Why are Historians Facing Online Abuse Over Whether Atlantis Existed?Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, myths, Atlantis, White Supremacy, Internet Culture
This summer a new documentary TV series premiered on the Discovery Channel. Hunting Atlantis follows a pair of experts “on a quest to solve the greatest archaeological mystery of all time—the rediscovery of Atlantis.” There’s just one problem: there’s not an ancient historian or archeologist working in the field today who believes Atlantis was a real historical city.
Academics and documentary filmmakers often find themselves at odds, but as criticism of the show spilled over onto social media things turned ugly. A well-respected archaeologist was verbally abused by a flood of true believers who were committed not just to Atlantis, but also to white supremacy and eugenics.
Hunting Atlantis is co-hosted by Stel Pavlou and volcanologist Jess Phoenix. Phoenix is an expert in natural disasters (specifically volcanic eruptions), who has spent a great deal of time in the field as a geologist. In 2018 she even ran for Congress. Pavlou is a successful TV host, producer, screenwriter, and bestselling author: one of his films is a cult classic and his children’s books have won awards. The basis for their show is Pavlou’s argument that the date of Atlantis’s destruction should be placed at the beginning of the fifth millennium BCE.
That the show has something of a sensational bent is to be expected; making archeology TV friendly often involves inflating or sensationalizing what can otherwise be quite dry material. There are also certain ancient artifacts and locations—like the Holy Grail or Noah’s Ark—that hold the attention of viewers and will always be evergreens for documentary history-telling.
As bioarchaeologist Stephanie Halmhofer has discussed in an insightful blog post, everybody loves Atlantis, “thanks to things like Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, DC’s Aquaman, and the popular television show Stargate: Atlantis.” People are broadly familiar with it as a cherished part of their childhood imagination.
The difference between the Ark and Atlantis is that while people acknowledge that there was a cup that Jesus drunk out of or that the Ark of the Covenant existed, I don’t know any archeologists who think Atlantis was a real place. Searching for it, for most archeologists, is only slightly more reasonable than hunting for Narnia. “Greatest archeological mystery” it is not.
Our sources for Atlantis are the philosophical dialogues of Plato (specifically the Republic, Timaeus, and Critias) in which characters in the fictional dialog have a hypothetical conversation about the ideal society. Atlantis, in Plato’s imagination, was a technologically advanced and harmonious society that gradually descended into corruption, disorder, and greedy warmongering. It was ultimately destroyed by a series of earthquakes that led to the city disappearing into the ocean.
It was the presentation of Atlantis as an actual place that drew concern from archaeologists when the show was first announced in May 2021. With so much rigorous archaeological research going undiscussed and underfunded, there was a palpable sense of frustration that a popular channel would air another show on what experts call pseudoarcheology.
Interest in Atlantis as a real place first emerged, writes Halmhofer, in the 1500s when early European explorers wondered if the indigenous people of Central America were the descendants of the Atlanteans. Interest in this theory continued to build over several centuries until, in 1882, Ignatius Donnelly published his highly influential book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World and inaugurated a new era of study. In it, Donnelly claimed that Atlantis was the origin point for human civilization. Others took up this cause and argued that the Atlanteans were the ancestors of a particular group of people: the “Aryan race.” This, as I imagine you have already guessed, is where things take a dark turn.
As Halmhofer writes on her blog and Dibble articulates in one of his Twitter threads, the “history” of Atlantis has, since the nineteenth century, been interwoven with the study of evolution and eugenics. Plato ends the Critias with a discussion of how the divine nature of the Atlantides was corrupted when it was mixed with the inferior nature of mere human beings.
The discussion lends itself well to 19th and 20th century eugenicist theories of the races. The Nazi Institute of Atlantis founded by Himmler aimed to find evidence for the theory that the Aryan race was descended from the biologically divine Atlantides.
To be inescapably clear, racism and eugenics are not at work in Hunting Atlantis. On this Pavlou and Dibble are in agreement. Pavlou told me “There is nothing about the show, my paper, or the way I live my life that has any connection whatsoever.” Dibble agreed “[Pavlou’s] family fought Nazis in WWII…he seems like he would be someone fun to have a beer with, if it wasn't for this show and the Twitter eruption from it.” Some worry, though, that white supremacists might use this show to support their dangerous claims. Indeed, some already are.