The Lost Land of Lemuria

Lemuria made its first recorded appearance in an 1864 article titled “The Mammals of Madagascar” in The Quarterly Journal of Science. Its author, Philip Lutley Sclater, was puzzled by the distribution of the lemur, the only primate inhabiting the large island of Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa. Sclater observed that thirty species of lemur were to be found in Madagascar, while only a dozen or so lived on the African mainland and only three in the region of India. Suggesting that Madagascar and India must have been connected at some remote time, Sclater went on to wonder whether the supposed connection might have reached as far as the continents of North and South America, as lemurs bear more resemblance to New World monkeys than to their Old World cousins. Sclater called this supposed land bridge or continent “Lemuria.”

Speculation about such a landmass actually goes back to at least the 1840's, when French natural historian Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire suggested that Madagascar might be the remnant of a continent lying in what is now the Indian Ocean. The idea was subsequently espoused by such prominent British scientists as Alfred R. Wallace. Yet, as history professor Sumathi Ramaswamy points out in The Lost Land of Lemuria, by naming the continent, Sclater gave it not just life but—paradoxically enough for a place that never existed—a kind of immortality.

Lemuria was quickly taken up by those involved in biogeography (the study of the distribution of plants and animals) and paleogeography (the study of earlier stages of the earth's geography). During Sclater's life, these disciplines were burgeoning with the knowledge and data then being collected around the world, and the concept of Lemuria fit comfortably into the worldviews of the scientists collecting such data. Some even plotted the position of Lemuria and other “lost continents” on maps, lending the phantom bodies an even greater reality.

In 1870 German biologist Ernst Haeckel took up Sclater's creation with a passion, calling Lemuria the “probable cradle of the human race”—a theme that would resonate for years to come. Haeckel's work, translated into English in 1876 as The History of Creation, moved Lemuria far forward in time, although with little evidence. Haeckel was a confirmed evolutionist, inspired like so many of his colleagues by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). In seeking to trace the biological descent of humankind, the German scientist identified the lemur as a probable intermediate stage, and in a kind of compromise between those who favored either an African or an Asian origin, suggested Lemuria as the geographical site of human evolution. The land's disappearance beneath the waves also conveniently accounted for the lack of any hard evidence for Haeckel's hypothesis.

When Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois discovered fossils of early hominids toward the end of the nineteenth century in what is now Indonesia, he dubbed his finds Pithecanthropus erectus. Although Pithecanthropus was the name that Haeckel had applied to one of his hypothetical stages of human evolution on Lemuria, Dubois was hesitant to endorse Sclater and Haeckel's ideas regarding the lost continent. Subsequently, however, amateur ethnologist Augustus H. Keane declared P. erectus to be an ancestor of the present-day inhabitants of Africa, Australia, and the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean—further proof that Lemuria or some similar body had once connected Africa with the lands to the north and east.

Yet throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century the idea of Lemuria was actually losing validity in most quarters. Sclater himself had done little to popularize or expand upon his brainchild. By 1875, in fact, the year before Haeckel's work was translated, he had backed away from the idea of an actual continent. Wallace, too, had second thoughts, deciding that the idea of subsiding continents was unacceptable and hypothesizing that a much wider occurrence of lemurs in the...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)