This post isn’t about a lost, mythological animal. It’s about a lost, mythological continent.
The history of scientific thought is marked with many mythological and hypothetical places. Most famous and enduring is Plato’s lost continent of Atlantis, written about in his Timaeus and supposedly located in the ocean for which it’s named. Despite the odds that Atlantis was a parable designed to prove a philosophical point — this is Plato we’re talking about, after all — authors, adventurers, spiritualists and even some modern archaeologists have chosen to take the myth literally. The Pacific Ocean has its own mythological sunken continent of Mu, invented by French explorer Augustus Le Plongeon, who claimed to have teased the fact of its existence from hieroglyphs at the ruins of a Mayan temple. Le Plongeon claimed that descendents of Mu, fleeing the catastrophe in every direction, went on to found the empires of Egypt, Mesoamerica and India. Later fantasists connected the Mu diaspora with the cultures of Easter Island and New Zealand.
There was a third sunken continent proposed in the 19th century, this time located in the Indian Ocean. Its “discoverer” was neither a philosopher nor a deluded anthropologist, but a reasonably unromantic British ornithologist named Philip Sclater. It was a hypothetical continent proposed to answer a biogeographical mystery for which science had no answer yet: the inexplicable existence of prosimian primates in both Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent. Sclater called it Lemuria.
Biogeography, the study of why certain species live where they do, was Sclater’s forte. In 1858, he proposed six zoographical regions (Aethopian, Neotropical, Indian, Australasian, Palearctic and Nearctic) which are still used by biologists today to describe zones of life. He collected nine thousand bird specimens, wrote several indispensable books of natural history, and founded The Ibis, the official ornithology journal of Great Britain. And though it was Harry Johnston who “discovered” the okapi, it was Sclater who gets credit for scientifically describing the animal — despite never having seen one — and naming it after its discoverer.
But it was in Madagascar in 1864 where his eminent zoological legacy took a turn toward the supernatural. Astounded by the incredible diversity of lemurs on that strange island, he took to wondering why Madagascar was blessed with all the lemurs, yet mainland Africa had none. What’s more, the fossils of ancient lemurs had been found in India, where the lemurs’ distant cousins, the lorises, also lived. He reasoned that Madagascar and India must have, at one time, been connected by a now-sunken continent. Geology was a new science then, and large-scale catastrophes were much on the mind of the Victorians, so a scuttled landmass the size of the proposed Lemuria couldn’t be ruled out with complete certainty. The true story of the division of African and Asian lorids is, of course, even more mysterious and possibly even more violent.
Sclater’s Blue-Eyed Black Lemur
Before we talk about lemurs, let’s talk about the suborder of primates to which both lemurs and lorises belong, the Strepsirrhini. They are prosimian primates which branched off of the Anthropoid, simian primates (monkeys, apes, and your mom) long ago. Like all primates, they are built with opposable thumbs and fingernails instead of claws. Unlike monkeys, their brains are relatively small, they communicate more by smell than visual signals, and they’ve adapted special grooming tools we lack: a tooth “comb” and a “toilet claw” designed for… scratching their ass, I guess. But what really distinguishes a Strepsirrhine from us Haplorhines is its schnoz: a wet, dog-like nose connected to its gums. The prosimian sub-order contains all five families of lemur, all endemic to Madagascar; the bush baby, native to mainland Africa; and the lorisoids, which include the loris, potto, false potto and golden potto, which live in both Africa and Asia.
The first animal to bear the name “lemur” was actually the loris. With its creepy nocturnal habits and giant owlish eyes, the Romans compared it to a ghost (lemure). Eventually the name was passed to the lemurs of today, 100 species of which exist solely in Madagascar. (The loris, meanwhile, inherited the Dutch word for “clown.”) Their diversity is astounding, ranging from the adorable Mouse Lemur to the gigantic Indri (which was dwarfed by the gorilla-sized “koala lemurs,” driven extinct after the arrival of mankind on the island 2,000 years ago.) Some eat entirely fruit, some subsist on a mixed diet of fruit, seeds, and sap, and some take after the panda, with an appetite reserved for bamboo. (Another recently-extinct lemur, the sloth lemur, ate only leaves.) And there are new species being discerned from one another every year.
Greater Bamboo Lemur
Mouse Lemur again, because, damn it.
What Sclater didn’t understand was continental drift. The theory of plate tectonics wasn’t proposed until the early 20th century, and wasn’t widely accepted until the 1950’s. Sclater, raised on the myth of Atlantis, thought it more likely that a continent could collapse than shift, and many of the greatest scientific minds of his day agreed. In reality, Madagascar was once merged with India, having broken off the continent of Africa around 180 million years ago. Then it broke off the Indian subcontinent 100 million years ago, remaining off the coast of Mozambique as India crashed into Asia. So, no land bridge was ever necessary.
Of course, this was still the age of the dinosaurs, before prosimians branched out from Africa about 60 million years ago. In all probability, lorises traveled verrrry slowly from Africa to Asia the long way, when the climate still supported forests in the Middle East. So how did ancestral lemurs reach Madagascar? Waif dispersal — the “raft in the storm” hypothesis — was overlooked for decades because the currents in the Mozambique Channel would have pushed any raft of vegetation back to the mainland, or swept it out to sea. The answer, again, was plate tectonics: in the past, it turns out, there were certain times of the year in which prevailing currents would have pushed a raft toward Madagascar instead of away from it. So a storm-tossed family of primitive lemur ancestors caught on a driftwood nest of mangrove roots might have survived the channel crossing if it were the right week of the year, winning the sweepstakes and populating the newfound paradise. Modern genetics show that, while other families of native Madagascar fauna followed separately on their own boats, the lemurs only arrived once. They were the Ur-lemurs, the Adam and Eve lemurs, the Noah lemurs that were the only survivors of the deluge, a one-in-a-billion shot.
Lemuria today is not as quiet as you’d think. The island continent, no longer visited by scientists, took up new residents. It happened that Sclater’s proposed “lost land” matched the description of Kumari Kandam, a mythological continent in the tradition of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, and Lemuria is still a popular idea with them today. And, of course, the usual cult leaders ran with the idea, so now the internet is choked with New Age theories about modern Lemurians, who are supposedly seven feet tall, lay eggs, and dwell in tunnels beneath Mount Shasta wearing white robes. But in its heyday, Lemuria was populated by eminent scientists, particularly Darwinists such as Etienne Saint-Hilaire and Ernst Haeckel, who proposed that Lemuria was where all those pesky “missing link” fossils were buried, and geologist Melchior Neumayr, who used it to explain the similarities in rock between Madagascar and India. Before we knew that islands and even continents could move, scientists were constantly inventing “lost” land bridges that had plunged into the sea. Lost continents became convenient scapegoats: “I can’t find the answer. Maybe the answer is forever lost under the sea.” Perhaps this explains the enduring appeal of fictional places like Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria: They are the origins of mysteries that can never be solved and theories that never need to bear the burden of proof. Everything you ever wanted to exist, it existed on Lemuria.