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The Bizarre Tale Of Lemuria: A Long-Lost Continent Inspired By Lemurs

An Atlantis for lemurs? It's not quite as crazy as it sounds.

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Tom Hale

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

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An artist's impression of Lemuria, complete with lemurs, from 1893.

An artist's impression of Lemuria, complete with lemurs, from 1893. Image credit: Édouard Riou/New York Public Library/No Known Copyright.

In the 19th century, a rumor circulated in the scientific world that a "lost continent" was laying undiscovered at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. They named it Lemuria as their misguided efforts were driven by some very confusing lemurs. 

The idea is largely credited to British zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater who wrote a paper titled “The Mammals of Madagascar” in 1864, published in the Quarterly Journal of Science. Sclater explained that lemur fossils could be found in Madagascar and India, but not in Africa or the Middle East, suggesting that Madagascar and India were once been part of a larger continent that’s since gone missing in the Indian Ocean.

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Sclater wasn’t alone in his dreams of Lemuria and a number of other prominent European scientists jumped on the bandwagon. 

In 1868, German biologist Ernst Haeckel published “The History of Creation,” in which he argued the origin of humanity was to be found in Asia, not Africa as Charles Darwin correctly stated, and that humans were closely related to the primates of Southeast Asia. 

The "missing link, " he believed, could be found on the long-lost landmass of Lemuria. Acting as a continental superhighway between India and Africa, Lemuria could explain how humans migrated to the rest of the world, at least in his mind. 

That’s right: according to Haeckel, we are descended from lemurs and the remains of some strange lemur-human hybrids are likely to be lurking in the Indian Ocean on a long-lost continent.

The 19th century map explaining the 12 varieties of men emerging from Lemuria and migrating all over the earth

The (nonsense) map explains the 12 varieties of men emerging from Lemuria and migrating all over the Earth. Image credit: Library of Congress/Public Domain


Another equally eccentric idea came from Helena Blavatsky, a 19th-century Russian mystic whose work is teeming with bizarre pseudo-science and mysticism. In her 1888 book, The Secret Doctrine, she promoted the ridiculous idea that all of humanity is descended from seven "root races." One of these was from Atlantis, and one was apparently from the continent of Lemuria, which she placed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. 

As wild as the idea of Lemuria may sound, it’s not totally baseless. 

The theory gained a bit of traction in the 19th century because this was long before the discovery of plate tectonics and "continental drift", which explained how the world’s continents are constantly (and very slowly) drifting around the planet. 

It turned out, the theory that India and Africa were once joined was true. Until around 200 million years ago, all of Earth's continents were once smooshed together in one supercontinent, Pangaea. In this configuration, the Indian Plate was tucked up close to the east of the Africa plate. 

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Furthermore, there was genuinely a microcontinent called Mauritia that was located between India and Madagascar until their separation about 70 million years ago.

In 2017, scientists confirmed the existence of the "lost continent" by finding evidence of a piece of continental crust under the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Their work indicated that this chip of ancient continent likely broke off from the island of Madagascar, when Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica split up.

Unfortunately, however, lemurs had little to do with any of it. 


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