Home Terra Australis Incognita Terra Australis Ingonita - 3 Ancient maps showing a vast continent that no longer exists
Article Index
Terra Australis Ingonita
1 Description of Atlantis, the sunken continent
2 What one would be looking for ...
3 Ancient maps showing a vast continent that no longer exists
4 Terra Australis on the ocean floor
5 How did Atlantis sink?
6 The main obstacle - ice core dating
7 The lakes in the middle of the Sahara desert
8 The arbitrary discovery of islands in the Atlantic Ocean
9 Greenland ice free?
10 Conclusion
11 References
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Ancient maps showing a vast continent that no longer exists

Many early world maps have one oddity in common, namely a vast southern continent generally called Terra Australis Incognita (The Unknown Land in the South). During the middle ages there appears to have been a widespread belief that this continent not only existed, but that it used to be home to a people who must have dominated the world4. This belief gradually diminished and was discarded altogether following James Cook’s second voyage from 1772-1775 CE5.

The idea of a southern continent appears to have been introduced by Aristotle, a student of Plato, no less, in his Meteorology6,

“But it is the sea which divides as it seems the parts beyond India from those beyond the Pillars of Heracles and prevents the earth from being inhabited all round.  Now since there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole, it will clearly correspond in the ordering of its winds as well as in other things.”

One would be tempted to conclude that Aristotle is here implying that Plato’s Atlantis, which “lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules” and which Aristotle would have been familiar with, was indeed the southern continent! Did Plato have additional information to this effect, not recorded in his dialogues? Later cartographers like Mercator used the argument that the landmasses in the northern hemisphere had to be balanced by similar landmasses in the south7. Mercator admitted having based some aspects of his maps on the work of earlier cartographers and as such it is still conceivable that the southern continent could have been no more than a figment of their imagination. However, a closer look at other shapes of this vast continent suggests that this continent was anything but imaginary.

Although most depictions of Terra Australis show a vast, continuous landmass, two other maps show a ring-shaped continent and a C-shaped continent, respectively. Figure 1 shows the azimuthal map projections by Schöner (his 1533 globe)8, the so-called Vatican Map9 and Schöner’s 1515 gores globe10, here transformed into a continuous map. The creator of the Vatican map is unknown and despites its name (Terra Incognita), it contains numerous place-names. This suggests that the southern continent was not as unknown as an entirely fictitious map would demand. By implication also, if Terra Australis Incognita did exist, an event of unimaginable proportions must have caused it to sink to about 4000 to 6000 m below sea level. Henceforth a depth of 4000 m will be used as reference.

Schöner’s 1533 Globe                Vatican Map 1530        Schöner’s 1515 Globe       
Figure 1. Early maps showing Terra Australis as a continent with a flooded central plain

These three presentations clearly show a continent with a central plain which has become flooded (see Figure 2). There is simply no other interpretation. It is almost impossible that these three correlated shapes could otherwise have been ‘imagined’ independently of the others.  Could this continent have been Atlantis? In the first instance, Terra Australis is the only documented record of a vast continent which has disappeared under the ocean (is no longer visible today). 

Schoner overlay

Figure 2. Overlay of Schöner’s 1515 and 1533 maps, suggesting a flooding of the central plateau and the ‘Patalis’ region

Secondly, the shape of the continent matches the broad description given by Plato. We have a vast central plain which is surrounded by what appears to be mountain ranges, with an opening to the sea (Schöner’s 1515 globe).  The shape of the plain is oblong and has a length-to-width ratio of 3:2 as described by Plato (Figure 3, shape will be slightly different on the actual earth). One can also visualize that the ‘circles’ of sea mentioned by Plato most likely refers to the encroaching sea meandering across the plain and systematically encircling all the high lying areas. The flooding of the plain would explain why the otherwise peaceful Atlanteans resolved to attack Europe and Asia – their homeland was steadily being swallowed up by the sea. They simply had to find an alternative place to live.

Figure 3. A 3:2 rectangle superimposed upon the plain of Schöner’s 1515 map of Terra Australis

The next question is whether this continent, or at least parts of it, can be identified on the ocean floor, where the continent must have sunk to.