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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 schoolchildren 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 and where it might have been located proved compulsive. For me at that time, such questions seemed to go straight to the fundamentals of existence in ways that the questions raised within prescriptive curricula did not. In adolescence, it seemed to me that proving the former existence of Atlantis was tantamount to proving the existence of God for it was self-evident that only in the wisdom of the Ancients, unpolluted by the complexities and crass materialism of the modern world, could the answers to such fundamental questions be found. Naturally these views have since been significantly tempered but, decades later, I realize that numerous people had similar views, both before and after I held them. In the “Dedication ” to his 1880 poetry collection Ultima Thule, H. W. Longfellow wrote But that, ah! that was long ago. How far, since then, the ocean streams Have swept us from that land of dreams, That land of fiction and of truth, The lost Atlantis of our youth! Today, a whole new way of thinking—the new age—has embraced the concept of Atlantis , making it the cornerstone of an edifice that is chaotic, contradictory, and unapologetically unscientific. Yet, for the same reasons that I toyed with these ideas as a teenager, many people today get reassurance from such charismatic explanations of the world that they have Introduction a personal odyssey 1 2 Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific struggled to find elsewhere. The fact that these explanations are fuelled by pseudoscience writers who bend, distort, and selectively cite scientific data and explanations to support their often ludicrous theories of natural phenomena and human history is less palatable to me. It is no coincidence that the rise of pseudoscience has coincided with a diminishing of legitimate scientific interest in issues like vanished islands and hidden continents, not because the associated questions have become any less intriguing or indeed valid scientifically but because they have become tainted. In a critical 1978 book about Atlantis, E. S. Ramage commented Perhaps it is already clear why those who are best qualified [scientists] to speak about Atlantis are satisfied with offering incidental criticism or else ignore the problem entirely . The one common denominator among all the various theories that have been put forward is the singular lack of detachment shown by the [pseudoscience] theorists. Instead of beginning with Plato, most begin with a hypothesis and develop their ideas with an enthusiasm that often verges on fanaticism.1 Some years ago I wanted to visit the island of Moturiki, some 10 kilometers off the east coast of Viti Levu, the largest island in the Fiji Group of the Southwest Pacific. I drove to Ucunivanua (the tip of the land), in eastern Viti Levu, to rendezvous with the boat from Moturiki. It arrived much later than I did, and I spent some of the interim wandering along the foreshore, exposed by the low tide, wondering at the vast numbers of pottery shards sticking up through the mud. Some of these shards were intricately decorated, made this way I supposed by the distant ancestors of the people now living in the area, people who today have no memory of pottery making.2 When the boat arrived, we headed out to sea, threading our way through the myriad reefs that fringe this coast, buffeted by swells driven into our path by the southeast trade winds. Our route was not directly to Moturiki; the boatman first had to collect some supplies from isolated Leleuvia Island, 5 kilometers south, where a backpackers’ resort is located. Leleuvia is one of the smallest and lowest islands I have ever been on, perhaps 100 meters in diameter and rising no more than 3 meters above the surface of the patch of coral reef on which it is built. It is a pile of sand and gravel, thrown together by successive storm waves, then colonized by the coconut palms and creepers that are ubiquitous along the low, sandy coastlines of the tropical South Pacific islands. While the boatman went to do business on...


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MARC Record
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