DONNELLY AND THE ANTEDILUVIAN WORLD
The most influential of these writers was the American politician and amateur historian, Ignatius Donnelly. In his 1882 bestseller, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, Donnelly set out his theory that Atlantis had really existed and had been the ‘master’ civilisation that founded most of the world’s subsequent great civilisations, from Egypt to the Incas. Modern conceptions of Atlantis still owe much to Donnelly’s vision of a mighty civilisation with advanced technology and wisdom. He also argued that the myths and legends of many cultures derived from faded race memories of Atlantean history, so that the gods of Norse or classical mythology were based on real kings, queens and heroes of Atlantis, and that when Atlantis was destroyed in a great cataclysm, survivors of the deluge colonised other parts of the world and founded new civilisations.
As evidence for his theory, Donnelly pointed to ancient transatlantic cultural similarities such as pyramid building and sun worship, claiming that Mayan petroglyphs and Egyptian hieroglyphs both stemmed from the Atlanteans, who invented writing (along with astronomy, metallurgy, glass, the compass and various other attributes of civilisation). Donnelly pointed out that many cultures shared myths of great floods and migrant culture heroes who founded civilisations. He also claimed that many plants and animals on either side of the Atlantic were obviously related, pointing to the existence of a now-submerged land bridge across the ocean.
Most of Donnelly’s evidence has since been disproved; he was wrong about the similarities between the Mayan language and Mediterranean ones, and more powerful theories have arisen to explain trans-Atlantic similarities between animals and plants. But he had sowed the seeds of Atlantean ‘studies’ as we know them today.
Several other scholars of varying credibility took up the Atlantean baton, particularly with reference to the Mayan and Aztec cultures. This was due partly to the relative vacuum of knowledge about these mysterious civilisations, and partly to the suggestive presence of pyramids, sun-worshipping and other attributes. But could there also have been a hint of condescension, verging on the racist – the assumption by European/white scholars that the ‘inferior’ Native American races could not have created their own civilisations from whole cloth, but must owe their achievements to inspiration from an essentially classical/ European progenitor?
Once more was known about the Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and others, however, it was generally accepted that their language, writing, architecture and science were indigenous, and that many of the interpretations and translations of pre-Colombian texts that had appeared to support Atlantean theories were simply wrong.
Lemuria first surfaced to visibility in the by-lanes of Victorian science, but the foundations for the metropolitan fascination with Earth’s lost worlds and vanished pasts were laid in the closing decades of the eighteenth century with two important developments. The first of these was the discovery of “deep time” in the 1780s. Up until then, most scientists and educated opinion considered the earth to be about 6,000 years old. Yet this reckoning, based on Biblical chronology, was soon at odds with the nascent science of geology, which was fast revealing that the earth’s surface had undergone vast transformations at a rate that could not be accommodated within such a short time span. Beginning with the Comte de Buffon, who estimated the age of the world to be around 75,000 years in 1774, many scientists progressively jettisoned the Christian calendar in favor of a new secular chronology in which the birth of Earth as a functioning planet was pushed further and further back in time. In Robert Wood’s estimation, “to join battle with the ‘prejudice of human time’ (i.e., to accommodate all past times to the scale provided by human memory) was to prove the great crusade of the heroic age of Geology.” By the opening years of the nineteenth century, the limits of humanly remembered time had been blasted. The bottom had dropped out of a hitherto finite earth history, opening up a deep (and to some, a dark) abyss, waiting to be filled by human imagination.
The Indian Ocean formed a continent which extended from the Sunda Islands along the southern coast of Asia to the east coast of Africa. This large continent of former times Sclater, an Englishman, has called Lemuria, from the monkey-like animals which inhabited it, and it is at the same time of great importance from [sic] being the probable cradle of the human race, which in all likelihood here Wrst developed out of anthropoid apes.
So wrote the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) in 1870 in the second edition of his best-selling Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, translated into English in 1876 as The History of Creation.90 Haeckel’s identification of Lemuria as “the probable cradle of the human race” distinguishes his labors of loss from the place-making of natural historians, biologists, and geologists. In so identifying it, Haeckel wrests Lemuria from the world of zoogeography, where it had circulated as a faunal highway and paleocontinental connection, and inserts it instead into the all-important grand narrative of the primeval history of man that so many were attempting in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the very least, this means that in his evolutionary and ethnological labors of loss, Lemuria lingers on into the Pliocene instead of disappearing in the early Tertiary period, or earlier, as it does for the zoogeographer or the geologist. As a Pliocene place-world, it enables both the appearance of humans and their dispersal across the globe as so many races. In other words, for the first time, Sclater’s lost continent comes to rest within the horizon of human reckoning, leading some even to boldly suggest that it was its submergence and loss that might be remembered in legends of an antediluvial world prior to the Noachian Deluge.