Ever since the famed Greek philosopher Plato first wrote of a fabled continent called Atlantis more than two thousand years ago, scholars have been locked in fierce debate as to whether such a place truly existed. While a few rare individuals have taken Plato’s words seriously, most scoff at the idea that an advanced civilization could vanish as completely as if it had never existed. Such is a bit like imagining an elephant could walk through a snowdrift without leaving footprints, making it easy to ignore the entire subject and write it off as yet another example of New Age pseudo-science or, at best, an fantastic and historically indefensible fable. And this is not an unreasonable position either. After all, Plato described the place as being as large as Libya (an ancient term for North Africa) and Asia combined, making one reasonably confident it should be hard to miss. And yet no one has managed to produce as much as a coral reef that might have marked its ancient shoreline, much less an entire submerged continent. But the search continues and, if anything, appears to be growing in both scale and sophistication until today it has become something of a technological/historical holy grail for the twenty-first century.
Did Atlantis exist, and if it did, where could it have been? While no one can answer that question with any degree of certainty—though some attempt to—there are quite a few competing theories out there to consider. Some of them are more plausible than others—and a few even have some support from the scientific community—but all of them are just guesses. So now, without further ado, here is my list, in no particular order, of the top ten theories regarding the lost continent of Atlantis.
10. Accounts of Atlantis are fictional
The traditional position maintained by most scientists and historians over the years is that Plato’s account of a fabulously wealthy city as told in the Critias and Timaeus was merely a fictional story designed to both entertain and enlighten his readers as to the dangers of hubris and turning one’s back on the gods, and was never intended to be interpreted as an account of a real place or real events. Evidence for this is suggested by the fact that Plato tells us the island was given to the Greek god Poseidon, who fell in love with the beautiful daughter of Atlantis’ first king—named, not coincidentally I suspect, Atlas—and begat numerous children by her, to whom he promptly parceled out parts of the island to. He also tells us the Atlanteans were defeated by an alliance of Greek and Eastern Mediterranean peoples around 12,000 years ago—thousands of years before the earliest civilizations even emerged in the region—making the entire story unlikely to say the least. The question, then, is that if we are compelled to take any of the story as true, aren’t we logically obligated to accept everything—including a procreating god and a skewed timeline—as true as well? Does give one pause to wonder.
9. Atlantis was fictional but the accounts of a world-wide Deluge were true
Plato makes numerous references to a great deluge occurring thousands of years before his time that destroyed almost the whole world, leaving only a tiny fragment of humanity left to repopulate the globe and start civilization anew. The story of Atlantis, then, while itself a manifestation of Plato’s fertile imagination, may have been inspired by a real historical event—in this case, a massive global flood—that may have taken place ten thousand years before he was born. Could this be some distant memory of the end of the last Ice Age, when global ocean levels rose by hundreds of feet in just a few centuries, submerging entire landmasses in the process, embellished through each retelling, or could it have been something else (such as a meteor strike in the ocean that produced enormous devastation throughout the world?)
8. Atlantis was a continent that existed in the mid-Atlantic as was destroyed by natural catastrophes
For the purest, this remains the traditional understanding and the one originally postulated by nineteenth century writer and Atlantisphile Ignatius Donnelly in his 1882 book, Atlantis, the Antediluvian World, who imagined the Atlantic Ocean to be no more than a few hundred feet deep and prone to occasional vertical shifting. Since so little was known about the ocean in his day, his theory was considered plausible by many at the time—at least until the advent of modern oceanography, when it was determined that the Atlantic was up to five miles deep in spots and not prone towards creating massive continents. While this essentially torpedoed poor Ignatius’ hypothesis as far as science was concerned, some continue to hold to it with great tenacity largely because of Plato’s insistence that the place existed just outside the “Pillars of Hercules” (an ancient term for the modern Straits of Gibraltar), implying that it had to lie somewhere in the mid Atlantic.
7. Plato was referring to the ancient Minoans and the explosion of the volcanic island of Thera
An increasingly popular theory concerning the true nature of Atlantis—and one that has some acceptance within the scientific community—is that Plato was referring to a people native to the modern Greek island of Crete known as the Minoans, who were largely wiped out when the nearby volcanic island of Thera (known today as Santorini) erupted in 1600 BCE, producing tsunamis large enough to obliterate a number of Minoan coastal cities and do considerable damage around the entire Mediterranean basin. Such a spectacular and massive catastrophe, obviously at the hands of displeased Gods, would have been remembered in the annals of Egyptian history to ultimately find its way into the mythology of Plato’s day over a thousand years later. The hypothesis, then, is that Plato was referring to that very catastrophe in a somewhat idealized form, the descriptions of Atlantis’ vast resources and power unavoidably exaggerated or embellished with the retelling over the years and innocently passed on by the Greek philosopher.
6. Atlantis was a mythical retelling of the Black Sea flood
Another theory that has been recently postulated—and again has some support among scientists—is that Atlantis and the “great Deluge” told of by Plato was a mythologized account of another historical event that took place thousands of years before Plato was born: the breaching of the Bosporus by the Mediterranean Sea and the flooding of the Black Sea around 5,600 BCE. It has been demonstrated that a number of civilizations may have flourished on the shore of the Black Sea (then a fresh water lake half its present size) at the time, only to find it all immersed under hundreds of feet of sea water in a fairly short time (some estimates placing it at less than a year). Such an event would have likely had a traumatic effect on the people of the region, who would have been scattered by the event. As they escaped the rising waters and emigrated to other regions, each would have carried with them their own highly mythologized account of the flood that came upon them practically overnight, creating the inspiration for Plato’s story.
5. Atlantis was referring to a more temperate Antarctica
The controversial suggestion by the late Charles Hapgood that the Earth’s crust may have suddenly shifted some twelve thousand years ago (he maintained that the Earth’s crust floats upon a magma of molten rock like the skin of an orange and periodically shifts over the millennia due to subterranean and gravitational pressures) has caught the imagination of many an Atlantis buff over the years. According to Hapgood, because of this shift, at one time the continent of Antarctica was much further north than it is now—and temperate and populated by an advanced civilization to boot—and that this was what Plato was referring to as Atlantis. Its sudden and catastrophic shift to its current icy position, then, destroyed the Atlanteans and made Antarctica the uninhabitable ice box it is today. Though the idea has its supporters, the premise that the Earth’s crust could shift so dramatically and suddenly has no support within the scientific community. Further, Hapgood presented his theory before science came to fully understand the nature of plate tectonics, which did much to exile his “sliding crust” hypothesis to the realm of “fringe beliefs” where Plato’s continent is concerned.
4. Atlantis was a reference to an ancient continent called Lemuria
Interestingly, the Greeks were not the only ones to maintain a belief in an ancient, island-bound civilization. India and the Asian continent have their own tradition, which they call Lemuria—an island civilization that supposedly existed in the Indian Ocean. The idea that such a place existed was first postulated by 19th century zoologist Philip Sclater as a means of accounting for the discontinuities he found in the biogeography of the Indian Ocean region at the time. His premise that Madagascar and India may have once been part of a larger continent, which he named Lemuria, has been rendered obsolete by modern understanding of plate tectonics, which consistently demonstrate that while sunken continents do exist—such as the Kerguelen Plateau in the Indian Ocean — there is no known geological formation under the Indian Ocean that corresponds to Sclater’s hypothetical Lemuria. The name did at least lend its name to the tiny primates native to Madagascar known as a Lemur (or was it the other way around?) so it wasn’t a complete loss.
3. Atlantis was actually the mythological land of Mu
Mu is the name of a hypothetical continent that allegedly existed in either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, depending on who you listen to. In either case, it was thought to have disappeared at the dawn of human history, its survivors emigrating to other continents to serve as the foundation for a number of later civilizations throughout the world. Today, scientists generally dismiss the concept of Mu and of other lost continents like Atlantis or Lemuria (see above) as physically impossible, since a continent can neither sink nor be destroyed by any conceivable catastrophe, especially not in a short time. Additionally, the weight of archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence is contrary to the claim that the ancient civilizations of the New and Old Worlds stemmed from a common ancestral civilization.
2. Atlantis was in Southeast Asia
If one looks at the geography of the planet at the height of the last Ice Age, they will notice the ocean levels were over two hundred feet lower then as a result of so much water being taken up in the massive ice sheets that covered most of North America and Europe. As such, you can see that the island archipelago we know today as Indonesia was then a complete continent nearly as large as western Europe that stretches from Australia to the Indian subcontinent (which also extends hundreds of miles further out to sea). Temperate, sub tropical, and massive, it would have made a perfect place for an emerging civilization—perhaps even one as technologically advanced as our own today—to take root. Could such a global civilization have emerged then, only to perhaps find itself destroyed by its own technology and all evidence submerged by the expanding ocean as the ice caps melted? Certainly, this would account for many of flood and advanced civilization mythologies maintained by many diverse cultures around the globe and explain many of the similarities between parallel structures (pyramids, obelisks, stone carvings) seen around the world today.
1. Atlantis was in the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Azores, Canary Islands, etc.
The idea that Plato was referring to a place in the Atlantic does not die easily, and so nearly any island or land mass lying anywhere between east coast of the Americas and Europe/Africa has been suggested as the locale for Plato’s fantastic continent. Unfortunately, none of these islands are particularly impressive in scope or size, nor do any of them suggest they once maintained anything approaching an advanced civilization in the distant past (or even today, for that matter). The Bahamas, because of the discovery off the coast of Bimini Island in 1968 of what appears to be a man-made harbor wall (generally dismissed by scientists as a formation of beach rock containing artificial looking but purely natural fracture lines suggestive of a paved “road”) and due to interest in the unproven but popular “Bermuda Triangle” legend, remains the odds-on favorite among many Atlantis buffs, though it is far from enjoying unanimous support.