Erich von Däniken has a new book out called Evidence of the Gods: A Visual Tour of Alien Influence in the Ancient World (New Page Books, 2012), but the publisher isn’t providing me with a review copy. New Page provided me with Frank Joseph’s Lost Worlds of Ancient America and that book on Mayan construction whose name I’ve forgotten, but since my dustup with New Page author Philip Coppens, they’ve refused to respond to my requests for review copies. (Even negative reviews increase publicity, after all.) No matter. As it happens, Evidence of the Gods is another recycling job, this time rewriting much of the information that appeared in In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible (1973; English trans. 1975).
In the new book, von Däniken describes sarcophagi with platinum bars found in the waters off Nan Madol (Ponape or Pohnpei), the basalt island city in the Caroline Islands that was an inspiration for Cthulhu's R'lyeh. This is a revised version of the claim from In Search of Ancient Gods that a mysterious and unnamed source of platinum led to the metal becoming the island’s main export under Japanese rule (1919-1945) despite no platinum being found in the island’s rocks. In turn, this claim is a condensation of an even earlier claim from The Gold of the Gods (1972; English trans. 1973), which is given as follows, referencing an imaginary lost underwater city off Nan Madol:
Note that this story makes no sense as reported since the U.S. did not occupy Ponape during World War II, and Japan was only dismissed from the island after surrendering in 1945. Thus, the outbreak of the War in 1939 (though Japan had been fighting in China for several years), or 1941 (with U.S. entry) has no direct correlation to withdrawal, and thus no effect on the cessation of platinum extraction a decade earlier, based on the date I'm going to establish below. Also: How were they breaking up the underwater, water-tight coffins to take back chunks?
Despite even the notoriously credulous von Däniken’s doubt over the authenticity of the platinum coffins, David Childress repeated the story, almost verbatim, in (as is his practice) several of his books. From there, it has become part of alternative lore, appearing in hundreds of books and websites as evidence for space aliens, Atlantis, Lemuria, African super-geniuses, and other occult ideas. Somehow, in the telling the story has mutated from divers breaking off bits of the platinum coffins to modern versions where the coffins were raised up and then melted down and cast into bars for transport to Japan. No one has ever made public a single shipping manifest or other piece of documentation proving that any platinum actually left Ponape during the Japanese mandate.
Von Däniken derives this story not from firsthand knowledge but from the explorer and artist Herbert Rittlinger, in his 1939 book The Measureless Ocean, which puts a terminus ante quem on the story. Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Caroline Islands (including Ponape) were given to Japan as a mandate, taking them over from the defeated Germany. This puts a terminus post quem on the tale. This is the same Herbert Rittlinger who was a Nazi intelligence agent in Turkey for Hitler during World War II. His South Pacific trip is known to have occurred between his 1932 Turkish sailing jaunt and his 1936 Amazon sailing adventure. Therefore, the platinum, if it existed, was recovered entirely between 1919 and 1935, with an outside chance of extraction starting a few years earlier, since Japan was the occupying power on the island during World War I.
In 1920, the U.S. exported 1,102 ounces of unmanufactured platinum to Japan, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey, a number consistent with other years, implying that no new source of platinum had reached Japan at this point, at least none capable of severely affecting demand or international platinum prices, as the discovery of whole coffins made entirely of the rare metal would have done. In recent internet chatter, the “several pieces” of platinum claimed in 1939 have now become “several tons” of platinum, which would certainly have distorted world commodities markets if true. Only 3.6 million troy ounces (roughly 230 tons) of platinum are mined on earth each year, almost all of it in South Africa and North America.
Platinum was widely used throughout Southeast Asia, and as Japan colonized Southeast Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese discovered immense amounts of platinum already in the hands of Southeast Asians, which, of course, they either confiscated outright or bought with inflated paper currency (military scrip). By the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese military had billions of dollars worth of platinum ingots, and the accused war criminal Yoshio Kodama alone had plundered millions in platinum during the Japanese occupation of China. Whatever else this means, it clearly implies that Ponape was never a primary, or even important, source of platinum for Japan.
I can’t find any evidence that platinum was ever exported from Ponape, and I ask alternative writers to please show us the shipping documents proving it existed and was exported. How can von Däniken know that platinum supplanted all other island exports if there are no export statistics showing this? Platinum does not appear in the list of exports for the island collected by the U.S. government in the 1920s, let alone as the chief export. How would he know the amount and its value to know it exceeded the value of all other products? And what type of platinum was this? Uncombined native platinum, or something refined from a sulfide? Why is there no more platinum off Ponape? The story, as given by Rittlinger, says the Japanese merely “stopped” collecting it, in 1935, because of mysterious disappearances, not because they ran out of platinum. So, surely some should still be there.
The fact is that there is simply no mention of platinum on or around Ponape in any literature I could find prior to 1939 and no wild claims of aliens or super-civilizations prior to von Däniken’s popularizing of the ex-Nazi intelligence officer’s book in 1972. In fact, the only discussions of this story occur in “alternative” books, and none has any information not derived from the English translation of von Däniken’s summary of Rittlinger in Gold of the Gods, except, weirdly, Childress, who actually tried to find the platinum coffins and failed. So, there you have it: Von Däniken doesn’t believe they exist, and Childress couldn’t find them. Yet somehow they keep rising up from their watery graves time and again thanks to the alternative world’s endless penchant for recycling material. Rittlinger, a dedicated environmentalist, would at least be proud of the recycling effort.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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