The Lost Continent of Lemuria

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Lemuria is the name of a mythical continent alleged to have been in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The lost continent derives its name from the primate lemur belonging to the group prosimians. Lemurs now inhabit Madagascar Island, the surrounding smaller islands and Comoros Island. The term lemur comes from the Latin word lemures, meaning spirits of the night, a reference to many species of lemur that are nocturnal and so have large reflective eyes. Their distribution once extended from Pakistan to Malaya.

Lemuria theories first became popular in 1864, when British lawyer and zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater wrote a paper titled “The Mammals of Madagascar” and had it published in The Quarterly Journal of Science. Sclater observed that there were many more species of lemur in Madagascar than there were in either Africa or India, thus claiming that Madagascar was the animal’s original homeland. His explanation for their geographical spread and their concentration in Madagascar was that at some era in the past there must have been a land bridge between Africa and India, which he called Lemuria. This bridge, he suggested, was a now-lost landmass stretching across the southern Indian Ocean in a triangular shape. This continent of “Lemuria,” Sclater suggested, touched India’s southern point, southern Africa, and Western Australia and eventually sunk to the ocean floor. This theory came at a time when the science of evolution was in its infancy, notions of continental drift weren’t widely accepted, and many prominent scientists were using land bridge theories to explain how various animals once migrated from one place to another (a theory similar to Sclater’s had even been proposed by French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire two decades earlier). Thus, Sclater’s theory gained some traction. Although now universally debunked by Western-trained scientists, Sclater’s theory about the lost land of Lemuria, originally published as a short essay in a relatively unknown scientific journal, was to find a new existence in the imagination and history of a long list of academics, occultists, colonial geologists, and nationalists. On this lost continent, some even thought, there once lived a race of now-extinct humans called Lemurians who had four arms and enormous, hermaphroditic bodies but nevertheless are the ancestors of modern-day humans (and perhaps also lemurs). The physical appearance of Lemurians has been debated for years. Some believe Lemurians looks like highly-evolved humans (like the description of Saint Germain) while others believe they have more animalistic qualities. Although it is a universally believed they are much taller beings than us surface dwellers. And as absurd as this all sounds, the idea flourished for a time both in popular culture and some corners of the scientific community. Of course, modern science has long since debunked the idea of Lemuria altogether.

Following this scientific discovery, the concept of Lemuria began to appear in the works of other scholars. Ernst Haeckel, , a Darwin enthusiast often credited with promoting Darwin’s ideas of natural selection in Germany, also came up with the idea of Lemuria. He added his own spin on it, claiming that Lemurians were not just lemurs, but humans as well. The Lemurians migrated to India as their continent sank, Haeckel claimed, and became the Aryans. Haeckel looked for the “missing link” in this area, proposing that the fossils of the first humans sunk under the sea. But some propose the lost land went somewhere else. Fast forward to 1899, Frederick Spencer Oliver published A Dweller on Two Planets, a book which claimed that survivors from a sunken continent called Lemuria were living in Mount Shasta. In the book, Lemurians lived in a series of complex tunnels beneath the mountain. Locals would sometimes see the creatures wandering outside the mountain in white robes. Then in 1931, Harvey Spencer Lewis, using the pseudonym Wisar Spenle Cerve, wrote a book about the hidden Lemurians of Mount Shasta. This book is widely regarded as the reason for the popularity for the legends of Lemurians in Mt. Shasta.

The last Ice Age had a profound influence on the prehistory of humankind. So in prehistoric studies of coastal areas, it is crucial to understand the consequence of changes in the sea level. About 14,500 years ago, the sea level was lower by 100 meters. With subsequent global warming and melting of large masses of ice, the level started rising, in stages. As the sea level rose, the low-lying lands in the coastal region and the exposed continental shelves were inundated. This phenomenon gave rise to the stories and legends of deluges that permeated the African, Amerindian and Australian aboriginal folklore and Greek, Roman and Hebrew legends, and the Indian puranas, which referred to pralayas. The coastal areas south of India that were submerged in ancient times evidently gave rise to the Tamil myth of the lost continent of Kumari, while myths of the lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria were generated in the Western world. There is an old, persistent Tamil tradition about a land that existed south of India called Kumari kandam (continent), this belief is linked to the myth of the lost land of Lemuria, a figment of Western imagination. Accounts of the lost continent vary, but the common theme is that a large area went under the ocean as a result of geological cataclysms, a theory that geologists of today do not subscribe to.

The Lemuria theory disappeared completely from conventional scientific consideration after the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift were accepted by the larger scientific community. According to the theory of plate tectonics, Madagascar and India were indeed once part of the same landmass, but plate movement caused India to break away millions of years ago, and move to its present location. The original landmass, the supercontinent Gondwana, broke apart; it did not sink beneath sea level. Gondwana broke up to become Antarctica, Africa, Australia, and South America. There are still some amazing remnants of the supercontinent that can be seen around the world, but much of its story has been covered over by other geological forces. However, geologists also have now discovered traces of a lost continent in the Indian Ocean. They found fragments of granite in the ocean south of India along a shelf that extends hundreds of miles south of the country towards Mauritius. On Mauritius, geologists found zircon despite the fact that the island only came into being 2 million years ago when, thanks to plate tectonics and volcanoes, it slowly rose out of the Indian Ocean as a small landmass. However, the zircon they found there dated to 3 billion years ago. What this meant, scientists theorized, was that the zircon had come from a much older landmass that long ago sunk into the Indian Ocean.

Sclater’s story about Lemuria was true — almost. Rather than call this discovery Lemuria, geologists named the proposed lost continent Mauritia. Based on plate tectonics and geological data, Mauritia disappeared into the Indian Ocean around 84 million years ago, when this region of Earth was still turning into the shape it holds today. And while this generally lines up with what Sclater had once claimed, the new evidence puts the notion of an ancient race of Lemurians that evolved into lemurs to rest. Mauritia disappeared 84 million years ago, but lemurs didn’t evolve on Madagascar until about 54 million years ago when they swam to the island from mainland Africa (which was closer to Madagascar than it is now). Nevertheless, Sclater and some of the other scientists of the mid-1800s were partially right about Lemuria despite their limited knowledge. A lost continent didn’t suddenly sink into the Indian Ocean and vanish without a trace. But, long ago, there was something there, something that is now gone forever.

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