Why the myth of Atlantis just won’t die

The lack of evidence for its existence hasn’t stopped people from hunting for it—or insisting that archaeologists are involved in a cover-up.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 20 Apr 2023, 09:42 BST
The tale of an advanced civilization that catastrophically vanished long ago has long been a lure ...
The tale of an advanced civilization that catastrophically vanished long ago has long been a lure for Atlantis hunters. But archaeologists are blunt: there’s a good reason why we’ll never find it.
Photograph by Illustration via iStock, Getty Images Plus

From Tutankhamun’s tomb to the Dead Sea Scrolls, there’s seemingly nothing archaeologists can’t unearth. So why haven’t they found Atlantis yet?

It’s a question regularly fielded by real-life archaeologists like David S. Anderson, who says he’s barraged with questions about the island and its supposed existence on a “daily” basis.

“It’s far more common for people to ask me about pseudo-archaeology than regular archaeology,” says Anderson, an assistant professor at Radford University who specialises in the Maya and Mesoamerican archaeology.

For Anderson and his ilk, the answer is always the same: We’ll never find Atlantis because it’s entirely fictitious. But that hasn’t stopped the supposed existence of the lost island (or continent) from sparking the public’s imagination—and leaving more than a thousand years of speculation and conspiracy theories in its watery wake.

In this 17th-century map, with top facing south, Atlantis is depicted as located between the Americas (right) and Africa and Europe. During the Age of Exploration, Europeans used the story of Atlantis to explain the origin of the complex Indigenous societies they encountered in the Americas and Pacific.
Photograph by Illustration via Giancarlo Costa, Bridgeman Images

Inventing Atlantis

Atlantis is the stuff of modern fare like Journey to the Center of the Earth and the recent Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse. But the story is the brainchild of the Greek philosopher Plato, who featured the island in two of his Socratic dialogues from the fourth century B.C.

Plato called it Atlantis nêsos, or the “island of Atlas,” and the philosopher didn’t intend it to represent the pinnacle of human achievement. Instead, the island civilisation was designed as a fictional foil to the real city of Athens. In Plato’s dialogues, Atlantis is presented as a sophisticated state that fell after its hubristic leaders attempted to invade Greece. In retribution for its people’s hunger for power, said Plato, Atlantis was punished by the gods, who unleashed natural disasters that caused it to sink into the sea, annihilating what remained of its power.

“Plato is a liar,” says Flint Dibble, an archaeologist and Marie-Sklodowska Curie Research Fellow at Cardiff University.” He never claims to be writing history.” 

But though Plato’s dialogues include plenty of clues that the city was imaginary, including the dialogue’s characters’ own insistence that the story was hearsay at best, the idea of Atlantis has fuelled imaginations ever since, along with claims it was a real place whose remains contain proof of a lost, superior civilisation.

A statue of Plato outside the Academy of Athens in Greece. In Atlantis, the 4th-century philosopher created a parable on power that became the inspiration for countless fruitless expeditions.
Photograph by Jon Hicks, Getty Images

Atlantis resurfaces

Hundreds of years after Plato’s death, the Atlantis story began resurfacing first in the writings of Christian and Jewish philosophers, then in speculative works by the likes of Sir Francis Bacon, whose novel The New Atlantis was published posthumously in 1626. In the book, Atlantis is a utopian society on a remote Pacific island whose inhabitants are learned, humane—and deeply Christian.

At the time, Europeans were grappling with a sea change in their vision of the world, one that was expanding dramatically with increasing contact between Europeans and Indigenous people throughout the Americas and Pacific during the Age of Exploration.

“The western world was desperate to try and understand how there could be new continents with people in them, where they came from, and how they fit into biblical or classical history,” says Anderson, who will explore Atlantis’ appeal in his upcoming book Weirding Archaeology. Rather than acknowledging that Indigenous peoples could have advanced civilisations of their own, Anderson notes, Europeans used the story of Atlantis as a possible explanation for the structures and societies they found in the Americas.

Among them was Charles de Bourbourg, a French priest who collected Mesoamerican texts and connected Maya civilization to a real-life Atlantis. De Bourbourg’s writing went on to inspire Augustus Le Plongeon, a British American archaeologist who attempted to find Atlantis in Yucatán in the late 19th century.

He was followed by Ignatius Donnelly, an American author and politician whose 1882 book Atlantis: The Antedeluvian World presented a unified theory of Atlantis as a lost continent that had been destroyed by the same Great Flood depicted in the Hebrew Bible—and whose technologically advanced, superhuman inhabitants had supposedly gone on to birth modern civilisations worldwide.

“He uses the Atlantis story to try to explain all of history,” says Dibble—and modern depictions of Atlantis almost all echo Donnelly’s sensationalistic theory.

A lost utopia?

Acolytes of these past Atlantis theorists have looked for the lost island in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Atlantic, even Scandinavia. But Atlantis seekers could have saved some time, Dibble suggests, if they started (and ended) their search in Athens itself.

“Greek archaeology demonstrates why Atlantis is not a real place to begin with, and why we shouldn’t even be looking for it,” says Dibble, who has conducted extensive research in Athens’ ancient ruins and is writing a book on the Atlantis myth. In Plato’s dialogues, the philosopher presents Atlantis as a foil to the city-state of Athens, but even the geographical features in his account of Athens don’t add up against the archaeological record.

“It’s not something that has a historical kernel to it,” says Dibble. Nor does Plato’s fictitious city appear in works of art from Plato’s lifetime, indicating that Atlantis was a product of the philosopher’s imagination and not a widespread public belief.

The conspiracy that wasn’t

The lack of actual historical evidence underpinning Plato’s parable, however, hasn’t stopped people from continuing their hunt and insisting that archaeologists are hiding evidence of the lost city from the public.

“The idea that archaeologists would cover something up or not publish something is ridiculous,” says Anderson. “You make a name in archaeology by challenging the status quo.”

For both Anderson and Dibble, countering widespread public belief in the legendary island, and claims of a shady archaeological conspiracy surrounding its location, has become a sideline to their archaeological specialties, from Dibble’s biomolecular studies of isotopes in ancient Greek animal teeth to Anderson’s excavations of preclassic Maya settlements. It’s now part of both men’s career to speak out against figures like Graham Hancock, a British author and TV host who argues that archaeologists are covering up evidence that an advanced Atlantis-like civilisation really existed thousands of years ago, and that its residents were dispersed around the world when a comet crashed into Earth, triggering a catastrophic flood.

“If you think the study of ancient world is the solving of a riddle, or unraveling the clues of a puzzle, you’re stuck in a fantasy world that was created by pulp fiction writers,” says Anderson. “It’s a fun world to play in, but it’s not actual archaeological research.”

Then there’s the fact that claims about Atlantis aren’t all in good fun. Nineteenth-century speculation about Atlantis helped inspire the racial theories behind Nazism, including claims that the continent was the homeland of racially superior Aryans. And the insistence that a lost civilisation was responsible for the magnificent cities of the pre-colonial Americas downplays the actual achievements of the real-life Indigenous people who built them.

“I don’t think that everybody that believes in this necessarily is a racist or a white supremacist, but [the Atlantis myth] reinforces white supremacy,” says Dibble. Both scholars add that the search for Atlantis undermines the work of legitimate archaeologists, whose discoveries on all continents can be overlooked, ignored, or disbelieved because of the public’s ongoing fixation on the imaginary.

“When people get enamoured with this idea, it’s much easier to stop believing in experts,” says Dibble. “That can be entertainment for some, but for others it’s a gateway into even darker conspiracy theories.”

'Atlantis was the bad guy'

If the public is interested in Atlantis, the scholars suggest, they might want to focus on other parts of the ancient story that still sparks the imagination to this day.

For Dibble, who studies ancient people’s responses to climate change in their times, the natural disasters inherent in the Atlantis story show how easy it is to focus on floods or earthquakes instead of more ordinary—but equally perilous—climate threats, like drought and food insecurity. And for Anderson, it’s worth looking at the story Plato was really trying to tell, instead of wasting time searching for an island that only existed to prove a philosophical point.

“According to Plato, Atlantis was trying to destroy civilisation,” says Anderson. “Atlantis was the bad guy in Plato’s story.” Instead of obsessing over the likelihood of the island’s existence, the archaeologist says, it’s worth revisiting Plato’s own exploration of hubris and the dangers of unchecked power—themes that still resound all too well some 24 centuries after the philosopher first spun his tale. 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved