In March 1995, a sport diver unintentionally strayed beyond the standard safety parimeter near the south shore of Okinawa. A battleground for the last land campaign of World War II, the island was about to become the scene of another kind of drama. As he glided through unvisited depths some forty feet beneath the clear blue Pacific, the diver was suddenly confronted by what appeared to be a great stone building heavily encrusted with coral.
Approaching closer, he could see that the colossal structure was black and gaunt, a sunken arrangement of monolithic blocks, their original configuration obscured by the organic accretion of time.
After encircling the anonymous monument several times and taking several photographs of it, he rose to the surface, reoriented himself and kicked for shore. Next day, photographs of his find appeared in Japan's largest newspapers. The structure sparked instant controversy and attracted crowds of diving archaeologists, newsmedia people and curious nonprofessionals, none of whom were able to ascertain its identity. They could not even agree if it was manmade, let alone ancient or modern. Was it the remnant of some forgotten military coastal defense from the war? Or could it possibly date back to something entirely different and profoundly older?
Already there were whispers of the lost culture of Mu, preserved in legend as the Motherland of Civilization, which perished in the sea long before the beginning of recorded time. But Okinawa's drowned enigma was hermetically locked within too thick an encrustation.
The structure looked anciently manmade. Nature, however, sometimes made her own forms appear artificial. Popular and scientific debate concerning its origins argued back and forth. Then, in late summer of the following year, another diver in Okinawa waters was shocked to see a massive arch or gateway of huge stone blocks beautifully fitted together in the manner of prehistoric masonry found among the Inca cities on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in the Andes Mountains of South America.
This time there was no doubt. Thanks to swift currents in the area, coral had been unable to gain any foothold on the structure, leaving it unobscured in the 100-foot visibility of the crystal-clear waters. It was certainly manmade and very old. It seemed nothing short of miraculous, an unbelievable vision standing in apparently unruined condition on the ocean floor. But its discovery was only the first of that summer's undersea revelations. Now fired by the possibility of more sunken structures in the area, teams of expert divers fanned out from the south coast of Okinawa using standard grid-search patterns. Their professional efforts were soon rewarded. Before the onset of autumn, they found five sub surface archaeological sites near three offshore islands.
The locations vary at depths from 100 to only 20 feet, but are all stylistically linked, despite the great variety of their architectural details. They comprise paved streets and crossroads, huge altar-like formations, grand staircases leading to broad plazas and processional ways surmounted by pairs of towering features resembling pylons. The sunken buildings are known to cover the ocean bottom (although not continuously)
from the small island of Yonaguni in the southwest to Okinawa and its neighboring islands, Kerama and Aguni, some 311 miles. If, after all, ongoing exploration here does indeed reveal more structures linking Yonaguni with Okinawa, the individual sites may be separate components of a huge city lying at the bottom of the Pacific.
The single largest structure so far discovered lies near the eastern shore of Yonaguni at 100 feet down. It is approximately 240 feet long, 90 feet across and 45 feet high. All the monuments appear to have been built from a granitic sandstone, although no internal passages or chambers have been found. To a degree, the underwater structures resemble ancient buildings on Okinawa itself, such as Nakagusuku Castle. More of a ceremonial edifice than a military installation, Nakagusuku dates back to the early centuries of the first millennium B.C., although its identity as a religious habitation site is older still. Its builders and the culture it originally expressed are unknown, although the precinct is still regarded with a superstitious awe by local Okinawans. Other parallels with Okinawa's oldest sacred buildings are found near Noro, where burial vaults designed in the same rectilinear style are still venerated as repositories for the islanders' ancestral dead. Very remarkably, the Okinawan term for these vaults is moai, the same word Polynesians of Easter Island, more than 6,000 miles away, used to describe the famous, large-headed, long-eared statues dedicated to their ancestors!
Possible connections far across the Pacific may be more than philological. Some of the sunken features bear even closer comparison to heiau found in the distant Hawaiian Islands. These are linear temples of long stone ramparts leading to great staircases surmounted by broad plazas, where wooden shrines and carved idols were placed. Many heiau still exist and continue to be venerated by native Hawaiians. In terms of construction, the Okinawan examples comprise enormous, single blocks, while the heiau are made up of far more numerous, smaller stones. They were first built, according to Hawaiian tradition, by the Menehune, a red-haired race of master masons who occupied the islands long before the arrival of the Polynesians. The original inhabitants left, unwilling to intermarry with the newcomers.
Okinawa's drowned structures find possible counterparts at the eastern limits of the Pacific Ocean, along Peruvian coasts. The most striking similarities occur at ancient Pachacamac, a sprawling religious city a few miles south of the modern capital at Lima.
Although functioning into Inca times, as late as the sixteenth century, it pre-dated the Incas by at least 1,500 years and was the seat of South America's foremost oracle. Pilgrims visited Pachacamac from all over the Tiawantisuyu, the Inca Empire, until it was sacked and desecrated by the Spaniards under Francisco Pizarro's high-spirited brother, Hernando, with 22 heavily armed conquistadors. Enough of the sun-dried, mud-brick city remains, with its sweeping staircases and broad plazas, to suggest parallels with the sunken buildings around Okinawa.
Two other pre-Inca sites in the north, just outside Trujillo, likewise share some leading elements in common with the overseas, undersea structures. The so-called Temple of the Sun is a terraced pyramid built 2,000 years ago by a people known as the Moche. More than 100 feet high and 684 feet long, the irregularly stepped platform of unfired adobe bricks was formerly the colossal centerpiece of a city sheltering 30,000 inhabitants. Its resemblance to the structure found at Yonaguni is remarkable.
On the other side of the Pacific, the first emperor of Japan was remembered as Jimmu, whose immediate descendant was Kamu, among the legendary founders of Japanese society. Another ancestral emperor was Temmu, who was said to have committed to memory the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)
and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan). In northern Japan runs a river deemed sacred because it carried the first semi-divine beings into the country; it is called the Mu River. In Japanese, the word mu means, that which does not exist or no longer exists, just as it does in Korean. Does it harken back to a land that no longer exists?
In ancient Rome, the Lemuria was a ritual conduced by the head of each household to properly appease the spirits of the deceased, who returned annually. Lemuria was also the Roman name for a huge island kingdom they believed once lay in the Far Eastern Sea, sometimes imagined to have been the Indian Ocean. It vanished to become the abode of troubled souls. The Lemurian ceremony was instituted by Romulus in expiation for the murder of Remus. Here, too, we encounter mu in relation to the founding of a civilization, since the brothers were accepted as the progenitors of Rome. In Latin, their names are pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: RoMUlus and ReMUs.
In the early nineteenth century, when English biologists were in the process of mammal classification, they applied the ancient term, lemur, to describe primitive tree primates first found in Madagascar, because the creatures possessed large, glaring eyes, just like the ghostly lemures described in Roman myth. When lemurs were discovered outside Africa, in such widely separated locations as south India and Malaya, scientists theorized that a continent in the Indian Ocean may have once connected all these lands before it sank beneath the waves. Oceanographers have since established that no such continent ever existed.
But collectors of oral traditions throughout the island peoples of the Pacific were perplexed by recurring themes of a vanished motherland from which ancestral culture-bearers arrived to re-plant society's seeds. On Kaua'i, the Hawaiians told of the Mu
(also known as the Menehune mentioned earlier)
who arrived in the dim past from a floating island. The most important ancestral chant known to the Hawaiians was the Kumulipo, which recounts a terrific flood that destroyed the world long ago. Its concluding lines evoke some natural catastrophe in the deep past: Born the roaring, advancing and receding of waves, the rumbling sound, the earthquake. The sea rages, rises over the beach, rises to the inhabited places, rises gradually up over the land. Ended is the line of the first chief of the dim past dwelling in cold uplands. Dead is the current sweeping in from the navel of the earth. That was a warrior wave. Many who came vanished, lost in the passing night. The survivor who escaped the warrior wave was Kuamu.
Despite an abundance of folk traditions spanning the Pacific, all describing a sunken homeland, the first accurate, sonar-generated maps of the ocean bottom revealed nothing resembling a lost continent. But archaeological enigmas supporting the myths still exist at such remote locations as tiny Malden Island, where a road of paved stones leads directly into and under the sea. The uninhabited island is also home to forty platform-pyramids.
A provocative architectural theme linking South America to Japan through Polynesia and suggesting a lost intermediary culture is the sacred gate. The aesthetic focus of Tiahuanaco, a great ceremonial city high in Bolivia's Andes near Lake Titicaca, is two ritual gates. One above the sunken court at the entrance dramatically frames the 12-foot-tall statue of a god or man, while the other, at the far end of the complex, is the famous Gateway of the Sun, oriented to various solar phenomena.
Out across the Pacific, in the Polynesian island of Tonga, stands the Haamonga-a-Maui, The Burden of Maui, a 15-foot-high stone gate weighing some 109 tons and aligned with sunrise of the summer solstice. Japan is covered by many thousands of such gates, most of them wooden, but all used to define a sacred space. Known as Torii, the same word appears in ancient Indo-European languages and survives in the German word for gate: Tor [and the Gaelic word for God’s Law, Do Rah, or Torah]. An outstanding feature of the sunken structures in the vicinity of Okinawa is an unconnected gate of massive stonework. The Romans, who celebrated a Lemuria festival every May, ornamented their empire with free-standing ceremonial gates.
These intriguing parallels, combined with a wealth of archaeological evidence and descriptive native traditions, convince investigators that some powerful, centrally located X-culture indeed existed in the Pacific, from which civilizing influences spread in both directions. Their conclusion seemed borne out with recent discoveries among the Ryukyu Islands, where architectural features of the sunken structures bear tell-tale affinities to pre-Inca structures in Peru and ancestral burial vaults on Okinawa. But the sunken buildings provoke more questions than they answer. How old are they? Why are they under water? Who built them? For what purposes?
What evidence has so far been collected suggests that the site did not succumb to a sudden geologic catastrophe. Aside from one or two monuments leaning at irregular angles, none of them displays any structural damage, no cracks or fallen stones. Instead, they appear in unruined, virtually pristine condition. They were either overwhelmed by rising sea-levels, sank with a slowly collapsing land-mass, or some combination of both. Most researchers opt for the last scenario, since oceanographers tell us that sea-levels rose from 100 feet 1.7 million years ago. Even so, the Japanese sites must be very old. They are constantly being swept clean by strong currents, so radiocarbon dating material is not available.
The purposes for which they were made appear less difficult to understand, because their strongest resemblance to Hawaiian heiau implies that they were mostly ceremonial in nature. Their expansive staircases lead up to presently barren platforms, where wooden shrines and carved idols were probably set up for religious dramas.
Just who were their worshippers and builders suggests a word most professional American archaeologists are unable to pronounce. But, in view of the numerous accounts from hundreds of cultures around the Pacific of a flood that destroyed some former civilization, if Okinawa's sunken city is not lost Lemuria, then what is it?
Frank Joseph is editor of The Ancient American Magazine.