better fit for Atlantis than the Spartel Bank.


Thanks to About's guide to Geology, Andrew Alden, who first broke this story.

Page 3 of this story is a response from Marc-Andre Gutscher.

Hi Kris,

I am writing to comment briefly upon your weblog concerning my Geology article on the destruction of Atlantis. It turns out that I agree with almost eveything you write, but I only recently came to this conclusion.

In a sense, yes it's the right place, the right circumstances, but no it's not the right time. After having heard various talks at the conference in Milos last week (on Atlantis) I cannot escape the fact that Plato is writing about a bronze age society, with a hierarchy, metallurgy skills, advanced construction, transport and navigation skills, and that this just isn't conceivable in Southern Iberia some 12,000 yrs ago.

So I conclude, if Spartel paleo-island was inhabited roughly 12,000 yrs ago, then it must have been simple fishermen (but the drowning of fishermen would hardly merit being recorded by priests in Egypt would it?).

Otherwise, Plato's chronology must be erroneous. This latter possibility was widely discussed in Milos and suggestions were made that the Egyptian priests counted years either as moon months, or perhaps seasons.

Either would have a dramatic impact on the chronology.

The bottom line is, Spartel was not inhabited by an advanced bronze age culture. So the Atlantis hunters can keep searching.

kind regards,

Marc-Andre Gutscher
Universite de Bretagne Occidentale
Institut Universitaire Europeen de la Mer
UMR 6538 Domaines Oceaniques
Place Nicolas Copernic
Plouzane, France