Horizon (1964) s35e01 Episode Script

Atlantis Uncovered

There is a theory that the origins of civilisation lie at the bottom of the ocean; that there was once a great kingdom called Atlantis, home to an advanced and sophisticated society.
The story goes that it perished in a flood around 12,000 years ago, but a few survivors escaped in ships and brought civilisation to the primitive peoples around the world.
Atlantis is one of the most popular, yet controversial, ideas of the age.
Could it possible be true? ATLANTIS UNCOVERED Beneath the thick canopy of the Guatemalan jungle lies a place of tantalising mystery.
When scientists first flew over these peaks 60 years ago they thought they were the tops of volcanoes.
They turned out to be the pyramids of an ancient, lost city.
They called the city Nakbe.
I could see Nakbe on the horizon and I knew that it needed to be investigated because of the implications that it had for the development of civilisation.
What were the processes that led a simple hunting and gathering group to a great and magnificent ancient civilisation? I felt like it was necessary to get to Nakbe and understand that.
This is a place that might solve the greatest mystery of our past: how did humans rise from barbarity to civilisation? It's the question that drives archaeology.
This is a fabulous site.
It's a wonderful opportunity to view the human process in action through an ancient window.
Most archaeologists believe civilisation did not come from Atlantis, but if they dig deep enough at places like Nakbe perhaps they'll find they're wrong.
Archaeologists have been discovering lost cities like Nakbe since the first Europeans went in search of colonies abroad.
All over the world in places that were totally unconnected they stumbled upon the spectacular remains of ancient societies.
The locals often knew nothing about the people who'd built these monuments.
Archaeology was conducted largely by adventurers and rogues who went out to some horrible place in the middle of nowhere and discovered some ancient kingdom or lost civilisation and after all, if you have people finding forgotten tombs in Ancient Egypt and people finding lost civilisations in the middle of the tropical rainforest of Mexico, it certainly must have peaked people's curiosity at the time.
The ancient world they discovered was full of impossible coincidences.
Of all the structures they could have built ancient civilisations on both sides of the Atlantic chose to build pyramids.
Of all the ways of disposing of their dead they had mummified them.
Instead of alphabets they had written in strange pictures hieroglyphs.
Archaeologists had no way of dating most of these wonders.
To many it seemed inconceivable that these similar societies could have evolved separately.
It was logical to think they'd all started as one unique culture that spread, but others disagreed.
There really was a dilemma as to whether human civilisation had a single origin or whether in fact complex society (civilisation) is something that happened independently in Egypt, in China, in Meso-America, in a whole series of places and that really was a hotly debated dilemma.
One solution to this dilemma emerged from the depths of mythology.
It was Plato who first wrote of a super-civilisation Atlantis lost in a flood long ago.
After Plato, the story was forgotten for 2,000 years, but in 1882 the myth of Atlantis was resurrected by one man: Ignatius Donnelly.
He argued that while the rest of the world lived in Stone Age barbarity one group of people began to think differently.
They alone embarked on the road to civilisation in their homeland: Atlantis.
Instead of hunting and gathering food to survive, the Atlantians thought of farming.
Over time, they developed into a complex society.
They learned astronomy and evolved religion, writing, monuments and art the key developments of civilisation.
Donnelly argued that it was impossible that more than one group of people could have evolved in this particular way.
So in Donnelly's mind Atlantis is the source of all civilisation and that from the shores of Atlantis boats went in all directions bringing civilisation to Mexico, South America, Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Those cultures all are the remnant of the once great and proud civilisation of Atlantis which was right in-between them.
The Atlantis theory made perfect sense.
Its tremendous popularity endures today.
Ken Feder has found that in a typical year 4 out of 5 of his new archaeology students believe that Atlantis might really have existed.
The idea is so pervasive that part of Feder's course is to put it to the test.
There are pyramids in Egypt, there are pyramids in Mexico.
Pyramids in Egypt, pyramids in Meso-America, they must have a single common source.
What's the source? Atlantis.
In the Old World, writing systems developed based on hieroglyphs, Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In the New World the Maya wrote in hieroglyphs.
Hieroglyphs the west side of the Atlantic, hieroglyphs on the east side of the Atlantic.
Coincidence? You're Ignatius Donnelly, you don't think so.
There must have been a common source.
Where's the common source? Halfway between - Atlantis.
Since Donnelly the flood of interest in Atlantis has never abated.
A century later it's been the subject of over 2,000 books and scores of expeditions to seek the sunken kingdom.
The archaeologists' verdict? Preposterous.
And you could summarise it by saying a loads of codswallop.
Archaeologists revile Atlantis.
Why do they reject what seems a logical theory of how civilisation began? There are many reasons.
One lies in a revolution in archaeology that began back in the 50s.
The invention of carbon dating changed our view of the past forever.
For the first time scientists could tell the age of a site by chemically testing samples.
When the great, ancient sites around the world were dated the results were shocking.
They'd been built thousands of years apart.
This was a real blow to any thought that there was a single source for all civilisation.
The radiocarbon dates absolutely didn't bear it out at all and then it turned out that the reason they didn't conform was that the basic storyline was plain wrong, so it was a very significant change.
Archaeologists now came to believe civilisation had been developed independently by many different peoples, but no everyone was convinced.
Despite all the evidence, Atlantis grew even more popular.
The myth has been endlessly reinvented to explain the mysterious similarities between the ancient cultures.
Erich von Däniken famously claimed the lost civilisation came from outer space.
I tried to prove that this planet has been visited by beings from outer space several times in antiquity.
They made with our forefathers a kind of artificial mutation and finally these wizards from outer space have gone into archaeological artefacts.
Chariots of the Gods sold more than 11 million copies, but scientists were horrified.
If you think of these claims, if only they were true, they would be amazingly interesting; that we have been visited by beings from elsewhere who not only have created our civilisation for us, but mated with human beings that, in my view, are much more likely to successfully mate with a petunia than an extraterrestrial.
Today the myth is so powerful that it continues to challenge conventional science.
The latest exponent, Graham Hancock, doesn't call it Atlantis, but he, too, puts the case for a lost civilisation around 12,000 years ago.
It's perfectly possible, it's not loony, it's reasonable, it's rational, it's balanced to propose that we could have lost an episode of human history at that time, and that's what the entire mythical testimony of the world says, and the Atlantis story is just one part of a very broad tradition.
The theory remains strangely irresistible.
If it were true it would mean that science has really got it wrong.
The whole of human history would have to be rewritten.
Excavating American Indian sites in New England, Ken Feder has become an expert in recognising the kind of evidence that will prove whether or not Atlantis was the source of all civilisation.
All this rock, as long as you cut it along a straight line, it will break along that straight line as you quarry.
What we want to do is to see how many of the stones He can spot the telltale signs of a long, uninterrupted development of a native culture over thousands of years, or the clues to a sudden arrival of strangers, like Atlantians, from elsewhere.
There's one thing that an archaeologists knows, wherever people go they leave behind a mess.
In this area, for example, there's a long, long sequence of ceramic manufacture by local people, by the native people.
They develop pottery.
They made pottery that looked like this.
It's very thick walled, there's a lot of grit added to the clay.
We find this over the course of 3,000 years here in southern New England and we recognise this as locally made pottery.
When we look at a site like this, we suddenly find a completely different style, a different kind of ceramic, glazed, painted with a print on it, there's writing on it, we even know who made this material because it's got the name on it.
We can trace that name to the potter in England.
There's no intermediate step between this local pottery and this pottery, there's no sequence of development.
It's abundantly clear we have a new culture and new people moving in.
The English pottery marked the moment when foreigners arrived in this part of America.
The test is the same for the hallmarks of ancient civilisation, like pyramids or writing.
If they were brought by an Atlantian super-race they should appear suddenly superimposed on Stone Age life with no precursors, but if the local people created them there should be slow steps of development over thousands of years.
When archaeologists study the greatest symbols of civilisation what do they find? The pyramids of Egypt were built as tombs for the Pharaohs.
Most celebrated are those at Giza, built around 2,500BC, but these are not the first.
What came before was puzzling.
At Dahshur are two earlier pyramids, one of them so misshapen it's known as the Bent Pyramid.
Both these pyramids were built by one King, by King Sneferu and he came to this site and started on the pyramid behind us called the Bent Pyramid.
As his masons were working up the pyramid they discovered that in fact there were certain structural problems.
The desert surface here is very unstable.
They'd also been very slapdash about how they put the blocks together and so the structure started to subside and it was decided then at that point to start a new pyramid, which we call the Red Pyramid, to the north.
Sneferu's builders didn't seem to know what they were doing.
We can actually tell why King Sneferu's builders ran into problems here, if we look at the state of these blocks.
They were using very poor quality mortar and they were setting the core blocks in a very haphazard way and we know that they learnt their lessons because when they started to build the Red Pyramid they used better quality mortar, they set the blocks more carefully and they founded the pyramid on a foundation of limestone to give it extra structural rigidity.
If these pyramids were the work of Atlantians they must have been dodgy builders, but Egyptologists have another explanation.
They see the Bent Pyramid as clear evidence of the Egyptians learning to build through a process of trial and error, and there are pyramids even older than the Bent Pyramid.
The step pyramid at Saqqara is a smaller and simpler structure.
A whole century before Giza, the first of many steps towards perfection.
It's certainly true that pyramids do evolve and one can trace the evolution of them through the step pyramid and finally to the true pyramids that we see behind us.
They didn't appear fully-fledged overnight.
But if the Atlantians didn't bring the art of pyramid building, how did the idea begin? Archaeologists believe the answer lies 250 miles south along the Nile, in a place more mysterious still: Abydos, the ancient capital of Egypt.
Gunter Dreyer has spent the last 20 years excavating at Abydos.
Hidden away in the desert, this seemed an unpromising place to look for the origins of the great pyramids.
At the beginning it was a little bit a risk.
We didn't know what we might find.
In archaeology you try.
You may suppose things, but better try and look.
When Dreyer began to excavate he came upon something unexpected, something more than 600 years older than Giza.
The first trial trench we came upon a very large tomb, very large tomb indeed, of a size we never expected for that period.
When we dug and the first wall came out we had the tomb there and then another chamber beside the first one, and another, and another.
It didn't stop.
An underground tomb with chambers that had once been full of treasure.
A simple version of what lies below the pyramids.
This was proof of a tradition stretching back centuries.
Dreyer has now excavated hundreds of tombs at Abydos.
They began with simple pits in the ground and slowly progressed to great underground monuments.
So from the very first tombs of that size it developed over 1,000 years to that size and the next step to the pyramids is not a bigger one than tose we have seen before.
Other teams at Abydos excavated monuments built above ground.
Compared to the pyramid sites they showed remarkable similarities.
The same bricks laid in the same way to build the same style of walls with doorways in the same positions.
Abydos had revealed a thousand year record of incremental steps leading towards the pyramids, the mark of a gradual, local development.
There was no trace of Atlantis.
But these revelations don't explain the mystery at the heart of the Atlantian argument: the strange coincidence that pyramids were also built on the other side of the Atlantic.
Central America is teeming with pyramids, those of the Toltec, the Aztec, Teotihuacan and most renowned of all, the Maya.
Who had built all these pyramids and were they connected to the ones in Egypt? The only way to find out was to discover their origins.
The lost city of Nakbe is one of the earliest sites of the Maya.
It dates from a thousand years before the peak of Mayan civilisation.
Richard Hansen blazed a trail to Nakbe through the jungle.
In 12 years of excavations Hansen has left no stone unturned.
He has traced Nakbe back to an original, primitive settlement of wooden houses, but around 800BC life began slowly to develop.
As they gained in wealth and in status they begin to increase the size and scale of their houses and they begin to quarry stone, rather crudely, I mean in a primitive fashion begin to extract stones of fairly modest size, stones this shape and stack them in small constructions.
They get larger and larger and larger until between 600 and 400BC they are extracting stones of extraordinary size and dimension.
These stones were up to a metre long and half a metre high and half a metre thick.
What Hansen has uncovered is a native tradition that grew from small stones to complex constructions over 6 centuries.
Some of these ruined pyramids are among the first monuments of the Maya.
You've got monumental architecture up to 72 metres in height, we have elaborate platforms, causeways, terraces, the entire trappings of complex society is developed by this period of time.
In all his years of excavation Hansen has found no traces of Atlantians and no mysterious connection to the pyramids of Egypt.
This building is radically different from Egyptian pyramids.
These structures served as religious temples.
There were stairways going to the summit, there were rituals performed at the top.
This is all part of a long tradition of architectural development and a long tradition of intense religious belief.
It took centuries more for the Maya to perfect their technique.
But the Maya are only part of the Meso-American story.
Standing alone in the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico is a place even more revealing than Nakbe: Monte Alban.
The first archaeologists who came here couldn't tell who had built it.
When the site was carbon dated the result was a shock.
These pyramids were the oldest in the Americas, older even than the first Mayan monuments of this scale.
What mysterious people had built them? The only way to find the answer was to dig throughout the valley for clues.
This work is still going on.
use anything that's in the corner of this wall Gary and Linda Feinman are uncovering a new site El Palmillo.
there's a second pot underneath, but that also appears to be broken.
We've had many faces of occupation up here where we have a wall and then we have another house foundation that was placed over that wall and then a plaster floor that was put over that later and in several areas we've got 3 or 4 levels of houses.
Layer after painstaking layer throughout the valley archaeologists have sought the answer to the mystery of Monte Alban.
It's been fascinating, it's been a surprise every day.
As soon as we started it was always oh look at this, here's another wall, oh, oh look at this, I've got plaster, oh look at this, that we've got, I've got a, a burial.
Gary, we've got another offering here.
It's like peat.
It looks like carnivore teeth.
That's real.
What's that down there, maybe that is a jaw.
It might be, he might have been buried with a dog.
That's a dog.
Little by little, archaeologists throughout the valley have revealed no less than the birth of a new civilisation: the Zapotec, who evolved as gradually and as independently as did the Maya.
Well what we see here is a lot of signs of continuity in terms of how people built their houses, how people buried their dead and these things bear continuities to patterns that we see back to the earliest occupations at Monte Alban and sometimes even before.
Archaeology has revealed the startling fact that in one small corner of the world the long road to a similar monument building society was taken by at least two different groups of people independently, proof that it could have happened all over the world again and again.
There's a simple reason why so many ancient peoples built pyramids.
Before engineers had invented the dome, the spire or structural steel a sloping pile was the only high structure you could build.
If you wanted a high showy monument when all there was to build with was heavy stone it had to be a pyramid.
It didn't take a master race from Atlantis to work it out.
So let's cross off pyramids.
Pyramids don't make a very good argument for Ignatius Donnelly's claim that there's a common source in the middle of the Atlantic.
Well what about writing? I mean that's a very sophisticated technology.
Well we do have writing on both sides of the Atlantic, so does that mean there's a common source for the writing? Well again one would think that if there's a common source for the writing then the writing on either side of the Atlantic would be the same, even identical.
It's coming from the same place - Atlantis.
Writing is one of the greatest steps along the road to civilisation.
Could it have come from Atlantis? Had Atlantian scribes brought writing to Egypt it should appear suddenly, a perfectly formed, complex system handed out to people who had no writing of their own.
In Donnelly's day this was a convincing idea.
In every tomb and every temple the hieroglyphs seemed equally elaborate.
But at Abydos, Gunter Dreyer made an extraordinary discovery.
In the first early tomb he found here, centuries older than the first known hieroglyphs, was scores of little labels with symbols.
They were baffling.
We found about 160 of these little labels, most of them in one chamber on the floor.
At the beginning we didn't understand what might be the meaning of these little labels.
They have holes so they must have been fixed to something.
Some show numbers so probably they indicated sizes or amounts, but those were the animal signs made no sense in the beginning, but when we tried to read them like hieroglyphs suddenly they made sense.
Not all of them at the very beginning, but step by step we understood more and more of it.
To Dreyer the symbols made no sense just as pictures.
But when he read them according to the rules of later hieroglyphs their meaning fell into place.
They were a simple system of record keeping: how much oil was in a jar or where a gift had come from.
Dreyer had found the earliest known writing in Egypt.
In later tombs he found more and more complex inscriptions.
Over 500 years they led all the way to a full written language.
The Egyptians didn't get their 3 R's from Atlantis.
Finding such objects is a great pleasure for an archaeologist.
It's the best discovery you can make and it's the greatest thing to change the border between pre-history and history.
But what could explain the apparent similarities between the Egyptian hieroglyphs and those of the Maya the question that had fascinated the scholars of Donnelly's day.
Both used pictures instead of letters.
The Maya often wrote on columns called stele, like the Egyptians.
Both used symbols that looked like strange combinations of humans and animals.
Could there be a connection? We need a system in which we have symbols.
These symbols we can carve, or scratch or scrape or write with ink.
That's a common thread, but it's a kind When Ken Feder focuses on the contrasts between the ancient writing systems rather than the similarities things seem rather different.
If you know Egyptian hieroglyphs can you pick up a Maya stele and read it? Absolutely not.
These writing systems are not mutually intelligible, they don't share signs, they don't share even the same techniques of, of writing them down.
The Inca by the way, they don't have a writing system.
They had quipoo and quipoo was a series of knots, knotted strings where the knots, what the knots looked like and their position on the string that those positions in fact could be read so that there were people who knew what those strings meant, who knew what the knots meant and could read those knots.
Well it's awfully peculiar.
If Atlantis is the source of writing all over the world well why in the world are they giving Egyptians one kind of hieroglyphs, they're giving cuneiform writing to the folks in ancient Mesopotamia and they're let, they're teaching the Inca to knot strings.
I mean is this some sort of bizarre social experiment that the Atlantians are running? And there is one final enigma.
There is no symbol for Atlantis in any of these ancient writings.
The first person to mention, or perhaps invent, this word is Plato over 9,000 years after Atlantis was supposed to have existed.
If Atlantis really is at, in Plato's time 9,300 years old then it is absolutely stunning that we have no references, zero, not a few, not some ambiguous ones, nothing until 9300 years after the fact, so the fact that Plato was telling us this story in 400 or 380BC and there'd been no reference to it before that is absolutely stunning.
Modern archaeology has told us what Ignatius Donnelly could not know, that great achievements of ancient societies were developed gradually over millennia in different ways, in different places by different people.
But the myth of a lost civilisation lives on.
Science may dismiss it as nonsense, but every year scores of new books reach millions of eager new readers who believe in this radically different version of history.
From Plato to Hancock there's a common element: a date that keeps being connected with the lost civilisation, a date around 12,000 years ago.
What was happening in the world at this magic moment and could it really be connected with Atlantis? It's known that 12,000 years ago humans still lived in Stone Age simplicity hunting and gathering their food, but evidence now shows that around this time they took the first great step towards civilisation: they learnt to cultivate crops.
What inspired this momentous leap? Did the Atlantians come ashore with their box of seeds and their blueprint for civilisation? Excavations at Abu Hureyra in the Middle East revealed the answer.
Here archaeologists found a typical hunter-gatherer settlement more than 12,000 years old.
These people depended on wild grains for food, but when archaeologists began to dig they found something perplexing.
What we expected to find from these hunter-gatherer levels at Abu Hureyra was lots of wild cereals and these are very characteristic, were very skinny and there were plenty of them, but very soon we started to find something that didn't belong there, was a bit weird.
These were whacking great fat domestic grains.
They didn't belong there.
These are characteristic of agriculture, cultivation of some sort and the difference was very obvious.
If you look at these grains here.
I have two little skinny wild types and two chunky domestic types.
Gordon Hillman knew that native cereal grains as fat as these do not exist in the wild.
They could only exist as the result of human intervention.
It was clear that the hunter-gatherers had begun to plant crops.
The mystery was: why? Hillman and his team found a clue.
Just before the fat grains appeared the wild cereals began to disappear.
It started with those that needed most water, but later even the hardiest cereals vanished.
What we seemed to have was a drought setting in that was knocking one food plant after the other, going forever more drought-resistant species.
This changed our perspective of what was going on dramatically.
Checked against known climatological data Hillman's evidence suddenly made sense.
Fluctuations in the climate around this time plunged the whole area into drought.
In a desperate bid to avoid starvation the hunter- gatherers discovered how to plant native grasses for food.
Their efforts led to the first domesticated wheat and barley.
So that there came a point when most of these communities really had no option.
They were into agriculture, they were stuck with it, whether they liked it or not and the rest, as they say, is history.
But this could not explain the onset of farming on the other side of the world.
If archaeologists could show it happened independently more than once it would destroy the Atlantian explanation.
In seeking to reveal the origins of the Zapotec, archaeologists set out to find the first farmers in the Oaxaca Valley.
We knew that agricultural villages were established in the valley by 1500BC but how did that agriculture come about? That was a big question.
The obvious place to look for clues was in the mountains where hunter-gatherers had lived.
The people here had faced a perennial problem.
A life of foraging high in the mountains where water was a long way off.
When archaeologists studied the plant remains in this cave they found evidence of an ingenious solution.
The hunter-gatherers had learnt to plant, but the first thing they grew wasn't food.
They grew bottle gourds which they used to carry water.
This is the first known plant domestication in the Americas, prompted not by hunger but by practicality.
It was some 6,000 years after they began planting gourds that people here finally chose to settle in villages.
By that time they were growing very different foods to those of the near eastern farmers: beans, chilli and maize.
Had the Atlantians brought farming to the Americas there is no reason why they wouldn't have brought the same crops as already existed in the near east.
You cannot say that the plants that were domesticated in the near east would not have grown or done well here in Meso-America.
In fact, we know that when the Spanish came over in the 16th century what they brought with them were many of those same plants wheat, barley and then the animals goat, sheep, cattle and all of these things thrived in Meso-America and you still see them today.
And there were many essential tools of farming the super-race from Atlantis failed to bring.
The plough and the wheel were unknown in the Americas until the Spanish brought them, just 400 years ago.
Well I think that it would be a brave person indeed who, who would try to sustain an argument now against the evidence that agriculture was either introduced from some mysterious source, Atlantis or outer space or whatever, or indeed was just invented once and was then spread round the world by one or more groups of people because the evidence just does not support that kind of interpretation.
But in spite of all the evidence, the allure of a lost civilisation is more powerful now than ever.
Every year crowds flock to ancient sites in search of lost wisdom.
Science continues to be ignored by a public yearning for the romance of a more mysterious past.
Should this be dismissed as harmless fantasy? History has shown that fantasies about the past can lead to disaster.
It is dangerous when people have myths about their own past which have no foundation in reality.
We've seen myths of that kind in our own time have tragic consequences.
The National Socialists in Germany, the Nazis, had the notion of Aryan supremacy and the Holocaust was built on pernicious myths of that kind.
The Nazi idea of an Aryan elite is well documented.
What is less well known is that prominent Nazis believed that the master race originated in Atlantis.
One of the most passionate believers was Heinrich Himmler, Head of the SS.
Himmler directed Germany scientists to seek the descendants of the Atlantian super-race in places from the Andes to Tibet.
They scrutinised the physical features of the natives in search of any shred of evidence to support Himmler's notion that his Aryan ancestors, the Atlantians, had lived there.
These claims to an ancestral heritage in Atlantis fed the Nazis belief in the supremacy of the Aryan master race.
When we come to something like the lost continent of Atlantis we are better off knowing that civilisations developed more or less independently just so nobody can say some people are better than others, some are smarter than others because we know what happens down the line when we believe that, so I'm not going to tell you that belief in Atlantis is necessarily the first step towards genocide, or Holocaust, but what I'm telling you is we are on a very slippery slope if we believe in fantasies and that those fantasies lead us down to places we really don't want to go.
Do you believe in Atlantis?