Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), lawyer, land promoter, politician and virtuoso author, is today best known for his pioneering work on the subject of Atlantis, "Atlantis the Antediluvian World" (ATAW). Published in 1882, ATAW is one of the best constructed Atlantis theories, as it makes no recourse to occult or 'channeled' information. Donnelly's lucid style and command of the facts (such as they were) make the book readable and compelling even today.
Donnelly started public service as Lieutenant-Governor of Minnesota, and then was elected to Congress in 1863. While in Washington D.C., he frequented the Library of Congress and did much of the research for ATAW. After returning to private life, he completed ATAW and finally published it in 1882, followed shortly by his other masterpiece 'Ragnarök, the Age of Fire and Gravel'. Donnelly also wrote 'The Great Cryptogram', in which he proposed that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare's plays. However it was ATAW that secured Donnelly's reputation. ATAW was an instant bestseller and has been in print ever since. ATAW inspired generations of occultists who claimed to 'channel' the Ultimate Truth from ancient Atlantis.
At the center of Donnelly's thesis are a set of similarities between widely separated cultures. This he interpreted as evidence that all civilization diffused outward from a central point (a now sunken continent in the mid-Atlantic). He cites mythological, linguistic, ethnographic and other evidence for this theory, which at the time seemed to add up to an airtight case.
Donnelly proposes a literal interpretation of Plato's account of Atlantis. He also ties Atlantis into the global flood myth-complex. These, until recently, have been two of the most compelling unsolved puzzles of history. What was Plato writing about when he described the prehistoric civilization of Atlantis, which disappeared overnight in a great catastrophe? Was this an actual historical account, or a philosophical fable? And why do widely separated cultures on every continent, Australia, the Americas, Europe and Asia all have a similar myth of a great flood from which only a few humans survived to restart civilization?
It is only in the past half century that proposals based in scientific fact have been proposed to solve these conundrums. It now appears that these two problems may actually be totally unrelated (although both have a spectacular origin related to catastrophes of geological scale).
The most commonly accepted hypothesis is that Plato's account of Atlantis can be explained by the Thera catastrophe. A thriving Minoan-era culture in the Aegean was destroyed by a volcanic eruption on the scale of Krakatoa or Mt. Saint Helens, on the island of Thera circa 1500 B.C. This catastrophic explosion appears to have coincided with the start of the downfall of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, so it may have been accompanied by ash falls or tsunamis which destroyed coastal towns, reducing the viability of Minoan civilization (the economy was largely based on maritime activities).
The Thera discoveries have been extensively documented; portions of the city on Thera which the explosion covered with lava has been excavated and are eerily similar to Plato's account. The layout of the Thera city had several circular canals surrounding a central acropolis just as Plato described (reduced in size by a factor of ten). The date was about 900 years prior to Plato, which is also a factor of ten less than the 9000 years that Plato gave for the destruction of Atlantis. So it is now accepted by mainstream archaeologists that an entire civilization could have been destroyed 'in a single day'.
The global flood myth, although less well understood, may be a recollection of the rapid sea-level changes at the end of the Ice Age, when the sea rose 300 feet within a few hundred years. The chronology of the rise in sea levels 11,500 years ago has been verified recently by radio-isotope studies of ice cores extracted deep from the Greenland ice sheet. Areas significant for human migration such as the Indonesian archipelago, the English Channel, the Bering land-bridge and areas of the Caribbean were all flooded at this time. Ironically, this global flooding occurred fairly close to the time which Plato cited for the destruction of Atlantis (i.e., about 9,500 B.C.). This flooding was rapid only in geologic terms, and would be barely noticable in a human lifespan, except in one case that has come to light.
Recent submarine exploration of the Black Sea between Turkey and the Ukraine indicate that a natural dam at the isthmus leading to the Mediterranean burst during this period. Up to this point the Black Sea was much smaller than it is today. This rapid flooding appears to have overwhelmed a widespread Neolithic culture living in its basin in an extremely short time, possibly days or hours. The survivors may have migrated south to the Fertile Crescent, and the memory of the disaster evolved into the Biblical flood story.
At least Donnelly claimed that Atlantis was in the Atlantic, which at least makes logical sense if you take Plato at his word. The sole weak part of the Thera hypothesis is the hand waving required to explain away Plato's unambiguous statement that Atlantis was "beyond the pillars of Hercules" and "larger than Libya and Asia [Minor] combined". It is also remarkable that Plato's description of the geography of the Atlantic is so accurate. He mentions that there is a continent on the other side of the Atlantic, beyond where Atlantis was situated, and describes the Mediterranean as 'but a harbor' compared to the rest of the ocean. This seems to indicate, at the very least, that someone had navigated the Atlantic in antiquity and returned to tell the tale.
Donnelly attaches a lot of significance to the mid-Atlantic ridge, which had just been discovered by the Challenger and Dolphin expeditions. The mid-Atlantic ridge when looked at without the covering ocean looks suggestively like a huge continental mass. However, we know today it is very different in origin: it is the result of the American, European and African tectonic plates colliding. It may be rising (albeit very slowly) instead of sinking. Unfortunately for Atlantis, most of this ridge lies at abysmal depths, and has probably never been above water at any time. This has been confirmed by the extremely deep sediments (hundreds of meters thick) that cover it, which can only be produced by millions of years of inundation.
As time has gone by, every nook and cranny of the globe has been claimed as the 'real' Atlantis: Bolivia, the North Sea off Denmark, Indonesia, the Bahamas and Antarctica are some of theories for the location.
Very little actual physical evidence has been presented for solutions other than Thera for the location of Atlantis. We don't know of any sunken structures off the Azores, which would make the most sense if the mid-Atlantic area was Atlantis. There are submerged cyclopean stone roads in the Bimini area in the Bahamas, which may or may not be natural geological formations. These structures, discovered by scuba divers in 1968, are often cited as fulfilment of a prophecy of Edgar Cayce that Atlantis would be rediscovered (or possibly rise from the ocean depths) in the 1960s. Of course Cayce predicted that California would sink into the ocean about the same time, so I wouldn't attach too much significance to it.
A reasonable explanation for the Bimini road might be that some unknown ice-age culture constructed the road (possibly for ceremonial reasons) when the sea-level was lower. The Bahamas, today a string of small islands, are surrounded by an extensive shelf area which was a fairly large island (the size of Cuba) during the ice-ages. Megalithic cultures in Malta were building similar structures at about the same time, so this was technologically feasible for the period. It doesn't mean that this culture were the elusive Atlanteans, nor does it require any kind of extraterrestrial or advanced technology.
As noted, some have hypothesized that the Bimini road is just a natural geological formation. However, recent submerged finds off the coast of Japan which appear to be a megalithic ceremonial center reinforce the fact that we don't yet have all of the evidence.
The North Sea was also flooded at the end of the Ice Ages and was certainly occupied by humans, as shown by the artifacts that come up in fishing nets occasionally. However there is no evidence that the inhabitants of the now sunken North Sea areas were anything but nomadic hunter-gatherers.
As far as documentary evidence goes, the 15th century Piri Reis map is often cited as evidence of a technologically advanced prehistoric civilization. This Turkish map, which is reputedly based on a collection of earlier maps, apparently shows a surprisingly accurate representation of the coast of Antarctica--free of ice. It also purportedly shows accurate features of the North and South American continents which had not been explored by Europeans at the time.
As Antarctica was only recently discovered by modern explorers, and the coast has been covered with ice for a very long time (possibly hundreds of thousands of years), this is anomalous, to say the least. A vast southern continent resembling Antarctica was sketched in on maps from very ancient times; but this might be just a lucky guess. However, this "Terra Incognita Australis" was just a fantasy land at the edges of the map, with landforms that bear no resemblance to reality. The Piri Reis map appears to match modern knowledge of the subglacial coastline.
The position of the followers of Charles Hapgood (who studied the map extensively in the 1950s) is that the Earth's crust shifted in the year 9600 B.C. At this time, Antarctica shifted several hundred miles south. Prior to the shift an ice-free Antarctica was home to--you guessed it, the Atlanteans. The publication of this theory ended Hapgood's academic career, despite support from none other than Albert Einstein. Hapgood's books 'the Earth's Shifting Crust', 'the Path of the Pole', and the recently republished 'Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings' are required reading for anyone interested in lost continents. Recently Rand and Rose Flem-Ath have picked up the torch with their excellent book 'When the Sky Fell'. Hapgood and the Flem-Aths support a modern version of the diffusionist theory of culture.
Donnelly's diffusionist argument is based on an extensive but ultimately flimsy collation of poorly understood ethnographic, mythological and linguistic evidence that unfortunately has not stood the test of time. Much of the underpinnings of his thesis have been completely discredited. One prime example is the bogus Bishop Landa Mayan alphabet on which he bases an entire labored chapter trying to prove that the Atlanteans invented writing.
The diffusion theory which Donnelly develops in the last two thirds of ATAW is today very out of favor. Such items as the couvade, polytheism, burial and marriage customs, and circumcision rituals cited by Donnelly do not prove that all culture spread out from one center in the (comparatively recent) past. Some of these cultural traits may go back as far as the Paleolithic.
Furthermore, most of the linguistic evidence that Donnelly cites would not even stand up to 19th century methodology. He cites a jumble of accidental word similarities between unrelated languages, throwing in examples from Indo-European (which of course, are related); this creates an optical illusion of similarity where there is none. He makes no attempt to find a systematic connection between the vocabularies he presents. This is not to say that there might not be a connection between the languages he cites; it's just that Donnelly presents no scientific, etymological proof that there is any. The balance of the linguistic evidence that he presents is just hearsay or speculation by non-experts.
It is now known that there was not exactly an airtight separation between the Old World and the New. Today even very conservative historians are comfortable with the idea that the Norse got to America earlier than Columbus, because of firm documentation and archaeological evidence from Newfoundland. There is accepted evidence (because of Thor Heyerdahl's expeditions and research) that the Polynesians and South Americans, and possibly the Egyptians and the Meso-Americans could have had trans-ocean contact.
There is also a body of controversial but not completely implausible cultural, archeological and documentary evidence that Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Sub-Saharan Africans, Welsh, Irish, Japanese, and Chinese could have had contacts with New World cultures. There are quite a few (possibly hoaxed, possibly not) New World runic inscriptions, particularly in New England and the Great Lakes area. Other inscriptions resembling Phoenician have turned up in the New World. There are statues with African features in the Yucatan. Conversely, traces of tobacco and coca have turned up in Egyptian tombs, plants which were only thought to have existed on the other side of the Atlantic at the time. There are legends of Chinese explorers reaching the American southwest in antiquity. As the Chinese during their exploratory period sailed as far as Madagascar, this is not entirely out of the question. Recently a book was published suggesting links between the Zuñis and the Japanese, and the author was treated receptively by academic reviewers. In addition, some have suggested that there may have been very early oceanic migration into the New World from the European side of the Atlantic.
This is a fascinating subject, and makes for interesting speculation. However, nobody is claiming that this is evidence for a global Atlantean Empire, as Donnelly did.
Some parts of Donnelly's writing today appear naively racist by today's standards. He seems unduly concerned about documenting minor variations in skin color, the lighter the better. He has occasionally been accused of being a racist or an anti-semite, based on out-of-context quotes. To set the record straight, during Donnelly's career in the Civil War era US House of Representatives he was a strong Lincoln loyalist and very vocal about the preserving the Union. After the publication of ATAW he became a leading figure in the Farmers' Alliance, which later became the Populist Party, and wrote the platform for the Populist Party in the election of 1892. Donnelly was an early representative of the progressive political heritage of the upper midwest, the forerunner of such figures as Paul Wellstone. Keep in mind that by the standards of his time he was very progressive. And obviously we can't hold him to a rigorous standard of 21st century political correctness.
However, the most flawed aspects of Donnelly's diffusionist theory have been (consciously or unconsciously) echoed by such modern authors as Von Daniken and Zecharia Sitchin. These authors just substitute 'Extraterrestrial' for 'Atlantean'. Unfortunately, they end up aping the worst aspects of the theory. Von Daniken finds it hard to believe that 'primitive' cultures such as the Meso- and South Americans could construct pyramids, erect cyclopean and megalithic stonework, invent writing, an accurate calendar, and a numeric system with a representation for 'zero'. Why does there have to be some outside influence, be it Atlanteans, Great White Brothers or Extraterrestrials? I say this reeks of first world chauvinism, regardless of whether the Earth has been 'visited'.
So most of Donnelly's argument has been invalidated. Why then does this book continue to be so compelling? Perhaps it is because we don't want Atlantis to go away. The image is seductive; the idea that somewhere there is a completely undiscovered lost civilization brimming with artifacts made from precious metals brings out the Indiana Jones in all of us.