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Science versus the occult. Did the giant island of Lemuria really exist?

The thirst for discovery and learning new things is inherent in many people. They look askance at such people, and there are always few of them, but it was these adventurers and explorers who created a more or less familiar picture of the world. Now, sitting at a computer in a warm house, it’s hard to even imagine how dashing and brave those were who, on fragile wooden boats, set off beyond the horizon, across the endless water desert in an attempt to find something new. Thus began the era of great geographical discoveries. 

However, as the years passed, science and the conclusions drawn from it penetrated more and more into all spheres of human activity. These conclusions were not always correct, and often after some time the formerly unshakable postulates were refuted. For example, an entire continent discovered “at the tip of a pen” was popular, like the legendary Atlantis, for many years, and only after a long time the hypothesis was refuted. However, its name is still widely known – Lemuria.

In the 18th century, the scientific community expressed ideas that the age of the continents was much greater than described by biblical chronology. In the 1780s, Scottish geologist James Hutton put forward the theory of “deep time,” which described the extremely slow formation of geological processes by human standards. From it one could draw a conclusion about the antiquity of the earth. 

It was hypothesized that through erosion and other destructive influences, entire continents were slowly eroded and submerged, and new ones rose in their place from the ocean floor. By the beginning of the 19th century, this hypothesis, as well as some other studies, both in geology and in biology and botany, gave rise to many theories about emerging and disappearing continents with unique flora and fauna.

Lithograph of lemurs from the article “The Mammals of Madagascar” by British zoologist Philip Sclater from 1864

The history of Lemuria dates back to the article by British zoologist Philip Sclater, “The Mammals of Madagascar” from 1864. In it, Sclater examined the habitat of lemurs, small monkeys long considered endemic to Madagascar. However, after some time, similarities between some species that lived in southern India and Sri Lanka and Madagascan species were discovered. Sclater, having brought together all the research data, cited the opinion that they all had a single ancestor and a single place of origin – a continent that was once located in the Indian Ocean and was their ancestral home. He wrote in his article like this:

“…The anomalies of the Madagascar mammal fauna are best explained if we assume that before the existence of Africa in its present form, a large continent occupied parts of the Atlantic and Indian oceans and extended towards present-day America to the west, and towards India and its islands to the east; that this continent broke up into islands, some of which connected with the present African continent, and some perhaps with the present Asia; and that in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have living relics of this vast continent, and for it, as for the original seat of Stirps Lemurum, I wish to propose the name Lemuria! …”

Sclater is not the only one to suggest that Madagascar and the Indian coast may have been connected by land in ancient times. Such hypotheses were expressed by the French zoologist Etienne Saint-Hilaire, the British scientist Alfred Wallace and the British geologist Searles Wood. The idea became extremely popular in the 60s of the 19th century, but besides it, there were other theories about sunken lands and continents. But it became truly popular and discussed outside the scientific community after various occult communities became interested in the hypothesis of Lemuria.

Map from an esoteric book showing the hypothetical settlement of people from the sunken Lemuria.

The first mention of Lemuria in pseudo-scientific texts is found in the work of Ernst Haeckel. In his book “The Natural History of the World” from 1870, he calls Lemuria “Eden”, “Paradise”. This work immediately attracted public attention. It’s worth making a little clarification here.

In a world that was already almost completely open and divided between colonial empires, there were almost no unexplored territories left, as society believed. As a result, the attractiveness of theories about various lost and hidden islands, continents and countries has increased significantly. Hyperborea, Atlantis and Lemuria, which had some kind of scientific basis, became very popular.

However, Lemuria received real fame and memory for many decades after the publication of the esoteric books of Helena Blavatsky. In 1888 she published the book The Secret Doctrine. According to Blavatsky, she allegedly saw the postulates that she puts forward in her in a trance. In it, she had a vision that humanity is a kind of fifth race, and the third were the same Lemurians who lived on the sunken continent of Lemuria, looked like ape-like humanoids, were hermaphrodites and laid eggs. Some had two pairs of arms and eyes on the back of their heads, and the decline of civilization came after the advent of sexual dimorphism.

Of course, for the modern reader this sounds like the finest nonsense. However, during the heyday of the occult and various spiritual practices, such ideas were extremely popular. It was after Blavatsky’s books that Lemuria is mentioned in the vast majority of Western esoteric texts. Moreover, the authors placed there not only the ancestors of people, but also the mysterious Atlanteans, simultaneously explaining that Atlantis is just another name for Lemuria. Or they even moved the entire continent from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, also not forgetting to endow its inhabitants with mystical powers on the level of ancient gods. 

As science discovered the principles of geology, as well as continental drift and the existence of prehistoric continents, which denied the already outdated theory of Lemuria, such authors began to develop their “theories.” Thus, after paleogeography proved the existence of a prehistoric continent called Gondwana, some greyhound writers without undue modesty declared it “the same” Great Lemuria, from where the development of mankind began.

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Map of Lemuria in its late period, shown over the modern layout of the continents. Image from the book “History of Lemuria and Atlantis” by W. Scott-Elliot from 1896, one of the esotericists and adherents of the theories of Helena Blavatsky

But what is the end result? In the 1960s, the theory of continental drift was finally accepted in the scientific community. In the 1970s, the theory of plate tectonics was substantiated and developed , which finally transferred hypotheses about the existence of continents such as Lemuria and Atlantis to the category of unscientific. 

An explanation was also found for the similarity of species of various mammals on Madagascar and the Indian Peninsula. It turned out that Madagascar and Hindustan were indeed connected by land in ancient times. However, she did not drown at all; this place was filled with what is now called the continent of Australia. When the lithospheric plates diverged, the Hindustan Peninsula, Madagascar, and the Himalayan Range were formed. German scientist Alfred Wegener called this process “Lemurian compression.”

Map of continents approximately 150 million years ago, obtained using modern scientific methods.

To summarize, we can say that Lemuria remained on the pages of real science only as one of the theories that did not receive an evidence base and was ultimately recognized as untenable. But thanks to the efforts of various esoteric figures, this theory is alive to this day. 

Despite modern science proving that a mysterious sunken continent never existed in the Indian Ocean, lovers of mysteries and the paranormal continue to use Lemuria in their texts. The very name “Lemuria” is firmly established in the books of the occult community, which elevates its esoteric beliefs to the rank of science.

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