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Keith Rankin: Heyerdahl and Atlantis

Keith Rankin, 26 April 2002

In the last two weeks, Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon Tiki fame) died. And BBC World rescreened two Horizon programmes, Atlantis Uncovered and A tlantis Reborn Again.

Heyerdahl, from Norway, has believed for virtually all his (long) adult life that Polynesia was first settled by people from an ancient South American civilisation who in turn were civilised by immigrants from ancient Egypt. Heyerdahl put his money and body on the line by sailing balsawood (Kon Tiki) and reed (Ra) craft across the Pacific and Atlantic respectively.

The BBC programmes put the sword to the so-called Atlantean myth; that the world's ancient civilisations had a common source: the refugees of Atlantis, the island or continent that Plato (over 2,000 years ago) stated had drowned 9,000 years before Plato's time.

Variations of this theory of human civilisation include the idea that humankind (distinct from other species) are either partially or fully descended from aliens, or were genetically modified by aliens. It is a story that basically says that the chance of civilisations evolving on earth is so unlikely that it could have happened at most once.

It's also a racist story. The civilised peoples (and any aliens that might have begat them) always had paler skin than the uncivilised. This Atlantean story merges with the Aryan stories that so touched the Nazis. Indeed Atlantean themes were extremely popular at the end of the 19th century, when racist ideologies were at their peak in Europe. Atlantis uncovered states that Nazi ideology believed in Atlantis as an ancestral homeland.

Thor Heyerdahl may not have been a hard-core Atlantean. But his version of the settlement of the Pacific contains the same convictions. He prefers to ignore the overwhelming cultural, linguistic and genetic evidence that the Pacific was settled from South-East Asia, and the complete lack of evidence of a settlement from South America. The key bits of evidence that Heyerdahl does site are (i) that such journeys were physically possible, and (ii) that there is evidence in Peru of carvings of large sea-going vessels. It just doesn't seem to have occurred to him that Pacific Islanders may have discovered South America. After all the civilised are (Europeans of and before his generation presumed) supposed to discover and civilise the dark corners of the world. Savages (noble or otherwise) were not supposed to have been the world's greatest explorers.

Debates about the origins and spread of human civilisation are much like first-past-the-post voting or anti-globalisation protestors. They polarise people into two camps, characterised by each other as the "establishment" or the radical "lunatic fringe".

The truth of course most probably lies in that largely unoccupied centre ground. The radicals are usually so hopelessly driven by new age faith rather than by evidence that they become an easy target for the establishment to shoot. The radicals who use reason rather than assertion are relatively invisible.

It is easy for the establishment to argue against the Heyerdahl's of this world. It's even easier to argue against the Graham Hancock's, the Erich von Daniken's and the Phyllis Schlemmer's. In doing so academic establishments are giving the public the impression that their knowledge is well-founded. The more likely truth is that no scientific discipline knows more than a fraction of what it sets out to know.

Scientific establishments, in defending themselves, sometimes fall well below the standards of reason that it claims to represent.

So it was in Atlantis Uncovered, which was devoted to slaying the straw man that is the version of the Atlantis story as they themselves specified it. They showed that the civilisations of the Middle East and of Meso America developed quite independently of each other. No real surprise. They also suggested that agriculture, while beginning over 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, did evolve separately in other places; eg East Asia and Meso America. In discussing the first origins of agriculture, they noted that there had been a dramatic climate change - a prolonged drought in the Middle East - and that agriculture probably emerged as an adaptation to that drought.

What annoyed me the most was that the programme - a programme ostensibly about Atlantis - failed to note that the dra ma tic global warming referred to was accompanied by a rise in the global sea level of around 50 metres in 50 years. It was the middle of three great "floods" covering the 6000 years that divide our era from the great ice age. The overall effect was to raise global sea levels by more than 100 metres. (See also Maine's History of Sea-Level Changes, Eustas y< /A>, Isostasy and Eustasy - especially Pleistocene Eustasy.)

This timing coincides perfectly with Plato's dating of Atlantis's demise. Further, we now suspect that legends (oral histories?) of antiquity contain more genuine history than establishment science and historians had supposed.

Sciences like archaeology rely on a conservative methodology called induction. At its most conservative, ideas about what happened are allowed to flow only from concrete evidence for them.

The contrasting methodology - deduction - can begin from purely abstract premises. Thus scientific deduction can be quite speculative. Speculations are always possible in the absence of empirical disproof. To qualify as science though, speculation must be tested against the known evidence.

Atlantis can be a meaningful concept without having to support the claim that it was the font of all human civilisation. The more interesting questions are: which places were habitable 12,000 years ago that became victims of the floods of 9700BC. Did any of those places develop agriculture? And what might the people in these places have done in response to the 1 metre per year rises in sea levels that they faced.

One of the most important of such places is the coast of China. Another is a huge part of Sou th -East Asia (now the Sunda continental shelf). In the ice age, the Sunda plains must have been one of the most attractive places on the planet to live.

We know enough economic history from more recent episodes to know the kinds of ways that people respond to such dramatic economic challenges. We can use our knowledge of the human condition to come up with some highly reasonable alternative stories about human "pre-history".

I suspect that the archaeological establishment would resist the intrusion of any such ideas into their world of cautious induction. Many upholders of the received wisdom might be as uncomfortable with the idea that agriculture and other trappings of civilisation may have first begun in or near Borneo or Sumatra or Java as Heyerdahl was uncomfortable with the obvious interpretation of the contact between Polynesia and South America.

Whatever, we can say that Atlantis existed simply by calling one (or all) of the significant land-masses that were drowned around 9700BC "Atlantis". The question of whether Atlantis was significant to the subsequent history of Europe and West Asia may then be determined by asking (and answering) the hard questions about these lands and their inhabitants.

The environment of SE Asia in particular suggests that people with origins in that region should have become the world's most sophisticated mariners. If the descendants of these Atlanteans were able to reach South America, then surely they should have reached the Middle East, and their stories should have been incorporated into indigenous Middle Eastern and European folklore.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish, having mastered the near-Atlantic, were able to spread themselves all around the world in the space of a few decades. Today, the Portuguese and Spanish seem to be unremarkable - they are no super-race. Yet their achievements at that time were remarkable.

In similar vein, it would be surprising if Atlanteans with boats did not play an important chapter in human history around 11,500 years ago. That is not the same as saying that Middle Eastern and Meso American civilisations of much more recent times are in any way a product of an Atlantean diaspora.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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