Hapgood’s Theory of Earth Crust
December 6, 1996
Flying saucers, yetis, and crop circles are all popular topics
in the tabloids.
Add to them universal legends of a
Great Flood and ancient architectural wonders such as the
Egyptian pyramids, which seem to defy even modern construction
techniques, and one begins to realize that although most of
these mysteries are probably just fiction, there must be some
kernel of truth to capture the public imagination.
One such mystery is the myth of Atlantis and the question of its
Ignatius Donnelly’s 1882 book:
Atlantis - The Antediluvian World
(revised 1949) set the
standard for 20th century Atlantean research,
covering in his book Plato’s reports, biblical stories, and the
myths of New World civilizations.
However, until the work of the late
history professor Charles H. Hapgood, Atlantean research
was limited to mythological and scarce anthropological evidence.
Hapgood provided a geologic theory, Earth Crust Displacement,
which claims that a catastrophic shift of the earth’s
lithosphere around 10,000 BC. resulted in the continent of
Antarctica - Hapgood’s site for the lost continent of Atlantis -
moving from a temperate latitude to its current polar position.
The geologic revolution that took place in the 1960s - namely
the development of
plate tectonics - seemed to
remove Hapgood’s theory, which had never been taken seriously in
academic circles, from the picture.
However, Graham Hancock, a
former correspondent for The Economist, revives Hapgood’s
argument, presenting evidence in his book
Fingerprints of the Gods that
there did indeed exist an
Atlantis, which was responsible
for many of the unexplained connections between known ancient
civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Aztecs.
He proposes Earth Crust Displacement
not as a replacement for plate tectonics, but as a supplement.
Although Hapgood’s theory of Earth Crust Displacement
attempts to answer unsolved mysteries in cartography and
archaeology through geologic means, the evidence for the theory
itself is lacking in validity, and instead of providing a
geologically sound addition to plate tectonics, the theory posed
is riddled by logical and factual gaps.
Charles H. Hapgood was not a
geologist; he was a professor of the history of science at Keene
College in New Hampshire (Hancock, 1995, p. 9).
His research led him to study
numerous Renaissance and early-modern maps of the world. He made
the startling observation that several of these maps seemed to
greater and lesser degrees to depict a southern landmass shaped
and sized similarly to Antarctica. Although various explorers
visited the islands to the south of South America in the 17th
and 18th centuries, Antarctica was not officially discovered
In addition, these maps seemed to be
drawn from source maps dating back at least to the Middle Ages
and perhaps even to antiquity (Hancock, 1995, p. 5). Even more
startling, it seems, is that according to Hapgood, some of these
maps depict not the current, icy outline of Antarctica, but
instead its sub-glacial topography.
This led Hapgood to hypothesize that
the original source maps had been drawn by an advanced
civilization thousands of years earlier, when, at the end of the
last ice age, Antarctica was not completely glaciated. In fact,
Hapgood and Hancock argue, at this time, Antarctica lay not at
its current position at the south pole, but instead about 30
degrees further north, in a temperate climate.
It is well-known through continental drift and plate tectonics
that the earth’s landmasses are not stationary, but form parts
of large, independently moving crustal plates. This motion is,
however, very slow by human terms, and the 30 degree shift
proposed by Hapgood would take millions, if not hundreds of
millions, of years to complete according to plate tectonics.
In the 1950s, Hapgood developed a
theory called Earth Crust Displacement (ECD) which could
account the shift, and yet not contradict the theory of
continental drift. The basic notion of ECD is that the earth’s
lithosphere, although composed of individual plates, can at
times move as a whole over the
To better visualize the ECD, consider a loose-fitting jig-saw
puzzle on a table. Normally, if one tries to move the puzzle by
applying uneven pressure to the pieces, the puzzle crumbles and
pieces slide over each other. This simulates plate tectonics and
continental drift. Consider the results, however, when a more
even force is applied to the puzzle.
By pushing evenly on the bottom
edge, it is possible to slide the whole puzzle across the table
without disrupting the pieces. This is the heart of ECD.
Hapgood claimed that towards the end of the last ice age, around
12,000 years ago, the extensive mass of glacial ice covering the
northern continents caused the lithosphere to ‘slip’ over the
Antarctica, during a period of
at most several centuries, from a position in the middle
latitudes to its current location, and at the same time rotating
the other continents. Antarctica’s movement to the polar region
precipitated the development of its ice cap.
Similarly, by shifting the northern
ice sheets out of the arctic zone, the end of the ice age was
Support for this theory was given in a forward by Albert
Einstein to one of Hapgood’s books in 1953:
In a polar region there is
continual deposition of ice, which is not symmetrically
distributed about the pole. The earth’s rotation acts on
these unsymmetrically deposited masses, and produces
centrifugal momentum that is transmitted to the rigid crust
of the earth.
The constantly increasing
centrifugal momentum produced in this way will, when it has
reached a certain point, produce a movement of the earth’s
crust over the rest of the earth’s body...
(Hapgood, 1958, p. 1)
The claim is that the great build-up
of ice in the northern hemisphere was not situated
symmetrically, and that as the earth rotated on its axis, this
imbalance caused the lithosphere to ‘slip’ catastrophically, as
“much as the skin of an orange,
if it were loose, might shift over the inner part of the
orange all in one piece.”
(Hancock, 1995, p. 10)
Naturally, if Antarctica shifted
south, and parts of the northern hemisphere moved out of the
arctic zone, this implies other areas must have shifted into the
arctic area and become colder. Indeed, this is what Hancock
For example, Hancock cites,
“huge numbers of warm-blooded,
temperate adapted mammal species were instantly frozen, and
then their bodies preserved in the permafrost [...] the bulk
of the destruction seems to have taken place during the
eleventh millennium BC“.
(Hancock, 1995, p. 479)
The assumption is, if temperate
climate regions were suddenly thrust into polar conditions,
large numbers of animals, unable to adapt and/or flee, would
Another piece of evidence claims
that portions of the Antarctic ice sheet are much younger than
previously thought, and that in reality portions of Antarctica
remained glacier-free until the end of the last ice age or even
...sedimentary cores collected
from the bottom of the Ross Sea by one of the Byrd Antarctic
Expeditions provide conclusive evidence that ’great rivers,
carrying down fine well grained sediments’ did flow in this
part of Antarctica until perhaps as late as 4000 BC
(Hancock, 1995, p. 477).
Supposedly, if Antarctica still had
flowing rivers, then it could not have been completely covered
by ice, and in that case, since we know it is now in a polar
location where it is too cold for such rivers, it would make
sense if it were previously located outside of a polar climate.
Perhaps an important issue is whether or not ECD conflicts with
plate tectonics, a well-accepted theory in geology today. Plate
tectonics is a relatively young theory, having only really
emerged in the late 1960s. It traces its origins, however, to
the concepts of continental drift and sea-floor spreading.
According to continental drift, the
continents can move freely and change their positions relative
to one another, and major early evidence for this was the
observation that continents such as South America and Africa
seem to fit together like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. Sea-floor
spreading further hypothesizes that along a mid-oceanic ridge
the sea-floor spreads out, causing the two sides of the ridge to
move apart as if on conveyer belts.
In the 1960s new evidence and ideas
about the earth’s crust developed these hypotheses into the
theory of plate tectonics, which states that the lithosphere is
composed of a few large and several small plates that move
slowly across the asthenosphere, and that intense geologic
activity, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, occur at plate
boundaries (Plummer and McGeary, 1996, p. 418).
Neither continental drift nor plate
tectonics, however, disallows the plates from moving in a
unified manner at times. Just as in our puzzle analogy earlier,
it is possible to move the puzzle in both a uniform and an
uneven manner, one causing an even shift, and the other
collisions between the pieces.
In his book, Hancock pulls together Hapgood’s theory and more
recent evidence to set forth a manner by which Antarctica, now
covered by snow and ice, could have in the relatively recent
geologic past had a temperate climate and have been home to the
lost civilization of Atlantis, now buried below thousands of
feet of ice.
The theory of ECD shows no inherent
contradictions with plate tectonics, the now-accepted
explanation of how the earth’s crust moves and changes.
In fact, Hancock claims both can be
true, and the ECD is a modification to an existing, yet
The case is more complicated than it at first appears.
Should we simply accept this addition to
an established theory because it seemingly explains fascinating
events in mythology and helps do away with anomalies in ancient
Hapgood (1958) and Hancock’s (1995)
evidence bears further scrutiny before it is accepted as fact. Since
the publication of Hancock’s (1995) book, numerous well-documented
criticisms have appeared on the Internet, many of them originating
in news- and talk-groups. Just as Hancock’s evidence deals with three
main topics, so do the criticisms.
In particular, Hapgood’s interpretations
of the maps he used is suspect; most accepted evidence with respect
to Antarctica contradicts Hancock and Hapgood; and Hancock’s claims
about the northern hemisphere and the last ice age tend to be
The motivation for ECD seems to be the belief that around 12, 000
years ago Antarctica was at a warmer latitude, and some method is
needed to move it south. The claim that the continent was so
recently situated farther north comes from the maps cited by Hapgood.
The first error in Hapgood’s interpretation is the assumption that
these maps showing a southern continent are in fact depicting
Since ancient times, it was believed
that there must be a southern continent to balance out the
overabundance of landmass in the northern hemisphere. For Plato and
Aristotle, this was also an aesthetic point: in a proper world, such
a continent would exist to provide better balance; since the Greeks
were aware of lands near the arctic, there should also be land near
the Antarctic (Wilford, 1981, p. 139).
Without actually knowing the shape or
size of Antarctica - or even of its very existence - a southern
continent was placed on several early world maps and globes,
sometimes with such engravings as:
“Terra australis nondam cognita,”
the “southern land not yet known.”
(Wilford, 1981, p. 139)
One of the maps researched by Hapgood is
Oronteus Finaeus map of 1531, which shows a large land mass
south of South America, complete with mountains and rivers (Hancock,
1995, p. 14-5).
However, two things strike an observer
almost immediately: the landmass represented on the map bears little
if any resemblance to the Antarctica that appears on modern maps and
globes, even accounting for distortions due to map projection. For
example, the Antarctica Peninsula is completely missing from the
Secondly, Finaeus’ southern continent is both far too large and
far too close to South America to be Antarctica.
Hancock (1995) points out another map
cited by Hapgood, the 1737 map by Philippe Buache, which Hancock
claims “accurately portrays the subglacial topography of Antarctica”
(Hancock, 1995, p. 478) because it represents a southern continent
composed of two parts, much like the actual above-sea-level land
surface of Antarctica..
However, this does not represent the
ice-free topography of Antarctica, since it fails to take into
account isostatic rebound. That is, the ice mass on the Antarctic
surface depresses the land upon which it resides. If the ice were
removed, in order to maintain equilibrium, the land would ‘rebound’,
Such is the case in much of Scandinavia, where once
ice-covered regions are increasing in elevation year by year.
As pointed out in an Internet file by
“the Phillip Buache Map of 1737
fails miserably in any way to accurately portray either the
subglacial bedrock topography of Antarctica [...] or the
ice-free topography of Antarctica as represented by the bedrock
surface as adjusted for isostatic rebound”.
(Heinrich, 1996, MOM
Hapgood’s argument that these maps are
based upon ancient sources rests upon the assumption that Antarctica
was not discovered by Europeans until several hundred years after
the maps were made.
Although Antarctica was not properly
discovered until 1820 by Nathaniel B. Palmer (Wilford, 1981, p.
267), it is quite likely it was visited or at least sighted earlier
than that by explorers and traders. Let us not forget that the
Vikings visited North America hundreds of years before Columbus was
There are other claims that the southern continent on these
maps is actually Australia, as sighted by early Portuguese
merchants, not Antarctica (Lunde, 1980, The Oronteus…).
Weakened by this evidence, Hapgood
(1958) and Hancock’s (1995) belief in an as-of-yet unknown ancient
civilization becomes not only illogical, but absurd.
A review of the evidence relating to Antarctica leads to just as
many problems. The first is the age of the Antarctic ice sheet.
According to Hancock (1995),
“researchers at the Carnegie
Institute in Washington DC were able to establish beyond any
reasonable doubt that great rivers carrying finegrained
well-sorted sediments had indeed flowed in Antarctica until
about 6000 years ago”.
(Hancock, 1995, p. 16)
The bulk of core samples from
Antarctica, however, show that there is,
“an abundance of evidence that
demonstrates [...] that the Antarctica ice cap has been around
for the last 2 million years or more [...] Ice core and other
data from [sic] the Antarctica clearly show that it has been
covered by an ice cap for the last 300,000 to 3 million or more
(Heinrich, 1996, Fingerprints)
In fact, most geology text books,
including Plummer and McGeary (1996), state the same.
According to Hapgood, ECD caused
Antarctica to move south and caused the end of the ice age in the
northern hemisphere. The end of the last ice age was accompanied by
a several hundred foot rise in ocean levels world-wide.
However, Hapgood’s theory also claims that this shift south is what caused
the Antarctic ice sheet:
that is, Antarctica accumulated the
ice-mass lost in the north. But in this case, there would be less of
a rise in ocean levels.
(Heinrich, 1996, MOM and Oronteus…)
In addition, the depression of the
Antarctic landmass would further lower ocean levels, thus this claim
on the part of Hapgood and Hancock disagrees with current knowledge
about the end of the last ice age and the rise in sea levels.
Furthermore, Antarctica is the world’s largest desert.
It seems unlikely that the catastrophic
build-up of the Antarctic ice sheet as proposed in Fingerprints of
the Gods can be accounted for in such a short period of time,
considering Antarctica’s climate.
Hancock’s (1995) arguments for the northern hemisphere are filled
with just as many holes.
According to Heinrich, the claim that “huge
numbers” of animals were frozen in permafrost is erroneous:
“First, their claim that hundreds of
thousands of frozen carcasses have been found is simply
incorrect. At most, only a few tens of frozen carcasses have
been documented in all of Siberia and Alaska.” (Heinrich, 1996,
MOM and Atlantis…)
Additionally, most of the carcasses
appear to have gone through extensive decomposition, indicating not
that they were suddenly trapped and frozen, but that the remains
(mostly bones) were preserved sometime well after death.
Even more importantly, it seems that
most of the frozen carcasses pre-date the supposed catastrophe as
proposed by Hancock by many thousands of years (Heinrich, 1996, MOM
One of the pieces of evidence for ECD is
that different parts of northern continents (now at the same
latitude) experienced different levels of glaciation (Hancock, 1995,
p. 478). There are, however, other explanations than ECD. For
example, the central and eastern parts of North America were covered
by a large ice sheet, whereas in the topographically more varied
west, mountain or valley glaciers predominated.
Additionally, the last ice age was not
merely one continuous event: it was punctuated by several
interglacial periods. That is, during the ice age, the ice sheets
advanced and retreated more than once.
It seems as if much of the evidence presented in Fingerprints of the
Gods can either be directly refuted or at least called into doubt
when compared with well-documented research. For example, neither
the northern hemisphere evidence nor the claims about Antarctica are
strong enough to support ECD, and Hapgood’s map interpretations all
have other possible explanations.
By these means, it is clear that there
is little reason to support ECD based upon the evidence presented in
Hancock’s and Hapgood’s works.
The Sinking of
Lack of evidence alone does not disprove a theory.
So far, no logical inconsistencies have
been found in the theory of ECD itself. Perhaps a ‘slip’ with
Antarctica did not occur when and where Hapgood claims,
but it might still be possible to save ECD as a theory and tie it to
plate tectonics. That too, however, is a losing proposition. Valid
scientific theories in general have to do two things: explain
current data, and answer questions that arise from the logical
consequences of the theory.
ECD runs into problems particularly with
regard to the second requirement.
The first problem comes from the concept of isostacy, which is,
balance or equilibrium between adjacent blocks of crust resting on a
(Plummer and McGeary, 1996, p. 521)
above, isostatic rebound would affect the rise or fall of sea
levels, and ECD provides no acceptable solutions to this problem.
Einstein’s claim in Hapgood (1958) that
at a certain critical point, a slip of the earth’s crust is bound to
occur due to an unevenly distributed icemass also fails to take
isostacy into consideration. The earth’s crust is not rigid, as
Einstein stated. Instead, as ice builds up on a landmass, that
landmass is depressed an appropriate amount to carry the load.
Greenland provides an excellent example
of this process (Dyson, 1963, p. 103) Also neglected by Hapgood and
Hancock when considering icemasses is the fact that under high
pressure, ice becomes plastic, that is, it will flow in a viscous
fashion. As a result, glaciers are not static sheets of ice, but
rather moving bodies of ice, that expand outward (continental) and
When glaciers reach the sea, they don’t
simply continue to build up: pieces break off and form icebergs.
Hence, between isostacy and the tendency of ice to flow plastically,
the critical point mentioned by Einstein is never reached.
The whole concept of the lithosphere gliding over the asthenosphere
“as the skin of an orange [...] over the inner part of the orange”
(Hancock, 1995, p. 10) is misleading.
Just as the lithosphere is not
a rigid body, the asthenosphere is not as liquid as Hancock
believes. Instead, it is composed of highly viscous rock, which, due
to high pressure and temperature, behaves plastically (Plummer and
McGeary, 1996, p. 425).
The asthenosphere does act as a
lubricating layer for the lithosphere, allowing it to move, but due
to its highly viscous nature, it cannot permit the rapid,
large-scale, motion claimed by ECD.
Our metaphor of the jig-saw puzzle for ECD also falls apart:
not because of the ways in which
plates interact, but because a jig-saw puzzle can only be moved
easily in ways mentioned earlier if it is located on a table.
On a sphere, problems are encountered.
In a mathematical sense, there are
several forms of symmetry in the plane. There is rotation around a
point and reflection about a fixed line, for example. For a sphere
there is only one type of symmetry: rotation about a fixed axis.
Physically, this rotation causes
different motion on the sphere near the poles than it does near the
equator of the sphere. If the lithosphere were to rotate around an
axis over the asthenosphere, one would expect greater torque and
friction between the lithosphere and asthenosphere near the poles of
rotation than further away from the poles.
The concept of evenly displacing the
jig-saw puzzle disappears when one considers the jig-saw puzzle on a
sphere rather than on a plane. Assuming ECD takes place, it seems
logical that near the poles of rotation there should have been some
form of increased geologic activity, such as faulting or volcanism,
due to increased friction between the lithosphere and asthenosphere.
However, neither Hancock nor Hapgood
ever cover this point.
A final nail in the casket for ECD might very well be the existence
of hot spots, which are areas of,
“volcanic eruptions and high heat
above a rising mantle plume”.
(Plummer, 1996, p. 521)
Yellowstone National Park, for example,
sits on one such hot spot.
Since the existence of a hot spot rests
upon presence of a mantle plume, ECD would cause a dramatic shift in
the locations of such hot spots. However, since evidence shows
Yellowstone to be a very old hot spot, this weakens the possibility
of such a shift due to ECD occurring.
Earth Crust Displacement appears to be unable to answer important
geologic questions, and indeed, it seems to go against accepted
geologic knowledge. Once the evidence is considered, Graham
Hancock’s claim that ECD is compatible with plate tectonics no
longer seems viable.
Not only is Hapgood’s ECD theory lacking
supporting geologic evidence, it actually contradicts tested
After completing an analysis of Hapgood’s theory, ECD doesn’t seem
to present a compelling argument. Its evidence can often be ignored,
because it is simply wrong.
The theory itself is not well
thought-out: it fails to answer numerous geologic questions. Even
proposing the theory is a logical leap of faith: moving from old
world maps to a theory that Antarctica was located 30 degrees
further north about 12,000 years ago has no logical basis.
Hancock commits another logical fallacy
by claiming ECD is correct because certain other possibilities seem
“Are we therefore to assume the
intervention of alien cartographers [...] Or shall we think
again about the implications of Hapgood’s theory [...]?”
(Hancock, 1995, p. 19)
Hancock just presents us with two
equally absurd possibilities.
It is also important to critically analyze what is being said and by
Hapgood was a historian, not a
geologist, and Hancock is a writer with no credentials in
cartography, archaeology, or geology. It is then no wonder that for
so long ECD has been ignored by the scientific community. At the
same time, however, there is definitely the need for science to stay
open to new ideas.
There are basically two views of how
either “through the gradual
accumulation of discoveries and inventions”
or by paradigm replacement: the
replacement of one world view with that of another
In a way, global plate tectonics seemed
to be a new paradigm when it was brought forth.
In retrospect, it seems only natural
that it grew out of continental drift and sea-floor spreading. This
revolution in scientific thought, just like that of Einstein’s
Relativity, should reinforce the dangers of orthodoxy and dogma in
science and the need to consider the method of multiple working
Science is empirical: its theories are dependent upon
gathered evidence: not the other way around.
In the case of Hancock’s book, perhaps more research needs to be
Perhaps most geologists agree
that Antarctica has been ice-covered for millions of year,
but what if there is irrefutable evidence showing the
presence of rivers in Antarctica a mere 6,000 years ago?
Can they be explained by some
sort of interglacial period, or is it necessary to rethink
out ideas about Antarctica?
Although Earth Crust Displacement seems
non-viable, it still raises interesting question for geology and
Hancock ends Fingerprints of the Gods with a warning of impending
worldwide destruction and a second occurrence of Earth Crust
Indeed, his arguments are no more novel
than those of the Neptunists and Catastrophists in the past. We may
remain unconvinced by his theories, but at the same time, we have
not actually found alternative answers to his questions. Perhaps
someday there will be a newer, better theory to explain Hapgood’s
ancient maps and truth about Atlantis.
Until then, however, all we can do think
critically about what we learn, ask questions, and ponder these
mysteries whose answers have eluded humans for ages.
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