December 6, 1996
Flying saucers, yetis, and crop circles are all popular topics in the tabloids. Add to them universal legends of a Great Flood and ancient architectural wonders such as the Egyptian pyramids, which seem to defy even modern construction techniques, and one begins to realize that although most of these mysteries are probably just fiction, there must be some kernel of truth to capture the public imagination.
One such mystery is the myth of Atlantis and the question of its existence. Ignatius Donnelly’s 1882 book: Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (revised 1949) set the standard for 20th century Atlantean research, covering in his book Plato’s reports, biblical stories, and the myths of New World civilizations. However, until the work of the late history professor Charles H. Hapgood, Atlantean research was limited to mythological and scarce anthropological evidence. Hapgood provided a geologic theory, Earth Crust Displacement, which claims that a catastrophic shift of the earth’s lithosphere around 10,000 BC. resulted in the continent of Antarctica—Hapgood’s site for the lost continent of Atlantis—moving from a temperate latitude to its current polar position.
The geologic revolution that took place in the 1960s—namely the development of plate tectonics—seemed to remove Hapgood’s theory, which had never been taken seriously in academic circles, from the picture. However, Graham Hancock, a former correspondent for The Economist, revives Hapgood’s argument, presenting evidence in his book Fingerprints of the Gods that there did indeed exist an Atlantis, which was responsible for many of the unexplained connections between known ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Aztecs. He proposes Earth Crust Displacement not as a replacement for plate tectonics, but as a supplement.
Although Hapgood’s theory of Earth Crust Displacement attempts to answer unsolved mysteries in cartography and archaeology through geologic means, the evidence for the theory itself is lacking in validity, and instead of providing a geologically sound addition to plate tectonics, the theory posed is riddled by logical and factual gaps.
Charles H. Hapgood was not a geologist; he was a professor of the history of science at Keene College in New Hampshire (Hancock, 1995, p. 9). His research led him to study numerous Renaissance and early-modern maps of the world. He made the startling observation that several of these maps seemed to greater and lesser degrees to depict a southern landmass shaped and sized similarly to Antarctica. Although various explorers visited the islands to the south of South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, Antarctica was not officially discovered until 1820. In addition, these maps seemed to be drawn from source maps dating back at least to the Middle Ages and perhaps even to antiquity (Hancock, 1995, p. 5). Even more startling, it seems, is that according to Hapgood, some of these maps depict not the current, icy outline of Antarctica, but instead its sub-glacial topography. This led Hapgood to hypothesize that the original source maps had been drawn by an advanced civilization thousands of years earlier, when, at the end of the last ice age, Antarctica was not completely glaciated. In fact, Hapgood and Hancock argue, at this time, Antarctica lay not at its current position at the south pole, but instead about 30 degrees further north, in a temperate climate.
It is well-known through continental drift and plate tectonics that the earth’s landmasses are not stationary, but form parts of large, independently moving crustal plates. This motion is, however, very slow by human terms, and the 30 degree shift proposed by Hapgood would take millions, if not hundreds of millions, of years to complete according to plate tectonics. In the 1950s, Hapgood developed a theory called Earth Crust Displacement (ECD) which could account the shift, and yet not contradict the theory of continental drift. The basic notion of ECD is that the earth’s lithosphere, although composed of individual plates, can at times move as a whole over the asthenosphere.
To better visualize the ECD, consider a loose-fitting jig-saw puzzle on a table. Normally, if one tries to move the puzzle by applying uneven pressure to the pieces, the puzzle crumbles and pieces slide over each other. This simulates plate tectonics and continental drift. Consider the results, however, when a more even force is applied to the puzzle. By pushing evenly on the bottom edge, it is possible to slide the whole puzzle across the table without disrupting the pieces. This is the heart of ECD.
Hapgood claimed that towards the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, the extensive mass of glacial ice covering the northern continents caused the lithosphere to ‘slip’ over the asthenosphere, moving Antarctica, during a period of at most several centuries, from a position in the middle latitudes to its current location, and at the same time rotating the other continents. Antarctica’s movement to the polar region precipitated the development of its ice cap. Similarly, by shifting the northern ice sheets out of the arctic zone, the end of the ice age was facilitated.
Support for this theory was given in a forward by Albert Einstein to one of Hapgood’s books in 1953:
The claim is that the great build-up of ice in the northern hemisphere was not situated symmetrically, and that as the earth rotated on its axis, this imbalance caused the lithosphere to ‘slip’ catastrophically, as Hancock states: “much as the skin of an orange, if it were loose, might shift over the inner part of the orange all in one piece.” (Hancock, 1995, p. 10) Naturally, if Antarctica shifted south, and parts of the northern hemisphere moved out of the arctic zone, this implies other areas must have shifted into the arctic area and become colder. Indeed, this is what Hancock claims happened.
For example, Hancock cites “huge numbers of warm-blooded, temperate adapted mammal species were instantly frozen, and then their bodies preserved in the permafrost [...] the bulk of the destruction seems to have taken place during the eleventh millennium BC“ (Hancock, 1995, p. 479). The assumption is, if temperate climate regions were suddenly thrust into polar conditions, large numbers of animals, unable to adapt and/or flee, would perish. Another piece of evidence claims that portions of the Antarctic ice sheet are much younger than previously thought, and that in reality portions of Antarctica remained glacier-free until the end of the last ice age or even later. Hancock writes:
Supposedly, if Antarctica still had flowing rivers, then it could not have been completely covered by ice, and in that case, since we know it is now in a polar location where it is too cold for such rivers, it would make sense if it were previously located outside of a polar climate.
Perhaps an important issue is whether or not ECD conflicts with plate tectonics, a well-accepted theory in geology today. Plate tectonics is a relatively young theory, having only really emerged in the late 1960s. It traces its origins, however, to the concepts of continental drift and sea-floor spreading. According to continental drift, the continents can move freely and change their positions relative to one another, and major early evidence for this was the observation that continents such as South America and Africa seem to fit together like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. Sea-floor spreading further hypothesizes that along a mid-oceanic ridge the sea-floor spreads out, causing the two sides of the ridge to move apart as if on conveyer belts. In the 1960s new evidence and ideas about the earth’s crust developed these hypotheses into the theory of plate tectonics, which states that the lithosphere is composed of a few large and several small plates that move slowly across the asthenosphere, and that intense geologic activity, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, occur at plate boundaries (Plummer and McGeary, 1996, p. 418). Neither continental drift nor plate tectonics, however, disallows the plates from moving in a unified manner at times. Just as in our puzzle analogy earlier, it is possible to move the puzzle in both a uniform and an uneven manner, one causing an even shift, and the other collisions between the pieces.
In his book, Hancock pulls together Hapgood’s theory and more recent evidence to set forth a manner by which Antarctica, now covered by snow and ice, could have in the relatively recent geologic past had a temperate climate and have been home to the lost civilization of Atlantis, now buried below thousands of feet of ice. The theory of ECD shows no inherent contradictions with plate tectonics, the now-accepted explanation of how the earth’s crust moves and changes. In fact, Hancock claims both can be true, and the ECD is a modification to an existing, yet incomplete theory.
The case is more complicated than it at first appears. Should we simply accept this addition to an established theory because it seemingly explains fascinating events in mythology and helps do away with anomalies in ancient maps? Hapgood (1958) and Hancock’s (1995) evidence bears further scrutiny before it is accepted as fact. Since the publication of Hancock’s (1995) book, numerous well-documented criticisms have appeared on the Internet, many of them originating in news- and talkgroups. Just as Hancock’s evidence deals with three main topics, so do the criticisms. In particular, Hapgood’s interpretations of the maps he used is suspect; most accepted evidence with respect to Antarctica contradicts Hancock and Hapgood; and Hancock’s claims about the northern hemisphere and the last ice age tend to be incorrect.
The motivation for ECD seems to be the belief that around 12, 000 years ago Antarctica was at a warmer latitude, and some method is needed to move it south. The claim that the continent was so recently situated farther north comes from the maps cited by Hapgood. The first error in Hapgood’s interpretation is the assumption that these maps showing a southern continent are in fact depicting Antarctica. Since ancient times, it was believed that there must be a southern continent to balance out the overabundance of landmass in the northern hemisphere. For Plato and Aristotle, this was also an aesthetic point: in a proper world, such a continent would exist to provide better balance; since the Greeks were aware of lands near the arctic, there should also be land near the antarctic (Wilford, 1981, p. 139). Without actually knowing the shape or size of Antarctica—or even of its very existence—a southern continent was placed on several early world maps and globes, sometimes with such engravings as: “Terra australis nondam cognita,” the “southern land not yet known,” (Wilford, 1981, p. 139).
One of the maps researched by Hapgood is the Oronteus Finaeus map of 1531, which shows a large land mass south of South America, complete with mountains and rivers (Hancock, 1995, p. 14-5). However, two things strike an observer almost immediately: the landmass represented on the map bears little if any resemblance to the Antarctica that appears on modern maps and globes, even accounting for distortions due to map projection. For example, the Antarctica Peninsula is completely missing from the map. Secondly, Finaeus’ southern continent is both far too large and far too close to South America to be Antarctica. Hancock (1995) points out another map cited by Hapgood, the 1737 map by Philippe Buache, which Hancock claims “accurately portrays the subglacial topography of Antarctica” (Hancock, 1995, p. 478) because it represents a southern continent composed of two parts, much like the actual above-sea-level land surface of Antarctica.. However, this does not represent the ice-free topography of Antarctica, since it fails to take into account isostatic rebound. That is, the ice mass on the Antarctic surface depresses the land upon which it resides. If the ice were removed, in order to maintain equilibrium, the land would ‘rebound’, albeit slowly. Such is the case in much of Scandinavia, where once ice-covered regions are increasing in elevation year by year. As pointed out in an Internet file by Paul Heinrich, “the Phillip Buache Map of 1737 fails miserably in any way to accurately portray either the subglacial bedrock topography of Antarctica [...] or the ice-free topography of Antarctica as represented by the bedrock surface as adjusted for isostatic rebound” (Heinrich, 1996, MOM and Oronteus...).
Hapgood’s argument that these maps are based upon ancient sources rests upon the assumption that Antarctica was not discovered by Europeans until several hundred years after the maps were made. Although Antarctica was not properly discovered until 1820 by Nathaniel B. Palmer (Wilford, 1981, p. 267), it is quite likely it was visited or at least sighted earlier than that by explorers and traders. Let us not forget that the Vikings visited North America hundreds of years before Columbus was born. There are other claims that the southern continent on these maps is actually Australia, as sighted by early Portuguese merchants, not Antarctica (Lunde, 1980, The Oronteus...). Weakened by this evidence, Hapgood (1958) and Hancock’s (1995) belief in an as-of-yet unknown ancient civilization becomes not only illogical, but absurd.
A review of the evidence relating to Antarctica leads to just as many problems. The first is the age of the Antarctic ice sheet. According to Hancock (1995), “researchers at the Carnegie Institute in Washington DC were able to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that great rivers carrying finegrained well-sorted sediments had indeed flowed in Antarctica until about 6000 years ago” (Hancock, 1995, p. 16). The bulk of core samples from Antarctica, however, show that there is “an abundance of evidence that demonstrates [...] that the Antarctica ice cap has been around for the last 2 million years or more [...] Ice core and other data from [sic] the Antarctica clearly show that it has been covered by an ice cap for the last 300,000 to 3 million or more years” (Heinrich, 1996, Fingerprints..). In fact, most geology text books, including Plummer and McGeary (1996), state the same. According to Hapgood, ECD caused Antarctica to move south and caused the end of the ice age in the northern hemisphere. The end of the last ice age was accompanied by a several hundred foot rise in ocean levels world-wide. However, Hapgood’s theory also claims that this shift south is what caused the Antarctic ice sheet: that is, Antarctica accumulated the ice-mass lost in the north. But in this case, there would be less of a rise in ocean levels (Heinrich, 1996, MOM and Oronteus...). In addition, the depression of the Antarctic landmass would further lower ocean levels, thus this claim on the part of Hapgood and Hancock disagrees with current knowledge about the end of the last ice age and the rise in sea levels. Furthermore, Antarctica is the world’s largest desert. It seems unlikely that the catastrophic build-up of the Antarctic ice sheet as proposed in Fingerprints of the Gods can be accounted for in such a short period of time, considering Antarctica’s climate.
Hancock’s (1995) arguments for the northern hemisphere are filled with just as many holes. According to Heinrich, the claim that “huge numbers” of animals were frozen in permafrost is erroneous: “First, their claim that hundreds of thousands of frozen carcasses have been found is simply incorrect. At most, only a few tens of frozen carcasses have been documented in all of Siberia and Alaska.” (Heinrich, 1996, MOM and Atlantis...) Additionally, most of the carcasses appear to have gone through extensive decomposition, indicating not that they were suddenly trapped and frozen, but that the remains (mostly bones) were preserved sometime well after death. Even more importantly, it seems that most of the frozen carcasses pre-date the supposed catastrophe as proposed by Hancock by many thousands of years (Heinrich, 1996, MOM and Atlantis...). One of the pieces of evidence for ECD is that different parts of northern continents (now at the same latitude) experienced different levels of glaciation (Hancock, 1995, p. 478). There are, however, other explanations than ECD. For example, the central and eastern parts of North America were covered by a large ice sheet, whereas in the topographically more varied west, mountain or valley glaciers predominated. Additionally, the last ice age was not merely one continuous event: it was punctuated by several interglacial periods. That is, during the ice age, the ice sheets advanced and retreated more than once.
It seems as if much of the evidence presented in Fingerprints of the Gods can either be directly refuted or at least called into doubt when compared with well-documented research. For example, neither the northern hemisphere evidence nor the claims about Antarctica are strong enough to support ECD, and Hapgood’s map interpretations all have other possible explanations. By these means, it is clear that there is little reason to support ECD based upon the evidence presented in Hancock’s and Hapgood’s works.
Lack of evidence alone does not disprove a theory. So far, no logical inconsistencies have been found in the theory of ECD itself. Perhaps a ‘slip’ with respect to Antarctica did not occur when and where Hapgood claims, but it might still be possible to save ECD as a theory and tie it to plate tectonics. That too, however, is a losing proposition. Valid scientific theories in general have to do two things: explain current data, and answer questions that arise from the logical consequences of the theory. ECD runs into problems particularly with regard to the second requirement.
The first problem comes from the concept of isostacy, which is “the balance or equilibrium between adjacent blocks of crust resting on a plastic mantle” (Plummer and McGeary, 1996, p. 521). As mentioned above, isostatic rebound would affect the rise or fall of sea levels, and ECD provides no acceptable solutions to this problem. Einstein’s claim in Hapgood (1958) that at a certain critical point, a slip of the earth’s crust is bound to occur due to an unevenly distributed icemass also fails to take isostacy into consideration. The earth’s crust is not rigid, as Einstein stated. Instead, as ice builds up on a landmass, that landmass is depressed an appropriate amount to carry the load. Greenland provides an excellent example of this process (Dyson, 1963, p. 103) Also neglected by Hapgood and Hancock when considering icemasses is the fact that under high pressure, ice becomes plastic, that is, it will flow in a viscous fashion. As a result, glaciers are not static sheets of ice, but rather moving bodies of ice, that expand outward (continental) and downhill (alpine). When glaciers reach the sea, they don’t simply continue to build up: pieces break off and form icebergs. Hence, between isostacy and the tendency of ice to flow plastically, the critical point mentioned by Einstein is never reached.
The whole concept of the lithosphere gliding over the asthenosphere “as the skin of an orange [...] over the inner part of the orange” (Hancock, 1995, p. 10) is misleading. Just as the lithosphere is not a rigid body, the asthenosphere is not as liquid as Hancock believes. Instead, it is composed of highly viscous rock, which, due to high pressure and temperature, behaves plastically (Plummer and McGeary, 1996, p. 425). The asthenosphere does act as a lubricating layer for the lithosphere, allowing it to move, but due to its highly viscous nature, it cannot permit the rapid, large-scale, motion claimed by ECD.
Our metaphor of the jig-saw puzzle for ECD also falls apart: not because of the ways in which plates interact, but because a jig-saw puzzle can only be moved easily in ways mentioned earlier if it is located on a table. On a sphere, problems are encountered. In a mathematical sense, there are several forms of symmetry in the plane. There is rotation around a point and reflection about a fixed line, for example. For a sphere there is only one type of symmetry: rotation about a fixed axis. Physically, this rotation causes different motion on the sphere near the poles than it does near the equator of the sphere. If the lithosphere were to rotate around an axis over the asthenosphere, one would expect greater torque and friction between the lithosphere and asthenosphere near the poles of rotation than further away from the poles. The concept of evenly displacing the jig-saw puzzle disappears when one considers the jig-saw puzzle on a sphere rather than on a plane. Assuming ECD takes place, it seems logical that near the poles of rotation there should have been some form of increased geologic activity, such as faulting or volcanism, due to increased friction between the lithosphere and asthenosphere. However, neither Hancock nor Hapgood ever cover this point.
A final nail in the casket for ECD might very well be the existence of hot spots, which are areas of “volcanic eruptions and high heat above a rising mantle plume” (Plummer, 1996, p. 521). Yellowstone National Park, for example, sits on one such hot spot. Since the existence of a hot spot rests upon presence of a mantle plume, ECD would cause a dramatic shift in the locations of such hot spots. However, since evidence shows Yellowstone to be a very old hot spot, this weakens the possibility of such a shift due to ECD occurring.
Earth Crust Displacement appears to be unable to answer important geologic questions, and indeed, it seems to go against accepted geologic knowledge. Once the evidence is considered, Graham Hancock’s claim that ECD is compatible with plate tectonics no longer seems viable. Not only is Hapgood’s ECD theory lacking supporting geologic evidence, it actually contradicts tested geologic concepts.
After completing an analysis of Hapgood’s theory, ECD doesn’t seem to present a compelling argument. Its evidence can often be ignored, because it is simply wrong. The theory itself is not well thought-out: it fails to answer numerous geologic questions. Even proposing the theory is a logical leap of faith: moving from old world maps to a theory that Antarctica was located 30 degrees further north about 12,000 years ago has no logical basis. Hancock commits another logical fallacy by claiming ECD is correct because certain other possibilities seem absurd: “Are we therefore to assume the intervention of alien cartographers [...] Or shall we think again about the implications of Hapgood’s theory [...]?” (Hancock, 1995, p. 19) Hancock just presents us with two equally absurd possibilities.
It is also important to critically analyze what is being said and by whom. Hapgood was a historian, not a geologist, and Hancock is a writer with no credentials in cartography, archaeology, or geology. It is then no wonder that for so long ECD has been ignored by the scientific community. At the same time, however, there is definitely the need for science to stay open to new ideas. There are basically two views of how science progresses: either “through the gradual accumulation of discoveries and inventions” (Hallam, 1973, p. 106) or by paradigm replacement: the replacement of one world view with that of another. In a way, global plate tectonics seemed to be a new paradigm when it was brought forth. In retrospect, it seems only natural that it grew out of continental drift and sea-floor spreading. This revolution in scientific thought, just like that of Einstein’s Relativity, should reinforce the dangers of orthodoxy and dogma in science and the need to consider the method of multiple working hypotheses. Science is empirical: its theories are dependent upon gathered evidence: not the other way around.
In the case of Hancock’s book, perhaps more research needs to be done. Perhaps most geologists agree that Antarctica has been ice-covered for millions of year, but what if there is irrefutable evidence showing the presence of rivers in Antarctica a mere 6,000 years ago? Can they be explained by some sort of interglacial period, or is it necessary to rethink out ideas about Antarctica? Although Earth Crust Displacement seems non-viable, it still raises interesting question for geology and other fields.
Hancock ends Fingerprints of the Gods with a warning of impending worldwide destruction and a second occurrence of Earth Crust Displacement. Indeed, his arguments are no more novel than those of the Neptunists and Catastrophists in the past. We may remain unconvinced by his theories, but at the same time, we have not actually found alternative answers to his questions. Perhaps someday there will be a newer, better theory to explain Hapgood’s ancient maps and truth about Atlantis. Until then, however, all we can do think critically about what we learn, ask questions, and ponder these mysteries whose answers have eluded humans for ages.
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