"Expedition Unknown" Host Josh Gates Tells "USA Today" That Yonaguni Is "Convincing" Candidate for Atlantis
USA Today has a deserved reputation as “McPaper,” but as the country’s most-read and most widely circulated daily, it has outsize influence relative to the depth and quality of its reporting. The paper’s print edition reaches more than three million Americans, and its website many millions more. That’s one reason that I was disappointed to see USA Today offer a low-quality clickbait article on “10 mythical sites that just might exist.” The article was written Larry Bleiberg from a list provided by Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates. The list is, in reality, little more than a promotional summary of recent episodes of Gates’s show, but it shows that Gates is either less interested in the “truth” than he claims, or is happy to promote fanciful claims to draw viewers from among true believers in fringe claims.
The list is not numbered, so I can’t rank them. Instead, I’ll take the list from top to bottom and add a bit of commentary.
The Lost City of Gold
Here Bleiberg and Gates intentionally conflate separate ideas to mislead. The Spanish did indeed believe that the Inca had hidden vast amounts of gold and silver, and some also believed that there was a lost city of gold, El Dorado. However, this wasn’t the city that Gates sought in the expedition Bleiberg praises. Gates sought Paititi, which was not described as a lost city of gold in the early Spanish text that first described the alleged lost city. The only treasure mentioned in it is found when the city’s leader built “a square chapel wholly of gold and adorned it with precious gems” (my trans.). It’s just not the same.
This is not a myth, or a place, so its only reason for being listed is that Gates did an episode about the eccentric old man who purposely buried a box of treasure and left clues to its whereabouts. Recently, a man disappeared while looking for it and is believed to have died.
The Buddhist kingdom of Shambhala inspired the fictional lost kingdom from 1933’s Lost Horizon. Gates believes that Shambhala was a medieval Buddhist kingdom in the Mustang mountains of Nepal that he visited in a recent episode. It’s possible, but the legends of Shambhala don’t explicitly claim it to be Buddhist (it’s also found in Hindu texts, for example), and most also allege that the people were pre-Buddhist “sun worshipers.” Extant ancient texts describe the Zhang Zhung kingdom of the Sutlej Valley as being Shambhala, and the Zhang Zhung were of the Bon faith. Whatever its origin the story as we have it is almost entirely fictitious, and it’s difficult to square the story as we have it with the textual claims of non-Buddhist peoples of the upper Indus watershed.
This one we’ve been over a dozen or more times, but Gates is convinced that “there must be a kernel of truth somewhere” to the myth of Arthur, even if he doesn’t know what it is. My feeling is that Arthur is a composite figure, drawn from bits and pieces of a number of half-forgotten characters, which would explain why his stories seem to point in so many different directions. But I will concede that there is no proof of that guess, at least no more than any other.
Atlantis is where logic goes to die. Gates told USA Today that he believes that Atlantis was located in Japan, in the ruins off Yonaguni. “I was blown away by what’s down there. There are seeming architectural ruins, with angular lines, staircases and even rooms. I was very skeptical at first, but I don’t [know] what it is.” While some fringe historians like Graham Hancock have argued that the stone formation off Yonaguni represents megalithic Ice Age architecture, geologists and oceanographers (and even “maverick” geologists like Robert Schoch and fringe writers like John Anthony West!) agree that the formation is natural. Even if it were not, there is not a shred of evidence to connect an Ice Age stone temple in Japan to Plato’s description of a wealthy city “beyond the Pillars of Herarcles,” no more than one could connect Plato’s allegorical myth to any other stone site anywhere on the Earth except by rewriting Plato to order. For this claim to be logical, one would need to provide reasons why Plato was wrong on some details but not others, along with evidence for how knowledge of the sunken site was transmitted across time and space, leaving no trace until Plato wrote of it.
Fountain of Youth
Gates doesn’t offer any evidence for a real Fountain of Youth, only a plug for the tourist site in St. Augustine, Florida. Therefore, this doesn’t really quality as “might be real.”
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Gates locates this ancient wonder “somewhere in central Iraq,” which is a complete “duh” moment. Yes, that’s where Babylonia was and therefore where its wonders must have been. Care to be a bit more specific? A handful of candidates have been proposed, but since the Babylonians built in mud brick, it’s a bit difficult to identify the gardens after the buildings fell to ruin.
Tomb of Genghis Khan
Since Genghis Khan was a real person, he had a body and therefore most likely a grave. In an episode of Expedition Unknown Gates visited Genghis’s mountain birthplace and suggested he might have been buried there. There’s no proof either way, but there’s no real reason to suspect his gave is “mythical” so much as it is “lost.”
Lost City of the Kalahari
This one was just deceptive. In 1886, the circus performer G. A. Farini claimed in his book Through the Kalahari Desert to have come across the ruins of a stone city, which he described in a few lines of text and then in, of all things, a poem:
A half-buried ruin—a huge wreck of stones
The full description is in my Library.
Gates searched for the city in an episode of Expedition Unknown and correctly noted at the time that the site Farini most likely reached (his claimed route in the book was geographically impossible) is a natural rock formation that has the appearance of a city, but here Gates suggests that because there are genuine, though much smaller, undocumented ruins in the Kalahari that these unrelated ruins retroactively justify Farini’s misinterpretation.
The White City
Here again logic fails Gates. Gates attributes the modern myth of the White City to Hernan Cortes, even though the conquistador, in his fifth letter to Charles V or September 3, 1526, the alleged source for his claim, makes no mention of a White City, instead speaking only of the alleged wealth and political complexity of the region around Trujillo, Honduras. The White City appears in legend only in 1927, when Eduard Conzemius reported that the local Natives confirmed that the story was completely made up, from a rubber-tapper’s hearsay. For the legend to be true, one would need to find what that rubber-tapper described: “the ruins of a very important city with white buildings of a stone similar to marble, surrounded by a large wall of the same material” (my trans.). The current exploration of a newly documented set of cultural remains in Honduras can’t very well be that, and finding previously unknown ruins doesn’t retroactively make a modern bit of folklore into a correct tradition unless one can demonstrate that the ruins are in some way actually connected to the origins of the story. The fact that they are buried beneath the ground would argue against anyone having seen them gleaming in the Caribbean sun in the 1920s and 1930s as the legend alleges.
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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