1. Mystery in the desert

THEODORE MONOD holding an artifact
Photo by James Andanson/Sygma via Getty Images

The “Eye of Africa,” also known as the Richat Structure, is difficult to see from the surface. It wasn’t until viewed from above during the Space Age that we noticed it existed. From the ground level, it just looked like an outcropping that depreciated in layers — nothing strange at all. Nor did anyone really know it was there.

Once viewed from above, however, people began to speculate about its origins. While many have supposed the origin to be something extraterrestrial or otherworldly, the explanation turns out to be far more strange. And it was only recently that scientists discovered exactly what this origin story was.

2. The Sahara

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One reason this Eye of Africa remained undiscovered for so long is that it is located in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth: the Sahara Desert. To see it, you have to hike through miles of extremely harsh desert climate, battling aridity, dehydration, and extreme heat.

In total, the eye has a perimeter of around 30 miles. The first alternative hypothesis offered other than “aliens did it” was one equally jarring: an impact crater. Perhaps the eye was created by an ancient bolide that crashed into the Earth, spewing rock and catalyzed mineral fragments into the surrounding terrain.

3. Gemini IV

Theodore Monod's Expedition to the "Richat"
Jean Fabre and Theodore Monod collecting samples. (Photo by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)

The first time that scientists actually gleaned this interesting geologic feature was through the Gemini IV mission. This mission was initially launched in the 1960s during the Space Age. Its purpose was to orbit the Earth for four days — all the while taking photos. It was only after this that it found this extremely bizarre structure on the face of the Earth.

The Richat Structure is located in the town of Ouadane, Mauritania, in Northern Africa. And within the Richat Structure, scientists trying to crack its mysteries have discovered numerous other things. Amazingly, those unrelated to these excavations have gone on to propose that the circle reveals the mythical city of Atlantis.

4. Atlantis found?

hieroglyphics on a stone wall
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Some have proposed that everything from giants to advanced ancient civilizations have been found within the 30 miles that make up the Richat formation. The hole might have been, these people say, an ancient lake of the ancient collapsed city. Amusingly, there is a severe lack of evidence to support any of this — at least not in the way that theorists believe.

Plato’s lost city of Atlantis will likely remain undiscovered (probably because it never really existed). Regardless, the explanation for this interesting craterlike object in the desert is still mind-bending. It took scientists a long time to crack exactly what the structure was. What they discovered was stupendous.

5. The lost kingdom?

a dry-looking impact crater

For scientists to figure out whether this thing came from a meteor or not, there were a few key things that they were looking for. The most salient of these was something called shocked quartz. Shocked quartz is something that is created from immense pressure (yet a temperature that is limited). It is unlike standard quartz.

In other words, it forms when giant meteors or asteroids strike Earth from outer space. When the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs had plunged into the Yucatán, for instance, it left in its wake ample shocked quartz. But did scientists find this same shocked quartz in or around the area? Curiously, no — none at all.

6. Analogs to the Atlanteans

Santorini, Greece, is one of many ports of call cruise guests have the opportunity to visit as part of a Mediterranean Sea cruise. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Lindsey Maurice)
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There are some stories, however, far better verified that do have an Atlantean flavor to them. One of these stories surrounded the Minoan civilization, a group that lived off the Greek island of Santorini, off the Aegean Sea. The island population existed around 3,600 years ago, however — not 9,000.

But other than the incorrect date ascribed to the existence of this population, they weren’t sunken by an earthquake, either. Instead, the island was ravaged by a volcanic explosion. More importantly, the island never sank. The search to identify Atlantis, then, just continues. We’re not sure where it will eventually take us.

7. More on Plato

a graphic of stuff underwater

The reason that people think the ring is Plato’s Atlantis is because of his description. What he had said is that the city had a lake composed of concentric rings. This structure, at least from above, appears to have such qualities. Over a period of thousands of years, however, the erosion of such a site would not look much like this geologic feature.

Plato had called the city the “Lost Continent of Atlantis.” It’s hard to imagine how 30 miles of concentric circles in the middle of the Sahara Desert constitutes a continent, but some people are just determined to believe it. And so, the myth lives on in the minds of the credulous.

8. Théodore Monod

Theodore Monod finds a site full of pebble tools made by prehistoric man from 100,000 to 500,000 years ago
Image by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images

Théodore Monod was a French naturalist with an inordinate amount of love for the desert. In particular, he had laid his interest in the Sahara. Having first experienced the vast expanses of arid sands at around age 20, he immediately fell in love. It didn’t take long for his love to take him in the direction of the Eye of Africa.

The only difficulty, as we mentioned earlier, is that from the ground, the area is extraordinarily difficult to find. Being that the large concentric circles don’t look like much from the ground, you would likely drive over the area without even realizing that you’ve done so.

9. Théodore Monod: Part II

Theodore Monod and his team consult a map of the Richat area to work out their route
Thodore Monod and his team consult a map of the Richat area to work out their route. (Image by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)

Théodore did much for the world of naturalism, finding and identifying numerous important anthropological finds in the Saharan region. In Mauritania, for instance, a state off the coast of Northwest Africa, he found the remains of an ancient human species. But not just any human species — a previously undiscovered human species.

This species was the Asselar man. The skeleton is of the Neolithic period, meaning that it came about after cultures of the Mediterranean began to thrive off of agriculture and domestication. But other finds of his were mostly related to fish and flower species in other areas of the Mediterranean.

10. Acheulean

(Original Caption) Neolithic arrowheads that the expedition picked up in the desert. (Photo by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)
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The tools and arrowheads that Monod found in these areas belonged to the Acheulean time period. (Acheulean is French, and composes the tools you find in many different spots in Africa.) Homo erectus had used these tools, as did Homo heidelbergensis. These tools coincided with the adoption of fire by these same species.

But in the same sites, they have found pre-Acheulean tools. The earliest manufacture of the Acheulean tool set appears to have occurred 1.7 million years ago. These tools were used by ancient species of humans. As we progressed through geologic times, we only developed more advanced tools that would eventually supplant these.

11. Ancient clues

(Original Caption) The site at El Ghallouyia where there are rock paintings that are about 2,000 years old. (Photo by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)
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Théodore Monod found many things on his adventures through the Sahara Desert. While he was, as mentioned before, the first person to identify the Asselar man, he also identified numerous other indicators of humans. One of the things he found was carvings on rocks.

What these carvings show is that the cultures which he was seeing had a capacity and desire to create art. Essentially, it shows that anatomically modern humans used to live in this area as well. And this has made the place a compelling area to study for those interested in the minds behind the Neolithic Revolution.

12. The Neolithic Revolution

(Original Caption) Jean Fabre and Th{odore Monod collecting samples. (Photo by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)
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The area that Monod and his cohort explored on their venture, and that subsequent archaeologists explored after them, showed one of the most important advances in human history. These advances brought many modern-day practices and set us on the trajectory toward our current iteration of modernity.

Among the most salient things advanced by this revolution was a reliance on agriculture to survive. But other than that, we inherited some ugly social woes. These include things as uncomfortable as social stratification. Ultimately, the more we grew to acquire and accrue a surplus of stored goods, the more control we could exert over others.

13. Traveling the Sahara

(Original Caption) Desert near Chinguetti. (Photo by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)
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As you might have imagined, traveling the Sahara can be extraordinarily difficult. Because the environment is extremely hot with little to no humidity, it can be very dangerous to travel there. When Théodore Monod spent his travels here, he was well aware of that fact.

When traveling in the desert, water and skin protection are your greatest concern. Heat exhaustion can take you out quickly if you’re not prepared. Heat is not something to be cast aside as a triviality. Many people have died in the hot, scorching sun, and the number will only grow as more unprepared people traverse its lands.

14. Traveling the Sahara: Part II

(Original Caption) On the Kfar Torchane site composed of fossil stromatolites (primitive algae). (Photo by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images)
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One of the reasons that the Richat Structure has remained so elusive and undiscovered is because it exists within the vast desert expanse. Because not that many people travel the area (relative to the rest of the world, of course), not many would pick up on the discernible characteristics that make it geologically fascinating.

But also, as we’ve pointed out, the thing is particularly difficult to see from the ground. Because the sediment that makes up the structure is spaced out over a perimeter of around 30 miles, finding the thing from the ground is not exactly easy. And that’s why many have suffered while attempting to find this beautiful structure.

15. The hidden danger of dunes

sand dunes in death valley
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The vast sand dunes that make up the miles upon miles of Sahara Desert are troublingly monotonous. While this doesn’t suggest that they are boring, it does suggest that they can be disorienting. Once you’ve spent a few hours there, it can be easy to lose your way. And losing your way in such a dangerous place can be dire.

If you are traveling in dunes, then, you will need a compass and other navigation tools so that you don’t lose your way. While the Sahara Desert might not be on your list of places to visit, other sand dunes might be. When you think about sand dunes, you should find it shocking that such a beautiful structure like the Richat was found there.

16. The dome

half dome from a certain view

Researchers, as pointed out, have hypothesized that this arrangement of concentric circles is really just a dome that has eroded over several thousands of years. The research indicates that the rocks from which this structure was made are old — and very old at that.

When geologists look at the structure, they identify that it is in fact over 600 million years old. This puts the rock in a geologic time equivalent to when one of the first animals began to flourish. So, contrary to what many have thought about this feature’s relevance to Atlantis, the thing is actually older than any humans or humanlike creatures that existed.

17. A collapsed dome

an ancient eruption that destroyed a town
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The best current explanation for the structure is that it was a dome that had collapsed into the earth from some sort of eruption. Once this happened, it is thought to have eroded slowly over the course of several thousand years. Once gone, we were left with this — the so-called “Eye of Africa.”

The time period from which it is thought to have deteriorated is the Ordovician (485 to 443 million years ago). Still, however, scientists are a little confused as to how exactly it happened. Some are even still skeptical that this is the actual explanation. Others, however, have stepped forward to try and get a better explanation.

18. Landmark

a giant set of circles in the middle of the desert
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Because of the structure’s salience in the sky, astronauts have actually used the thing as a landmark. When flying over Earth, you can gauge your proximity to different parts of the planet by calculating their relationship to the Richat Structure.

Like a beacon or lighthouse, then, this thing can guide you home. While you might not want to land your ship in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the formation can at least give you a clue as to where you are. This was first discovered by the German spaceship Gemini IV. We have it to thank for introducing the world to this beautiful and enigmatic structure.

19. The Proterozoic

a piece of rock on a blank background
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The Proterozoic is a geologic time period in which animals evolved and flourished. This period was the precursor to the Cambrian explosion, which was when vertebrates exploded on the scene. We went from a fossil record with mostly soft-bodied creatures to one in which those with hard bones were ubiquitous.

The evolutionary motivation behind this explosion is thought to have been the evolution of predation — yikes! Once predators showed up onto the Cambrian scene, the most effective response by those being eaten was to grow hard bones. Otherwise, the predators would chomp right through them with their freshly minted jawbones.

20. History of the Sahara

a theatre in the middle of the desert

Many have, as articulated previously, claimed that the Sahara, where the Richat Structure existed, used to be an Atlantean paradise. However, there is literally no evidence that humans inhabited the Nile Valley at the time that the supposed Atlantis existed. This makes things slightly difficult for the proponents of the theory.

While there were times in which the Saharan expanses had lush, thriving vegetation, these times did not coincide with the dates at which Atlantis was believed to have existed (around 9,000 years before Plato’s time). Yet, 9,000 years ago, the area of the Sahara was only just beginning to become habitable.

21. History of the Sahara: Part II

A weird structure in the middle of the desert

The habitability of the Sahara was brought about by increasing monsoons in the area. These monsoons brought rain such that the surrounding climate could foster more life for those around the Nile to survive off of. Because of this, these people would slowly encroach territory farther and farther west. This was all good for the time.

This move to populate the greater northwestern regions of the Sahara was only temporary, however. And more than that, Atlantis was a supposed archipelago that was sunk by an earthquake. Clearly, this area in the Sahara was not at any point submerged in such a way around the time that it supposedly existed.

22. Origin story

a giant structure in the middle of the desert
Wikimedia Commons

The origin of the Richat Structure, rather than being some concentric pools built by an advanced Atlantean society, is that the structure was formed when the supercontinent of Pangea broke, around hundreds of millions of years ago. The breakup of Pangea began around 175 million years ago. This was a drastically different time than that we live in today.

Once this process began, magma had pressed up from the separating plates on many parts of the Earth. One of these parts was Africa, where the African plate was separating from the South American plate. The magma, then, had raised and pressed up against the part of Western Africa where the structure exists.

23. Origin story: Part II

a bunch of rocks on the beach

As the magma pressed up against the lithosphere above, it began to create a dome. This dome would then, after millions of years, slowly succumb to the effects of weathering. After enough time, the dome would leave the light traces that it currently shows from views in the higher atmosphere: the Richat Structure in the Sahara Desert.

While scientists still aren’t 100% certain how the effects of plate tectonics and subsequent weathering formed the leftover dome remnants, the picture described by these scientists is the clearest currently on offer by the academic community. While this explanation will invariably get tuned up with incoming evidence, this seems to be the best explanation thus far.

24. Eruption

a vocanic eruption in the mountains

Scientists also hypothesize that the dome had died down because of an ancient eruption. Because the magma had built up beneath the surface, it eventually had to erupt. After this eruption, the dome could die down via the weathering process described earlier, eventually giving us the remnants of the structure.

The eye at the center of the Richat Structure, for instance, is thought to have been volcanic rock that was made during the actual explosion. Each of the other rings is composed of material that eroded due to weathering at different rates. This is why they each have their own distinct hue when viewed from above.

25. The Eye of Africa

J.Fabre and M.Piboule describe the geology of the surroundings to Th.Monod who cannot see well.
Image by patrick chapuis/Sygma via Getty Images

So contra to most people’s opinions about the Atlantean origin of this Richat Stucture, most geologists and archaeologists maintain that the thing had no real human significance. It wasn’t formed at a time when humans existed, and the earliest evidence of humans in the area doesn’t align with the supposed age of the Atlantean people.

What it does show, however, is an extremely interesting geologic feature that was carved over hundreds of millions of years. After these processes took their toll on the geologic dome, it left the 30-mile Eye of Africa that we see from higher altitudes today. It will continue to inspire minds everywhere.