Ancient Maps of Antarctica Debunked. Maybe. Also, We Are All Idiots


Like most sane people, I hate Internet debates. Love/hate, that is.  Even in real life, I’ve always found it hard to let a debate go. I’ve sometimes stubbornly backed positions that later turned out to be false, and on the other end of the spectrum I’ve gotten scared by ad hominems and conceded stuff I didn’t need to concede.   Almost no matter how the debate goes, I end up feeling like an idiot.

I don’t want this site to become a debating site. But a few weeks ago, I posted a wild historical theory and invited you guys to critique it.  Benjamin did, in the comments, here.  So, for the integrity of this site, I’ve got to respond to the critique found in the link.  If you don’t like Internet debates, please please skip this post.

The link that Benjamin posted to is to a site called Bad Archaeology.  The site has two guys’ names on it, but at appears to be mostly written by one guy. (At least, he is the one who responds to comments.)  Let’s call him KFM.  I am not posting his full name here nor am I linking to his web site, because I don’t want to attract his attention because I hate Internet debates!  However, you can easily find his site by Googling it.

The site exists to debunk “Bad Archaeology” (caps in the original), which mostly means various wild theories like the ones we’ve been discussing about lost civilizations, aliens, etc.  It calls proponents of these theories Bad Archaeologists and it fights them with facts, with mischaracterization of their positions, and sometimes with mockery. And by capitalizing its references to them. Always fun.

Summary of the Refutation

KFM’s main arguments against Hancock’s idea that the Piri Reis, Orontius Finaeus, and Buache maps come from an older source are as follows:

-Piri Reis SAID he got his data for the New World part of his map from Columbus.  This is confirmed because he faithfully reproduces some of Columbus’s errors, such as showing Cuba as part of the mainland.

-Most Bad Archaeologists consistently spell Orontius Finaeus’s name wrong.  (Oronteus.)  This shows they don’t know what they’re talking about. 

-There are major errors in Reis’s and Finaeus’s depictions of Antarctica.  So we cannot claim that a supposed older source map was accurate.  (More on this in a second.)

-Only one version of Buache’s famous map exists that shows Antarctica.  It is in the Library of Congress.  Other versions of the same map just show a big blank space there.

-Buache was an accomplished geographer who had a theory that there must be a landmass at the bottom of the world.  He also theorized that within it, there must a large inland sea that was the source of icebergs.  So, if the map he supposedly drew is not a hoax and was in fact drawn by him, then he just made it up out of pure speculation.  In fact, he wrote “supposed” and “conjectured” all over it.

-He also shows ice and icebergs all over it.  This renders ridiculous the idea that it is a map of Antarctica before the continent was covered in ice. 

-Buache’s and Finaeus’s maps don’t match Reis’s or each other, so clearly they cannot have come from a single source map, let alone an accurate one.

The Strong

KFM’s arguments look, at first glance, super convincing. Some of them are dead on.

The strongest part of KFM’s argument is this:

“[Charles] Hapgood, [Hancock’s source for this theory], assumed that the original source maps, which he believed derived from an ancient survey of Antarctica at a time when it was free from ice, were extremely accurate. Because of this, he also assumed that any difference between the Piri Re‘is map and modern maps were the result of copying errors made by Piri. Starting from this position, it mattered little to Hapgood if he adjusted the scales between stretches of coastline, redrew ‘missing’ sections of coastline and altered the orientation of landmasses to ‘correct errors’ on Piri’s map to match the hypothesised source maps …. Hapgood found it necessary to redraw the map using four separate grids, two of which are parallel, but offset by a few degrees and drawn on different scales; a third has to be turned clockwise nearly 79 degrees from these two, while the fourth is turned counterclockwise almost 40 degrees and drawn on about half the scale of the main grid. Using this method, Hapgood identified five separate equators.”

This is pretty damning to the theory.  It’s not necessarily fatal to the idea that Reis used an obscure ancient source among the 20 that went into his map.  After all, copying errors do happen, especially when we are trying to compile a bunch of maps from different eras of places we have never surveyed ourselves.  But that’s an unfalsifiable claim, so let’s leave it.  Regardless, Hapgood’s shenanigans certainly are fatal to the idea that this ancient map, if it existed, was astonishingly accurate in latitude and longitude.

The Not So Strong

But alongside this excellent argument, KFM also includes a bunch of inconsistent ones:

“All in all, the Piri Re‘is map of 1513 is easily explained. It shows no unknown lands, least of all Antarctica, and contained errors (such as Columbus’s belief that Cuba was an Asian peninsula) that ought not to have been present if it derived from extremely accurate ancient originals. It also conforms to the prevalent geographical theories of the early sixteenth century, including ideas about the necessity of balancing landmasses in the north with others in the south to prevent the earth from tipping over.”

So, the map does not show Antarctica, but one sentence later it does show Antarctica, but Antarctica was only put there because contemporary geographical theory demanded it.  Also, note the assumption that the ‘extremely accurate originals’ are supposed to have included all of the Americas as well as Antarctica.  That’s not my understanding of Hancock’s claim.

It’s also not clear whether KFM is claiming that all the data for Reis’s map came from Columbus.  If he is, this inconsistent with both Hancock’s claim (and KFM’s own showing) that Reis said the map was compiled from 20 others, including among them a map whose source was Columbus. 

Similarly, KFM shows errors on Orontius Finaeus’s map, although he admits that “There are fairly obvious similarities between the general depiction of the southern continent by Orontius Finaeus and modern maps of Antarctica.” 

The Buache Map Shows an Archipelago

For the Buache map, KFM contends that Buache essentially made up the entire map to satisfy a geographical theory he had, namely that there must be a land mass at the bottom of the world to balance the land at the top (this was a popular theory at the time), and that it probably had a large inland lake in it with two major outlets leading to the sea (this was Buache’s own brilliant guess, and he thought this lake must be the source of the glaciers that navigators encountered in the southern sea). 

I take KFM’s word that Buache had this theory, and that his map shows ice and icebergs on Antarctica, which KFM says “makes the claims that Buache’s map shows an ice-free Antarctica all the more bizarre.”

Well, sort of.  But actually, Hancock’s claim is that the source map Buache used shows Antarctica early in the process of icing over.  Also, given Buache’s theory, it would not be surprising if he had added ice and icebergs to any other data that he may have had. 

“Over several parts of the southern continent, Buache writes conjecturée (conjectured) and soupçonnée (suspected).”   KFM thinks this is conclusive proof that Buache basically invented the interior of Antarctica on his map, based purely on his own theory.  That could be.  But I have to say, if it is, he did a great job!  He does not just draw a round mass, attach the few islands and promontories that he knows about (New Zealand, which he took for a peninsula, and the Cape of the Circumcision), and then draw a lake in the middle.  Instead, he has a waterway offset between two unequal land masses.  It corresponds surprisingly well to the shapes of the ranges of mountains and low areas that we now know Antarctica has.

The “Well, I’ll Bet You Didn’t Know About … This!” Argument

Besides these arguments, KFM includes a lot of interesting history about the biographies of these cartographers.  Almost half his page about Finaeus is taken up with the cartographer’s biography, even though it has little to do with claims about his map (beyond boosting his credentials, which I would think Hancock would also want to do).  Similarly, with Buache we are given: “The claims of Bad Archaeologists about Buache’s map ignore a crucial fact: he was the foremost theoretical geographer of his generation, whose published works include hypotheses about the Antarctic continent.”  I’m not sure why Buache’s eminence is supposed to be a devastating blow to any claims about his map, but again we are treated to a long and interesting biography before KFM finally gets to Buache’s theories about a southern continent. 

This style of argument reminds me of people who think they have shown the Bible is not divinely inspired merely because they can show that it happened in a particular historical context and is expressed in a particular historical idiom.  They will trot out some tidbit of historical context that they assume is complete news to some Bible scholar who has been studying ANE history his whole life.  Their line of argument is based on a misunderstanding of what divine inspiration is claimed to be.  They assume that if something is claimed to be the Word of God, it must have come to humanity in an abstract, context-free, propositional and not literary or historical form.  (They also assume that it must cover all knowledge in the world, e.g. so that the discovery of North America was supposed to somehow shake our faith in the Bible.)

KFM’s argument about these maps is exactly the same kind of argument.  He gives a bunch of historical context about these cartographers and thinks that refutes Hancock’s claims.  It’s as if Hancock had been arguing that Piri Reis, Finaeus, and Buache were born of virgins, went through life without interacting with anyone, and then one day, without any context whatsoever, this complete, easy-to-interpret map from an ancient civilization dropped out of the sky into their hands.  Well, that certainly isn’t the argument that Hancock makes in his book. His argument is (or was; he has apparently retracted it) that there were several source maps, made over centuries or millienia, which traced the progressive growth of the Antarctic ice cap.  He does not claim that these were complete, accurate world maps or even that they showed the Americas.  “Someone who knew what they were doing once mapped Antarctica.”  That’s the basic claim.

When We Think We Don’t Have Preconceptions

It turns out that there is a more than coincidental similarity between the way KFM caricatures Hancock’s claims and the way that some people caricature claims about the Bible.  KFM, in fact, classes Biblical Archaeology as a subset of Bad Archaeology.  The following quotes should give you a sense of his general attitude:

“Some Bad Archaeology is just so outrageously Bad that it can only be examined charitably by assuming that its proponents are slightly confused. How else can you explain the complete lack of critical judgment, the belief in ancient fairy stories, the utter absence of logical thought they display? Either that, or they have a particular agenda, usually driven by a religious viewpoint.

 Biblical Archaeology, which has been described as excavation with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other, is a specialised branch of archaeology that often seems to ignore the rules and standards required of real archaeology. Conducted for the most part, by people with an explicitly religious agenda (usually Christian or Jewish), it is a battleground between fundamentalist zeal and evidence-based scholarship …  If we can’t find evidence for Solomon’s glorious empire, it must be that we’re not interpreting the archaeological data correctly and that a big discovery is just around the corner (the ‘Jehoash inscription’ leaps to mind in this context). If contemporary Roman documents don’t mention Jesus of Nazareth, why here’s an ossuary that belongs to James, his brother… It’s all very much centred around contentious objects, poorly-dated sites and great interpretative leaps that the non-religious may find astounding.”

Got that?  If you believe in a historical Solomon or even a historical Jesus, you’ve just been dubbed a Bad Archaeologist.  Welcome to the club, friends.

I mention this attitude not because it’s off-putting, but because it tells us something about KFM’s mindset and about what it would take to convince him that something is “good” archaeology.  I’m guessing that any evidence of advanced civilizations older than about 4,000 BC is going to be dismissed out of hand.  As will any evidence showing that humanity might have declined, rather than slowly progressed, over our history.

Conclusion: Inconclusive

Going back to the maps, what has been shown here?  I would say it’s inconclusive.  The maps are less accurate than Hancock claims and far less accurate than I made them sound in my original post, because I was going over Hancock’s theory at treetop level and didn’t bother to get off into the weeds when he discusses the details of the maps.  (As I still haven’t done in this post. I would like to, but my time is limited.)

On the other hand, I think the Finaeus and Buache maps especially are more accurate than we would expect of maps that had been drawn out of pure conjecture, without any source at all.  It looks like more was known about Antarctica in the 16th century than we previously assumed, whatever the source of that knowledge.

So it’s not a case of “Lost civilization proven!” but neither is it “Nothing to see here.”  The most we can say is that something strange is going on, but we don’t know what.  To paraphrase Andrew Klavan, KFM isn’t wrong to think Hancock and Hapgood are wrong; but he is wrong to think that he himself is right.

About the theory of earth crust slippage, I feel the same way.  On the one hand, it’s a pretty hard theory to swallow on geological grounds.  (For example: if a big section of the earth’s crust pivoted around the North American plains – even granted that this could happen – shouldn’t there be some kind of seam where the edge was?)  On the other hand, clearly something weird happened, or we wouldn’t have Siberia being ice-free when Canada was ice-covered.  Nor would we have flash-frozen tropical plants and baby mammoths.  

So, in conclusion, nobody knows anything, boys and girls.  Let us eat, drink and be merry.

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