The mythical lost island of Atlantis isn't the only once-great civilization to have allegedly sunk beneath the waves. In the 19th century, serious scientists entertained the idea that a "lost continent" must have once existed in the Indian Ocean. The sunken continent was called Lemuria, and what started as a strait-laced scientific theory ended up attracting all sorts of "true believers," from Victorian occultists to Indian nationalists.
The Lost Land of the Lemurs
The story of Lemuria begins with a British zoologist named Philip Sclater who wrote an essay in 1864 called "The Mammals of Madagascar." In it, Sclater wondered how Madagascar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa, could be home to dozens of species of lemurs — small, cat-like primates — while the entire continents of Africa and India had what Sclater believed to be only a few species of lemurs. (In fact, Africa and India had no true lemurs at all, but Sclater grouped some other big-eyed primates as lemurs, including loris and galagos.)
This was long before plate tectonics and "continental drift" were household words — plate tectonics didn't gain traction until the 1920s — so Sclater's best guess was that lemurs originated on Madagascar and migrated to Africa and India over a vast land bridge the size of a "great continent."
"I should propose the name Lemuria!" wrote Sclater, naming the hypothetical continent after his furry friends.
During the Victorian Era, land bridges were "popping up everywhere," says Sumathi Ramaswamy, a history professor at Duke University and author of "The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories." "Geologists, geographers and biologists were trying to account for similarities in rock formations, and similarities in all manner of flora and fauna [around the world], by arguing that there used to be these kinds of land bridges or sunken continents."
Lemuria as the Birthplace of Mankind
Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859 and for those who accepted his controversial theory of "natural selection," there was one burning question: Where and when did the human race first emerge?
In a popular book titled "History of Creation," an influential German biologist named Ernst Haeckel peddled his own theories of evolution, naming Sclater's lost continent of Lemuria as the likely cradle of humanity. According to Haeckel, there were "12 varieties of men," and the first humans to evolve from ancient primates did so on Lemuria and spread from there around the globe.
"The probable primeval home or 'Paradise' is here assumed to be Lemuria," wrote Haeckel in 1870, "a tropical continent at present lying below the level of the Indian Ocean, the former existence of which in the tertiary period seems very probable from numerous facts in animal and vegetable geography."
Darwin, it should be noted, wasn't exactly a fan of land bridges and sunken continents. He once wrote a letter to Charles Lyell, a prominent geologist who promoted the idea that continents routinely sunk and resurfaced, saying, "If there be a lower region for the punishment of geologists, I believe, my great master, you will go there."
How Lemuria Became Part of Spiritualism
Something that fascinates Ramaswamy about Lemuria was how this theoretical lost continent entered the popular imagination of the late 19th century and began to take on a life of its own.
"What happens when scientific knowledge leaves the realm of science and disseminates into broader society?" says Ramaswamy. "How is that knowledge taken up and reworked?"
Sclater, the geologist, probably never imagined that his hypothetical land of the lemurs would be adopted by Helena Blavatsky, a 19th-century Russian occultist and co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Theosophists believe that neither science nor religion have captured the full truth about the origins of Earth and mankind, but through psychic gifts, people like Blavatsky can access lost wisdom.
In her 1888 book, "The Secret Doctrine," Blavatsky explained that modern humans are the latest in an ancient evolutionary line of seven "root races." Lemuria, said Blavatsky, was the home of the "third root race," gigantic humans who were once hermaphroditic and laid eggs, before eventually evolving distinct sexual organs. Oh, and dinosaurs lived there, too.
From there, says Ramaswamy, Lemuria got wrapped up in new-agey ideas of lost civilizations (another one is called Mu) where highly evolved spiritual beings once lived in peace and harmony. Those ideas persist today.
"When you Google the word Lemuria, the majority of the hits are New Age sites talking about writing retreats and meditation centers," says Ramaswamy. For $25, you can even buy a Lemurian quartz crystal for "removing all types of energy blockages."
Lemuria and Tamil Nationalism
The legend of Lemuria takes one last unexpected twist. Back when India was a British colony, British ethnologists became fascinated with trying to trace the ancestry of India's diverse racial and ethnic groups, especially the Dravidian-speaking peoples of Southern India. One 19th-century theory was that Dravidians, an ancient language family that includes Tamil, first emerged from Lemuria.
"The Tamil people picked up on the colonial speculation that the Dravidians came from Lemuria, and they combined it with ancestral Tamil myths about Kumari Kandam, a lost Tamil civilization that used to exist in the Indian Ocean," says Ramaswamy. "This fed into Tamil nationalism, in which Tamils see their language as the most ancient, and Tamils are the oldest and most civilized people on Earth."
Even today, many ethnic Tamils talk about Lemuria as a "Wakanda"-like lost civilization on a vast continent that now sits at the bottom of the sea. Ramaswamy says that Lemuria provides a way for a colonized people to look back with nostalgia for a time when they were "the biggest and greatest civilization on Earth."