Principal Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization

Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization

What secrets lie beneath the deep blue sea? Underworld takes you on a remarkable journey to the bottom of the ocean in a thrilling hunt for ancient ruins that have never been found—until now. In this explosive new work of archaeological detection, bestselling author and renowned explorer Graham Hancock embarks on a captivating underwater voyage to find the ruins of a mythical lost civilization hidden for thousands of years beneath the world’s oceans. Guided by cutting-edge science, innovative computer-mapping techniques, and the latest archaeological scholarship, Hancock examines the mystery at the end of the last Ice Age and delivers astonishing revelations that challenge our long-held views about the existence of a sunken universe built on the ocean floor.Filled with exhilarating accounts of his own participation in dives off the coast of Japan, as well as in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Arabian Sea, we watch as Hancock discovers underwater ruins exactly where the ancient myths say they should be—submerged kingdoms that archaeologists never thought existed. You will be captivated by Underworld, a provocative book that is both a compelling piece of hard evidence for a fascinating forgotten episode in human history and a completely new explanation for the origins of civilization as we know it.
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9 / Fairytale Kingdom

If Dwarka could be located and identified, well the personality of Krishna is not a myth but a fact.

S. R. Rao, discoverer of the Dwarka underwater ruins, 29 February 2000

I stood in the Harappan Gallery of the National Museum in New Delhi peering through security glass at a small steatite seal from Mohenjodaro. Dated to approximately 2700 BC,1 the seal depicts an ascetic seated in difficult posture of highly advanced yoga known as mulubandhasana.2 Lean-waisted, bearded, half-naked, phallus erect, the figure wears a head-dress of buffalo horns over long, unkempt hair. His face might be a mask. It is powerful, almost hypnotic, and there is the suggestion of two further faces (or masks?) in profile looking to either side. He is surrounded, but clearly unthreatened, by dangerous big-game animals – wild buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, tiger. His arms are covered with bangles and stretched out so that his hands rest loosely on his knees – the traditional signal of a state of profound meditation.

[image: ]

Pasupati seal (2700 BC) from Mohenjodaro, showing a god in a yogic posture.

It is often said that we can never hope to learn much about the religious beliefs or the guiding philosophy of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization because we cannot read its script – a line of which appears above the meditating figure. Yet even though the inscription is opaque to us this enigmatic seal from Mohenjodaro does provide some definite and indeed rather intriguing information.

It tells us that at least the outward appearances of the ascetic mind-body disciplines of meditation and physical self-control which still lie at the heart of the spiritual lifestyle in Hindu India in the twenty-first century were being practised 4700 years ago in the Indus-Sarasvati cities.

It tells us specifically that yoga, one of the six orthodox schools of Vedic philosophy,3 was already known 4700 years ago as a fully evolved system – since mulubandhasana cannot be achieved by beginners but requires the prior mastery of;  numerous intermediate postures.4 Unless we are to imagine that yoga was miraculously conjured into being all at once as a complete system 4700 years ago, it tells us that the origins of the system must be much older even than that. And since variants of the lean, unkempt yogic figure performing mulubandhasana are ‘amongst the most common motifs in Indus ritual art’,5 it tells us that the classic image of the rishi, the yogic sage or seer, that is summoned up again and again in the Vedas, was also ubiquitous amongst the Indus-Sarasvati people in the third millennium BC.

Moreover, if scholars are right in their universal consensus that the Mohenjodaro seal ‘depicts the figure of a god seated in yogic posture’6 then we are witness to an amazing continuity in religious iconography – for to this day the Hindu god Siva is ‘the Lord of Yoga’ and is to be seen depicted on temple walls throughout India as a lean, almost naked, meditating ascetic with shaggy hair and sometimes even with a similarly erect penis (the latter feature not meant to imply unconstrained lust but rather its opposite; in Tantric Hinduism Siva’s erection symbolizes complete yogic control of bodily desires).7 Siva, too, is called Pasupati, the ‘beastmaster’ or ‘Lord of animals’, because of his ability to tame ferocious beasts with his yogic powers – exactly in the manner in which the figure on the Mohenjodaro seal seems to be portrayed.8 Even the phallic lingam symbol (the butter-smeared stone column erected in the inner sanctum of every Siva temple in India and regarded by worshippers as an embodiment of the god himself) is prefigured in the Indus-Sarasvati cities by conical sacred stones or ‘proto-linga’.9

For all these reasons the yogic god on the steatite seal has been known as ‘proto-Siva’, and also routinely spoken of by archaeologists as ‘the Pasupati figure’, since its discovery during excavations in the DK area of Mohenjodaro in 1928/9.10 Yet Western scholars like Jonathan Kennoyer attach little significance to the comparisons that invoke such epithets:

The figure has been referred to as ‘proto-Siva’ because of its similarity to later iconography of the deity Siva from the Hindu pantheon. Whereas many later Hindu deities may have had their roots in earlier beliefs of the Indus Valley or other indigenous communities living in the subcontinent, we cannot confirm specific connections between the horned figure on the Indus seals and later Hindu deities. There are similarities in the iconography but the meaning relayed may have been significantly different.11

The Vedas and archaeology

I left the Harappan Gallery deep in thought and walked across the corridor into the Museum’s circular central garden. I realized that I felt irritated by Kennoyer’s caution. And it wasn’t just because he was downplaying the many interesting iconographic links between Siva and the Mohenjodaro figure. Unspoken behind this was the larger problem of the Vedas, which also describe a Siva-like or ‘proto-Siva’ deity – the Vedic god Rudra12 – and which bestow the utmost respect, even awe, upon seven rishis with yogic powers.

I found a shady spot to sit down, opened my notebook and scrawled the words Summary of Vedic traditions about the origins of civilization in India at the top of a blank page:

Summary of Vedic traditions about the origins of civilization in India:

	An earlier civilization, which knew the Vedas and practised yoga, existed before the great flood and was destroyed by it.

	Manu and the Seven Rishis (Saptarishi) were yogic adepts who survived the flood.

	The role of the Seven Rishis was to preserve the Vedas through memorization and to repromulgate them amongst post-diluvial humanity.

	The role of Manu was to re-establish agriculture after the flood, using a cache of seeds and plants that he had brought with him for this purpose, and to become the progenitor of future civilized humanity by fathering a dynasty of kings.

	The Vedas and the traditions that descend from them depict the Saptarishi as a lineage of ascetics. After the flood their primary abode was in the Himalayas, where they would retreat to meditate and perform austerities, but they also played decisive roles in running and ordering secular affairs, and in the making and guidance of kings.

	The so-called Saptarishi calendar of ancient India, which of course cannot be separated from the traditions of the Seven Rishis, has a start date around 6700 BC – almost 9000 years ago.

Summary of archaeological evidence about the origins of civilization in India:

	Fully functional Village farming communities’ like Mehrgarh in the foothills of the Himalayas appear suddenly in the archaeological record somewhere around 9000 years ago. It’s a bit of a mystery. No clear antecedents have yet been found. The original settlers came with seeds and already knew how to farm.

	This happened in the midst of an epoch of cataclysmic global floods that saw huge areas of India’s continental shelf inundated. The possibility, therefore, cannot be ruled out that the founders of Mehrgarh had previously lived on lands swallowed up by the rising seas.

	There is an unbroken archaeological continuum between Mehrgarh 1 A around 7000 BC and the upsurge of Mohenjodaro and Harappa as great cities after 3000 BC. For some reason the rate of growth and development became particularly rapid between 2600 and 2500 BC – the mature phase of incredibly vigorous urban expansion – but you can see the roots even of this phase in many small and large details more than 4000 years older exposed in the excavations of the first habitation layers at Mehrgarh.

	The paramount ritual image to have come down to us from Mohenjodaro and Harappa, and therefore likely to be connected in some way to this ancient heritage, recognizably portrays a rishi seated in an advanced yogic posture and seemingly deep in meditation.


Why should the people of the largest and most sophisticated urban civilization of antiquity have specially venerated the figure of a half-naked ascetic meditating in a rural setting surrounded by ferocious animals?

If the Vedas were the scriptures of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, then an answer immediately suggests itself.

They would have venerated the image because they would have been taught from childhood that their civilization had been founded, and that it continued to be guided, by rishis looking exactly like this.

I closed my notebook and returned to the Harappan Gallery for another look at the cross-legged, three-faced, buffalo-horned rishi of Mohenjodaro. Well, not exactly cross-legged, in fact – because to perform mulubandhasana you first have to sit down and bring your heels together with your feet pointing forward whilst placing your knees flat on the ground. Next, with your feet still pointing forward, you tuck your heels in under your perineum. Then you turn your feet a full 180 degrees under your body so that they now point excruciatingly backwards – a manoeuvre that will disclocate the ankles of an inexperienced practitioner. Then you meditate.

How long, I wondered again, does it take to perfect a system like yoga? And if it was already perfect 4700 years ago, then how many thousands of years before that must its roots go back, what are we to conclude about the level of development of the supposedly Stone Age people who created it, and why is there no archaeological trace of them?

Return to the diving quest

February 2000

From Delhi I flew to Goa to meet marine archaeologists at India’s National Institute of Oceanography, whose research, I hoped, might provide me with some answers. I had already been in contact with them by e-mail and telephone for more than a year, trying to arrange to dive at Dwarka – which still fascinated me, as it had since 1992, with its ancient legends of a flood at the end of a world age and its mysterious underwater ruins. The archaeologists seemed friendly enough, even enthusiastic, but answered to higher authorities in the Indian government whose blessing they needed before they could agree to let me dive with them.

By this stage, early February 2000, I still didn’t have a clear chronology in which to place the underwater structures at Dwarka. Nor, it seemed to me, did the NIO. As I’ve reported in previous chapters, there was a general assumption that the ruins had been submerged by relatively recent land subsidence (not rising sea-levels) and that they belonged to a very late period of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization – 1700–1500 BC. But the marine archaeologists had not recovered any datable artefacts that could confirm or deny this theory.

All the more I wanted to look for myself and form my own opinion.

Legacy of a lost civilization

February 2000

On the flights to Goa, and the long stopover in Mumbai, I went back over some of the evidence on the origins of civilization in India I’d been considering in recent months, reread the notes I had made in the National Museum in Delhi, and then, in large letters, wrote the word Hypothesis at the top of an empty page:


The Indus-Sarasvati civilization, the development of which archaeologists have already traced back 9000 years, has an earlier episode of hidden prehistory. It was founded by the survivors of a lost Indian coastal civilization destroyed by the great global floods at the end of the Ice Age.

Such floods occurred many times between 15,000 and 7000 years ago, but a particularly bad episode is attested in high salinity levels in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.13

The convergence of archaeological evidence is that the first food-producing villages like Mehrgarh were established immediately after the worst flooding between 10,000 and 9000 years ago. For example, Gregory Possehl: There is no entirely satisfactory chronology for the Indus Age, especially for the internal stages and phases of prehistoric life. Present estimates, based on radiocarbon dates, suggest that it arises at 7000 or 8000 BC with the earliest villages, the domestication of plants and animals and the beginnings of farming and herding societies.’14

The survivors who established the early villages practised a ‘proto-Vedic’ religion that they had brought with them from their inundated homeland and probably spoke an early form of Sanskrit.

The survivors were experienced farmers, as the archaeological record confirms, and their cultural level was high, but religious and philosophical considerations (perhaps even a reaction to the supposed ‘judgement’ of the flood on their former lifestyle?) led them to create a sparse, utilitarian and ascetic new world – even as they moved gradually towards ever larger and more complex urban communities.

There were secular rulers but the real leadership of the new communities remained vested down the generations in the brotherhood of sages whose forefathers had escaped the deluge – the lineage of Vedic masters whose task it was to preserve and transmit a precious body of antediluvian knowledge. For thousands of years, from Mehrgarh to Mohenjodaro, it was the policies set by these great rishis in pursuit of that objective – rather than in response to economic or other material forces – that shaped the steady, peaceful, modest material development of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization.

It was a hypothesis – just that, nothing more. But I’d already been playing around with it in my mind for months as my research on India had progressed and it was time to set it down on paper. Nothing in it contradicted the archaeological evidence. It made sense of the sudden and fully formed appearance of village-farming communities like Mehrgarh between 10,000 and 9000 years ago. It took proper account, as other theories did not, of the latest science on the end of the Ice Age. It provided a rational basis in real events for the Indian flood myth. And it explained the phenomenal longevity and continuity of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization from the simplicity of its sudden beginnings at the end of the Ice Age until its equally sudden boom and collapse in the third millennium BC.

There was one way to prove the hypothesis very quickly. All I had to do was find ruins more than 9000 years old underwater on India’s continental shelf. And that was the private hope I had for Dwarka.

Gatekeepers of the fairytale kingdom

The headquarters of the National Institute of Oceanography are in Dona Paula, Goa, in a pleasant university-style campus of trees and lawns. As well as occupying a modern block on the highest point of the campus, the Institute’s many divisions, sub-divisions and laboratories sprawl outwards into a suburb of old-fashioned bungalows set beneath the trees. The Marine Archaeology Centre is in one of these, identifiable by a display of stone anchors and other stone objects mostly retrieved from depths of 5–10 metres amongst the underwater ruins at Dwarka.

My appointment was with Kamlesh Vora, the NIO’s head of archaeology, with whom I had been corresponding. I appreciated that he had taken the trouble to process my proposal at all, since he could perfectly easily have dismissed it out of hand or just ignored it, but the fact was that many months had passed and there was still no sign either of approval or disapproval from the higher authorities – in Delhi as it happened – to whom he had submitted it.

‘Now that you are here,’ he said, ‘perhaps it will galvanize them into action.’

He picked up the telephone and placed a call to the offices of the Scientific Research Council, the NIO’s parent organization and an important spoke in the wheel of central government. A lengthy conversation then followed in Hindi. Finally, Kamlesh hung up: ‘There is a certain lady within the SRC who I need to talk to about your case.’ He gave me a gloomy look: ‘Unfortunately she is not at her desk today’ A smile: ‘But I’ll find her tomorrow.’

‘What do you expect the answer will be?’

Kamlesh became gloomy again and explained that never before had the NIO had to deal with a request from an author to dive with them at Dwarka. If I was an academic or governmental institution seeking to send an observer to the site there would be set procedures to follow and the permission process would go along according to a well-ordered routine. But since I was a private individual, non-governmental, non-academic, and non-Indian into the bargain (raising issues about what sort of visa I should be travelling on), no one knew what to do with me.

And here was the problem. The NIO’s annual campaign in Dwarka, which I was hoping to join, was scheduled to go ahead in mid-February (less than two weeks hence) but would continue only until mid-March. So my permission had to come through before then. If it didn’t I’d miss the campaign and therefore would lose my chance to dive at Dwarka until the following year.

‘You mean you only dive there for one month every year?’

‘If we’re lucky. Our funds are very limited, but we do what we can.’

‘What if I make my own arrangements? If the permission comes through after the NIO has gone is there any way that I can arrange to dive privately at Dwarka?’

Kamlesh was horrified: ‘No, not at all. It is a protected national archaeological site, so our people have to be with you. Besides, there’s no private diving at Dwarka. There are no facilities there. It’s a very out of the way place. We bring our own compressor and tanks with us from Goa every year and take them away again when we leave …’

My heart sank. Since I’d first learned of it in 1992 as a non-diver, the underwater city of Dwarka had beckoned to me like a fairytale kingdom that seemed far beyond my reach. Eight years later I’d acquired the skills, but not yet the permission, to dive at it. And I felt helpless to influence the matter in any way.

‘Come and see me mid-morning tomorrow,’ Kamlesh said. ‘I will try again with the SRC. Maybe I will have good news for you.’

Write a letter

I was back with Kamlesh by eleven the next morning, but there was no news, good or bad. The lady at the SRC was still not at her desk. He called her again. Still nothing. Finally, half an hour later, she answered her phone. Yes, she had received the paperwork concerning my proposed visit. Yes, it was being considered. No, there was no decision as yet. Kamlesh asked if anything could be done to speed things up. It might be a good idea, she told him, if I were to write a letter explaining in greater detail than in my original proposal exactly why I wanted to dive at Dwarka.

Suppressing a mood of rising irritation and bad temper, I took a taxi back to the Ciudad de Goa hotel, fired up my portable computer and began to draft the letter – which Kamlesh suggested I should address in the first instance to Dr Ehrlich Desa, the Director of the NIO. ‘If he intervenes with the SRC on behalf of your case it will make a great difference.’

When I met Kamlesh later in the afternoon to review the text of the letter, he told me that he had spoken to Dr Desa who had agreed to see me at ten the next morning.

Two days later I left Goa. Permission had still not been given. But my meeting with Ehrlich Desa had been encouraging and he had promised his support in fast-tracking my application through the SRC. I felt confident that he and Kamlesh would do their best for me, and vaguely optimistic that somehow the necessary strings would be pulled to allow me to dive at Dwarka. We agreed to stay in touch by e-mail.

Interlude: the quest for Kumari Randam

My trip to India in February 2000 had multiple objectives and I had intended from the beginning to be on the road until the middle of March. So although the hold-ups and uncertainties about Dwarka were worrying, they hadn’t yet really inconvenienced me. It was perfectly possible that permission could still be granted …

Meanwhile Santha and I had long planned another journey in southern India and flew first to Madras, now called Chennai, to pick up where we had left off in 1992.

Then it had been a journey of personal reminiscence – Vellore and the shore temples of Mahabalipuram on the Coromandel coast. Now we would start in Mahabalipuram, travel inland from there to Tiruvannamalai, a temple sacred to Siva since time immemorial, and thence to Madurai, an ancient centre of Tamil learning linked again to the yogic god Siva. To the north-east of Madurai we planned to visit Poompuhur, and to the south-east Rameswaram on the thin spit of mainland that reaches out towards Sri Lanka, dividing the Palk Strait from the Gulf of Mannar. Then we would go on to Kaniya Kumari – Cape Comorin – on the southernmost tip of India.

During 1999 I had begun background research on southern India and had been intrigued by what I had found.

One source of information that had lain unopened in my library for far too long was Captain M. W. Carr’s Descriptive and Historical Papers Relating to the Seven Pagodas of the Coromandel Coast.15 As I reported in chapter 5, Carr’s anthology preserves strong local traditions of a fabulous antediluvian city at Mahabalipuram swallowed up by the waters of a great flood. Those traditions had certainly been in wide circulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the papers in Carr’s anthology were written. I wanted to find out if they were still in circulation today and if there could be any substance to them.

I had also come across the work of David Shulman, Professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His wide-ranging investigation of Tamil flood myths had helped to put places like Poompuhur, Madurai and Kaniya Kumari on the map for me. In the Tamil epic known as the Manimekalai it was said that the ancient port-city of Kaveripumpattinam had been flooded by the sea off the Poompuhur shore. Other traditions spoke of prehistoric wisdom schools or academies (sangam) established ‘in an antediluvian Tamil land stretching far to the south of the present southern border at Cape Comorin’.16 The name of this lost land, which had been swallowed up by the sea in two distinct inundations separated by thousands of years, was Kumari Kandam, and its last survivors were said to have fled to Madurai.17

As usual when I’m on the road I was carrying a shoulder bag full of books and reference materials with me, some brought from England, some picked up along the way. Following my few days in Goa, I had added substantially to my stack with a pile of bulky annual conference reports and back numbers of the NIO’s Journal of Marine Archaeology that Kamlesh had given me.

Serendipitously the very first of these that I browsed through on the flight from Goa to Chennai (volume 5–6 of 1995–6) opened with a lengthy paper entitled ‘Underwater Explorations off Poompuhur 1993.’18 Much of the paper concentrated on an archaeological validation of the Manimekalai myth, connecting it to the submerged ruins of Kaveripumpattinam ‘an ancient port town of 3rd century BC to 4th century BC’ that the NIO’s marine archaeologists had identified very close to the shore in water generally less than 3 metres deep.19 But the paper also reported the anomalous U-shaped structure that the divers had found at a depth of 23 metres more than 5 kilometres out to sea.20

I immediately realized that this obscure and neglected reference to a 1993 exploration that the NIO had never had the funds to follow up was potentially significant. I did not then have access, as I would later, to Glenn Milne’s computerized inundation maps. But at that depth and that distance from the shore, common sense alone suggested that the U-shaped structure must be extremely old.21

The main author of the report and team-leader of the Poompuhur exploration had been S. R. Rao, Kamlesh Vora’s predecessor at the NIO and the original discoverer of the underwater ruins of Dwarka. Since he was now retired and living in Bangalore, only a short hop from Chennai, I decided on impulse that at some point on our journey in the south I would try to meet him.

‘It must have existed …’

February 2000

My encounter with Rao, which I’ve already reported in chapter 1, took place on 29 February. To my amazement the doyen of Indian marine archaeology proved open to the notion that an antediluvian civilization could have existed on the Indian coastal lands flooded at the end of the Ice Age:

It must have existed. You can’t rule that out at all. Particularly, as I have said, since we have found this structure at 23 metre depth. I mean we have photographed it. It is there, anybody can go and see it. I do not believe it is an isolated structure; further exploration is likely to reveal others round about. And then you can go deeper, you see, and you may get more important things.22

Well return to the quest for Kumari Kandam in chapter 11. For me a big part of it unfolded there and then in the year 2000 and an even bigger part – the diving part – in 2001.

Meanwhile, a couple of days before my encounter with Rao, something suddenly shifted in the turgid backlog of Indian bureaucracy and Kamlesh e-mailed me with the good news that the permission had come through – ‘at the eleventh hour’ as he put it – and that I would be allowed to dive at Dwarka with the NIO team. Much was owed, apparently, to the robust support given to our adventure by Dr Desa. At any rate there would be no further obstacles and Santha and I should plan to reach Dwarka on 2 March.

The problem of Dwarka’s age

March 2000

It felt good to be back in Dwarka again after so many years away and to have the opportunity at last to look into the mystery of its underwater ruins.

When I’d interviewed him in Bangalore, Rao had reaffirmed his longstanding view that the ruins are those of an Indus-Sarasvati port probably built between 1700 BC and 1500 BC during the final years of the civilization’s decline and then flooded by an incursion of the sea. However, he admitted that the dates were a supposition not an empirical fact. Radiocarbon or thermoluminescence tests, which might settle the matter, had not been possible, since the latter requires pottery contemporary with the ruins and the former organic materials contemporary with the ruins – neither of which had yet been found in submerged Dwarka itself:

Rao: I mean to be frank, you see, we did some thermoluminescence dating for the pottery extracted from the wall which is just on the shore – and of course it also partially gets submerged at some times. All right, that gives 1528 BC. But that is at a slightly higher terrace than the submerged one. So the submerged one must be earlier.

GH: Would it be fair to say, concerning the underwater structures, that the minimum age would be about 1500 BC but that it is possible that they may be older?

Rao: Oh yes, definitely, that you can definitely say. Minimum age would be about even 1500, 1600 BC, but an earlier date can’t be ruled out. I mean there is every possibility of getting earlier dates.

GH: My understanding is that underwater structures that have been identified so far go down to about 12 metres under the sea?

Rao: These structures go to about 10 metres depth. Of course, the ridge which was converted into a sort of wharf, that is at 12 metres depth. Beyond that we have gone, but not much.23

GH: Do you think there’s any chance of further ruins being found further out into the sea?

Rao: Maybe. Maybe. I won’t rule that out at all. Because, you see, what we did [beyond the 12 metre depth contour] was only side-scan sonar survey. I mean, a little diving as well we have done here, but not much, to be frank. I mean, if you dive for three days or four days only then you cannot expect to find much …24

Expecting the best

We were to dive at Dwarka off a small wooden sea-going trawler, a rough-and-ready working ship crewed by local fishermen that the NIO had chartered. Since its draft was too deep to approach the shore it was moored in the bay about half a kilometre to the south-west in front of the Gomati river mouth. We were ferried out to it in an inflatable dinghy that picked us up from the steps of Gomati Ghat, and as we chugged across the bay I found myself looking down impatiently at the water, hoping to get some glimpse of whatever lay below.

The ruins had been thoroughly mapped by the NIO across a large area between the mouth of the Gomati – which now lay behind our dinghy to the north-east – and a submerged rock ridge about a kilometre out to sea to the south-west that had been cut and modified as a wharf when it was above water in ancient times. This was the wharf that Rao had mentioned as the site’s deepest known structure at 12 metres and which he suspected to have been part of its harbour.

All the other remains, revealing the outlines of a series of spacious rectilinear buildings, lay much closer to shore between just 3 and 10 metres with the majority concentrated between 5 and 7 metres.25 These included twelve so-called ‘citadels’, protected by massive bastions, six on each bank of a now submerged section of the Gomati channel, where Rao told me he thought that ‘not only the King but also the army chief, other officials or his ministers used to live’.26 The ancient harbour city itself was divided into six blocks:

All six sectors have protective walls built of large well-dressed blocks of sandstone, some as large as 1.5 to 2 m long, 0.5 to 0.75 m wide and 0.3 to 0.5 m thick. L-shaped joints in the masonry suggest that a proper grip was provided so as to withstand the battering of waves and currents. At close intervals semi-circular or circular bastions were built along the fort walls in order to divert the current and to have a proper overview of the incoming and outgoing ships … There are entrance gateways in all sectors as surmised on the basis of the sill of the openings. The fort walls and bastions, built from large blocks which are too heavy to be moved by waves and currents, are in situ up to one or two metres height above the boulder foundation in the sea. In a few places as many as five courses of masonry are visible but in others the wall and bastion have collapsed.27

[image: ]

Map of submerged ruins off Dwarka. Based on Rao (1999).

Prepped by such imagery of a fairytale underwater city, and the beautiful reconstructions of antediluvian Dwarka that feature in Rao’s books, I confess I was expecting the best as I clambered out of the dinghy and up the side of the NIO’s chartered fishing boat on the morning of 3 March 2000.

Fog, weed and sludge

In the relentless war of heat-exchange that goes on between a diver and the sea, it is the sea that always wins in the end. The process is faster in cold water, slower in warm water, and can be delayed further by an insulating wetsuit; however, the end result is always the same. If the sea is colder than the diver’s body temperature then the diver’s body temperature will begin to fall.

I think of myself as a reasonably experienced diver but I’m fifty years old, way past my peak fitness, and I make mistakes. The mistake I made at Dwarka, though I’d been warned that the water was only 23 degrees centigrade (and thus 14 degrees below body temperature), was not to wear a wetsuit. This would have been fine if I’d been going down for just one or two short dives. But we did three dives that day, running to an hour or more each.

The first two dives were on the big concentration of ruins that the NIO had mapped between the 5 and 7 metre contour lines. Gone were the lofty turrets, battlements and bastions of Rao’s reconstructions and of my imagination. All seemed to have been reduced to a ruin-field of haphazardly strewn stone blocks, the angles and edges of which poked here and there out of the thick sludge of sediment and slimy green weed that carpeted everything. And although the sea was calm that morning, allowing some settlement of silts carried down into the bay by the Gomati river, millions of tiny particles hung suspended in the water, scattering light like a fog.

Through the fog I was just able to make out beneath me several dozen large limestone blocks that seemed to have come from a collapsed section of wall, not quite megalithic in the strict sense of the term, but very close to it, tumbled on top of one another. The wall had been dry-stone – no mortar in the joints to keep the courses together. But I could see how the masons had dealt with the problem. Many of the bigger blocks had been designed to lock into each other with dovetails and, as Rao had commented, with carefully chiselled L-shaped joints which would have given extra structural stability.

The same architectural principle had been used in the massive curved bastions that had stood at the corners of the citadels. Although I found none intact, I several times came across huge curved monoliths, dressed and polished to very high standards and in one case still jointed to a second block.

Also protruding out of the slime and ooze on the sea-bed were carved hemispherical stones, some up to a metre across, with circular holes drilled through their centres. These were thought to have been door sockets.

And trapped amongst the rubble of ancient Dwarka there were still a number of three-holed triangular stone anchors that the NIO had not yet salvaged for the display outside their offices. Identical anchors, Rao had told me, were known to have been used in the Mediterranean by the merchant ships of Cyprus and Syria at around 1400 BC and also in the Persian Gulf and at the nearby Indus-Sarasvati port of Lothal.28 Assuming the 1400 BC date for this type of anchor to be generally valid, he regarded their presence at Dwarka as good circumstantial evidence in favour of his 1600 BC date for the city. Certainly, they could only have been dropped here after the ruins had been submerged deeply enough for boats to sail over them.

But one mystery which began to nag at me on those first two dives, since we were supposedly in the heart of the ancient city, was that there didn’t seem to be enough stone ruins here. This had nothing to do with the stark contrast between Rao’s archaeological reconstructions of the antediluvian city and its actual appearance underwater today. What bothered me more was the almost equally stark contrast with photographs that Rao had shown to me from his personal collection that tracked the NIO’s underwater excavations at the site from 1983 to 1994.29 Although some of the features in those photographs were instantly recognizable on the sea-bed, many others were nowhere to be seen. Most notable by their absence were several partially intact walls of large stone blocks, in some cases up to five courses high, in some cases showing right-angled corners where two walls joined, in some cases extending in straight lines away from the camera as far as the eye could see – and the visibility was far better in those early shots than the fog that I was finning around in now.

So where were the missing walls?


After I’d surfaced from the second dive and clambered back on board the boat I asked Kamlesh this question and he signalled for Sundaresh and Anuruddh Gaur, two of the NIO’s senior marine archaeologists, to join us. A geologist by training, Kamlesh himself was not then a diver. Gaur and Sundaresh, on the other hand, had been diving at Dwarka since the 1980s.

Their answer was that the majority of the intact walls that had been photographed before 1994 either no longer existed or could not be relocated. Apparently, a series of severe monsoon storms during the past six years had loosened and dislodged the great blocks and tumbled the walls over. Since then sedimentation and weed had covered up the debris which had been scattered over a wide area by the monsoon swells.

I remembered the section of fallen wall that I’d seen early on the first dive and thought no more about it. It was only much later that it struck me how odd it was that a site which had supposedly been submerged for more than three millennia, and at which so many intact structural features had been documented as recently as 1994, could have deteriorated so dramatically in just the last six years.

The rock-cut wharf

Slightly dodgy-looking curries were available for lunch, cooked by the crew on a kerosene stove in the cabin of the fishing boat and served out on a mixture of plastic and tin plates. The wind had come up since the morning and wavelets were freshening in the bay – not enough to stop us diving but potentially enough to stir up the bottom and worsen the visibility.

I wasn’t feeling particularly well – headache, stiff-neck, nausea – and was aware that I had been cold on the last dive, but I didn’t put the two together. I thought that what was making me ill was the exhaust gas from the diesel pump that the NIO had on board to provide air from the surface via long tubes to technical divers working down below. A powerful air-lift system was also operating, sifting silt around the foundations of the ruins in the still unsuccessful search for artefacts that could positively identify their period of construction. All the vibrations and the fumes were a bit much for me but I thought that I’d probably feel better when I got back in the water and could breathe the clean air from my tank.

At this point the voice of reason told me it was time to put my wetsuit on for the afternoon’s work and the voice of stupidity urged me not to bother. The voice of stupidity won.

The dive we did that afternoon was with Gaur on the rock-hewn wharf at a depth of 12 metres about a kilometre out in the bay. Athough this was technically still a shallow dive, there was an oppressive darkness and gloom in the dirty green water and I began to feel more and more cold, weak and exhausted.

We swam east on the seaward side of the ridge. As well as its rock-cut features, including what were presumed to have been holes for mooring-ropes drilled through it at several points, there were a number of hulking megaliths scattered round about it on the sea-bed down to depths of about 18 metres. The official view was that these were natural slabs that had become detached from the rock ridge due to wave action when sea-level had been much lower – and perhaps even before the wharf had been fashioned – but to my eye they looked in places as though they had been dressed and cut.

Quarter of an hour later, still heading east along the ridge, I saw a pattern of other smaller blocks, like large tiles, laid out in a square grid amidst a tangle of boulders. I went down to investigate and found that the regular pattern seemed to continue under the boulders. That was exciting. On the other hand, up close, the little blocks and the joints between looked less regular, less man-made, than I had thought …

I couldn’t make up my mind. And other ambiguous features along the ridge left me, if anything, even more in doubt.

Whitecaps and lentil soup

I spent the next four days in bed in our dingy hotel room paying the price for being a fifty-year-old with no sense and mild hypothermia. A blinding, thudding headache was by far the worst of it and continued without any let-up for more than seventy-two hours. I felt weak, shaky and couldn’t keep down anything I tried to eat.

But I wasn’t missing much diving. The wind that had begun to pick up on that first afternoon grew steadily stronger during the night, whipping the waves in the bay into whitecaps, reducing the visibility to zero and making further diving impossible. The NIO’s chartered boat headed back for the shelter of a nearby fishing port and everyone waited to see if the weather would improve.

By the time I dragged myself out of bed the wind had died down and the boat was anchored over the ruins again. But the underwater conditions, with the transparency of lentil soup, made it impossible to do any serious work. I tried a couple of dives at different locations on the site but could see nothing.

Then the wind came up once more; this time with a forecast that it would continue to blow for more than a week, and it became obvious to all that there would be no further diving that season.

Layer upon layer

How old is the city beneath the waves?

Sitting on the edge of the Gomati Ghat by the Temple of the Sea God on the last evening of our stay in Dwarka, I looked over the agitated waters of the darkening bay and tried to figure out the mystery.

When I’d interviewed Rao at his home in Bangalore, I remembered that he’d told me how he had first become involved with excavations at Dwarka more than twenty years before. In his work for the Archaeological Survey of India he had arranged the demolition of a modern building that stood beside the main Dwarkadish (Krishna) temple, blocking the view:

Rao: It was demolished. When we removed this structure we were surprised to find a temple below it – a temple of Vishnu. [Krishna is considered to be an avatar, or manifestation in human form, of the Vedic god Vishnu]30 … It has beautiful sculptures and all that. We were surprised. You see this is a thirteenth-to fifteenth-century temple, the present one that we visit, but here is a ninth-century temple. How is it? When we dug for that we got two more temples below – below that there are two more temples.

GH: So it’s as though the existing Dwarkadish temple was built on top of an older temple?

Rao: Not the existing one. The one just by the side of it. You see, actually, this temple, I mean the existing one, must have been built on top of an ancient one, because what we got is a small shrine, and the other shrine must be below the present temple.

GH: But your excavation was beside the existing temple and there underneath you found earlier layers?

Rao: Earlier layers. And further when we dug we came across a clear section showing erosion by sea, with pottery and other datable objects of about 1500 BC. So between 1500 BC and 1500 AD there must have been continuous occupation here of which we hardly know anything. But again sometime there is divine help for us. One professor by name of B. R. Rao, a geologist, had come to Dwarka to inspect the site for a proposed university. I showed him the section and he said yes, this is clear evidence for erosion by the sea. I showed him the pottery and he said there must have been a township near by. He said, what will you do? I said we have to excavate in the sea – that’s marine archaeology.31

Rao then successfully arranged government funding for his proposed venture at Dwarka:

But we did not know how to start the work. We had hardly any experience of marine archaeology. Then I thought what we should do now is take a bold step … Where to look for the structures was the question. Fortunately, there is the temple of Samudra Narayana, the sea god. So I said people have been making some offerings here. Maybe ancient times also there may have been some structure there and offerings might have been made. So we straight away started looking there. And then within a few days we got evidence of the structural remains there, underwater.32

An earlier town

Looking over the bay from the Samudra Narayana temple I reflected on Rao’s dating of the underwater ruins to the second millennium BC and the ‘late Harappan’ period. I could see no reasons why the scattered structural remains that I had dived on should be any older than that – and even some to suspect that they might be younger, perhaps much younger. Except for the rock-hewn wharf, which itself was not particularly deep, most of the structures were in shallow water of 7 metres or less and might easily have been submerged relatively recently in land-subsidence caused by the immense earthquakes that periodically afflict Gujerat.33 Besides, what I’d seen of the underwater ruins looked nothing like any of the ‘late Harappan’ settlements I knew of; on the contrary, the distinctive curved bastions and general style of the architectural blocks on the sea-bed looked much more like medieval Indian construction work than anything to do with the Indus-Sarasvati civilization.

But what intrigued me, and what Rao had been entirely open to, was the possibility that there might be other ruins further out to sea which the NIO had not yet found – indeed had not yet even looked for. Rao also reminded me that the ancient texts that seemed to have correctly predicted the presence of the underwater ruins that he had discovered also predict that other older ruins should exist in the vicinity – for Krishna was said to have built Dwarka on the site of an even earlier city called Kususthali:

In fact I used to read the Mahabaratha and also other Puranas like Vishnu Purana and others, where it is clearly states that Dwarka was built at Kususthali in such a way that it was surrounded by the sea … So Krishna comes to Kususthali and then builds a town and calls it Dwarka and there existed an earlier town before Dwarka was built …

What is striking about the story of Krishna’s city being built above an earlier city is the way it resonates with the firm evidence we already have from Rao’s excavations around the Dwarkadish temple – revealing layers and layers of earlier constructions beneath it and around it, going back to a stratum at around 1500 BC that is roughly parallel to modern sea-level. The ruins that Rao then found underwater should, as he reasons, belong to the time-period immediately before 1500 BC – say 1700 to 1800 BC at the earliest – suggesting that the city that today clusters around the Dwarkadish temple and down to Gomati Ghat is where it is because it replaces the earlier city that lies submerged in the bay beneath it.

And that city in turn – the city of Krishna – is where it is, the legends say, because of the earlier city of Kususthali:

GH: Is there a sense in the ancient texts that there had been a sacred centre at Dwarka in the remote past, a long time ago? Or was it absolutely newly established by Krishna?

Rao: Well, you see, it says that [an ancestor of Krishna] had built that town Kususthali and he went to Brahamaloka [a higher world]. So some connection with mythology and all that is already there when Krishna comes to that place. So the earlier township had some sanctity about it …

In an epoch of rising sea-levels the obvious place to rebuild and reconsecrate a submerged shrine or sacred centre would be on the nearest area of coast still above water. When the new shrine was inundated in its turn it would have to be re-established on higher ground – and so on. So maybe this is what we’re seeing at Dwarka: Krishna’s Dwarka was built to replace the antediluvian sacred centre that the texts call Kususthali – and when Krishna’s Dwarka was inundated, modern Dwarka was built to replace it. By inference, if we keep looking further out to sea, beyond what’s left of Krishna’s Dwarka – if it really is Krishna’s Dwarka, as Rao believes – then we should find older, more deeply submerged ruins.

3102 BC

But are the underwater ruins that Rao discovered at Dwarka the remains of ‘Krishna’s city’ – or of something else?

As I sat there overlooking the darkening waves, with the heady aroma of sacred ganja being exhaled all around me by the orange-robed sadhus who’d gathered to watch the sunset from Samudra Narayana, I remembered feeling that Rao couldn’t have it both ways. He couldn’t have his underwater ruins dating archaeologically to around 1800 or 1700 BC on the one hand and claim on the other that they were the ruins of Krishna’s city – since, apart from one minor variant tradition, Krishna is universally believed in India to have died at a date equivalent to 3102 BC.34 This date (see chapter 4) also marks the onset of the Kali Yuga.

But Rao wasn’t trying to have it both ways:

GH: Another question concerning Krishna. The departure, or death, of Krishna’s incarnation, if I understand correctly, is taken as the end of a previous age, of a yuga, and the beginning of the Kali Yuga. Now in many calculations that I’ve seen – numerous calculations – they all seem to point the beginning of the Kali Yuga to 3100 BC approximately.

Rao: Correct.

GH: Do you regard that as an impossible date? Because you seem to focus on a much later date, in the second millennium BC, for the submerged Dwarka.

Rao: Well, I wouldn’t call it an impossible date. But what evidence we have got so far shows that about 1700 or 1800 BC, by that time this township that is now underwater must have been built. Now if so, how is that date wrong? I mean, the 3100 BC date. We have discussed this matter in a journal where we said that maybe we are yet to find some more antiquities of the same township … So we can’t discard the earlier date totally.

But if the underwater ruins already excavated do really date back to 1700 or 1800 BC, then where is the logical place to search for ruins even older than that – the ruins of the city said to have been engulfed by a great flood at the beginning of the Kali Yuga in 3102 BC?

Further out, in deeper water

The connection of the death of Krishna and the submergence of Dwarka to the onset of the Kali Yuga is a powerful and widespread tradition in India, as is the connection of the Kali Yuga to a start date of 3102 BC.

We know that the city called Dwarka today is built on a mound made up of continuous occupation strata going down to present sea-level at 1500 BC and with ‘a clear section showing erosion by sea’ in the lowest stratum – indicative of a marine incursion (perhaps a tidal wave?) at that date.

We know that ruins have been found under that level beneath the sea and provisionally dated to 1800–1600 BC, though a more recent date is also possible. These ruins extend up to approximately 1 kilometre from the shore.

Therefore, it follows, if we wish to search for the ruins of 3100 BC and earlier that are hinted at in the traditions, that we are going to have to look further out, in deeper water.

In March 2000 I still didn’t have Glenn Milne’s inundation maps and imagined that Gujerat’s Ice Age coastline might have extended 5 or at the most 10 kilometres beyond the modern shoreline of Dwarka. In fact, as the maps show, Dwarka was almost 100 kilometres from the sea 16,400 years ago when it was part of a vast antediluvian landmass around Gujerat that filled in the Gulfs of Kutch and Cambay – and was still 20 kilometres inland as late as 10,600 years ago, just after the rapid rise in sea-level attested in the deep-sea cores between 10,000 and 9000 BC and the sudden appearance of village farming communities along the piedmont of the Himalayas.

[image: ]

If anywhere in the world looks like a potential ‘nucleus region’, or ‘Ice Age refugium’, out of which the first settlers of Mehrgarh and the other ‘aceramic Neolithic’ food-producing settlements in north-west India might have sprung, then, surely, this is it? And doesn’t it make sense that the descendants of those first settlers, who went on, in time, to create the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, might have continued to revere sacred coastal sites and to rebuild them further inland whenever the sea-level rose?

The mystery of the U-shaped structure

That night, over a farewell dinner with the NIO team, I produced the Journal of Marine Archaeology given to me by Kamlesh and opened it at the report on the underwater explorations off Poompuhur in the south-east – about as far away from Dwarka as it is possible to get and still remain in India. Both Sundaresh and Gaur had participated in the 1993 Poompuhur expedition and had co-authored the report with S. R. Rao. Now was my chance to quiz them about the anomalous U-shaped structure that they had found 5 kilometres from the shore and 23 metres deep and to launch the idea of mounting a further expedition with them to Poompuhur at some time in the future.

We began by discussing the less controversial – and for me less interesting – ruins of Kaveripumpattinam in the intertidal zone and the shallows down to 3 metres. These, Sundaresh and Gaur concurred, were in the range of 2000 years old, and I had no reason to doubt them.

‘OK,’ I said, ‘so let’s accept that dating for the inshore structures. Then what do you find as the water gets deeper?’

They told me that their survey had identified fairly extensive structural remains in the form of heavily eroded and scattered dressed sandstone blocks down to a depth of about 7 metres. At the same depth they had also located several curious circular cairns, some 10 metres in diameter, made up of rounded stones and some small upright stones. Nothing was seen deeper than 8 metres until the U-shaped structure and its neighbouring mounds suddenly appeared at 23 metres.

‘Don’t you think that’s odd?’ I asked.

Sundaresh and Gaur agreed that it was indeed odd since it suggested that the date of submergence of the U-shaped structure must be much earlier than the date of submergence of the structures inshore.

‘How much earlier?’

‘Maybe 8000 years earlier,’ said Gaur after a moment’s thought.

[image: ]

Position of various submerged structures off Poompuhur coast. Based on Rao et al. (1993).

‘So if the Kaveripumpattinam structures in 1–3 metres are 2000 years old then what you’re saying is that the U-shaped structure might be 10,000 years old?’

‘I’m saying it would have been submerged by the rising sea-level about 10,000 years ago – maybe even before that. But I think it must be some sort of natural outcrop.’

I was genuinely puzzled. ‘Everyone else who has dived on it seems convinced it’s man-made. Courses of masonry were seen on it. That’s in this report’ – I pointed at the Journal of Marine Archaeology – ‘which you co-authored by the way.’

Gaur laughed: ‘Yes, but I have my own view and the more I think about it the more I am convinced it must be natural.’

‘But why? What are your reasons?’

‘Because it is a huge structure and we know that there was no culture anywhere in India at that time capable of mobilizing the necessary resources and organizing the necessary labour to build something so big.’

‘That’s just classic old-school historical chauvinism,’ I complained. ‘It’s as though you’re saying, “We archaeologists know everything about the past and we won’t let a few contradictory facts get in our way.”’

‘It is a fact! We don’t know of any culture 10,000 years ago that could have built this structure.’

‘But maybe it was the work of a culture that you don’t know about yet. Maybe this U-shaped structure, whatever it is, is the first concrete evidence for the existence of that culture. Maybe if you look you’ll find even more structures, even further out, in deeper water.’

Sundaresh chipped in at this point that he did not agree with Gaur. In his opinion, he said, the U-shaped structure was not a natural outcrop: ‘It is definitely man-made. And I have seen a second structure, a mound, about 45 metres away at the same depth where there are perfect cut blocks scattered on the sea-bed …’

‘But what about the 10,000-year-old date?’

‘Maybe the structures are not that old at all. Maybe there has been some great land subsidence here that we do not know of, or erosion of the coast by the sea.’

It was obvious that the only way to find out, and to settle the mystery, was by doing more diving and by careful measurement, observation and excavation of the site. But the problem was that since 1993 no funding had been available for a further expedition.

‘So you have no plans to dive at Poompuhur in the coming year?’ I asked.

‘Rather you should say no budget,’ Kamlesh intervened dolefully. ‘If somebody will finance us to go – only then can we go.’

I bit the bullet. ‘So what would it take to finance your team to go back there and dive on the site with me later this year or early next year – a sort of special charter, so to speak? Is it even possible to do something like that within the NIO’s regulations?’

‘Now that the SRC already know of you it should be possible,’ said Kamlesh. ‘I don’t see why not.’

He spent the next three minutes doing calculations on the back of a napkin and finally quoted me a sum equivalent to the gross national product of a small European country.

I gulped but steadied my nerves. It was going to be a long negotiation.

24 / The Metamorphoses of Antilia

It’s just a fact of life in this case that no one and no organization is going to fund a prehistoric underwater archaeological survey of the Bahamas.

John Gifford, University of Miami, July 2001

Friends, come, come with us on this voyage! Here you’re creeping about in poverty; come and sail with us! For with God’s help we’re going to discover a land that they say has houses roofed with gold.

Martin Alonso Pinzon, Captain of the Pinta, recruiting crews for Columbus, 1492

Before I spent two weeks diving at Bimini in August 1999 this was my honest opinion: David Zink and Manson Valentine were wrong and the marine geologists from Florida were right; the Bimini Road was a natural formation. But after the diving I wasn’t quite so sure.

I still felt the force of the scientific arguments, but now I’d also experienced the force of the great structure underwater and my reaction to it was not the same as the reaction of the geologists. Where they’d seen a ‘natural’ formation of tabular beachrock with uniform particle sizes, constant dip direction and no tool marks, artefacts or other signs of human intervention, I’d seen something that looked like a majestic work of art or sculpture – perhaps a colossal mosaic – something, at any rate, that felt coherent, organized, purposive, planned, idiosyncratic and designed. It is true that beachrock does fracture into jointed blocks, and that examples of this process can be seen in Bimini today and around many other Bahamian islands (in fact it forms so quickly that bottle tops and other modern items are frequently found cemented in the matrix). However nothing I have ever seen that is definitely and unassailably beachrock, either on Bimini or anywhere else, really looks like the Bimini Road.

We dived with Trigg Adams, a salty old sea dog and former Eastern Airlines pilot who’d been one of the original discoverers of the Road back in the days of Manson Valentine. We used his yacht the Tryggr, which he brought over the Gulf Stream from Miami under motor power, for the duration of our trip. And we also took advantage of Trigg’s flying skills to go tearing around the skies in a chartered plane for a couple of hours so that we could see the Road and other mysteries of Bimini from the air.

Despite haze and cloud that morning we had no difficulty in spotting the 800 metre long, 20 metre wide main axis of the reverse-J with its characteristic shoreward curve to the south-east. It was also easy to make out the point at which the axis bifurcated into two narrower parallel piers, each 5 metres wide, separated by a 10 metre wide strip of sand running all the way to the northern terminus of the structure. Through the crystal-clear water we could even see individual blocks – some of them gigantic, some much smaller, all seemingly arranged and oriented in a highly organized manner. The two shorter segments shoreward of the ‘J’ ran absolutely parallel to one another and again showed interesting combinations of small and large blocks – including seven particularly enormous megaliths lying side by side near the southern end of the inner segment.

Trigg took the plane higher and circled several times over the enormous underwater mosaic. It reminded me, I realized, much less of a road or any kind of thoroughfare than it did of the great earth diagrams – the long straight lines and the animal, insect, bird and fish figures – of the Nazca plateau in southern Peru. Whether by accident or by design these works of geometry and stone sprawled out on an ancient Atlantic beach and, long since submerged beneath the sea, had something of the same sense of scale and grandeur when viewed from the air. I was therefore intrigued to discover, as we continued the flight over Bimini’s two main islands and lagoons, that in several densely wooded and uninhabited areas there were stony mounds with exposed surfaces the size of tennis courts on which nothing grew. The surface of one mound, only visible from the air, took the shape of a huge sea-horse. The surface of another was shaped like a giant fish complete with realistic fins and tail and, again, could only ever have been seen from the air. A third mound was geometrical, offering a rectangular surface to the sky.

In all the discussions and academic papers I have read in which the Bimini Road is described as a natural beachrock formation I have never once seen any comment, one way or another, on these peculiar and distinctive mounds. Are they also to be dismissed as natural formations of no interest to the archaeologist? And if not – if they are man-made – then shouldn’t they be taken into account in any attempt to judge the provenance of the nearby ‘Road’?

Diving the Bimini Road

Shallow dives sometimes don’t feel like real dives. There’s not that sense of challenge, that frisson of danger, that you get when you’re down deep. Just 5 or 10 metres below the surface you would have to be very stupid and very persistent to risk the bends or a lung-expansion injury. So Bimini was a gentle and kindly place to be underwater. Even the occasional nurse shark sulking in the shelter of one of the great blocks just looked like he might be dangerous but wasn’t really. And at these depths a full tank of air went a very long way.

The typical Bimini block is of dark, extremely hard stone, measures about 2 metres in length by a metre in width by half a metre high, weighs about a tonne, is pillow-shaped, slightly convex, and rounded off at the corners and edges. Many others are much smaller but there are dozens of true monsters of 5 tonnes or more, with a few selected individual blocks verging towards 15 tonnes.

[image: ]

Outline drawing of the Bimini Road. Based on Zink (1978).

Contrary to the National Geographic Society research report I found that certain blocks in the 5–15 tonne range – some exceptional examples of which measured as much as 5 metres across – were propped up on small vertical supports, apparently of a completely different stone type, resembling stubby pillars. The effect of these supports – sometimes as many as five at a time – was to lift the big blocks completely clear of the bedrock foundation so that you could see underneath them from one side to the other.

I supposed that these were the ‘dolmens’ that Manson Valentine had spoken of in one of his reports – certainly there was nothing else on the Bimini Road that fitted this description. But despite a superficial resemblance – big blocks propped on top of smaller blocks – these structures obviously weren’t dolmens. I wondered if the little vertical ‘pillars’ were just bits of loose rock that had been lying around on the sea-bed and that had been washed under the big blocks by tides or storm swells. But if so, why were they only under the biggest and heaviest blocks – the ones that would have been hardest for storms to shift around – and not under the smaller, lighter ones?

I spent days drifting up and down the Road, trying to get my bearings on it and to figure out what it is. Around noon with the sun most directly overhead and the underwater visibility at its best, the long straight avenues of blocks seemed to stretch away for ever in either direction. Mostly they lay directly on top of the extensive plateau of exposed limestone bedrock but sometimes they would disappear completely under sand-drifts, only to reappear on the other side, keeping the same heading.

Within the overall theme of parallelism other recurrent patterns were also evident – blocks arranged in circles, groups of three blocks of different shapes combined to form a triangle, seemingly deliberately fashioned cornerstones ‘finishing off’ a square or rectangular arrangement of dozens of blocks – and so on and so forth. There were also groupings of similar-sized blocks such as the seven very large megaliths near the southern end of the inshore pier laid side by side next to much smaller blocks pursuing the same axis. In this case the seven large blocks crossed the full width of the axis. The smaller blocks next to them continued along the same axis and to the same width but were arranged in two parallel rows separated by a cleared area.

Natural and young, or man-made and old?

So what is the Bimini Road? Is it a natural formation and not very old? Or, in spite of all the scientific objections, could it be a man-made megalithic structure – even a remnant of Atlantis – covered by rising sea-levels many thousands of years ago?

To begin with the natural-versus-artificial debate, I do not think that the scientists have either proved that it is a natural formation or proved that it is definitely not a man-made formation – which would amount to the same thing.

For example, the research report from the National Geographic Society quoted in chapter 23 claims that there is no evidence anywhere on the site of courses of blocks having been piled on top of one another and that not enough scattered blocks lie in the vicinity to have formed a now-destroyed second course. This is taken as evidence in favour of the natural origin of the Bimini Road; however, I see no good or logical reason why humans should not have chosen from the outset to construct a structure one course high. Moreover, no consideration is given to another option – which is that the immense structure did have more than one course in the past but that the blocks are no longer there because the vast majority of them have been removed. Although there may be no connection, elementary research amongst elderly islanders has uncovered several eye-witness reports of barges from Florida that used to quarry stone underwater off Paradise Point during the 1920s and take it back to Miami for use in construction projects. As the islanders tell it, the barges repeatedly visited the area to carry off stones over a period of several years.1

Another example of the scientific criticism of the proposed artificiality of the Bimini Road that I find disappointing is the National Geographic Society’s claim that there are no regular or symmetrical supports beneath any of the blocks. This is flatly contradicted by my own experiences diving on the Road.

We’ve even seen that the evidence for microscopic uniformity within the stones, which plays such a key part in the scientific argument for a natural origin of the site, has not gone uncontested. Zink and others have had quite different and equally bona fide results from their own drill cores, which indicate blocks adjacent to one another in the formation that were not formed side by side but in different chemical environments. The implication of this is that, while there is no doubt that the material used in the Bimini Road is beachrock (none of the pro-artificiality researchers have ever argued that it is anything else), it remains possible that beachrock deposits were cut, shaped, manipulated and arranged by human hands.

In their 1982 paper for the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Conference on Underwater Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, Terry Mahlman and David Zink sum up the central thrust of the pro-artificiality defence:

The most controversial aspect of this site is the history of the megalithic blocks. More directly put, are they beachrock blocks cut and shaped by man or were they formed naturally in situ? Their composition, most agree, is micritized shell hash, or beachrock, which through the continued process of solution and recrystallization of its cement by sea water rich in calcium carbonate has become extremely hard in comparison with modern beachrock. The authors of this paper theorize that, after their original formation in a beach environment, these blocks were removed, shaped and placed above water by human agency. Later as the sea-level continued to rise after the last glacial period, the blocks were again covered and micritization commenced. Newly formed beachrock is easily worked in comparison with the blocks of the site. Their extreme hardness caused the destruction of the diamond bit of our 80mm core barrel after only 12 cores had been taken.

Micritization, once again the on-going replacement of the calcium carbonate cement binding the shell hash, also contributes to the problem of dating these blocks. This is because the new cement contains an increasingly higher proportion of Carbon 14, thus making the sample appear younger than it actually is.2

This brings us to the question of the age of the structure. Have orthodox scientists at least proved their case, as McKusik and Shinn claim, that some of the stones used in the Bimini Road might be less than 3000 years old?

Again, I don’t think so. The situation of the megaliths is ideally conducive to the production of falsely youthful radiocarbon dates – and these young dates are further contradicted by the depth of submergence of the sites. As McKusik and Shinn themselves admit:

Testing of submerged features in Florida and one test on North Bimini island shows that the sea level has risen at a rate of about one inch every 40 years for the past 5000 years. This rate of submergence over 2200 to 3500 years [the range of radiocarbon dates for the stones published by McKusik and Shinn] would account for 5.58 to 7.22 feet of the 15 feet of sea observed over the beachrock.3

Ignoring the fact that the depth of the Bimini Road is generally greater than 15 feet, McKusik and Shinn account for ‘the remaining 7 to 9 feet of sea’ by ‘the undermining of sand, allowing the beachrock to gradually settle’.4 This explanation, however, cannot work in the case of the seaward block cited earlier and carbon-dated to c.4000 BC – i.e., around 6000 years ago. At that date the block would have been well above the tidal zone and thus unable to form as beachrock at all. Mahlman and Zink’s suggestion that there could have been contamination leading to falsely youthful carbon-dates from the tests on the Bimini Road therefore seems a reasonable one.

The mystery of Caho San Antonio: a possible underwater city off Cuba

In my opinion a mistake shared by the polarized and mutually suspicious communities that have studied the Bimini Road – both those who favour an artificial origin for the site and those who believe it to be entirely natural – has been to confine the arguments solely to dry debate about drill cores, micritization, shell hash, bedding planes, C-14, and suchlike. Meanwhile other -mainly contextual – issues have been underplayed.

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One entirely new issue, which could well prove to be contextual to the Bimini problem if it checks out, was put before scientists on 14 May 2001, when Reuters News Agency published an astonishing report of the apparent discovery of a complete city submerged in more than 700 metres of water off the west coast of nearby Cuba.5 The team that had made the discovery were not psychic Atlanteans but a consortium of scientists and salvage experts who had secured an exclusive concession from the government of Cuba to conduct searches for shipwrecks in Cuban waters. Such a search has never before been permitted and, though expensive to mount, is likely to prove very lucrative – since experts believe that billions of dollars’ worth of sunken Spanish treasure ships lie in the deeps off Cuba.6

What one would not expect to find in water anywhere near as deep as 700 metres would be a sunken city – unless it had been submerged by some colossal tectonic event rather than by rising sea-levels. Mind you, the two are not necessarily contradictory and a colossal tectonic event occurring amidst an epoch of global sea-level rise seems to be exactly what is suggested in the Atlantis myth.

Some soundbites from the Reuters report:

‘It’s a new frontier’, enthused Soviet-born Canadian ocean engineer Pauline Zelitsky, from British Columbia-based Advanced Digital Communications, poring over video images of hitherto unseen seafloor taken by underwater robots.

‘We are the first people ever to see the bottom of Cuban waters over 50 meters … It’s so exciting. We are discovering the influence of currents on global climate, volcanoes, the history of formation of Caribbean islands, numerous historic wrecks and even possibly a sunken city built in the pre-classic period and populated by an advanced civilization similar to the early Teotihuacan culture of Yucatan,’ she said.

The report then tells us that, ADC, Zelitsky’s company, is ‘the heavyweight among four foreign exploration firms here’ and that, merely while testing its equipment in Havana Bay, it successfully located the wreck of the USS Maine which blew up and sank mysteriously in 1898:

ADC has also been exploring a string of underwater volcanoes about 5000 feet deep off Cuba’s western tip, where millions of years ago a strip of land once joined the island to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Most intriguingly, researchers using sonar equipment have discovered, at a depth of about 2200 feet, a huge land plateau with clear images of what appears to be urban development partly covered by sand. From above, the shapes resemble pyramids, roads and buildings.

‘It is stunning. What we see in our high resolution sonar images are limitless, rolling, white sand plains and, in the middle of this beautiful white sand, there are clear manmade large-size architectural designs. It looks like when you fly over an urban development in a plane and you see highways, tunnels and buildings,’ Zelitsky said.

‘We don’t know what it is and we don’t have the videotaped evidence of this yet, but we do not believe that nature is capable of producing planned symmetrical architecture, unless it is a miracle,’ she added in an interview in her office at Tarara, along the coast east of Havana.7

As the first edition of Underworld goes to press, the status of Cuba’s underwater city remains unresolved. Is it a city? Or is it just a wonderful sonar hallucination? Presumably time will tell.

To clarify matters as much as possible in the meantime I asked Sharif to do a couple of telephone interviews. The first was with Paul Weinzweg, co-founder of Advanced Digital Communications (and husband of Pauline Zelitsky), who confirmed:

The sonar images we have are very extensive, the structures extend over several kilometres. They’re very large. Some as long as 400 metres. Some are up to 40 metres high. They’re of different shapes. But there’s a good deal of architectural symmetry. We’ve shown them to scientists in the US, Canada and Cuba… and they tell us that it’s not geology, or that it’s a great mystery … And we have very extensive bathymetry of that area as well, and it is very interesting that the shelf terraces down in even gradations. And it’s obvious that if it is a major settlement of say a pre-classical or Atlantean nature, then the whole thing just sank, altogether, during some disastrous geological event. There are a couple of fault lines there, and an ancient volcano … It’s off the coast of Cabo San Antonio, off the Western tip of Cuba …8

One of the scientists named by Weinzweg as supporting a possibly non-geological nature for the structures in the sonar images is Dr Al Hine, a marine geologist at the University of South Florida. He described what he’d seen on the images that Pauline Zelitsky had shown him as:

Just bizarre. I couldn’t provide an explanation for it but on the other hand there might be a reasonable explanation. They want to turn it into an archaeological site. I suppose that’s possible but there are just as many alternative interpretations that could be valid as well. It’s something worthy of further study, I suppose … But it was something that didn’t really jump out at you. It was kinda vague and it might be something real or it might not be. That’s the way it is with looking at acoustic geophysics on the sea-floor.9

Additional relevant comment came from Grenville Draper of Florida International University, an expert in the neotectonics of Cuba and its region, who thought it highly improbable that tectonic subsidence sufficient to have plunged several square kilometres of land to a depth of 700 metres below the sea could have occurred any time during the known human occupation of Cuba:

Nothing of this magnitude has been reported, even from the Mediterranean. The only other possibility is that the ‘objects’ were carried into position by an underwater landslide, something possible, even probable, in the Cabo San Antonio region.10

Inundation history

The odds in favour of the Cuban underwater city actually turning out to be anything of the sort don’t look particularly good to me. But it would be nice to be surprised and we shall have to wait and see.

Meanwhile there are other more immediate contextual issues surrounding the Bimini Road that have never been examined. For example, no serious attempt has been made to explore the possibility that some sort of cultural relationship might exist between the ‘Seahorse’ and ‘Shark’ mounds above water on Bimini and the geometrical mosaic of the now-submerged Bimini Road. Likewise, there has been a failure by both sides to consider the topography of Bimini and its changing relationship to the sea since the end of the Ice Age. For until as recently as 6000 years ago, as I was to discover when I received Glenn Milne’s inundation maps for the region in the summer of 2001, Bimini remained part of a large antediluvian island lying across the Gulf Stream from Florida. Very close to the north-western tip of this palaeo-island, overlooking the Gulf Stream then as they do today, were what is now Paradise Point and the present site of the Bimini Road.

My question is this. Doesn’t the existence of a large and perhaps inhabited island in the immediate vicinity of the Bimini Road until around 6000 years ago suggest the possibility that vital information concerning the Road’s origins could now also be underwater? How can anyone arrive at certainties about this enigma when, as remains the case today, no extensive underwater archaeology has ever been done on the Great Bahama Bank?

In July 2001 after my second series of dives at Bimini, this time with the Channel 4 film crew, I flew to Florida to put these doubts to Dr John Gifford of the University of Miami, co-author of the National Geographic Society research report quoted earlier, and one of the leading scientific proponents since the early 1970s of an entirely natural origin for the Bimini Road.

GH: John, when did your involvement with Bimini begin? When did it all start, and why?

Gifford: I came to the University of Miami as a graduate student in September of 1969, and at that time there were articles in the local newspapers describing a discovery that had just been made off the coast of North Bimini, which was described as Atlantis, and the Dean of the school at the time, F. G. Walton Smith, decided that this would be a great project for someone who was interested in both archaeology and geology, as I was, so he essentially told me to go over there and study it and find out whether it was archaeological or geological.

GH: Right. And was that the main focus of your research on Bimini – that specific question? Or was it wider?

Gifford: It was, because at the time, again, in the fall of ’69, it was a major, major news story, and people were calling this place and saying, you know, ‘What can you tell us about Atlantis?’ and so we wanted to be on top of things.

I was interested to note, when I questioned Gifford on the age of the Bimini Road, that he did not rely on the disputed carbon-dates from the cores, but instead on the dates of seashells found under the blocks.

GH: Setting aside for a moment the argument about whether the Bimini Road is in any way artificial or not, how old do you think it is?

Gifford: That particular deposit is somewhat less than about 6000 or 7000 years old.

GH: And that’s based on what? How do you arrive at that?

Gifford: One of the things we accomplished in my fieldwork there back in the early ‘70s, was to excavate underneath the blocks at a number of locations, and we recovered very well-preserved marine shells, mollusc shells. We radiocarbon-dated those and the dates on the shells all fell between 6000 and 7000 years old.

I next pointed out to Gifford that our inundation maps showed a large island behind the Bimini Road down to about the same period – a solid mass of land quite different from the tiny strips of rock and sand that are all that remain of it today. ‘I don’t know what kind of landmass it was,’ I said. ‘Has your work ever touched on that?’

Gifford: No, no.

GH: But it strikes me that it might have been quite a habitable place at the time, when North America was covered in a vast ice-sheet … Gifford: Sure.

GH: And therefore possibly a place where people lived?

Gifford: Well, that’s something that has occurred to a number of people, including myself, and so the first step, of course, would be to go to the Bahamas and look for very early archaeological sites not only underwater but on land.

GH: On land too. Yes.

Gifford: But out of all the archaeological surveys that have been done today on all the islands in the Bahamas, the oldest site that has ever been found on land is only about 3000 years old. There is simply nothing older than that.

GH: How much marine archaeology has been done in the Bahamas?

Gifford: Well, prehistoric marine archaeology, very, very little. Certainly there’s been a lot of treasure-hunting for shipwrecks and so forth, but only within the last decade or so have some people begun to do things like explore the Blue Holes in the Bahamas. Those are obvious places where one might look for prehistoric remains. And I’ve heard reports of human bones being found at great depth in some of these Blue Holes, but I think in most cases the bones have been introduced much, much more recently and they’ve simply fallen down in the slopes. So my point is though, you see, if you’ve got an exposed Bahama Bank – thousands of square kilometres – and you’ve got people wandering around, at least some of those people are going to leave some traces on the high points, which are then going to become the islands, which would then be places where land archaeologists would have found some traces.

GH: Now that’s a fair point. But it’s not a conclusive one. If we treat the Great Bahama Bank as an Ice Age island, the archaeology that has been done on it – even if you thoroughly archaeologized every bit of land that’s above water, you’d still be only touching about 10 per cent or 15 per cent of the former island. So that means say, 90 per cent of the former island has never been looked at at all.

Gifford: That’s true.

GH: Don’t you think that’s a bit unparsimonious, to jump to conclusions without doing the archaeology first?

Gifford: Well, it, it’s … it’s just a fact of life in this case that no one and no organization is going to fund a prehistoric underwater archaeological survey of the Bahamas …

A late flood

This is the way with self-fulfilling prophecies. The scientific consensus that there is nothing particularly worth looking for underwater around the Bahamas inevitably affects research priorities and the result is that no serious underwater research gets done. Naturally, in consequence, nothing is found. This in turn reinforces the view that there is nothing worth looking for – and so on ad infinitum.

But coming at the problem from the point of view of inundation science introduces the possibility of a different perspective – one that tends to excite curiosity about the past. Rather than simply being underwater, inaccessible and unlikely to attract research funds, the inundation maps show that the Bimini area once contained not just one but in fact three principal islands, as well as several smaller islands, that are likely to have enjoyed a favoured climate during the Ice Age. The inundation map for 12,400 years ago shows, to the north, a crescent-shaped island around present-day Grand Bahama, Great Abaco and Little Abaco. Clockwise to the south-east from there we come to a second lost island. This island fills in what is now Tarpum Bay under Eleuthera, then connects via the thin but very probably unbroken line of the Exuma Cays to an even larger exposed area stretching almost as far south as Cuba – itself significantly larger than it is today. Third, to the north-west in the direction of the Florida peninsula covering present-day Andros island and occupying most of the Great Bahama Bank, is the largest antediluvian island of all, with Bimini and the Bimini Road right at its tip.

The inundation map for 6900 years ago shows some coastal erosion of the three main islands but otherwise the picture remains basically unchanged – indicating that the islands survived beyond the last of the three great episodes of global postglacial flooding around 7000 years ago. However, in the next inundation map in the sequence, for 4800 years ago, all the islands have gone. The most likely culprit for their inundation is the so-called Flandrian transgression, the final spasm of the Ice Age meltdown, which took place between 6000 and 5000 years ago.

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Speculation 1: the chart shared by Columbus and Pinzon

To the strictly limited extent that inundation science can accurately reconstruct former coastlines I find it interesting – nothing more than that – that the formidable antediluvian island of which Bimini formed a part until about 6000 years ago does bear a loose resemblance in size, shape and general orientation, to the ‘mythical’ island of Antilia on the 1424 Pizzagano chart. Like Antilia on that chart, antediluvian Bimini even has a smaller island lying to its west -occupying the position of the present-day Cay Sal Bank.

Is it possible that the mysterious ‘book’ said to have inspired Columbus to cross the Atlantic by showing him that it had an end could have contained a chart of the Atlantic Ocean of the kind proposed by Nordenskiold – a chart dating back to the mapmaking tradition of Marinus of Tyre? Other charts linked to this tradition, such as the Cantino and Reinal maps of the Indian Ocean and the numerous portolans featuring Hy-Brasil, contain memories or ‘ghosts’ of Ice Age topography and coastlines. So perhaps the coast and islands that the ‘book’ of Columbus was said to have portrayed on the western side of the Atlantic were also shown as they looked before being inundated by rising sea-levels? If Bimini on the original ‘Tyrian sea-fish’ source map had been depicted as it looked at almost any time between 12,000 years ago and 6000 years ago, then it could theoretically have provided the model for the ‘mythical’ island of Antilia that began to appear on portolan charts during the seventy years prior to Columbus’s voyages of discovery.

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For whatever reason, we do know that Columbus had a special interest in Antilia. Cited earlier, he is on record with a comment that suggests he recognized a specific Phoenician (in this case Carthaginian) heritage behind the appearance of Antilia on fifteenth-century nautical charts:

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Aristotle in his book On Marvellous Things reports a story that some Carthaginian merchants sailed over the Ocean Sea to a very fertile island … this island some Portuguese showed me on their charts under the name Antilia.11

Indeed, prior to winning the Spanish sponsorship that financed his expedition to the New World, it is reported that ‘Christopher Columbus was making himself a nuisance at the Portuguese court with persistent requests for an expedition to enable him to verify the marking of Antilia’ on certain maps.12

We’ve already explored some of the issues raised by the alleged ‘book’ of Columbus and the hints that it may have contained an ancient nautical chart of the Atlantic that also showed certain parts of the New World. The suspicion that a map had indeed fallen into Columbus’s hands is further strengthened by certain passages from his own Journal of the first voyage – an abridged version of which, edited by his friend the friar Bartolome de las Casas and often expressed in the third person, has come down to us.13

The Atlantic crossing began from the port of Gomera in the Canary islands on 6 September 1492. Three weeks later Columbus and his three little caravels were deep into the terrifying, unknown reaches of the Ocean Sea – where, supposedly, no man had ever gone before to make a map. It is strange, therefore, to read the following entry:

Tuesday 25 September 1492. The Admiral [Columbus, upon whom the King and Queen of Spain had bestowed the title ‘Admiral of the Ocean Sea’] spoke with Martin Alonso Pinzon [Columbus’s second-in-command], captain of the caravel Pinta, regarding a chart which the Admiral had sent to him three days before in which, it appears, he had certain islands marked down in that sea. Martin Alonso was of the opinion that they were in the neighbourhood of those islands, and the Admiral replied that he thought so also but, as they had not found them, it must be due to the currents which had carried them to the NE … The Admiral called upon him to return the chart and, when it had been sent back on a rope, the Admiral with his pilot and sailors began to mark their position on it.14

In my opinion this entry leaves very little room for doubt that Columbus and Pinzon did indeed possess a chart – or charts – showing some areas of the New World and suggesting a route across the Atlantic Ocean that would take them directly to it. This might also explain why Columbus consistently and knowingly underestimated the distance travelled each day in the information that he gave to his crew. He did so every day of the outbound voyage. Here are a few of the relevant entries from the Journal:

Sunday 9 September 1492. Sailed nineteen leagues today – and decided to count less than the true number, that the crew might not be frightened if the voyage should prove long.15

Monday 10 September. In that day and night sailed sixty leagues … Reckoned only forty-eight leagues, that the men might not be terrified if the voyage should be long.16

Wednesday 26 September. Sailed day and night thirty-one leagues and reckoned to the crew twenty-four.17

Wednesday 10 October. Day and night made fifty-nine leagues progress to the West-south-west; reckoned to the crew forty-four.18

Is it possible that Columbus adopted this practice of under-reporting the actual distances travelled because he had, from the outset, a very good idea from his chart about how long the voyage was likely to be and knew that the men would never have set out at all, and would want to turn back, if he had been more honest with them?

Speculation 2: the world according to Columbus

For all the reasons outlined in previous chapters, let’s speculate that Columbus did – somehow – come into possession of an old nautical chart showing the New World, and that he was sufficiently convinced of its veracity to risk crossing the Atlantic on the strength of it. Moreover, we’ve seen that Columbus promoted his expedition to potential sponsors on the explicit grounds that he had a chart which showed the coast and islands at the end of the Western Sea. Unless Columbus was completely mad, it follows that this chart must have possessed some quality (perhaps to do with the ‘book’ in which it was incorporated) that left him in no doubt that it was accurate. Certainly, it must have distinguished itself in a significant and obvious way from any other maps or charts (for example the Behaim globe – see overleaf) that would have been available to Columbus and already known by his sponsors in 1492. Let’s also speculate that this vitally important and convincing chart did not show the entire Atlantic coast of the Americas but was a fragment featuring only the mainland and islands between the Florida peninsula and Venezuela on the western side of the Atlantic (probably combined, with a typical portolan portrayal of the coasts of southern Europe and north Africa on the eastern side of the Atlantic).

What mainland and what islands would Columbus have been most likely to have believed were shown awaiting discovery by anyone daring enough to cross the Ocean Sea? Everything suggests that, far from a ‘New World’, what the Admiral actually expected to find at the end of his first crossing of the Atlantic was the remote and fabulous eastern extremity of the Old World – quite specifically Japan and China as they had been described in Marco Polo’s Travels and other sources.

This was not a zany, way-out idea on Columbus’s part but was the consensus view of geographers, mariners and merchants of his day. All accepted that the earth was a sphere and that it should be possible to sail round it in both directions. None knew of the existence of the Americas. All accepted, at least theoretically, that this meant Japan and China in the extreme east might be fetched more quickly, safely and easily by sailing west across the Atlantic from Europe, than by means of the arduous overland route that Marco Polo had taken to the Court of the Great Khan in the thirteenth century …

Such ideas were in wide circulation and had been expressed in clear visual form on maps and globes prepared before Columbus ever crossed the Atlantic. The classic example is the Behaim globe, completed at the beginning of 1492 -which Columbus is known to have seen in the months before his first voyage.19 Redrawn here in plan form (overleaf) this globe by the geographer Martin Behaim (Martin of Bohemia) shows the British Isles, Spain, North Africa and the Canary islands separated from Cipango (i.e., Japan), China, ‘Greater India’ and the Indonesian archipelago by an Ocean Sea about one-third wider than the Atlantic.20 In between there is no sign of the New World – of course, because Columbus would not discover it until later in 1492 – but Behaim has installed for good measure some ‘mythical’ islands, including the island of Saint Brendan and also Antilia. It is noteworthy that he represents the island which he labels Antilia as rather small and insignificant – nothing like the large and roughly rectangular landmass shown under the name of Antilia on the 1424 chart. But, weirdly, a landmass with something of the traditional rectangular, north-south shape of Antilia does appear much further west on the Behaim globe – lying in the Ocean Sea off the Chinese mainland. Behaim has labelled it Cipango (Japan) and surrounded it with numerous smaller islands.

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Coast outlines from Martin Behaim’s 1492 globe. Based on Fiske (1902).

Other maps of the period that depict Cipango in the same Antilia-like manner include the Yale-Martellus world map of 1489 and the Contarini-Rosselli world map of 1506.21

What all have in common is an Ocean Sea far wider that any sailor of the fifteenth century would have dared to cross, Columbus included. All the more reason to suppose that the chart upon which he relied to make the crossing did indeed show the width of the Atlantic accurately – still a formidable enough distance to travel, but possible … possible.

Speculation 3: to Asia with a map of the Americas?

I want to reinforce the point here that Columbus, in possession of our hypothetically accurate but outdated ‘Tyrian sea-fish’ chart of certain parts of the eastern seaboard and islands of the Americas, could have used it successfully to guide his little fleet of caravels to the New World while yet remaining absolutely convinced that the coast and islands he had reached were parts of eastern Asia. Conditioned by Polo and Ptolemy, Columbus’s conception of the eastern extremity of Asia is likely to have been close or identical to that shown on the Behaim globe. Sailing west, he would, in other words, have been expecting first to find Antilia, then the island of Cipango (set amongst numerous other islands as Polo had indicated). And after Cipango he would have expected to arrive at the great curving peninsula of the Chinese province of Mangi, described by Marco Polo, with its fabulous capital of Zaitun.

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Comparison of east coast of America with east coast of Asia.

Meanwhile – please remember this is speculation – what Columbus and Pinzon actually had to guide them was an antediluvian chart not of the coast and islands of Japan and China but of the Americas and the Caribbean between Florida and Venezuela. The chart showed pre-deluge Bimini (connected to Andros and the exposed Great Bahama Bank) as a large island with a shape and orientation roughly similar to that of Antilia on the 1424 Venetian portolan, but showing an even closer resemblance to Cipango on the Behaim globe.

We know from the inundation maps that antediluvian Bimini was also surrounded by other islands – as Columbus expected Cipango to be. Imposing his preconceptions on the chart, it is therefore quite possible that he mistook for Cipango what was in fact the cartographic ghost of antediluvian Bimini 6000 or more years ago, and that he mistook the Central American mainland that lay beyond for the Mangi peninsula.

It is usually argued that Columbus’s dreamlike and almost hallucinatory misunderstandings of the geography of the region he discovered arose out of his deep belief that he was sailing to Asia on the one hand and his actual experiences in the New World on the other. But I suggest – again, speculation only – that the real source of the dissonance between expectation and experience was that Columbus’s chart showed antediluvian features that had been long submerged by 1492 and that therefore could not be found no matter how frantically he searched for them. Despite these ‘maladjustments’, however, the islands and mainland of the part of the New World he had arrived in matched up well enough with his expectations of the islands and mainlands of Asia (see page 539) for him to convince himself that he was indeed in Asia.

Entries from the Journal of the first voyage make this extremely clear. First landfall was made at San Salvador on 12 October 1492,22 a point very close to the group of large antediluvian islands that existed around Bimini down to 6000 years ago. If the chart that Columbus used to get his fleet across the Atlantic had shown these ghost islands – the largest of which he believed to be Cipango – then he would have been disappointed and disoriented when he failed to find any large islands at all in the area. He might well have concluded that the chart on which he had placed so much reliance was after all inaccurate, or he might have concluded that he had failed to follow his course properly.

The Journal suggests that Columbus believed his fleet could have been carried too far to the north-east by currents on the transatlantic crossing.23 It is therefore of interest that on leaving San Salvador he chose to sail a compensatory route south and west, through the characteristic tiny cays and sandbars that dot the seascape today, trying to pick up intelligence en route about the whereabouts of the large island of Cipango:

Sunday 21 October 1492. I shall presently set sail for another very large island which I believe to be Cipango according to the indications I receive from the Indians on board. They call the island Colba [Cuba]. [From there] I am determined to proceed on to the mainland, and visit the city of Guisay [Qinsai] and deliver the letters of Your Highnesses [Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain] to the Great Khan, demand an answer and return with it.24

Tuesday 23 October. It is now my intention to depart for the island of Cuba, which I believe to be Cipango from the indications these people give of its size and wealth, and will not delay any further here …25

Wednesday 24 October. This must be the island of Cipango, of which we have heard so many wonderful things. According to the globes and maps of the world I have seen, it must be somewhere in this neighbourhood.26

Columbus did not complete the exploration of Cuba on his first voyage, and on his second voyage he changed his mind about its identification with Cipango and decided that it was part of the mainland of south-eastern China instead. This was because islanders told him that ‘Cuba had no end to the westward’, and referred him for further particulars to ‘the people of Mangon, a province towards the west’.27 As Charles Duff explains:

The name Mangon inflamed the imagination of Columbus, who immediately identified it with the Mangi of Marco Polo, the southern province of China, ‘the most magnificent and the richest province that was known in the eastern world,’ according to Polo.28

[Columbus] was now – as it happened – within two or three days sail of the western end of Cuba, the discovery of which would have disillusioned him concerning its connexion with the mainland of Asia. As it was, he turned back firmly convinced that Cuba was the eastern extremity of the Asiatic continent. And in that belief every person on board expressed his concurrence by a solemn signed deposition. Columbus never afterward abandoned his conviction – he remained unshaken to the end of his life. The dream or fantasy was to him a reality …29

Despite the constant stream of new discoveries and rapidly improving maps that followed the voyages of Columbus, the dream remained a reality for many others as well. Thus, an inscription placed next to the coast of Asia on the Contarini-Rosselli world map of 1506 informs us that ‘Columbus sailed westward to the province of Ciamba, the region of China opposite Cipango.’30

Last but not least, improbable though it may seem, it is known that Columbus finally decided that the island of Hispaniola was the Cipango of his dreams.31

As noted earlier, Gregory Mcintosh has presented a compelling case that a copy of an original map drawn by Christopher Columbus in which Cuba is represented as part of the Central American mainland is incorporated into the world-famous Piri Reis map of 1513. It is therefore intriguing to note – on exactly that section of Piri’s map that was derived from Columbus – that a large ‘ghost’ island with