Lemuria hypotheses originally gained traction in 1864, when British barrister and biologist Philip Lutley Sclater published an article titled “The Mammals of Madagascar” in The Quarterly Journal of Science. Sclater discovered that Madagascar had many more lemur species than either Africa or India, leading him to believe that Madagascar was the animal’s original habitat.
Furthermore, he argued that a long-lost continent running across the southern Indian Ocean in a triangle form was what allowed lemurs to initially move to India and Africa from Madagascar. Sclater proposed that “Lemuria” touched India’s southern tip, southern Africa, and western Australia before sinking to the ocean floor.
This theory was proposed at a time when the science of evolution was in its infancy, continental drift was not 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 two decades earlier by French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire). As a result, Sclater’s hypothesis gained traction.
Other well-known scientists and authors quickly adopted the Lemuria hypothesis and ran with it. Later in the 1860s, German scientist Ernst Haeckel began publishing material arguing that Lemuria was responsible for humans’ initial migration out of Asia (which was thought to be the cradle of mankind at the time) and into Africa.
Haeckel even proposed that Lemuria (also known as “Paradise”) was the cradle of humanity. As he put it in 1870:
“The likely primordial home or ‘Paradise’ is supposed here to be Lemuria, a tropical continent now lying below the level of the Indian Ocean, the past presence of which in the tertiary era appears quite plausible given various evidence in animal and vegetation geography.”
A fictitious map (attributed to Ernst Haeckel) portraying Lemuria as the cradle of humanity, with arrows illustrating the predicted dispersal of various human subgroups outward from the vanished continent. Around the year 1876.
Lemuria beliefs lasted throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, thanks to Haeckel’s assistance (often discussed alongside the myth of Kumari Kandam, a proposed lost continent in the Indian Ocean that once housed a Tamil civilization). This was before contemporary science uncovered ancient human remains in Africa, indicating that the continent was really the cradle of humanity. This was also before contemporary seismologists knew how plate tectonics drove once-connected continents apart into their current configurations.
Despite this lack of knowledge, many people continued to believe in Lemuria, especially when Russian occultist, medium, and novelist Elena Blavatskaja released The Secret Doctrine in 1888. This book stated that there were once seven ancient races of humans, and Lemuria was the home of one of them. According to Blavatskaja, this 15-foot-tall, four-armed, hermaphroditic species coexisted with dinosaurs. According to some fringe ideas, these Lemurians developed into the lemurs we know today.
Following that, Lemuria made its way into literature, movies, and comic books long into the 1940s. Many people were intrigued by these works of fiction and questioned where the authors and filmmakers acquired their fantastical ideas. They acquired their ideas from scientists and authors 75 years ago.
Let’s fast forward to 2013. Any scientific notions about a vanished continent and a land bridge responsible for lemur migration are now extinct. Geologists have uncovered evidence of a missing continent in the Indian Ocean.
Scientists discovered granite chunks in the water south of India along a shelf that stretches hundreds of kilometers south of the nation to Mauritius.
Geologists discovered zircon in Mauritius despite the fact that the island just emerged from the Indian Ocean as a small landmass 2 million years ago as a result of plate tectonics and volcanoes. However, the zircon they discovered there was 3 billion years old, eons before the island even existed.
Scientists hypothesized that the zircon came from a much older continent that had long since sunk into the Indian Ocean. Sclater’s account of Lemuria was practically true. Instead of calling this find Lemuria, geologists dubbed the putative lost continent Mauritia.
According to plate tectonics and geological evidence, Mauritius vanished into the Indian Ocean some 84 million years ago, while this part of the Earth was still forming into the shape it has now.
While this basically agrees with what Sclater had asserted, the new data lays to rest the idea of an ancient race of Lemurians who developed into lemurs. Mauritia vanished 84 million years ago, but lemurs did not exist on Madagascar until around 54 million years ago, when they swam to the island from mainland Africa (which was closer to Madagascar than it is now).
Despite their limited understanding, Sclater and other mid-nineteenth-century scientists were somewhat correct about Lemuria. A vanished continent did not just drop into the Indian Ocean and vanish. But there was something there a long time ago, something that is now gone forever.