This article first appeared in Issue 2 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.
To put it simply, if you’re looking for Atlantis, you’re not an archaeologist. Or not a very good one, at least. Why? Because Atlantis never existed. Yes, we know this. No, it’s not a mystery. So, why do people (science-inclined people included) insist on searching for the mystical – but crucially, not mythical – “lost” city?
Atlantis is having quite the moment right now. In fact, it’s so pervasive in modern pop culture you‘d be hard-pressed to find someone who has not heard of the great city lost beneath the waves. Currently starring in both the DC (Aquaman) and Marvel (Wakanda Forever) universes, the infamous Netflix show Ancient Apocalypse, and not forgetting the Disney classic, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s little harm in bringing this fictional story to the big screen. Only, for some people, it’s not fictional, and this is when the discourse gets dark. The ideology of those insisting Atlantis is/was real takes in disinformation, pseudoarchaeology, conspiracy theories, inherent racism, and a lot of abuse towards those fighting all four.
So, how has Atlantis gone from political allegory to an actual location and one of the most popular, and dangerous, conspiracy theories, encouraging mistrust in and undermining the scientific method and, in the most extreme cases, being used as “evidence” for nationalistic and white supremacy rhetoric?
Few stories have achieved global fame like Atlantis. Becoming the symbol of a long-lost Utopia, its name is synonymous with advanced and secret knowledge, paradise lost, epic natural disasters, and adventure.
Why has the story of Atlantis prevailed for so long? Well, many people will tell you it’s because it’s a myth dating back thousands of years. Only it’s not. It’s true, its origin starts with Plato in Ancient Greece nearly 2,400 years ago, but it only became “mythic” around the late 1800s, and before then was not considered a myth at all. It still doesn’t meet the criteria of a myth, despite the story taking on mythic proportions.
“I think part of it is the idea that there's a mystery there,” archaeologist Flint Dibble told IFLScience. “There's this misconception that archaeology is about solving mysteries, when in fact, we're not really doing that. I think that mystery very much romanticizes it.”
It helps when there isn’t a lot to go on – it’s a lot harder for a tale to be twisted when there’s enough evidence and information to fill the Library of Alexandria.
“The funny thing about Atlantis is when it was originally mentioned by Plato, he really didn't write very much about it. Just a few small paragraphs,” Stephanie Halmhofer, a PhD student of archaeology at the University of Alberta, told IFLScience.
“But this city that he paints this picture of is just such an incredible place, you know, these massive palaces and gold everywhere and silver and dolphin statues… I mean, who wouldn't want that to be a real place? Sometimes I'm sad Atlantis wasn't real. Because imagine finding this incredible, incredible place.”
Halmhofer, whose research focuses on pseudoarchaeology and conspiritual ideologies, thinks it can be easy to fall into conspiracy theories when people are experiencing times of hardship or turmoil and are looking for answers, or something or someone to blame.
“It’s like an escape from reality, even though to folks it is a reality. [Atlantis] seems like it's a pretty amazing place. So I understand kind of why people are wanting it to be a thing.”
“It's a story about a civilization that's destroyed in some sort of big event. That's the allegory that Plato created, and of course, you know, floods and things, these kinds of catastrophes resonate very well,” Dibble offered.
“We live in a period of catastrophism, as people are worried about climate change, or many other problems in the world, nuclear weapons and things like that. And so I think there’s a certain appeal of catastrophe stories as well.”
Plato's Atlantis: the man, the myth, the legend
All available evidence points to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato inventing the powerful island nation in 360 BCE to prove a point about the ideal state and the dangers of imperialism. Described in two dialogues in Timaeus and Critias – Plato’s follow-up to The Republic – Atlantis was no utopia. It was the aggressor of Plato’s idealized (and importantly, fictionalized) Athens, a version that existed long before the real Athens did.
Atlantis, a highly advanced civilization, grew greedy and essentially too big for its boots, waging imperialistic war on the nations around it. Only Athens, the much smaller power, managed to stand its ground and triumph over the invading forces, defeating its army and freeing its slaves. After the battle, violent earthquakes and floods caused Atlantis to sink into the sea.
Plato’s tale, sandwiched between stories of the Greek gods, was not meant to be a historical treatise, but an example of how a utopia can fail, and a just state (Athens) can prevail. It was the Athens of the Atlantis story that was Plato’s idea of the ideal state.
“It's the sequel to The Republic in a sense,” Dibble says. “[In] Plato's Republic, he develops his model of an ideal political system, and this moves that forward. The goal of the Atlantis story, in the Timaeus and Critias dialogues, is to sort of show how this republic would act in a more political warfare situation.”
So, how did this brief allegory end up becoming the ultimate mythic utopia? And how did Atlantis, the greedy loser that underestimated its smaller enemy, come out of it thousands of years later as the good guy?
How do we know Atlantis isn’t real?
Firstly, it’s important to understand Atlantis is not a myth, not in the historical sense of the word, anyway, and it’s certainly not an Ancient Greek myth. Myths are traditional stories, often of unknown origin, that are passed down over long periods of time and can be traced to multiple contemporary sources: writings, artworks, pottery, and evidence of oral histories.
Plato is the first and sole ancient source of Atlantis, Greek or otherwise. Not only are there no other known references in contemporary writing, artwork, or pottery, but there are none that predate Plato’s writings. According to him, the events of Atlantis occurred thousands of years before his story takes place, so you would expect some kind of mention of such a mighty powerful nation, a war, or even the natural disasters that occurred, somewhere.
In her seminal work, she lists Atlanteans as one of the seven root races of humanity. She also lists invisible astral jellyfish, lemurs that had eyes on the back of their heads, and a future race from Venus.
The embellishments and mystery surrounding the “search” for this lost utopia has become what Dibble calls a “modern myth”.
The idea that Atlantis was an actual historical place and not just a story invented for a specific purpose by Plato didn’t surface until the 19th century. In the 1870s, one Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian mystic living in the United States, founded a religious movement, Theosophy. In her seminal work, The Secret Doctrine (1888), she lists Atlanteans as one of the seven root races of humanity. She also lists invisible astral jellyfish, lemurs that had eyes on the back of their heads, and a future race from Venus.
In 1882, Ignatius Donnelly, former US congressman, published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. The book centered on the idea that Atlantis had really existed and not only represented a place where humanity “dwelt for ages in peace and happiness” but was the source of many ancient civilizations around the world if you followed the "clues" in Plato’s writing.
This book and Madame Blavatsky’s had a huge impact on what would become known as “Atlantaology” but are also the beginnings of the idea that real historical (and notably, non-white) ancient civilizations weren’t capable of sophisticated existence without the help of a mythical people, an ideology that would take a very dark turn.
“It’s all modern mythology. It's based off very clearly not reading Plato closely. And of course, at the time these historians and philosophers are writing, there's not much archaeology around, archaeology is just starting. So there's no archaeological evidence that supports or disrupts it,” Dibble says. “Obviously now, 150 years later, the archaeological evidence shows nill, it's very clear, and a close reading of the context of [Plato’s] dialogues shows that they're just flipping it on its head to make their own modern mythmaking.”
How is archaeology being misused in the “hunt for Atlantis”?
Archaeology is the study of human culture through its material remains. It’s what we learn about a people from what’s left behind. It’s not just that there is no archaeological evidence of any Atlantean city or people, but modern sonar, LIDAR, and mapping techniques have revealed no evidence for the landmass, an island Plato described as larger than modern-day north Africa and half of Turkey combined, helpfully pinpointed as being in the Atlantic Ocean.
“If you think about everything that has been told about Atlantis, whether Plato's original version, or the version a lot of folks share today that they claim is from Plato, if you think about all these things that they tell us we're supposed to be seeing of Atlantis, the sheer size of this continent and these materials, which we find at other archaeological sites, why wouldn't we find them at Atlantis?” Halmhofer shrugs.
“We have found absolutely nothing from Atlantis. [There’s] Plato's work and that's it. So, archaeologically speaking, there's just nothing. Sadly, nothing.”
But for most archaeologists, the missing evidence is missing the point.
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As Dibble points out, archaeology is not about using these tools to try and prove something exists, but about what we can learn from the archaeological evidence. Sometimes the evidence found doesn’t match up with things like text sources, or proves textual sources impossible, ie they are likely fictional.
“I guess you could say we have the archaeological evidence that proves Plato's description wrong,” Dibble says. “Not that we have anything for Atlantis, because there is no Atlantis. But he also describes Athens in the same dialogue when he's describing Atlantis. And it's pretty clear that what he describes as an early Athens never could have existed.”
For example, Dibble describes three things mentioned in Plato’s Athens that we know from archaeological evidence didn’t exist at the same time: the wall around the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena, and the Agora fountain house.
It’s not just that there is no archaeological evidence that this Athens or Atlantis existed, but the archaeological evidence that does exist actually shows Plato’s Athens couldn’t have existed, so it’s logical to conclude that neither did Atlantis.
The dangers of pseudoarchaeology
Pseudarchaeology is a false (from ancient Greek “pseudes”) version of archaeology that rejects scientific methodology, accepted evidence, and data gathering and instead relies on bias and cherry-picking to make “evidence” fit an assumption or established narrative.
“It's not that the information folks are using is necessarily wrong or not factual. But they're pulling facts out of that context, and giving it a new context,” Halmhofer explains. “It's largely that – taking facts out of context, drawing a bunch of different facts together to create this new story – rather than just looking at them in their context and saying ‘what is this telling me?’ and being willing to change our mind depending on what we see. That's a big part of archaeology.”
One of the strongest arguments from people who are anti-science is that when something thought to be proven true is later revealed not to be, science keeps moving the goalposts rather than accepting it is wrong. But as Halmhofer points out, that is not quite the gotcha moment they may hope, that’s actually the scientific method. Science isn’t about being proven right, it’s a process of learning and discovery, constantly being updated.
Not everybody who believes in Atlantis is a neo-Nazi. Atlantis is just very attractive to neo-Nazis.
There are many reasons why someone may believe in or propagate pseudoscientific claims. Sometimes it is just bad science, cherry-picking data and refusing to overcome personal biases. Sometimes it’s exploitation of people’s fascination with mysteries (there is serious money to be made in the entertainment industry). But it can also spread racist sentiments, historical and cultural appropriation, and nationalism.
“I think that the core of pseudoarchaeological theories is problematic, what they're built out of and around is problematic. But that doesn't necessarily mean that every single person who adheres to them or falls into them is really terrible,” Halmhofer says. “Not everybody who believes in Atlantis is a neo-Nazi. Atlantis is just very attractive to neo-Nazis.”
Nazis, natives, and nationalism
In today's society, particularly in the US, pseudoarchaeology is very clearly linked with nationalism, racism, and colonialism, and is used as an argument for white supremacy.
Halmhofer says it’s not a coincidence that the rise in interest in Atlantis in America was in the early days of the birth of a new nation trying to give itself a history.
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America and southern North America in the 1500s, they weren’t expecting to see such sophisticated cities and people, Halmhofer says. They needed a reason to explain what they were seeing and, for some people, Atlantis became that reason: The only way these Indigenous people could have built these things was if Atlantis survivors had made their way to the Americas and taught them. There is even an argument that America is a piece of Atlantis that broke off and survived the flood.
“Pseudoarchaeology, at its core, is very racist and very colonialist. You're constantly telling these folks that they could not have done what they've done without intervention from Atlantis, or extraterrestrials, so that's the problematic core,” says Halmhofer.
It wasn’t just America trying to link itself to Atlantis though. Nazi historians and archaeologists were determined to find this “last civilization” as they thought it would reveal the source of the “Aryan” Nordic race. They thought Atlanteans were of the purest blood so Aryans must be descended from them. Claims of descending from pure-blood Atlanteans via the Aryan race are built into white supremacist mythology today.
While it’s true some people who make claims about pseudoarchaeology − like Atlantis or the Egyptian pyramids being built by aliens − are overtly racist, sometimes such conversation is meant as harmless fun, even if it’s propagating a racist theory.
“Sometimes it's really subtle,“ Halmhofer says. “So I’m not really mad at folks who kind of fall into this and you know, enjoy watching Ancient Aliens. Because maybe you just don't know, and you haven't quite seen that light yet. But when you see it, you can't unsee it.”
Halmhofer hopes that by speaking up about the dangers of pseudoarchaeology, particularly on social media, people may recognize the problems with what they’re watching, reading, or promoting and step back from it. But she also recognizes what archaeologists need to work on to help combat the misuse of their findings, particularly after seeing some of the traps scientists fell into online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Teaching media literacy, basic science communication skills, and then just basic social science supportive type skills would just be so useful,” she says.
Because Halmhofer’s research is specifically on conspirituality – a term coined in 2011 that refers to ideologies built out of New Age spirituality and conspiracy theories – she says she has been into some “really dark, far-right spaces” and seen “incredible levels of hate and violence” connected to pseudoarchaeology to an extent that many archaeologists still don’t believe.
Dibble, who is well known for debunking pseudoarchaeology on Twitter, also points out that there is an onus on journalists and documentary makers to not play up mystery or danger when reporting on archaeology. He concedes that this includes scientists too and that anyone producing information should also consider how to combat disinformation when that information is twisted by others.
As Halmhofer says, wryly: “When I got into archaeology I did not know I would spend as much time talking about extraterrestrials as I do, but you know, here we are."