Location is everything, and perhaps no location has been more debated than that of the legendary island of Atlantis. Now a scientist is arguing that a submerged landmass off the West African coast has a geological history that fits well with the first written accounts of the island.
Like a very long game of telephone, the Atlantis story was orally passed down for 9000 years before Plato immortalized it in writing. "There occurred violent earthquakes and floods," he wrote. "And in a single day ... the island ... disappeared in the depths of the sea." Plato reports Atlantis sat off the coast of North Western Africa, sank 12,000 years ago, and was inhabited by an advanced civilization. Since Plato's time, scholars and nonscholars alike have claimed to have deciphered the location of the lost continent. One popular theory suggests that Atlantis was in Greece and perished by volcanic eruption 3500 years ago. Yet, Plato never reported volcanic ash; plus, the location and timing are off.
A sunken land mass suggested to be Atlantis in 2001 by geologist Jacques Collina-Girard of University of Aix en Provence in France also seemed a promising candidate because of its location off the northwest coast of Africa. His work indicated that the island, known as Spartel, sunk slowly under the rising sea levels of a melting ice age starting 20,000 years ago and that by 12,000 years ago it was less than 500 meters across. But this timing and gradual sinking also does not resemble Plato's account.
Now an analysis by marine ecologist Marc-Andrè Gutscher of the University of Brest, France, may give new life to the Spartel hypothesis. At first, Gutscher's work seemed to discount the Spartel-Atlantis connection. A high resolution map he made with sonar indicated that the island was even smaller than Collina-Girard had speculated, meaning it would have been uninhabitable as long as 14,000 years ago.
But sediment gathered by Gutscher tells a different story. A magnitude 9 earthquake appears to have rocked the region around the believed time of Atlantis' doom, Gutscher reports in the August issue of Geology. At that time, the island would have been big enough to be inhabited. He also found evidence of subsequent earthquakes and tsunami's--apparently every 2000 years--that may have whittled the rest of the island away.
Did people live there? So far, Gutscher has found no evidence to support an ancient culture. "I will admit I was hoping to find concentric structures or walls of some kind," he says, "but we didn't"
The study provides more support for Plato's writings, says geoarchaeologist Renee Hetherington of the University of Victoria in Canada. But hard proof such as artifacts or structures needs to be found to confirm that a society actually inhabited this island, she says.
More on Atlantis and its possible locations