A verdant land of mountains, abundant wildlife, including elephants, and rich mineral resources. A volatile land prone to violent geological outbursts, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and flooding. A land “larger than Libya and Asia Minor,” with a huge fertile plain that now lies inundated under the ocean, washed away 11,500 years ago. You might think I’m speaking of Plato’s sunken land of Atlantis, but I’m actually talking about the country of Indonesia. This vast archipelago of 18,000 islands is all that remains after sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, wiping out a huge landmass larger than Alaska.
Plato, the famed Athenian philosopher, discussed his sunken land of Atlantis in two dialogues: Critias and Timaeus, written around 360 BCE. While many locations have been proposed for Atlantis, Indonesia is perhaps the most recent. This idea first emerged in 1999 with Stephen Oppenheimer and in 2002 with Zia Abbas and Sunil Prasannan. Others have recently begun to voice their support, including geologist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, Arysio Santos, Dhani Irwanto, Dr. Robert Schoch, and even Graham Hancock, who supported the idea in his 2015 book Magicians of the Gods.
As a geologist and archaeologist, I have been fascinated all my life with the idea of a lost civilization that sank beneath the ocean thousands of years ago. I decided to apply my geological background to examine the clues that Plato peppered throughout his accounts—geological clues about rocks, minerals, mountains and earthquakes—and to see if they applied to the vast country of Indonesia.
Plato and the Sundaland Paradise
The first geological clue Plato gives is the immense time that had elapsed since Atlantis disappeared (all quotes are taken from the longer Critias, except where noted).
“Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the (end of Atlantis).”
Now, this immense time frame might sound fabricated, but it is very familiar to geologists. Adding nine thousand years to the time Plato claimed the story came from (500 BCE) gives a total of 11,500 years ago. This is a very important geological number, for it marked the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene, a period of warming climates and human expansion. During the Pleistocene, which began 2.5 million years ago, world sea levels were much lower, with a large percentage of water tied up in massive polar ice caps.
As the ice age finally ended, global temperatures became much warmer, and sea levels rose as much as 120 meters. This resulted in the inundation of vast sections of coastal land (estimated by Graham Hancock to be as much as 25 million kilometers). The region most affected by this sea level rise was ancient Indonesia, first called Sundaland by biologist Desmond Sydney Johnson in 1964. This area has been estimated to be 1.8 million km, all lost to the ocean, which geologists Wurster and Bird describe as “a savannah corridor” which would have been “particularly inviting due to a plethora of large lakes, and fluvial systems with potentially abundant resources available.”
This “savannah corridor” would have been full of abundant life, including hominids like Homo erectus, Homo sapiens, and Homo floresiensis, who were migrating into Southeast Asia from as far back as 2 million years ago. Recent discoveries of cave art in Sulawesi suggests humans would have thrived at least 40,000 years ago in the vast savannah plain, which is our next geological clue from Plato:
“I will now describe the plain, as it was fashioned by nature and by the labors of many generations of kings through the long ages. It was for the most part rectangular and oblong… and was ten thousand stadia in length.”
This measurement of ten thousand stadia would be roughly equivalent to 1,600 km (assuming a stadion to be 160 m). Interestingly, the distance across the modern Java Sea is 1,600km. The geological cross section of the region demonstrates how shallow the Java Sea is compared with the adjacent oceanic sections, and how a small drop in sea level would have completely exposed it.
Further evidence of archaic human occupation in Indonesia is the megalithic site of Gunung Padang, our third geological clue. Using drill core and geophysical survey data, Indonesian geologist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja has suggested the site offers important radiocarbon evidence that humans built large structures as far back as 14,500 years ago, perhaps even 22,000 years ago. Dr. Robert Schoch and Graham Hancock have both visited the site and are convinced it still holds many secrets waiting to be discovered, such as the enigmatic underground chambers.
The Geology of Atlantis
We must now turn to five further geologic clues in Plato’s account of Critias: mountains, soils, springs and, of course, rocks and metals.
“The surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty.”
Indonesia is known as a land of mountains and volcanoes, and its high mountain density is due entirely to the complicated tectonic interactions that are taking place under the country. Gunung means “mountain” in Sundanese, and there are hundreds of gunungs across the islands, separated into twelve distinct ranges, and over 140 active volcanoes. Particularly telling is the next geological clue:
“The whole country was… very lofty and precipitous on the side of the sea.”
This describes perfectly the ridge of mountains that runs down the spine of Sumatra, which represents the subduction of the Indo-Australian plate under the Eurasian plate at the violent Great Sumatran fault zone.
“They had fountains, one of cold and another of hot water, in gracious plenty flowing.”
Thousands of hot springs are located on the many islands, including Baturaden and Pancuran Tuujuh on Java and Tabanan and Banjar (the famous ‘Air Panas’) on Bali. These hot springs are a result of the region’s underlying volcanism.
“They had a soil, the best in the world, and abundance of water.”
The soil of Indonesia is some of the best, most fertile in the world. The addition of volcanic ash to soils increases their nutrient and mineral content, and Indonesia is one of the world’s key suppliers of tropical agricultural products, including palm oil, cloves, coffee, tea, and cinnamon.
“The stone which was used in the work they quarried from underneath the center island… One kind was white, another black, and a third red.”
Plato mentions three colors of rock that the Atlanteans used to construct their walls and buildings: white, black, and red. As a geologist, I recognized these colors immediately as relating to extrusive volcanism; i.e., volcanic eruptions. The white rocks could be tuff, pumice, and rhyolite; the red, iron-rich breccia, porphyry, and scoria; and the black could be fine-grained andesite and basalt. Numerous areas across Indonesia offer examples of these three colors of volcanic rocks, often in close proximity, including at Gunung Rinjani on the island of Lombok.
Geologist Danny Hilman Natawidjaja has worked with both the black rocks of Gunung Padang, as well as the white-bleached volcanic Ranau tuff on the island of Sumatra. The connection between the black andesite rocks of Gunung Padang and the “black rocks” of Plato is particularly interesting because, as Dr. Schoch has indicated, they were most definitely manipulated by ancient humans.
Color can also be introduced through two additional geological processes. Volcanism brings with it the migration of hydrothermal, mineral-rich fluids through the host rock. This causes both the primary mineralization of precious ores that attracts miners, as well as zones of chemical alteration in the host rock. These zones of alteration are often full of reddish minerals like jasper, hematite and potassium feldspar. Additionally, many of these outcrops of volcanic rocks undergo oxidation once exposed to air, producing reddish hues as the iron minerals essentially rust in place.
There are alternative rocks of these colors that exist in Indonesia as well, beyond those associated with volcanism, such as white limestone and red stone laterite. These are soils that have been chemically leached, concentrating their heavy metals like iron, nickel, and aluminum, and can become hard enough to be suitable for building.
“In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile (molten), and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold.”
Plato described the interior Citadel of Atlantis as being covered in the reddish metal orichalcum and that vast quantities were produced there. The recent rediscovery of this metal from the Mediterranean Sea has reignited the quest to find Atlantis. In 2015, 39 ingots of the strange reddish metal were discovered in a shipwreck off the southern coast of Sicily. The wreck dated to approximately 600 BCE, and the strange reddish metal probably derived from Asia Minor or Crete.
Orichalcum means “mountain copper” in Greek and was valued by the ancients as second only to gold. Numerous ancient writers referred to the metal but, only in infuriatingly vague terms. Plato says it didn’t exist in the world anymore and was only remembered in name. He says that in Atlantis, the metal was used to cover the entire interior of the Citadel of Poseidon and that it was held in high esteem just below gold. Much later, the Romans considered it aurichalum, or “gold-copper.” The ingots found in 2015, while reddish in color, were actually a mixture of copper, charcoal, and zinc with minor tin, lead, and iron.
“All the outside of the temple (of Poseidon), with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. The statues inside were of gold.”
The world’s largest gold mine and second largest copper mine, Grasberg Mine, is located in the mountains of Papua, Indonesia, and there are over 500 active gold, silver, copper, and base metal mining projects in the country. Orichalcum meant “mountain copper”, and this description could not fit Indonesia, and Grasberg in particular, any better. Geologically speaking, the best ore reservoirs are found in the most tectonically-active regions, and Indonesia is one of the most geologically unstable regions on Earth, producing vast amounts of hydrothermal mineral-rich fluids that create ore bodies. To give you a better idea of the amount of gold and copper at Grasberg, estimates run as high as $100 billion.
“The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin.”
Brass and tin are two additional metals mentioned by Plato. Tin has been mined on the small islands of Bangka and Belitung from as far back as the Palembang Sultanate of 1659-1823, but it was accelerated under the Dutch colonists. Today, Indonesia is the second largest tin producer in the world after China, and a local Indonesian Tin Exchange was even started in 2013 for trading in tin bullions. Brass, on the other hand, is an alloy of copper and zinc, and Indonesia also has deposits of zinc. For example, Sumatra has the Dairi Mine, a huge $400 million lead-zinc mine.
Earthquakes and Tsunamis—the End of Atlantis
“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the Sea.”
The end of the Atlantean society marks our last and most important geological clue, described above from Plato’s Timaeus. As mentioned, Indonesia lies within one of the world’s most active seismic regions, being situated at the junction of no less than four tectonic plates. Geologically speaking, contact between tectonic plates produces earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, and minerals.
The primary tectonic element influencing Indonesia is the impressive Sunda Megathrust fault zone, which runs from Myanmar to Sumatra for over 5,000 km. Indonesia is home to more volcanoes and earthquakes than anywhere else on earth, and these earthquakes lead to devastating tsunamis, like the cataclysmic 2004 Indonesian tsunami, which killed over 150,000 people in that country alone.
To put these events in perspective, a 2017 study that examined layers of silt in a cave on the Indonesian coast suggested that tsunamis have been a part of Indonesia for millennia. The stratigraphic profile indicated that many tsunamis have occurred in the region over the past 7,500 years, and they are very erratic in their timing, some clustering while other larger ones appeared isolated. At least eleven major earthquakes-tsunamis have occurred since 5500, BCE.
By placing Atlantis in the Indonesian island archipelago, many geological features of Plato’s description become clear. He referred to abundant mineral resources, like gold, silver, copper, brass, tin, and orichalcum. He mentioned hot springs, lofty mountains, tricolored rocks, and an immense fertile plain over 1,600 km long. Finally, he referred to the geological cataclysm that submerged the entire continent beneath the ocean 11,500 years ago. All of these geological clues fit Indonesia.
What is most urgently needed now is extensive study of the Java Sea, using side-scanning sonar and other investigative equipment. Perhaps the circular canals, walls, bridges, and great Citadel full of gold statues are still resting, buried under millennia of silt? More people like Hans Berekoven are needed, who is currently using his 19-m boat equipped with reconnaissance equipment to actively survey the Java Sea floor. Similar studies have been conducted in the North Sea over “Doggerland,” which provide evidence of human settlement during the last Ice Age. Additionally, work must resume at Gunung Padang, currently on hold by the government, to discover the exact nature of the mysterious chambers underneath the pyramid structure.
To read Plato’s account only for the geological data would be to miss his important subtext. Atlantis ended with catastrophic earthquakes and flooding so impactful that memories of it still echo through the flood stories of a hundred cultures. Plato made sure to note that the destruction of Atlantis happened because its citizens had let their “human nature” get the best of them.
“But when the divine portion began to fade away… and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased… they were full of avarice and unrighteous power.”
Indonesia remains locked in an ongoing and destructive struggle between environmental degradation from mining and deforestation and seemingly endless political corruption. Foreign companies exploit the country’s impoverished population, lack of regulation, and their corrupt government. We must all strive to model ourselves after the original Atlanteans, who “united gentleness with wisdom”; “despised everything but virtue”; who were not “intoxicated by luxury”; and whose “wealth did not deprive them of their self-control.” In the end, they sacrificed their virtue and wisdom for avarice and ego, and the premonitory parallels with our own world could not be more prescient.
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.
CAPTION: Sundaland shelf (outlined in red), the Atlantis Plain (in dark blue). At last glacial maximum 21,000 years BP. Global sea level, 120m lower than now.