A civilization lost and found

Sunday, May 19, 2002

HAVANA -- Floating aboard the Spanish trawler she chartered to explore the Cuban coast for shipwrecks, Paulina Zelitsky pores over yellowed tomes filled with sketches and tales of lost cities -- just like the one she believes she has found deep off the coast of western Cuba.

Zelitsky's eyes grow wide as she runs her small hand over water-stained drawings of Olmec temples in a dog-eared 1928 study of Mexican archaeology. The Russian Canadian explorer compares the shapes with green-tinted sonar images captured in March while studying the megalithic structures she discovered two years ago off Cuba's Guanahabibes Peninsula.

Amid piles of sonar-enhanced maps is a well-worn copy of "Comentarios Reales de las Incas," or "Royal Commentaries of the Incas," a classic of Spanish Renaissance narrative by the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador. Zelitsky is particularly fascinated by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega's account of ancient ruins at the bottom of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

"You would not think that a reasonable woman of my age would fall for an idea like this," chuckled Zelitsky, a 57-year-old offshore engineer who runs the exploration firm Advanced Digital Communications of British Columbia, Canada.

Zelitsky passionately believes the megalithic structures her crew discovered 2,310 feet below the ocean's surface could prove that a civilization lived thousands of years ago on an island or stretch of land joining the archipelago of Cuba with Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, about 120 miles away.

Unusual shapes on sonar

The unusual shapes first appeared on the firm's sophisticated side-scan sonar equipment in the summer of 2000, during shipwreck surveys off Cuba's western coast, where hundreds of vessels are believed to have sunk over the centuries.

The company is among five foreign firms working with Fidel Castro's government to explore the island's coast for shipwrecks of historical and commercial interest. But the mysterious shapes have become the focus of this crew's exploratory efforts.

Puzzled by the shapes with clean lines, the team has repeatedly returned to the site -- most recently in March -- for more sonar readings, more videotapes of the megaliths with an unmanned submarine. The crew left in mid-May for a month.

Evidence for Zelitzky's hypothesis is far from conclusive, and has been met with skepticism from scientists from other countries who nevertheless decline to comment publicly on the project until scientific findings have been made available. Submerged urban ruins have never been found at so great a depth.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the ruins of Jamaica's Port Royal are located at depths ranging from a few inches to 40 feet below the ocean surface. The once raucous seaside community was controlled by English buccaneers before it slid under the waves in earthquakes beginning in 1692.

Located at just 20 feet are the mysterious megalithic structures discovered in the 1960s and 1970s in the sound between the Bahamas islands of North and South Bimini. Scientific expeditions there have produced inconclusive results about the shapes' origins.

No easy explanation

Back in Cuba, a leading scientist recently admitted there is no easy explanation for the megalithic shapes found by Zelitsky's crew. The shapes on the sonar maps look like walls, rectangles, pyramids -- rather like a town viewed from the window of an airplane flying overhead.

"We are left with the very questions that prompted this expedition," geologist Manuel A. Iturralde Vincent, research director of Cuba's National Museum of Natural History wrote March 13. At the time he was visiting the area aboard the 270-foot long Ulises, the Spanish trawler Zelitsky outfitted with sophisticated computer and satellite equipment for her surveys.

In his written comments, later delivered at a scholarly conference here, Iturralde concluded it was possible the structures were once at sea level, as Zelitsky theorizes.

Because of the large faults and an underwater volcano nearby, Zelitsky supposes the structures sank because of a dramatic volcanic or seismological event thousands of years ago.

Providing some support for that argument, Iturralde confirmed indications of "significantly strong seismic activity."

Zelitsky shies from using the term "Atlantis," but comparisons are inevitable to the legendary sunken civilization that Plato described in his "Dialogues" around 360 B.C.

There have been untold, unsuccessful attempts over the ages to find that lost kingdom.

Zelitsky does, however, mention known archaeological monuments when discussing her find.

Numerous photographs are scattered throughout a video show of the megaliths, showing well-known ancient sites: the 1st century fortress of Masada high above the Dead Sea, Britain's circular monument of Stonehenge, the Roman fortress of Babylon in Cairo, the walls of Chan Chan, Peru, whose inhabitants were conquered by the Incas.

Perhaps, Zelitsky mused, the megaliths off Cuba are remains of a trading post, or a city built by colonizers from Mesoamerica. Those civilizations were far more advanced than the hunters and gatherers the Spaniards found upon arriving here five centuries ago.

Zelitsky admitted much more investigation is needed to solve the mystery.

But that doesn't keep her from believing, or from smiling slyly as she opens her agenda for 2002 to the first page.

Written there are the words Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei uttered under his breath at the height of the Inquisition, right after abjuring his belief that the Earth revolved around the sun.

"E pur si muove," it reads -- "Nevertheless, it does move."

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