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Microbe ruins

Fantastic Beasts and Imaginary Cities: Lessons on the Dangers, and Benefits, of Anomaly Hunting

When snorkelers off the Greek island of Zakynthos came across what appeared to be the flooded ruins of an ancient city (such as the ‘columns’ above), archaeologists were left to ponder their origin. Which civilisation built them, and how had they ended up underwater? But, when they went to investigate further

…archaeologists found nothing else — no shards of pottery or other flotsam and jetsam of everyday existence — that would suggest that people had once lived there (and perhaps had been forced to flee by rising sea levels).

Scientists have now discovered the reason there were no signs of human habitation at the site. The columns and other objects, they say, are not stonework at all, but a natural byproduct of the breakdown of methane gas. And they were made by an ancient civilization of microbes, not people.

The search for ‘lost civilisations’ is a fascinating one, and our good friend Graham Hancock wrote an intriguing book about the search for ruins of civilisations that could feasibly have been lost beneath rising seas after the end of the last Ice Age (Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization). But the recent news story above should also be a warning to us that things aren’t always what they seem.

There have been numerous discoveries in recent decades of what, at first glance, appear to be man-made, ancient structures, ranging from the Japanese underwater site of Yonaguni to the so-called ‘Bosnian pyramid‘. But simply ‘looking artificial’ is not enough to draw a conclusion – for example, visitors to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland will know that nature does produce artificial-looking geometric structures (see this recent video we posted for more discussion on this topic).

Wishful thinking isn’t enough – there has to be more evidence than simply ‘this looks like the real deal’ to label something as such. In the absence of evidence, it’s still fine to speculate…just as long as you make clear that is what you are doing.

On the flipside, however, sometimes – often times – when anomalies do turn up, they are immediately discounted as being imaginary, misinterpretations of normal things, or outright hoaxes. Another story of the past week illustrates this: more than 200 years ago, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt reported witnessing electric eels leaping out of the water to attack possible threats.

Humboldt published his account of leaping electric eels in 1807, but for two centuries it has been regarded as a fantasy. Why?

No one had seen such behaviour in the 200 years since Humboldt’s account. In 1881, another German scientist said that the story was “poetically transfigured.” In 1947, The Atlantic called it “tommyrot.”

But now, researchers have caught this behaviour on video:

It turns out that Humboldt was telling the story exactly as he had witnessed it – and yet it took more than 200 years for any scientist to investigate it seriously.

I discuss a similar topic in my article in the upcoming release of Darklore (Volume 9): meteors. Scientists dropped the ball on meteors for many years, writing off witness reports as fantastical and untrustworthy. And even after finally seeing the light, they repeated the exact same mistake for many more decades when it came to witness reports of electrophonic sounds being emitted from bright fireballs – because those reports didn’t seem to agree with the science of the time.

Each of these stories provides a lesson to us, as we try to gain fresh insights and discover new things. When we come across an anomaly, we must be skeptical, in the sense of examining it with critical thinking, and progressing cautiously. But we should also guard against being overly-skeptical, and dismissing things that don’t fit within our current frame of knowledge. Feel free to speculate, make leaps of logic where needed – but always note carefully that is what you are doing.

Anomaly hunting is fun. But let’s do it right.

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