A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is the lost city of Atlantis at the bottom of a lake in North Dakota?

January 24, 1997

Dear Cecil:

My father is convinced that the so-called lost city of Atlantis is at the bottom of Neptune Lake in North Dakota! Should I call a sanitarium or go to this lake and help him find this lost land?

Cecil replies:

The bottom of Neptune Lake, eh? Sounds to me like pops has spent too much time looking at the bottom of a beer glass.

Then again, why not North Dakota? Just about every other spot on the globe has been spoken for by the zillions of would-be Atlantis discoverers. It's said that more than 20,000 books have been written about the lost island (it was more than a city), Atlantis having been pretty much the crackpots' default area of obsession before they had the Kennedy assassination.

Haven't seen much so far on Neptune Lake, though admittedly I've still got about 19,990 books to go. In the meantime here's a rundown of the leading theories about Atlantis's location: Plato made the whole thing up, the weasel. Plato of course is the guy who related the Atlantis legend circa 348 BC in two of his dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. The entire account covers maybe 20 pages of printed text. A character in the dialogues says the legend had been told 200 years previously to the Athenian statesman Solon by an Egyptian sage.

But no independent account of Atlantis exists in Greek or Egyptian literature or anywhere else. Modern efforts to equate Atlantis with well-established myths about Elysium, the land of fallen heroes, etc., are speculative BS. The common view among scholars is that Plato manufactured the story to support his theories about the ideal state, appeal to Greek patriotism (in his story the Greeks defeated the Atlanteans), etc.

Much of the story does seem fictional. For example, the destruction of Atlantis is said to have occurred 9,000 years before Plato's day. This requires us to believe that the story had been accurately transmitted since prehistoric times by word of mouth — this by a species most of whose members can barely remember what they had for lunch.

However, Plato has his characters insist at a couple points that the story's true. And if you can't trust Plato, who can you trust? (I mean, besides me.) Let's not forget that everybody thought Troy was fictional until Schliemann dug it up in Turkey.

Atlantis was in the Atlantic. Duh, you say. Obviously you haven't read the 20,000 books. Plato clearly states that Atlantis was just outside the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar. However, no traces of a giant lost island have been found and oceanographers are pretty confident none will be. "Plate tectonics," the believers reply. What about plate tectonics? The major shifting of the continents occurred millions of years before man's arrival, and you sure didn't have any big chunks disappearing overnight, as in Plato's account.

German inventor Otto Muck proposed that Atlantis was an island in the Azores that was destroyed as a result of an asteroid crashing into the earth on June 5, 8498 BC, at 8 PM. That Otto, what a wild man.

Atlantis was Minoan Crete. The most popular current theory outside the it's-BS school. It's been reasonably well established that the center of the Minoan empire on the island of Crete was substantially destroyed by a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera (Santorin) circa 1490 BC. If we assume Plato based the Atlantis story on a legend in which some clueless translator mistakenly multiplied the numbers by ten, the 9,000 years of Plato's story become 900 years. Behold, 590 BC (Solon's time) minus 900 equals 1490 BC. What's more, when reduced by a factor of ten, certain geographic dimensions given by Plato for Atlantis, plus a lot of the descriptive detail, accord reasonably well with what's known about Minoan Crete. (Now that I look more closely, some accounts give the number of books about Atlantis as 2,000, not 20,000. For Atlantis buffs, a shaky grasp of the tens table may be a problem of long standing.)

Drawbacks of this version: Crete is in the Mediterranean, not the Atlantic. Also this version is essentially unprovable short of somebody unearthing a sign in Crete saying Now Entering Atlantis. See Lost Atlantis by J.V. Luce for a — dare I say it? — lucid account.

Atlantis was located just about anywhere else you'd care to name in our sector of the galaxy. Proposed sites include Morocco, Nigeria, Asia Minor, Tunisia, the North Sea, the Bahamas, the southeastern U.S., the martian polar ice cap, and for all I know, Neptune Lake. Pops may have flipped, but he's got a lot of company.

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