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Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific

Patrick D. Nunn

Publication Year: 2009

Islands—as well as entire continents—are reputed to have disappeared in many parts of the world. Yet there is little information on this subject concerning its largest ocean, the Pacific. Over the years, geologists have amassed data that point to the undeniable fact of islands having disappeared in the Pacific, a phenomenon that the oral traditions of many groups of Pacific Islanders also highlight. There are even a few instances where fragments of Pacific continents have disappeared, becoming hidden from view rather than being submerged. In this scientifically rigorous yet readily comprehensible account of the fascinating subject of vanished islands and hidden continents in the Pacific, the author ranges far and wide, from explanations of the region’s ancient history to the meanings of island myths. Using both original and up-to-date information, he shows that there is real value in bringing together myths and the geological understanding of land movements. A description of the Pacific Basin and the "ups and downs" of the land within its vast ocean is followed by chapters explaining how—long before humans arrived in this part of the world—islands and continents that no longer exist were once present. A succinct account is given of human settlement of the region and the establishment of cultural contexts for the observation of occasional catastrophic earth-surface changes and their encryption in folklore. The author also addresses the persistent myths of a "sunken continent" in the Pacific, which became widespread after European arrival and were subsequently incorporated into new age and pseudoscience explanations of our planet and its inhabitants. Finally, he presents original data and research on island disappearances witnessed by humans, recorded in oral and written traditions, and judged by geoscience to be authentic. Examples are drawn from throughout the Pacific, showing that not only have islands collapsed, and even vanished, within the past few hundred years, but that they are also liable to do so in the future.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This book is dedicated to my wife Roselyn, without whose unrelenting encouragement it could never have been written. The support of my children — Rachel, Warwick, and Petra — sustained me in bleak times. The University of the South Pacific granted me a year free of other responsibilities to focus on this book, for which I am grateful, and the Kagoshima University Research Center for the Pacific Islands gave me a base for four months to write ...

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1: Introduction: A Personal Odyssey

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pp. 1-6

There are few topics that have captured the imaginations of people within the last few centuries more than the idea of vanished islands. For myself — and, I would argue, for most school children with inquiring minds growing up in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century — the questions of whether the fabulous island Atlantis, described in exhaustive detail by the Greek philosopher Plato about 350 BC (Before Christ), ever truly existed ...

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2: The Earth’s Dynamic Third: The Pacific Basin

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pp. 7-34

Many of our ideas about the history of the planet Earth and the various processes that have shaped it are founded on observations made in northern Europe and eastern North America, places marked mostly by uncommon passivity of earth-shaping phenomena. These regions, for example, lack the climatic extremes of the tropics, they lack the proximity to the largest ocean on earth, and they are associated with an almost complete absence ...

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3: Islands That Vanished Long Ago

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pp. 35-61

The periodic disappearance of islands and continents is part of the natural evolution of the earth’s surface. It happened before people were present to witness it and, as will be seen later in the book, it happened after they arrived. There is no need to invest the process with undue importance simply because it was witnessed by the first species that would come to recognize it for what it was, then record it and ponder its meaning....

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4: Ancient Continents Hidden by Time

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pp. 62-70

Many continents have been claimed as having once existed in the Pacific before disappearing subsequently, but hardly any of these claims are true. Accounts of some of the undoubtedly mythical continents claimed to have existed in the Pacific are discussed in chapter 7; in this chapter I discuss two continents that have been suggested to have once existed in the Pacific. One has indeed become hidden; fragments of the other, if it ever really existed, may ...

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5: The Coming of Humans to the Pacific

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pp. 71-85

Our story begins in the distant past, about 40,000 years ago and perceived today only very dimly through the haze of history, when modern humans1 first encountered the Pacific Ocean. This event took place somewhere in East Asia, possibly Southeast Asia: humans had been living for perhaps the preceding 80,000 years in the wide, fertile valleys of rivers like the Changjiang (Yangtze) and Huanghe (Yellow).2 Today we might be tempted to think ...

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6: Mythical Islands in Pacific Islander Traditions

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pp. 86-107

Many Pacific peoples have a comprehensive body of oral traditions. Of course today, because the traditional way of life is falling apart in many places under relentless pressure from outside forces, oral (and many other) traditions are being forgotten. In such places, the indigenous people sometimes need to thank, however anathemic this might be, some of the earliest Europeans to visit them, who recorded at great length oral traditions of all ...

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7: Mythical Continents of the Pacific

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pp. 108-129

The best-known island to have vanished in the history of the world is named Atlantis, which according to the Greek philosopher Plato sank around 9600 BC in the Atlantic Ocean.1 But for many people in the Pacific, as well as many in Asia and much of the non-English-speaking world, the name Atlantis conjures up no such excitement. It has no significance. Notwithstanding this, in terms of inspiring and informing the modern vanished island and ...

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8: Vanishing Islands: Processes of Island Disappearance Witnessed by Humans

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pp. 130-146

It could be argued that humans have a natural tendency to imagine uncharted lands. The reasons for this lie deep within the psyche of individuals of every ethnicity; imagined worlds appear to be a universal archetype.1 In 1687, in the empty ocean more than 3,000 kilometers west of Chile, Edward Davis imagined that he saw islands within an area 15 kilometers across in the isolated Southeast Pacific [additions in brackets mine]....

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9: Recently Vanished Islands in the Pacific

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pp. 147-181

The vanished islands described in this chapter are adjudged authentic (see Table 6.1). The test of authentication is largely based on both the details of the oral traditions (particularly whether the same tradition was obtained independently from different groups in the same area) and its credibility given the geological context of the island(s) alleged to have disappeared. Other supporting information, such as mention of the vanished island in written ...

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10: Vanished Islands of the Future

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pp. 182-194

Any student of environmental change quickly learns that many popular predictions of the effects of future climate change and sea-level rise in the Pacific (and elsewhere) are highly, and unhelpfully, exaggerated. Such natural changes are also far from unprecedented, although the predicted rates of twenty-first-century change may indeed be so. The specter of future sea-level rise is one that has loomed large over the Pacific countless times before. The ...

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11: Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents in the World’s Oceans: Last Thoughts

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pp. 195-199

Scientists are trained, at least in their professional lives, to think conservatively, to deduce only the deductible, and to express only that which is expressible given the information available. For such reasons the language of science often appears dry and detached to outsiders, who may therefore not wish to dig deep to find something that is personally relevant or enlightening. In contrast, for many people, the accessible and exciting writing of many ...

Appendix 1

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pp. 201-204

Appendix 2

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pp. 205-207


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pp. 209-240


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pp. 241-263


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pp. 265-269

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865443
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832193

Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Geographical myths -- Oceania.
  • Oceania -- Geography.
  • Lost continents -- History.
  • Geographical myths -- Pacific Ocean.
  • Pacific Ocean -- Geography.
  • Islands of the Pacific -- History.
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