There’s an amazing place on the northwest coast of Canada that pulls us back to its fog-swept beauty as inevitably as iron to a magnet. This rugged area of 150 scattered islands cradles some of the oldest living forests in the New World. Europeans absurdly christened this mystical place the Queen Charlotte Islands after a long dead, bewigged, British aristocrat. Far more suitable was its original, and recently restored name, Haida Gwaii, ‘Islands of the Surface People,’ bestowed by the Haida who have lived there for at least ten-thousand years and believe that their home is a sacred place delicately balanced between the powerful sky and the sea gods.
These rain-drenched forests lie half a world away from the sun-baked deserts of ancient Sumeria yet, remarkably, their mythology and language share critical elements that push beyond the coincidental to break through accepted paradigms. Recent evidence suggests that these two peoples, now so distant from each other geographically, could have shared a common heritage passed down from a common motherland, a shared memory of a lost ‘Atlantis.’
Like the mythology of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and other ancient peoples, Haida mythology reflected an intense fear that earthquakes might violently rock the land. They placed their faith in a god, Sacred-One-Standing-and-Moving, the Earth Supporter who restrained the buckling earth and secured the sky from falling. A ‘Pillar of the Heavens’ rises from his breast and extends to the sky; when he moves, earthquakes jolt the land. If he were to lose control of the Pillar of the Heavens the ensuing catastrophic effects would mirror the events of an earth crust displacement: violent earthquakes, disastrous floods, and the terrifying illusion of a falling sky.
Haida legend also depicts a time before the Great Flood when their ancestors lived in a magnificent city in a distant land: “the great chief of the heavens … decided to punish this great village … he caused the river waters to rise. Soon the rivers and creeks all over the country began to swell. Some of the people escaped to the hills, while others embarked in their large canoes. Still the waters were rising higher and higher until only the high mountain peaks showed above the swollen water … [the ancestors land on a mountain top] … When the Flood was over, the lost stone anchors were found there, at the place where they had anchored their canoes.”
Linguists have never satisfactorily pigeonholed the Haida language, which they are making a heroic effort to preserve. It most closely resembles the First Nation language known as Na-Dene (also spoken by the Navajo—alternately known as the Dine) and may be related to the language of the Sumerians who created the world’s first known civilization in the vicinity of Iraq six thousand years ago.
The Sumerians domesticated wild rabbits, goats, sheep, wild wheat, rye, and barley. The remains of these early agricultural experiments were found in northern Syria on a mound overlooking the Euphrates River at one of the oldest agricultural sites in the world, Tell Abu Hureya. Radiocarbon dating at the site revealed that by 9500 BC, in addition to hunting and gathering, villagers’ efforts had expanded to include the radical innovation of farming. Radical, because for hundreds of thousands of years they had been sustained by hunting and gathering before, suddenly, within the same century as the fall of Atlantis, turning to agriculture.
The Sumerian story of their origins is remarkably similar to the Haida account of their own emergence. The Sumerians held three gods in high esteem. The first, Enlil, was known as the “Lord of the Air” and the King of Kings. He was the most worshipped and feared because he wielded the most destructive weapon of all, the power of the flood. “The word of Enlil is a breath of wind, the eye sees it not. His word is a deluge which advances and has no rival.”
The second great god was Enki the “Lord of the Earth” and god of waters. The Sumerians believed that Enki had saved them from the flood. After overhearing the flood-god, Enlil, and the third powerful god, sky-god “An,” conspiring to destroy mankind, Enki determined to save one man and his family from the coming disaster. He chose Ziusudra; a king and priest living on the island of Dilmun. A Babylonian myth records Enki’s words: “Destroy thy house, build a vessel. Leave thy riches, seek thy life. Store in thy vessel the seeds of all life.”
The original Sumerian tale describes the fate of Ziusudra’s ark: “When for seven days and seven nights, the Flood had raged over the land, and the huge boat had been tossed on the great water by the storms, the Sun-god arose shedding light in Heaven and Earth. Ziusudra made an opening in the side of the great ship. He let the light of the hero Sun-god enter into the great ship. Before the Sun-god he bowed his face to the ground.” The vessel was swept to a mountaintop in the Middle East. Like Noah, Ziusudra and his family must begin life anew.
In 1899 a team of American archaeologists unearthed a treasure-trove of 35,000 tablets in Nippur, the ancient Sumerian city dedicated to the flood-god, Enlil. It was a rich discovery that promised to reveal the very roots of civilization. According to the tablets, those roots were to be found in Dilmun, a mountainous island in the ocean. Most of Dilmun’s people had perished when the sky-god conspired with Enlil to destroy humankind but some survivors escaped the flood in a great ship (in which they stored “the seeds of all life”) to a mountain near Nippur. The island paradise from which they had fled lay across the Indian Ocean towards the south—towards Antarctica.
When we first visited Haida Gwaii years ago we took with us a keen curiosity about the similarities between the Haida and the Sumerians’ language and mythology—and the sense of an exciting possibility that they could be connected through mutual memories of a lost island paradise that lay far to the south.
The Haida carver and master jeweler, Gwaai (“Gwaai” translates to “first son,” not to be confused with Gwaii which means “islands”) was intrigued by the similarities between his people and those of ancient Sumer and Greece. He shared his knowledge of the many Haida myths celebrating plants and animals, sea and earth, so precious to those who have occupied these islands since the time of the Great Flood.
Gwaai told Rand about Foam-Woman, the great goddess who emerged from the sea to establish a dry home for those who lived beneath the ocean. She became possessive of the newly discovered land and prevented the other beings, confined to their increasingly overcrowded ocean, from joining her. The sea dwellers were too afraid to challenge Foam-Woman even though they longed to rise from the water and become earthlings.
A carving tradition that dates from these ancient times revolves around one of the smallest, most humble of animals. “Only Mouse-Woman dared to challenge Foam-Woman. Mouse-Woman, who at this time was of normal size, rose from the ocean and scolded Foam-Woman for not sharing the new land with all the people. As she advanced on Foam-Woman the goddess cast a spell over her. With each step she took Mouse-Woman shrank. Until finally, she was transformed into the tiny creature we know today. But Foam-Woman was so impressed by Mouse-Woman’s bravery that she yielded to the wishes of the sea people to join her on land.” To honor the courage of Mouse-Woman, Gwaai and other Haida artists sometimes conceal an image of a mouse in their carvings. Rand was struck by the story and in turn shared the Sumerian myth, which also tells of a seminal creature who emerges from the ocean to transform into the first human.
Both the Haida and Sumerians have had a long love affair with the sea. The Sumerians’ vocabulary contains hundreds of nautical terms. They also share with the Haida unique stories about amphibious god ancestors with tails. The god Oannes was half man, half fish. During the day Oannes taught the Sumerians how to write and many of the other arts of civilization before returning to the sea as night fell.
Rand was further intrigued when Gwaai volunteered that there is a genetic trait uniquely prevalent among the Haida that results in a high incidence of ankylosing spondylitis, a form of inflammatory arthritis; intrigued, because he knew that the disease is rare and that Egypt’s powerful pharaoh, Ramses the Great, also suffered from AS, a painful and potentially debilitating condition that attacks the skeleton, particularly the neck, pelvis, and spinal column.
Medical scientists, seeking an answer to the mystery of the prevalence of the condition in this remote northwest corner of Canada, had tested the Haida by taking hair samples for DNA analysis. (The Haida Nation eventually stopped the undertaking when it was learned that the scientists had introduced an undeclared anthropological agenda into their tests. They discovered that the Haida blood samples were to be DNA compared with other tribes for different research purposes. The Haida felt tricked and withdrew their cooperation.)
The severity of AS’s symptoms reminded us of Robert Brinchurst’s description of Skaay, the blind Haida myth teller who was “an old man with a crippled back and a beautiful mind” from A Story as Sharp as a Knife: the Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. It seems likely that the blind poet also suffered from AS.
Ninety-three percent of people with ankylosing spondylitis carry the antigen HLA-B27, including half of the Haida—among the highest percentage in the world. Significantly, thirty-six percent of the Navajo (also known as the Dine)—the largest tribe of First Nations in North America—are also burdened with the antigen. As we’ve seen, the Haida and Dine are usually grouped together linguistically into the “Na-Dene” language group.
What are the chances that these two North American peoples would share a rare medical condition with a powerful dynasty from halfway around the world?
“Among the pharaohs of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth dynasty of Old Egypt, at least three had ankylosing spondylitis: Amenhotep (Amenophis) II, Ramses II (‘The Great’) and his son Merenptah.” Egypt’s geographic proximity to the Sumerians, whose language and myth match so well with the distant Haida, suggests a painful physical link between the three cultures. Both Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations were largely dependent upon the same crops: wheat and barley. These critical founding crops came to Egypt via Sumer and helped launch the powerhouse that became Egyptian civilization.
Ramses the Great, (Ramses II) one of the most famous of all the pharaohs, is often featured in the story of Moses and the Exodus. He suffered from AS and was so badly crippled that, gruesomely, before his corpse could be lowered into the sarcophagus, the mummifiers were forced to break his neck so that his body would lie flat.
Merenptah was Ramses the Great’s thirteenth son. Like his father, his remains exhibit all the unique hallmarks of ankylosing spondylitis. That father and son should bend beneath the same affliction is not unusual since AS is assumed to be primarily genetic. What is curious is the fact that a third mummy, that of Amenhotep II, also exhibits signs of AS, even though he was not a direct ancestor of either Ramses the Great or his son Merenptah.
Since Ramses the Great’s father had ascended the throne through a military coup—not through inheritance—AS must have entered separate Egyptian dynasties through divergent bloodlines. As Gwaai pointed out, for three pharaohs to have developed full-blown AS, its prevalence must have been high within the royal family of the New Kingdom of Egypt. Gwaai’s idea made sense. What didn’t make sense was the fact that, counter-intuitively, Egypt’s closest neighbors, the Ethiopians to the south and the Berbers to the west exhibit extremely low rates of HLA-B27. Although another potential contamination route, the Mediterranean Sea, lies to the north there was no successful sea invasion of Egypt by which the affliction could have been introduced until the Roman period.
So how did the HLA-B27 antigen arrive in ancient Egypt? The answer, it seems, might be found in the bloodlines of the foreign pharaohs who ruled immediately before the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties.
For centuries, no intruder dared invade Egypt. The Egyptians grew smug in their security and independence. This blind spot offered a clear opportunity for imaginative invaders wielding a revolutionary new weapon. So it was that the Hyksos descended from the east in horse-drawn chariots that moved so swiftly that the Egyptians had no time to marshal a defense. The Hyksos, according to the ancient Egyptian historian, Manetho, came from the Persian Gulf, the homeland of the Sumerians. With their grand victory they brought the seeds of ankylosing spondylitis. The damage the disease ultimately inflicted on the Egyptian royal families, and the curious trail it followed to 150 isolated islands on the other side of the world, would only be revealed many ages later by a late nineteenth century device, the X-ray, when its uncompromising eye revealed the pharaohs’ crippled skeletons.
Bryan Stykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve has developed a technique by which DNA can be extracted from ancient bones. This new science could prove the radical theory of an ancient link between the Haida and the Sumerians. The discovery of such a link would open the door to the idea that these people, who are today separated by such a great distance but remain connected by a rich mutual legacy of myth and language could have shared a common motherland—a lost island paradise—an Atlantis. The possibility is as haunting as the mist that drifts across the water and around the totems of Haida Gwaii, obscuring the ancient legends inscribed there.
The above has been adapted by the authors from their original research for their recently published book, Atlantis Beneath the Ice.