debunked

Are there ruins of a lost civilisation in Antarctica? No, turns out these images are fake

These AI-generated images have been circulating online, with some wrongly claiming that they show the remnants of a lost civilisation in Antarctica.
These AI-generated images have been circulating online, with some wrongly claiming that they show the remnants of a lost civilisation in Antarctica. © Observers, T. Boucher

Was there an ancient civilisation built on Antarctica? Well, that’s the claim made by certain posts that have been circulating online since early December 2022. Some of these posts feature photos of snow-covered, made-man monuments said to have been discovered during an expedition led by Admiral Byrd back in the mid-20th century. Turns out, these images were AI-generated. Other posts feature photos claiming to show “pyramids” in Antarctica, but they are just mountains.

Advertising

If you only have a minute:

  • Since December 21, 2022, certain social media accounts have been sharing black-and-white photos of people standing next to pyramids, statues or other monuments. 

  • The accounts claim that these are top-secret images of an expedition to Antarctica led by American aviator and explorer Admiral Byrd in the mid-20th century. They claim that the photos offer proof of a forgotten civilisation on the southernmost continent.  

  • Our team spoke to the person who created these images, who says that they were all AI-generated. He said that he created them in order to make people think about the potential danger of the spread of misinformation. 

  • Another set of photos has also been circulating online since December 8, 2022. These images are said to show pyramids discovered in Antarctica – another sign of a lost civilisation. 

  • However, turns out these so-called pyramids are just mountains that look like pyramids, as explained to us by glaciologist Heidi Sevestre.

Do these photos, said to have been taken during scientific expeditions to Antarctica, offer proof of a lost civilisation?

These black-and-white photos, which have been circulating online since December 21, 2022, show people wrapped in coats, posing next to snow-covered pyramids, statues and obelisks. 

“Fascinating collection of never-before-seen, highly classified images of the numerous expeditions led by Byrd,” reads one Twitter post (translated from French), shared on December 21, 2022. 

This Twitter user sees these photos as “concrete proof” of the existence of a “forgotten civilisation” in Antarctica, which has always been considered the only continent that has never been inhabited. 

These images have been shared in a number of tweets in English too – this one, for example, was retweeted at least 800 times. The posts were also shared on TikTok and on YouTube.

This tweet says, in French, “Fascinating collection of never-before-seen, highly classified photos of the numerous expeditions led by Byrd. They seem to provide concrete proof of a forgotten civilisation— its architecture, its artifacts, its technology and, above all, Antarctica, its homeland.” 

This is a screengrab of a tweet from December 21, 2022 that claims these photos were taken during an expedition to Antarctica led by a man named Admiral Byrd.
This tweet says, in French, “Fascinating collection of never-before-seen, highly classified photos of the numerous expeditions led by Byrd. They seem to provide concrete proof of a forgotten civilisation— its architecture, its artifacts, its technology and, above all, Antarctica, its homeland.” This is a screengrab of a tweet from December 21, 2022 that claims these photos were taken during an expedition to Antarctica led by a man named Admiral Byrd. © Observers, T. Boucher

Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd was a real person. He was an American US naval officer, aviator and explorer who participated in five different expeditions to Antarctica, detailed in this website about him.

In 1929, Byrd completed the first flight over the South Pole. Five years later, he spent five months alone in Antarctica in order to gather meteorological data. In 1939, 1946 and 1955, he led further expeditions to Antarctica, this time for the U.S. Navy. These expeditions helped map Antarctica and advanced scientific research. 

Images from the book “Mysterious Antarctica”

There are images of Byrd’s expeditions on Getty Images or in the Polar Archives of the University of Ohio.

At left, there is a screengrab from Getty Images and, at right, a screengrab of the archives of the University of Ohio. You can find photos from the expeditions led by Admiral Byrd at both sites.
At left, there is a screengrab from Getty Images and, at right, a screengrab of the archives of the University of Ohio. You can find photos from the expeditions led by Admiral Byrd at both sites. © Observers

However, the photos that have been circulating online of late are nowhere to be found in these archives. But, if you carry out a reverse image search (click here to find out how), then you’ll find 13 snapshots in this article from August 4, 2022 published on the blogging platform Medium. 

In the article, the photos are described as “top secret lost photos from Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions”. The photos were apparently given to the blog by a “source who wishes to remain anonymous.” 

The article includes a link to an e-book called “Mysterious Antarctica” published by LostBooks. Our team took a look at the book, which contains more than a hundred images that supposedly were subject to “a vast cover-up that reaches to the highest levels of power”. 

This is a screengrab of an article published on Medium that featured these photos (on the left) as well as a screengrab from the site LostBooks (at right), which sells the book featuring these photos.
This is a screengrab of an article published on Medium that featured these photos (on the left) as well as a screengrab from the site LostBooks (at right), which sells the book featuring these photos. © Observers, T. Boucher

Images generated by artificial intelligence

But it turns out that these photos weren’t taken in Antarctica. They weren’t even taken in the 20th century. 

The LostBooks website features the name of the author of this book, T. Boucher. On his website, Tim Boucher calls himself a “hyperrealist AI artist & writer, specializing in questionable alternative realities”.

He told our team that he had generated these images using Dall-e, an artificial intelligence system that can create images based on textual descriptions. 

Keywords for prompts included especially phrases like “top secret archival photo from 1950…” followed by whatever scene elements I was trying to describe, such as a ruined temple, obelisks, plants, etc. along with instructions to include scientists dressed in parkas studying the artifacts with electronic gear.

As for the captions, Boucher said he came up with an idea, which he then entered into a program called TextSynth. This site can generate text using artificial intelligence. 

'Encouraging people to be suspicious'

"Mysterious Antarctica" is one of the 48 books that make up the Lost Books collection that T. Boucher launched in 2020. It’s part of a larger project called The Lost Art of Reading Project.

Boucher explained:

Generative AI tools exploded in popularity in a very short period of time, and I got the impression that they would have massive impacts on reliability and accuracy of information online. So I thought this might be a compelling way to engage with audiences about what this type of content is, and to get people thinking about the potential real world dangers associated with it.

I want to pique people’s curiosity, and encourage people to be suspicious. I want them to look at the AI-generated material that I create, and identify what about it seems off or wrong for them, and then have them share that with one another.

The artist says that there are a few visual clues that these Antarctic photos aren’t authentic. 

The number one giveaway is the multi-color watermark inserted by OpenAI into the lower right corner of images generated through their website. Dall-E also tends to have a sort of tell-tale type of visual artifact in its generations, which I might describe as “smooshy” or blurry.

Also readers often bring up that there is never a clear image of faces. You might also notice that some of the clothing or equipment seems anachronistic for the time period.

I have always included disclaimers in my work indicating that the content makes use of artificial intelligence.

This warning isn’t on every image but it is printed at the start of the book. 

There are several clues that the images published in the book “Mysterious Antarctica” were generated by artificial intelligence.
There are several clues that the images published in the book “Mysterious Antarctica” were generated by artificial intelligence. © Observers, T. Boucher

Antarctica, fertile land for conspiracy theorists

T. Boucher says that he gets inspiration for his books from conspiracy theories that are already circulating on the web and that he only explores themes that have "less likelihood of harming real people".

Antarctica is exciting because it is one of the last places on Earth that is still largely a mystery for most people. So it leaves a lot of scope for the imagination.

Admiral Byrd is a natural fit for this kind of story, because he really did go out and explore uncharted territories. Plus, there are many conspiracy theories already which claim that he even took a trip inside of a portal that lead him to the interior of the Earth.

Some people do cite the expeditions of Admiral Byrd as proof of the so-called “Hollow Earth theory”, the idea that there is a habitable space within the earth, as you can read on the University of Ohio’s website.

Images of Robert Scott’s 1912 expedition?

Other photos shared online are said to show a different Antarctic expedition – the one led by explorer Robert Scott in 1912 – that have been circulating on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube since November 23, 2022. 

This is a screengrab of a Facebook post from December 10, 2022 that claims these photos are from an expedition carried out by Robert Scott in Antarctica back in 1912.
This is a screengrab of a Facebook post from December 10, 2022 that claims these photos are from an expedition carried out by Robert Scott in Antarctica back in 1912. © Observers

As this article from fact-checking outlet DPA shows, these particular images are nowhere to be found in the photo archives of the 1912 expedition. There are also a few other clues (like the shadows and proportions of the boats that aren’t quite right or the people without faces, for example…) that suggest that these images were generated using artificial intelligence. 

Are these so-called pyramids vestiges of an ancient civilisation in Antarctica? 

And these artificially generated photos aren’t the only ones that are being cited as proof of the existence of an ancient civilisation in Antarctica. Since early December 2022, there have also been images circulating of “pyramids” said to have been built by humans on Antarctica.

“In 2016, three pyramids were discovered in Antarctica [...] However soon after this discovery, the government has even blocked pictures of these pyramids on Google Earth,” reads this tweet from December 8, 2022, which has been shared more than 700 times.

“Antarctica was at the equator at the time, so living conditions were more tolerable,” the Twitter user further asserts.

Videos published on Twitter or TikTok (like this one, which has garnered more than 300,000 views) even provide proof of the “pyramids” on Google Maps, including its coordinates (79°58'39.2 S 81°57'32.2 W).

This is a screengrab of a tweet from December 8, 2022, which claims that pyramids built by humans were discovered in Antarctica.
This is a screengrab of a tweet from December 8, 2022, which claims that pyramids built by humans were discovered in Antarctica. © Observers

Way back in 2016, a video posted on YouTube also claimed that this “pyramid” housed a base for extraterrestrials. 

Just mountains, not pyramids

However, if you type the coordinates of the so-called “pyramid” into Google Earth, it is possible to find the element in question. 

It’s clear from looking at Google Earth that these coordinates are located right in the middle of a range of mountains. And if you look at a map of Antarctica, then you’ll see that the range is called the Ellsworth Mountains, which extends more than 360 kilometres and is the highest range in Antarctica.  

This is a comparison between screengrabs of the location of the so-called pyramid on Google Earth (at left) and a map of western Antarctica (on the right).
This is a comparison between screengrabs of the location of the so-called pyramid on Google Earth (at left) and a map of western Antarctica (on the right). © Observers

Our team spoke to glaciologist Heidi Sevestre, who said that the pyramid was just a mountain or more specifically a “nunatak”, the ridge or peak of a mountain that rises above an ice field or glacier – in this case, the polar ice cap.

"Our brains may want to identify this as a man-made pyramid, but that's certainly not the case," Sevestre explained.

Other mountains in other parts of the world are also in the shape of a pyramid, like the Matterhorn at the Swiss-Italian border or Mount Bulandstindur in Iceland.