While it is often supposed that the earliest human civilizations date back only six thousand years or so, it has long been argued that they may be far, far older than historians now recognize. The conclusions drawn from the study of old maps are that as long as twelve thousand years ago ancient seafarers may have been sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. The story began in 1956, when a cartographer at the US Navy Hydrographic Office found himself looking at a copy of a strange map that had been presented to the Office by a Turkish naval officer. Even though the map dated from 1513 AD, it showed the correct longitudes for a large part of the Atlantic from North Africa to South America. This was a remarkable – in fact, almost unbelievable – achievement for those days, when most maps were laughably crude. What was even more surprising was that it apparently showed Antarctica, which was not discovered until 1818. Oddly enough, it showed the mid-Atlantic ridge, which seems an astonishing piece of knowledge for any period before the invention of sonar depth soundings – unless, of course, it had been observed while it was still above water. The original mapmaker was a Turkish pirate who had made the interesting statement, before he died, that he had based his map on twenty old maps, one of them from the great library of Alexandria, which was destroyed in 640 AD. On closer study it was revealed that the Turkish map not only showed Antarctica, it had seemingly been made before the Antarctic continent was covered in ice! This seems an absurd proposition given that the last time that human beings could have seen Antarctica without ice was many thousands of years ago, long before the earliest known maritime civilizations. That could mean only one of two things: either that ships had sailed the seas at a time when, according to historians, our ancestors were still living in caves or – perhaps equally outrageously – that there had once been a flourishing civilization on Antarctica itself, whose inhabitants made maps that have been copied down through the ages.
Unsurprisingly, these suggestions have caused considerable controversy. The first detailed study of these ancient maps was conducted in the state of New Hampshire by Professor Charles Hapgood in the 1960s. His first surprise was that, although the maps (known as portolans – meaning ‘from port to port’) had been known to scholars for centuries, no one had ever before paid much attention to them, despite the fact that some showed, for example, that Cuba had been known before Columbus ‘discovered’ it in 1492. His next surprise was that these portolans were often as accurate as modern maps. It seemed odd that land-based mapmakers should have been content with crude alternatives when their marine counterparts were so sophisticated. Before Hapgood, another scholar named Nordenskiold had believed that the portolans of the 15th and 16th centuries were based on far older maps that dated back centuries before Christ. He suggested that the older mapmakers possessed a more accurate and advanced mapmaking science and there is one interesting piece of evidence that this is so. The ancient Egyptians attached great importance to sacred geometry and the dimensions of the Great Pyramid in Egypt suggest that they knew the circumference of the Earth in 2500 BC. The four sides of the pyramid point to the four points of the compass with incredible accuracy. The pyramid is ten miles from Cairo, which is at the base of the Nile Delta and a line drawn from exactly halfway along the north face slices the delta into two exact halves. Moreover, by means of a simple calculation the length of the equator can be estimated remarkably accurately from the length of one side of the Great Pyramid. All of these facts indicate that the ancient Egyptians had some extremely precise method of measuring long distances and did not do it by rough guesswork.
Hapgood concluded that the knowledge of longitude evident from the maps implied an unknown civilization, a nation of seafarers with instruments for finding longitude undreamed of by the Greeks. What was equally impressive was Hapgood’s confirmation that the coast of Queen Maud Land, on the Antartic continent, had been drawn without the ice sheets. The maps showed the South Pole – which was amazing enough for a date nearly three centuries before its official discovery. What was positively staggering was that they showed the whole polar ice cap, as if drawn from the air, and that it bore a remarkable resemblance to the pole as we know it today. Again, all the evidence suggested that the maps had been made in the days before the pole was covered with ice, since they showed the coast of Queen Maud Land and mountain ranges now under the ice, as well as rivers flowing into the sea. This dates them considerably, given that the last warm period in the Antarctic ended six thousand years ago, or around 4,000 BC. The most astonishing portolans, however, is one of the North rather than the South Pole. Although the accuracy is again incredible, what may be its most interesting feature is that Alaska and Siberia seem to be joined. The consequences are staggering: we know that a land bridge existed in the remote past, but that may have been as long as 12,000 years ago.
Other interesting pieces of evidence uncovered by Hapgood included: a portolans which showed that the cartographer had precise knowledge of an area from Galway to the Don Basin in Russia, others showing the Aegean dotted with islands that do not now exist and a map of China. This suggests the incredible idea that some worldwide seafaring civilization had existed before Alexander the Great and that it had disappeared while the civilization of Mesopotamia was still primitive and illiterate. The reason for the disappearance can only be guessed at – perhaps there was some catastrophe or it was simply forgotten. If it actually existed in Antarctica then its disappearance is easily explained by the return of the ice caps six thousand years ago. Some have seen the possibility of the existence of Hapgood’s ‘advanced civilization of the Ice Age’ as proof of the real existence of Atlantis, while others seized upon it as proof that the earth had been visited by ‘spacemen’ at some remote point in the past. Hapgood himself once pointed out that in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift gives a strangely accurate description of the two moons of Mars, which were not discovered for another century and a half, and that in Eureka, Poe anticipated the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, as well as the discovery that atoms can be broken down into positive and negative particles. Such statements did not particularly help the scientist’s credibility and unfortunately, once the ‘ancient astronaut theory’ gained ground with the public, Hapgood ceased to be taken seriously, even by a minority of his fellow academics. His main argument, however, remains unaffected. There is ample evidence that, at the very least, there must have been some fairly sophisticated civilization long before the so-called birth of mankind in Mesopotamia or China and that it has now disappeared. Perhaps it lies buried beneath the Antartic ice – together with the secrets of the maps that contradict the history books.