Atlantis Enigma - Chapter 3
PLATO'S CLAIMS OF ADVANCED ENGINEERING SKILLS
IN THE DISTANT PAST WERE ACCURATE.
The Aztecs were a Nahuatl-speaking people who ruled a large empire in what is now central and southern Mexico during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries AD. They were astonishingly sophisticated for an aboriginal people. By contrast with the native North American nations who lived in tepees, wigwams and other portable lodges, the Aztecs built cities, paved roads and ruled an expansive and expanding empire.
The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, covered 3 square miles and housed 300,000 citizens. Peter Tompkins describes it as 'glimmering like an exotic Venice at the end of a wide causeway, with stunning palaces, temples and pyramids, stuccoed pink with volcanic ash, rising from the cerulean waters of the lake'. (5) The lake was the Lake of the Moon, where the Aztecs founded their capital in 1325.
The city was a remarkable feat of civil engineering. The Aztecs first excavated mud from the bed of the shallow lake to make a series of artificial islands which they then turned into exotic and extensive kitchen gardens. Their great city itself was raised on a central island, and causeways and bridges were built to connect it to the mainland. Aqueducts were installed to ensure a plentiful supply of clean water. A vast public transportation system was created by digging a series of interlinked canals. Tompkins's analogy with Venice is apt. Tenochtitlan compared favorably in architecture and beauty with any Old World city of its day. The city skyline was dominated by limestone-faced stepped pyramids topped by stone-built temples.
It was a carefully planned city, like modern-day New York or Washington. There were four distinct quarters, each consisting of five further subdivisions, but the entire city was split by two rigorous class distinctions. The king and nobility lived in the area of the Great Temple. The rest was left to merchants and artisans.
Spanish records show Tenochtitlan housed no fewer than 500 stone-built palaces, crowned with battlements and ornamented with serpents. There were forty towering mansions within the courtyard of the Great Temple which were used as homes for the aristocracy. Trade flourished. A busy market brought in some 60,000 people every day. Tribute flowed in from conquered territories and there was a thriving export trade throughout Central America.
The Aztecs were not only exceptional engineers, but seem to have been capable mathematicians and astronomers as well. They had a definite taste for the monumental. One of their circular calendar stones is currently on display in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It measures 12 feet in diameter and weighs more than 25 tons.
The Aztec Empire was still vigorous when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1519 and halted its expansion for ever. Their origins are obscure. Consensus has it that they migrated south from northern Mexico in the fourteenth century, and orthodox historians insist they originated there, despite the fact there are no archaeological signs of their cultural development anywhere in Central America. The Aztecs themselves told a different story. They said they hailed from Aztlan, a land to the east. Given Plato's claim that Atlantis established colonies on the continent beyond the Atlantic Ocean, this is a curious coincidence. But it is not the only coincidence to be found in South America.
When the Aztecs reached Mexico in 1325, they must have noticed, near the site of their new capital, a round, stepped pyramid which, even then, would have displayed signs of great age. It was constructed of cyclopean stonework, laid without mortar, and approached by enormous elevated causeways. Today, we have no idea who built the Pyramid of Cuicuilco, as it is now known. It was excavated in 1920 by a team led by the American archaeologist Byron S. Cummins, funded by the National Geographic Society in Washington and approved by the Mexican government which seconded to the project two its ablest men, Dr Manuel Gamio and Jose Ortiz of the Anthropology Office.
Cuicuilco is located fairly close to Mount Xitli, a volcano that erupted at various times in the past to send lava flows rumbling around three sides of the pyramid to cover an area of some 60 square miles. The lava hardened into a layer of volcanic rock which today bears the name of the Pedrigal.
When Cummins carried out his excavation, he discovered the base of the pyramid was buried beneath 15 to 20 feet of accumulated debris, which in turn had been covered by three separate lava flows rising in places to a further 20 feet. Oddly enough, the molten lava had not damaged the structure - and for a very curious reason. Even at the time of the first Xitli eruption, the pyramid had been buried in rock, soil, ash and pumice to such a degree that the lava never actually touched it. On top of the lava, now solidified to become the Pedrigal, a further 3 feet of soil had formed. Given this unusual geological picture, it was clear that the pyramid itself must have been of immense age. Cummins set out to put a figure on it. He took careful measurements of accumulations, relating them to the dating of known Xitli eruptions. When he finished his calculations he had a date not for the building of Cuicuilco, but for the time when it was finally abandoned and left to fall in ruins. That date showed Cuicuilco was already an ancient monument 8,500 years ago.
The city of Tiahuanaco is situated near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia. Even in ruins, it is an impressive site. Its principal structures include a huge stepped pyramid of earth faced with cut andesite (the Akapana Pyramid) and a rectangular enclosure known as the Kalasasaya, constructed of alternating stone columns and rectangular blocks. The entrance to the Kalasasaya is a monolithic gateway decorated with carved figures.
Tiahuanaco is an example of engineering so monumental that it dwarfs even the work of the Aztecs. Stone blocks on the site weigh anything up to 65 tons. They bear no chisel marks, so the means by which they were shaped remains a mystery. The stone itself came from two different quarries. One supplied sandstone and was situated 10 miles away. It shows signs of having produced blocks weighing up to 400 tons. The other supplied andesite and was located 50 miles away, raising the question of how the enormous blocks were transported in an age before the horse was domesticated in South America.
Close examination of the structures shows an unusual technique behind their building. The stone blocks were notched, then fitted together so that they interlocked in three dimensions. The result was buildings strong enough to withstand earthquakes.
Until very recently, orthodox archaeologists labeled Tiahuanaco a ritual site. The reason was that it was built as a port. It has docks, it has quays, it has harbors. But they are docks, quays and harbors that can't be used by any ship. Tiahuanaco is situated 13,000 feet above sea level and is miles from the nearest water. Faced with this mystery, the historians solved it by deciding Tiahuanaco was never lived in. It was, rather, a massive monument to ancient gods, built as a port, presumably, so souls could sail to heaven. (6) This idea, like the Tiahuanaco harbors, no longer holds water. By 1995, new archaeological discoveries clearly showed it was once not only a bustling metropolis, but also the capital of an ancient empire extending across large portions of eastern and southern Bolivia, north-western Argentina, northern Chile and southern Peru.
One of its most extraordinary accomplishments was a unique system of agriculture that involved the creation of raised planting surfaces separated by small irrigation ditches. These ditches absorbed sunlight and prevented crops from freezing, even on the high Altiplano. Algae collected from the ditches was used as fertilizer. The discovery of this ancient system has proven a godsend for modern Bolivian farmers who have found it gives greatly increased yields over modern methods.
The excitement of the recent archaeological finds has diverted attention from the original mystery - why would the Tiahuanacans build a working port 13,000 feet above sea level? One answer may be that they didn't.
There is considerable controversy about the age of Tiahuanaco. Some scholars argue that building started around 150 BC and the city continued to grow until the latter part of the first millennium AD. Others insist it's much older and was probably in place by the second millennium BC. Firmly in the latter camp are Arthur Posnansky, an archaeologist whose findings were endorsed by the Bolivian government, and Rolf Muller, a German astronomer with an interest in the site. Posnansky was the first to suggest the Kalasasaya enclosure functioned as an astronomical observatory, a thesis that is now widely accepted by his peers. But Posnansky also used this insight to date the complex and came up with the astonishing figure of 15,000 BC. Dr Muller checked his calculations and cautioned that while 15,000 BC was certainly a possibility, the astronomical findings could also point to 9300 BC.
Although both these dates have proven too much for the archaeological consensus to swallow, they would certainly solve the puzzle of why Tiahuanaco was built as a port. There is clear evidence that the Altiplano on which the city is built only rose above sea level with the ending of the Ice Age, around 8000 BC. If Tiahuanaco existed before then, it would have functioned as a port.
But if Tiahuanaco existed before then, it would have been a sophisticated maritime city, more or less contemporary with Plato's lost Atlantis.
According to the orthodox archaeological consensus - the same consensus that insists Atlantis was impossible - the Americas were first populated by migrants from Asia. They arrived sometime prior to 8000 BC, the time the Ice Age ended and sea levels rose to flood a land link that once bridged the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia.
The wave - or waves - of migrants colonized what is now Canada and gradually pushed south. With no Panama Canal to impede their progress, they eventually moved into the southern continent and there spread until they reached Cape Horn. Experts think the main migration took place around 12,000 BC. Two broad early cultures became evident. The first of these was the Paleo-Indians of the Great Plains and eastern North America. They seem to have become established sometime between 9000 BC and 11,000 BC, and were essentially Stone Age hunters who slaughtered mammoth until it became extinct, then moved on to buffalo. It's a curious fact that this culture shows a pattern of weaponry decline. Chipped-stone points made around the end of the Ice Age in 8000 BC were noticeably more crude than those dating 1,000 years earlier.
The second of the early cultures was an adaptation of food--collecting peoples to the inhospitable desert ranges of the western North America basin. These desert-dwellers were established by about 9000 BC, lived in caves and showed great ingenuity in the use of anything they found. They produced snares, twine, nets, baskets and even sandals from vegetable fibers. Millstones were created to grind wild seeds and flint was pressed into service to make tools and weapons.
It was the people of the Desert Culture who first discovered agriculture. At their currently known southern limit in Mexico, archaeologists have found indications that native American squash, peppers, and perhaps beans, were cultivated as early as 6500 BC. By about 3600 BC a primitive variety of corn (maize) first appeared in the Puebla area of south central Mexico.
The transition from agriculture to urban civilization was slower in the Americas than it was in the ancient Near East. Urban centers only began to spring up between 2000 and 1500 BC in Meso--America and Peru, and hardly at all in North America until the arrival of Europeans. There were two exceptions to this general rule in North America. One was the village-based Hopewell culture that arose in Illinois and Ohio around 400 BC and produced some spectacular earthworks. The other was the Mississippi culture that arose, as its name implies, in the Mississippi Valley around AD 800, and was characterized by small towns which survived until the arrival of Europeans in the early sixteenth century.
Oddly enough, the overall picture of migration, which places the first inhabitants in the far north, is contradicted by the evidence. The earliest remains so far discovered are dated around 18,000 BC and were found in central Mexico. Orthodox historians blame the discrepancy on the ending of the Ice Age. They say the subsequent flooding must have hidden the more northerly signs or occupancy.
Despite this small hiccup, the archaeologists hold firm to their belief that the Americas reflect the same sort of linear progression as the Old World. The business of the Aztec homeland is sheer coincidence. Tiahuanaco is nowhere near as old as the astronomers have claimed. There is absolutely nothing in the archaeological record to suggest the influence of some mythical Atlantis. Except possibly the earthworks.
In July 1892, surveyors working to establish the boundary line between the United States and Mexico discovered a gigantic earth-work dam in Animas Valley, New Mexico. It stretched for nearly 6 miles and would, when functional, have enclosed a reservoir some 5 miles long and 0.25 miles wide, holding water to a depth of 20 feet. An estimated 8 to 10 million cubic yards of material had been moved to create the structure. The survey engineers reported what appeared to be traces of two further enormous dams within about 8 miles of this one.
Who built these structures? The plain fact is nobody knows. But they are not the only indications that engineers, accustomed to gigantic projects, were at work in the Americas in deep pre-history. Ancient irrigation canals at Pueblo Grande, Arizona, were first discovered in 1697 and have attracted intermittent attention from archaeologists up to the present day. Two of these canals were enormous - 85 and 60 feet wide from crest to crest - and extended for at least 7 miles in the case of one canal, and 9 miles in the case of the other. It is impossible to date these structures accurately since they have never been fully excavated.
The Americas are littered with ancient engineering works of a scale similar to those Plato attributed to the Atlanteans. Stone-wall fortifications, using blocks weighing up to one ton, run through the Berkley and Oakland Hills. Monk's Mound near Cahokia, Illinois, is 1,000 feet long, more than 700 feet wide, and is still 100 feet high. There is a stone fort with walls 8 feet thick near Massie's Creek in Ohio. The building work is superficially crude, but at the gateways the stones have been subjected to such intense heat that they have fused together.
In 1931, Matthew W. Sterling, head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, discovered a well-planned and fully integrated series of earthworks covering an area 1 mile square in the Florida Everglades near Lake Okechobee. The site includes a platform 30 feet high and 250 feet long, and the structures are laid out with mathematical precision.
Aerial photography in 1931 revealed the ruins of the Great Wall of Peru, a mind-bending stone structure that varied from 12 to 15 feet in width, was up to 15 feet high and ran for more than 50 miles. There were fourteen forts along its length, some covering an area of 200 feet by 300 feet with stone walls 15 feet high and 5 feet thick.
None of these amazing structures proves the Atlanteans established colonies in the Americas. But they do show that Plato's claims of advanced engineering skills in the distant past were accurate.
5) In Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids, Thames & Hudson, London, 1987.
6) Much the same decision was taken when excavations revealed boat pits beside the Great Pyramid in Egypt.
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