The world as known
to our ancient ancestors was made up of the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia
and then made complete with the ‘discovery’ by the west of Australasia. Yet the
planet had a hidden continent, one that was only ‘revealed’ as recently as 1820.
Indeed some maps before that time show no record of the continent even existing,
merely leaving a space where the frozen landmass should have appeared
(left). According to legend, the Maori made the
first sighting of the icebound southern ocean. However the first
confirmed crossing of the Antarctic circle is credited to the British Captain,
James Cook (1728-1779) in 1773 and it was to be a further forty-seven years
before modern man first set eyes on mainland Antarctica during the Russian,
British and United States expeditions of 1820.
These explorers ‘discovered’ a land that was bigger in area
than either Europe or the United States and Mexico combined, but an inhospitable
land, with an ice cap measuring 13,000ft thick in places and covering 96% of the
continent’s surface. It was to be a further seventy-five years before the first
confirmed landing on Antarctic mainland on 24th January 1895, a
landing that led to an argument over who was first ashore. In this sketching
Borchgrevink depicts himself as making the first landing, much to the apparent
dismay of others in the boat.
conditions, together with months of darkness make for a land where it is
impossible for land mammals to survive, although whales and seals populate the
surrounding seas, feeding off the masses of ‘krill’ there. Porpoises and
dolphins are also attracted to the icy waters by the abundance of fish in the
area, predominately Antarctic perches.
This complete absence of predatory land mammals on Antarctica has
proved to be a great attraction for birds, with Emperor penguins,
Antarctic petrels and South Polar skuas breeding there and
to popular perception, snowfall is rare on the continent except at the
coast, however blizzards are frequent, as loose snow is whipped up by
winds at the margins of the ice cap. In all, these hostile conditions
make for a barren, frozen wasteland where ‘cold nightless summers,
fade into colder sunless winters’ (1). Yet, as noted in the first chapter, it has been claimed that
some people in our prehistory not only knew of this land but had even apparently
mapped it before it became embedded in ice. These claims dominate many
current ‘alternative history’ books such as Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of
the Gods, Colin Wilson’s From Atlantis to the Sphinx and Rand and
Rose Flem-Ath’s When the Sky Fell amongst others. These authors draw the
conclusion that Antarctica could possibly be the location of the lost
people and/or the location of the lost Atlantis.
Clearly, Antarctica as it appears
today could not support any civilisation; the cold and barren conditions would
soon destroy any colony. Yet the popular conception of
Antarctica as a continent that has been buried deep in ice for an eternity is
true that parts of Antarctica have been buried under ice for millennia, there is
much evidence to suggest that before the Pleistocene era (c. 8,000-2m yrs BC),
parts of the continent were once warm and ice free (2). There is certainly evidence in the early years of this planet,
during the Cambrian era, (480m – 590m years ago) of "a moderately warm sea
stretching nearly or right across Antarctica, in the form of thick limestones
very rich in reef building Archaeocyathide" (3) and the Ohio Range Mountains in
Antarctica contain rocks rich in fossils from 390 million years ago.
Fossil bones of a land reptile, Lystrosaurus (above,
which lived in Antarctica about 200 million years ago, have been found in
sandstones that were deposited by ancient rivers (4) and fossilised remains of
ancient ferns such as Dicroidium (below) from the same period have also
been discovered. In March 1968 the
National Science Foundation of the United States announced the discovery of a
jawbone of a long extinct amphibian found in the mountainous central Antarctic
region around 525km from the South Pole.
This bone was part of the skeleton of a Labyrinthodont (right); a creature that lived in the river valleys of Gondwana
and in the rift valley between Australia and Antarctica until it died out some
110 million years ago.
This discovery was made by an expedition organised by Ohio University and led by
geologist Peter J Barrett who noted "it is clear that an amphibian of this type
could only have survived in a hot climate, or at least a warm one and that
therefore the Antarctic must once have been absolutely free of ice."(7)