Late Pleistocene Extinctions: No Evidence for Plato’s Atlantis
- S. Martin and R. G. Klein (eds), Quaternary Extinctions: a Prehistoric Revolution (University of Arizona Press, 1984)
- Berlitz, Atlantis – the Lost Continent Revealed (London: Macmillan, 1984; London and Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1985)
- Kukal, Atlantis in the Light of Modern Research, Earth-Science Reviews 21 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1984)
If, at a party, you were told a rather lengthy story by an old man who said he had learned it at the age of 10 from his 90 year old grandfather, whose father had learned it from a friend who had picked it up during a tour abroad, would you be inclined to believe every word, or even any substantial part of it? Your doubts about the reliability of the speaker would no doubt be increased even further when he had to stop and think at one stage, admitting that he did not remember the story very well. Nevertheless, this is what Plato would have us believe was the source of his information about Atlantis. As recounted briefly in the Timaeus and in more detail in the unfinished Critias, a priest of Neith told the story to Solon at Sais, in the Nile Delta. It was eventually passed on to Plato 185 years later via Dropides, Critias senior and Critias junior.
Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, did not believe a word of this, implying that it had all been invented to provide a framework for a discussion of Plato’s ideas about society and politics . Aristotle should have known, but then, Aristotle was wrong about many other things. If Plato really did hear the story of Atlantis from Critias junior, then possibly his informant possessed some written evidence, as he claimed at one point, and perhaps this evidence was seen by Plato. At any event, the story proved to be one of the most potent of that or any succeeding era.
The essentials are given in the Timaeus (24d-25d):
“These histories tell of a mighty power which, unprovoked, made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia (Minor), and to which your city (Athens) put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya (N. Africa) and Asia (Minor) put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the straits of Heracles (the Mediterranean) is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the land surrounding it on every side may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had ruled over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia (Italy). This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of dangers, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwelt within the pillars. But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.” 
According to the Timaeus (24a), these events took place 9000 years before the time of Solon, i.e. about 11,500 years ago.
Interestingly, that is about the time when the Pleistocene epoch, the most recent ice age, came to an end. Extinctions of animal species had occurred at intervals throughout the Pleistocene, but were particularly marked at or near its conclusion. This is discussed in considerable detail in Quaternary Extinctions, edited by Paul Martin, Professor of Geosciences at the University of Arizona, and Richard Klein, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Paul Martin has also contributed a chapter on the subject to Extinctions, edited by M. H. Nitecki , the proceedings of a symposium held at the University of Chicago in 1983.
As a whole, the late Pleistocene extinctions were insignificant compared to earlier mass extinctions, particularly those at the end of the Permian and Cretaceous periods (see SIS Review VIIA, pp.9-20), but large land animals were profoundly affected. North America lost 75% of its genera of animals heavier than 44kg, including all its mammoths, mastodons, straight-tusked gomphotheres, horses, tapirs, camels and ground sloths, and genera of cheetah, sabretooth cats, pig-like peccaries, bears, giant rodents, musk oxen, moose and deer. In all, 33 genera disappeared between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, and possibly a much shorter period than that. In South America at about the same time, 46 genera became extinct. These were all large mammals, including mastodons, edentates, rodents, ungulates, carnivores, horses, peccaries, camels and deer. The extinctions of large animals in the old world were more modest, but the long-horned buffalo, giant hartebeest, giant Cape horse, a warthog-like pig and two species of springbok disappeared completely from Africa at the end of the Pleistocene, and the European woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth and giant deer became extinct at this time. Nine other genera disappeared from Europe but survived on other continents. The record in Asia is less well documented, but mammoths disappeared rapidly, particularly from the tundra and taiga zones.
All of this is generally agreed. The argument which pervades Quaternary Extinctions is about possible causes.
In 1972, L. Zajdler proposed that Atlantis had been destroyed by the collision of the Earth with the nucleus of a comet ; even earlier, Otto Muck had argued that an asteroid was the agent of destruction. Were the late Pleistocene extinctions caused by such an agent? Alas, it seems the answer must be “no”, or at least, “not directly”. For a start, the extinctions were not synchronous. Mammoths were rare or possibly extinct in Europe at a time when they were still plentiful in America. The extinction of large marsupials in Australia took place 26,000 to 15,000 years ago, much earlier than the extinction of large animals elsewhere. Also, there is no evidence of any major impact at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Small impact craters of Pleistocene age are located at Odessa (Texas), Wolf Creek (W. Australia) and Monturaqui (Chile), but the only one of diameter greater than 1 km is the well-known Barringer Crater, Arizona. This still relatively small crater (1.2 km diameter) has been dated to be 25,000+/-5,000 years old, which makes it probably a little too early to be directly associated with the late Pleistocene extinctions . All of these small craters must have been caused by iron meteorites, for small stony bodies would not penetrate the atmosphere. (If the Alvarez group are correct in their assumption that a 10 km asteroid caused the end of Cretaceous mass extinctions, the crater formed would have had a diameter of about 200 km ).
Muck believed the ‘Carolina Bays’, a series of oval water-filled depressions widespread from Maryland to northern Florida along the Atlantic coastal plain, to be craters caused by the impact of fragments of the asteroid he thought had struck the Atlantic Ocean and destroyed Atlantis . Peat from the features has been shown by carbon-14 dating to have originated during the Pleistocene epoch. However, whilst an impact origin remains a possibility, it is generally thought that the ‘bays’ resulted from the effects of winds on former deserts in that region . Perhaps crucially, no microtektite or iridium abundance anomaly has been detected to indicate a major impact at the end of the Pleistocene. Nevertheless, earlier impacts may have set in motion some of the environmental changes then taking place. Fred Hoyle has argued that the impact of a stone meteorite may bring about an ice age, by injecting fine particles of reflective rock into the atmosphere. On the other hand, the impact of an iron meteorite could bring to a close an ice age, since fine particles of iron could absorb sunlight, helping to heat up the upper atmosphere .
However, there is scarcely any mention of extraterrestrial impacts in Quaternary Extinctions. The issue is the immediate cause or causes of the extinctions, not the possible causes of the causes. The question of the relationship between the extinctions and climatic changes is complex enough in itself, without considering the reasons for the changes in climate. Certainly, almost by definition, major environmental changes took place at the end of the Pleistocene, when the present interglacial period (as it may well be) commenced. The late Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) extinctions in North America were synchronous with the retreat of the ice sheet of the Wisconsin glaciation north of the Great Lakes, and with the replacement of spruce woodland and tundra by pine and deciduous species; in the southern states they were synchronous with the greatest vegetational-climatic change since the previous interglacial 100,000 years earlier. The disappearance of the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and musk ox from late Pleistocene Europe coincided with a change from tundra or steppe to forested conditions. Similar associations of extinctions with climatic changes are found throughout the world. Even in Australia, where the extinctions occurred earlier than elsewhere, the death of the giant kangaroos was synchronous with a long period of heat and drought.
In general, the end of the Pleistocene saw a change to increased seasonality (i.e. a greater temperature difference between summer and winter). This would lead to bigger climatic changes at higher latitudes rather than near the equator, and the extinction pattern is consistent with this.
However, another factor which cannot be ignored is the emergence of mankind. The extinctions in northeast America were synchronous with the first undisputed evidence of human beings in the New World; those in the southwest were synchronous with the stone-age Clovis culture. Some sites show clear evidence of butchering of large animals. Possibly the late Pleistocene extinctions were more marked in America than elsewhere because the effects of hunting had already been a factor in the Old World for thousands of years.
Much of Quaternary Extinctions is taken up with discussing the relative merits of climatic change and hunting as explanations for the late Pleistocene extinctions, without any unanimity of views emerging. However, it is reasonable to conclude that both must have played a part.
But where does that leave Atlantis? The cover of the Fontana edition of Atlantis by writer and linguist Charles Berlitz claims it to be, “The first authoritative, scientifically clinching analysis of the real Atlantis”. Berlitz himself is less forthright, but generally favours the scenario as presented by Plato, speaking of “The legend of Atlantis, now becoming a recognizable reality”. In contrast, Zdenek Kukal concludes his Atlantis in the Light of Modern Research:
“We have neither found a sunken island nor an ancient advanced civilization. Not a single trace! It appears that there was no Atlantis 11,500 years ago and if there was no Atlantis there was no destruction of Atlantis either. No trace has been found by anybody, including geologists and archaeologists, on either islands or the sea floor.”
Who is right?
Berlitz’s style is rambling and anecdotal. Much of what he says is intriguing, even persuasive, but always the hard evidence is lacking. He gives some details and references, but never any crucial ones. A diver has located a huge underwater pyramid near the Bahamas, but will not reveal its location. An island emerged from the Atlantic ocean in 1882, complete with arrow heads, bronze swords and other artifacts, but was never found again, and the log of the ship which discovered it was destroyed in the London blitz of 1940. Buildings and a pyramid have apparently been found under an 8,000 year old lava field in Mexico, but the source of the information is not given.
The Nazca lines, the Sirius mystery and many other classics from the literature of “unexplained phenomena” are thrown in to prove that we don’t know everything about the ancient world. That is a perfectly valid point, but by itself does not prove the existence of Plato’s Atlantis. Despite the general impression created that there must be some truth to the story, no single piece of evidence for it comes near to being established. The style of argument, or rather the association of loosely connected facts, many unproven, may be judged from the following paragraph:
“When the Portuguese first arrived at the Azores, no people were living there, although someone had evidently been there before. For example, on the island of Corvo a statue was still standing of a mounted warrior pointing westward. Unfortunately, while being taken down to be sent to the King of Portugal, the statue was broken and the pieces, subsequently sent to the king, eventually disappeared. An unusual legend concerned with the statue recounts that it was called Cate or Cates. This word resembles a word in a language not of Europe but of the New World, Quechua, the language of the Inca empire of South America. In Quechua cati means “that way” – in other words, towards the American continents.”
Kukal, of the Central Geological Survey, Prague, has adopted a much more careful approach. In the preface to Atlantis in the Light of Modern Research he writes:
“I have never worked on any publication as long as on this one. I have never made so many adjustments to any manuscript of mine. I never had to do so much re-writing, adding here and deleting there.”
Unfortunately, he has tried to cover so much ground in 200 pages that no topic is covered in sufficient detail for the reader to be as certain of the conclusions as the author. It reads like an extended essay, or an abstract of a larger work. Even then there are surprising omissions, such as lack of a mention of the ruins claimed to have been found in shallow waters off Bermuda. Nevertheless, Kukal’s conclusions are likely to be correct: there is no evidence of the huge island Plato described in the Atlantic Ocean, and no evidence of any civilisation anywhere at a time remotely approaching 11,500 years ago.
The only land above or below the Atlantic Ocean which comes near to fitting the general description of Atlantis given by Plato is the extensive submarine plateau on which stand the nine islands of the Azores. It has an area of 135,000 square kilometres, and was considered to be the location of Atlantis by Muck and others (Berlitz does not tie himself down to any one site). It is not continental rock but welded to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, so subject to frequent volcanic and seismic activity. However, the geological evidence suggests that since the Miocene epoch (7 million years ago) the area has been rising rather than falling. Berlitz is characteristically vague on the issue, but Muck accepted that the Azores had not so much sunk at the end of the Pleistocene as been flooded by the rising ocean as the ice sheets melted. However, the Azores plateau is now 2,000 metres below water, whereas according to the evidence presented by Kukal, the rise in ocean level after the last ice age was only about 100 metres, and the fastest rate of increase only about 8 millimetres per year. Hence there is no indication here of the Azores plateau being submerged in a “single day and night”. Even a tidal wave resulting from the impact of Muck’s asteroid would have no relevance if the Azores plateau was already well under water at the time.
Plato describes Atlantis as an advanced, literate, metal-using civilisation capable of subjugating half the countries bordering on the Mediterranean. However, archaeologists know of no such civilisation dating from less than 6,000 years after the supposed destruction of Atlantis. Apart from the dubious evidence of the equestrian statue mentioned above, there is no indication that the Azores were inhabited before the Portuguese arrived. The nearby Canary Islands were settled earlier, but all carbon-14 dates so far limit human activity to the last 2,000 years . All of the human artifacts found at the level of the late Pleistocene extinctions throughout the world are characteristic of stone-age cultures.
Of course there is the odd incident, seized on by Berlitz, of an artifact such as a metal screw being found at a level thousands of years before its time, but this could be the result of a recent disturbance of the ground, or a fissure in a rock. If Plato was telling the truth, there should be much more evidence than that. Atlantis itself may have sunk beneath the waves, taking its inhabitants and its artifacts with it, but traces should have remained throughout its empire. Moreover, if Athens was able to defeat Atlantis in battle, it must have had a comparable culture. Plato was certainly correct when he said that the Athens of 11,500 years ago had higher and more fertile hills than in his own day, when floods had washed much of the soil into the sea (Critias 109-112). However, could it also have had, as he claimed, a highly organised society with a permanent garrison of 20,000 armed men and women? If so, absolutely no traces have been found, either in Athens or anywhere else in Greece. Plato also claimed that these very early Athenians tilled the soil, but there is no evidence of farming in Greece until several thousand years later .
Some have seen a link with Atlantis in the silver-rich states of Tartessos, situated in south-west Spain around the Guadalquivir river. Tartessos was known to the Greeks from about 650 BC, and to the Phoenicians from possibly even earlier: it seems they built their base of Cadiz adjacent to Tartessos territory [11,12]. However, there is little evidence of a Tartessos civilisation, no city having yet been located. As to the earlier history of the Iberian peninsula, there is carbon-14 and thermoluminescence evidence that the first megalithic culture of Europe arose there some 6,500 years ago . This was initially based purely on stone tools, although later copper was used, and then bronze. Farming developed in Iberia about 8,000 years ago , but this is still some time short of the date of Plato’s Atlantis.
Many have concluded that if there really was an Atlantis, it was much smaller and more recent than Plato stated. The renowned Soviet chemist and Atlantologist, N. F. Zhirov, favours a bronze age solution , while some place its destruction specifically in the middle of the second millennium BC, linked either to the eruption of Thera  or, in the Velikovskian scenario, to the cosmic disturbances of the time . However, that would be another story – not the one told by Plato. Kukal himself concludes that Plato’s account was a fiction, using two models for the conflict between Atlantis and Athens: the war between Greece and Persia in 490 BC, when Athens was abandoned by her allies; and those between Carthage and the Greek colonies in Sicily (535-378 BC), for control of that seismically active region.
The search for Plato’s Atlantis will undoubtedly continue and, who knows, there may still be major surprises in store. However, at the present time there is absolutely no evidence for an advanced civilisation in the late Pleistocene epoch. Atlantis may not have been destroyed at that time, but many animal species were; this was at least partly due to dramatic changes in climate, the reasons for which have yet to be established. Here, then, is yet further proof that evolution is not even-paced, but involves extinction episodes. Moreover, unlike other known episodes of extinction (see SIS Review VIIA, pp.9-20), this one was quite recent in geological terms, well within the time of our own species. For that, if for no other reason, it is of great significance.
- J. V. Luce, The End of Atlantis (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969) 2. M. H. Nitecki (ed), Extinctions (University of Chicago Press, 1984) 3. L. Zajdler, Atlantyda (Warsaw: Wiedza Powszechna, 1972) 4. E. M. Shoemaker, “Asteroid and Comet Bombardment of the Earth”, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science 11 (1983), pp.461-494 5. S. V. M. Clube and W. M. Napier, The Cosmic Serpent (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), p.82 6. O. Muck, The Secret of Atlantis (London and Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1979) – edited and updated by others after the author’s death 7. H. F. Garner, The Origin of Landscapes – a Synthesis of Geomorphology (Oxford University Press, 1974), pp.436-438 8. F. Hoyle, Ice (London: Hutchinson, 1981) 9. M. Eddy, “Gran Canaria – a ‘Fortunate Island'”, Popular Archaeology March 1986, pp.15-21 10. D. H. Trump, The Prehistory of the Mediterranean (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981) 11. R. Carpenter, Beyond the Pillars of Hercules (London: Tandem, 1973) 12. S. Moscati, The World of the Phoenicians (London: Cardinal, 1973) 13. E. MacKie, The Megalith Builders (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1977) 14. N. F. Zhirov, Atlantis (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970) 15. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (London: Abacus, 1972), pp.148-150