By shash

1 April 2012

The story of a failed theory

A few days/weeks ago after work, a group of us colleagues gathered around a computer, and were generally browsing the web and chatting. I have no idea how, but topic turned to the “lost continent of Lemuria”, aka “Kumari Kandam”, the ancient home of the advanced Tamil civilization, destroyed cruelly by the sea with all its glories.

I remember a passage we had to read in Tamil (I'm not sure which class though) that the original Tamil homeland was lost, and its name was Kumari Kandam, or in English, Lemuria. When it's in your textbook, it's not something you question. So, the idea of a Lemuria is accepted as received fact in Tamil country.

My colleagues were slightly surprised to learn that it never actually existed.

What follows is my attempt to explain what the science behind this theory and its abandonment are, where it came from, and what replaced it. And of course, how it was suborned by two groups – the Western occultists and the Tamil zealots, with very little by way of anything like scientific justification.

A place for the Lemurs

Take a look at these cute guys: They're representatives of a family (technically, I guess it's an infraorder) of primates, called “Lemurs”, which are found in the island of Madagascar (yes, the one from which the movie gets its name). They're our very very distant cousins – as distant, in fact, as you can get while still being classified as a primate. In their own right, they're a very interesting species, but what makes them so important in our story is their relations with a few more members of our extended primate family. Namely, guys like these: They're both another sub-family of primates called the Lorises – the one on the left is a Slender Loris, which is known in Tamil as Thevaangu, and the right-hand guy is a Javan Slow Loris. Obviously, these are found in India and Indonesia. Now, let's look at a map of the Indian Ocean:

Indian Ocean lemur points

These three species – the so called “Strepsirrhini” or “non-Tarsir Prosimians” - they're found only in these three places. Nowhere else in the world, except Madagascar, South India and Java. Not in the Middle East, not in Burma or Malaysia, not in East Africa. In short, in none of the places which lie on the route between the places where they are found. Not even their fossils are found in any of these other places.

In the late 1800s, as new species were being discovered, identified and studied (and taxidermically preserved) by their thousands every year, biologists and geologists had a terrific problem. How do you explain this seeming transplantation of these species to unrelated parts of the earth? Since their fossils were found to go back millions of years, they couldn't have been transported by humans.

More than just the Lemurs and their branch of the Primate family was puzzling; the very geology of these three places – two islands and one subcontinent are remarkably similar. They have more similarity between themselves, than each has to the other landmasses that are close by. This just deepened the mystery.

This is not the only place where such coincidences happen – for example, there are similar congruences between the South America and Africa, between North America and western Europe, and so on. For example, there are the big cats – the lion, tiger, leopard and snow leopard are found in Africa, most of Asia and were formerly found in Europe, but the jaguar is found in South America. Again, the fossils of other panthera are found in all these places, proving that they weren't transported by human beings.

The prevalent explanation in the 19th century was called the “land bridge” theory – that is, it was postulated that there were land bridges connecting these disconnected places, which are now sunken, and that these animals crossed over while those bridges existed. There were several such land bridges postulated:

  • Archatlantis from the West Indies to North Africa
  • Archhelenis from Brazil to South Africa
  • Archiboreis in the North Atlantic
  • Archigalenis from Central America through Hawaii to Northeast Asia
  • Archinotis from South America to Antarctica

In addition to these, there are some other land-bridges that we have good evidence for, like the Bering land-bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska, through which the ancestors of the native Americans (and presumably, the jaguar) migrated during the last ice age. There are also land-bridges that still exist today, like the isthmus of Suez and the isthmus of Panama, which each have a famous canal dug through them.

Among these, “Lemuria” was the name given by a certain Philip Lutley Sclater, a contemporary of Darwin, who developed this particular theory in 1864 to explain the congruences we've seen before. To quote Sclater himself,

The anomalies of the Mammal fauna of Madagascar can best be explained by supposing that ... a large continent occupied parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans ... that this continent was broken up into islands, of which some have become amalgamated with ... Africa, some ... with what is now Asia; and that in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have existing relics of this great continent, for which ... I should propose the name Lemuria!

Over the years, this theory became accepted in scientific circles, and was used to explain a number of similarities between various places.

The failures of the theory

As time went on, it became clear that this theory of a land bridge between the three points was untenable. For example...

Ocean floor

This is obviously taken from Google Earth, but the satellite imagery of the land is not what's interesting to us today. Rather, what I'm going to concentrate on is the ocean floor, and the features on it:

  • Most of the ocean floor is coloured deep blue – this is deeper areas of the ocean, greater than 2000 metres deep.
  • There are some coastal areas – light blue on the map, which are between 0 and about 2000 metres in depth
  • There are several ridges that have formed along the floor, which sometimes rise to nearly sea-level, and occasionally poke their tops up as islands. These are the mid-ocean ridges.
  • Finally, there are a few completely submerged land-masses in there too.

At a depth of nearly 2 km, most of the Indian Ocean's floor is almost at a level with the floors of the other oceans. As far as the ocean floor is concerned, only a few peaks are much above that. Even in the worst of ice ages, there's just not enough shallow land to connect up and form a land bridge... Where did all of it disintegrate, if it ever existed? And if there was a land bridge connecting these places, why is the geology of the separate coasts so similar?

We can look at real sunken continents, to compare and see how the ocean floor looks there. There is Zealandia, a submerged landmass that surrounds the islands of New Zealand, and there's the Kerguelen “plateau” off Antarctica. Notice in these maps, how these two places are almost all shallow waters. If a portion of the waters of the Earth were to freeze up, these places would raise themselves above the sea level. As we can see, this is definitely NOT what the supposed Lemuria looks like.



These problems were answered by another theory, which had long been proposed, but came into its own only by the 1950s.

The continents move

In 1596, a Flemish cartographer named Abraham Ortelius first noticed the correspondence between the African and South American coasts – they look as if they were built together and someone took a knife and carved them out into two, and then pushed them apart. From that point on, continental drift, the theory that the continents were once together and have “drifted” apart on their own, existed on the fringe, providing a crackpot alternative to the then-more-acceptable land-bridge theory. It was not until 1912 that Alfred Wegener, a German geophysicist, presented a paper to the German Geological Society, using the phrase “Continental Drift”, proposing that the continents had once been together in a land-mass called Pangaea (Greek for All-Earth). He collected the evidence from various predecessors, like Roberto Mantovani who noted the similarities between the southern geological formations, and postulated that the planet had undergone thermal expansion, forcing the continents apart (a theory that Wegener didn't support himself). But Wegener himself could not provide a very convincing mechanism for the drifting of the continents.

By the 1950s, the inner structure of the earth was much better understood. We now knew that most of the interior is made up of molten rock – a state called Magma, which has its own convectional currents, like a pot of boiling milk. This layer is called the “Mantle” of the earth. The lighter constituents of this hellish brew of liquid and plasticised rock float to the top, and on exposure to the atmosphere, cool down and harden into a thin crust. This crust, or lithosphere, is the surface of the earth on which we stand.

When the magma cools down on exposure to the surface, it forms itself into plates, which are floating on top of the liquid below. As the convectional heating and cooling shifts liquid from one place inside the mantle to another, the continents are moved around, crashed into each other, ripped apart and generally played with by the forces unleashed inside the Earth. Sometimes, they crash together over millions of years, raising up mountains like the Himalayas and the Andes, sometimes they get forced apart, creating regions where the mantle is exposed – these become the sea and ocean floors of the world, and sometimes, one plate folds itself below the other, merging itself back into the mantle. The modern version of the theory of continental drift is called “Plate Tectonics”. It not only explains the existence of the physical evidence cited above – fossil congruences and geological similarities, but also the reason for such phenomena as earthquakes, volcanoes, hot springs, and so on. Over the last half-century, the geology community has been making predictions using this theory, and tweaking it into conformance with observed evidence.

The old theory of land-bridges is not exactly abandoned in its entirety – the Bering Strait I referred to earlier most probably was the route taken by the ancestors of the Jaguar and the Native Americans to reach the Americas. Where the evidence fits a land bridge, there's no harm in postulating one. Where the evidence doesn't fit, like the Indian Ocean, we can use another theory.

One thing to keep in mind when talking about plate tectonics and continental drift, is that these events happen over several hundreds of millions of years. Pangaea, for example, finished forming about 300 million years ago, and started breaking apart about 200 million years ago. This is Dinosaur time we're talking about. And the continents had reached their current state by around 50 million years ago. By comparison, the Great Apes – the branch of primates that includes us, started evolving only about 15 million years ago.

Here are some illustrations of this process:

(heh heh! The outlines of the continents breaking apart are fairly accurate, time is not to scale... Some more realistic animations follow:)

From geology to metaphysics

This theory, formulated with the best of scientific intentions was soon co-opted by the fledgeling Theosophist movement in the late 19th century (ironically, just as the theory starts going out of fashion in scientific circles) as the home-land of one of their “root races”. Specifically, the Lemurians were a root race of egg-laying 7ft tall hermaphroditic spiritually pure and mentally underdeveloped beings who were wiped out by the gods for some infraction or the other.

Seriously! That's from the writings of Helena Blavatsky herself! They really believed that!

Here's W. Scott-Elliot, another Theosophist on the same subject:

The following is a description of a man who belonged to one of the later sub-races-probably the fifth. "His stature was gigantic, somewhere between twelve and fifteen feet. His skin was very dark, being of a yellowish brown colour. He had a long lower jaw, a strangely flattened face, eyes small but piercing and set curiously far apart, so that he could see sideways as well as in front, while the eye at the back of the head--on which part of the head no hair, of course, grew--enabled him to see in that direction also. He had no forehead, but there seemed to be a roll of flesh where it should have been. The head sloped backwards and upwards in a rather curious way. The arms and legs (especially the former) were longer in proportion than ours, and could not be perfectly straightened either at elbows or knees; the hands and feet were enormous, and the heels projected backwards in an ungainly way. The figure was draped in a loose robe of skin, something like rhinoceros hide, but more scaly, probably the skin of some animal of which we now know only through its fossil remains. Round his head, on which the hair was quite short, was twisted another piece of skin to which were attached tassels of bright red, blue and other colours. In his left hand he held a sharpened staff, which was doubtless used for defence or attack. It was about the height of his own body, viz., twelve to fifteen feet. In his right hand was twisted the end of a long rope made of some sort of creeping plant, by which he led a huge and hideous reptile, somewhat resembling the Plesiosaurus. The Lemurians actually domesticated these creatures, and trained them to employ their strength in hunting other animals. The appearance of the man gave an unpleasant sensation, but he was not entirely uncivilised, being an average common-place specimen of his day."

I'm not going to go into a debunking of this – it would be a waste of time and precious vertical space on this post!

The other Lemuria – Kumari Kandam

If anything, the Tamil nationalist version of Kumari Kandam is the exact opposite of the Lemuria of the Theosophists. It is populated not by a primitive race, but by the most advanced human beings that ever were, or ever will be – the Homo Dravida or Tamil Race! They lived in the in this land in peace and tranquility, industriously building a highly advanced civilization from which the rest of the world was populated. Pure, unadulterated Tamil was the language they spoke, and from it the rest of the languages of the world developed. The Indus Valley script is a highly advanced writing system that they developed. Everything else came from it. Here, for example, is the map that you will find when you do a simple web-search for the term “Lemuria”:


I've already explained above why this map is not tenable – there's nothing that marks the boundaries of anything that looks even remotely like a sunken continent with those boundaries in the Indian ocean. Whoever came up with that map must be congratulated for having an imagination more fertile than the Gangetic, Indus and Kaveri plains put together! Look at the rivers flowing towards the east from “Mount Meru”, which runs for about 2000 kilometers from Sri Lanka to the middle of the ocean. There's not even a mid-ocean ridge in that alignment.

It doesn't stop with geography – it goes into history, too; here's Devaneya Pavanar's chronology of Kumari Kandam:

  • ca. 200,000 to 50,000 BC: evolution of "the Tamilian or Homo Dravida",
  • ca. 200,000 to 100,000 BC: beginnings of the Tamil language
  • 50,000 BC: Kumari Kandam civilisation
  • 20,000 BC: A lost Tamil culture of the Easter Island which had an advanced civilisation
  • 16,000 BC: Lemuria submerged
  • 6087 BC: Second Tamil Sangam established by a Pandya king
  • 3031 BC: A Chera prince in his wanderings in the Solomon Island saw wild sugarcane and started cultivation in Present Tamil nadu.
  • 1780 BC: The Third Tamil Sangam established by a Pandya king
  • 7th century BC: Tolkappiyam (the earliest known extant Tamil grammar)

The justification for all this is a few fragmentary verses from Sangam poetry, that talk about lands that have been taken by the sea, and later commentaries from the medieval era that expand on this in a rather fanciful way. I'm listing a few of these below:

  • Kalithokai 104, a paean to the Pandya king begins with “மலி திரை ஊர்ந்து தன் மண் கடல் வௌவலின்”, which could translate (very loosely – I'm no expert!) as “He who's abundant and dense lands were lost to the sea”. This verse can be taken to mean that the Pandya king's lands were lost to the sea.
  • Silappadikaram, written sometime after 100 CE has this bit in the Madurai Kandam while describing the Pandya king:
    பஃறுளி யாற்றுடன் பன்மலை யடுக்கத்துக் குமரிக் கோடுங் கொடுங்கடல் கொள்ள வடதிசைக் கங்கையும் இமயமுங் கொண்டு தென்றிசை யாண்ட தென்னவன் வாழி
    That is, “The Southern King (i.e., the Pandya) – ruler of the vanished land of the Pahruli river, with several mountains, where the southern Ganga and Himalayas were, the Kumari lands”
  • This fragment was expanded on by the later commentators in the middle ages, including Adiyarkkunallar, claims that the land stretched to 700 “kavatams” (a unit of length – we don't know how long it really was), between the Pahruli to the Kumari. He divided the land into 49 divisions, of which the ones that still exist are Kanyakumari and Kollam. These two references are the first time that the term “Kumari” is applied to the supposedly submerged lands.

While reading all this, there are several important things to keep in mind: First, these verses are as far after the purported events as our time is, after they were written. Quite possibly even more, depending on when exactly they're supposed to have happened. History can get distorted over such long periods of time, when there's so little good record-keeping. What may have been a local submergence event, like Poompuhar at a later time, may get blown all out of proportion by hagiographies. Second, the more in-depth details start emerging later in history, rather than earlier. Kalithokai, which is undoubtedly the oldest of these references, only talks about lands lost to the sea. Silappadhikaram is more detailed and Adiyarkkunallar is quite eloquent (and our modern writers come up with maps). How can knowledge of an event steadily increase over time? This seems counter-intuitive!

There are other possible explanations of these verses – the continental shelf just off the coast of Tamil Nadu is rather shallow. Maybe at one point of time, these lands were above water? These could have been occupied by the Pandyas. Or maybe it refers to islands like the Maldives or Lakshadweep? Maybe Lanka? These verses are tantalising, no doubt.

Even if the Lemuria theory were to be acceptable, as I mentioned earlier, the Great Apes only started evolving about 15 million years ago. Australopithecus, one of the earliest genus of identifiable ancestors of modern human beings appeared only 3.5 million years ago, and other sub-species of genus homo like Homo Erectus and Neanderthal man are far less than that. Anatomically modern man only appears, somewhere in East Africa, about 500000 years ago, and spreads out of Africa only in the last 50000 or so. The required dates for Lemuria, to explain the available evidence in terms of geology and fossils would require it to have disappeared at least 7 million years ago (that's how much parallel evolution the other primates have, and how much accumulation there is over the geological layers that are similar between these places).

We may yet make a discovery – either archaeological or literary, geological or biological that justifies a Kumari Kandam. One thing is for sure though – whatever Kumari turns out to be, it is definitely not going to be Lemuria.

Imagined glories

This then is the story of a failed theory, that was discarded by the scientific community, picked up by the occultists and then morphed into a politicized historical narrative that has been preached to our school-children as fact, drowning out real science and real history.

The sad part is that it's not even required – human beings are impressive enough without our having to descend from egg-laying hermaphrodites and the Tamil language and its culture have some astonishing achievements that need no embellishment. Yet, the captivation of the supernatural, the pull of the idea that you know more than your fellow man is strong. The desire to elevate your race and culture above all others is deep, and hard to resist. We indulge in falsehoods to make ourselves feel special!

In my opinion, this doesn't elevate us – it demeans us. The journey of our ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa to domination of the world, from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge is an epic to end all epics. We don't need occult explanations of our very tangible past, with this story of our ancestors that is both true and enthralling.

As a student of science, I believe that the theory must explain the available evidence. Lemuria was a theory postulated to explain some evidence, but which failed to explain other discoveries. It failed in its own predictions, and has been allowed to fall on its merits where it could no longer stand. It has been replaced by plate tectonics, much as the theory of the geocentric universe was replaced first by heliocentrism and later, even that was found to not be enough, and the universe has no defined centre-point anymore.

As someone who grew up in Tamil, and more generally, Indian culture, I find myself more attracted to the real achievements of this land – the great empires of Ashoka and Samudragupta, the naval power of the Cholas, a three or four thousand year legacy of art, architecture, engineering, literature, philosophy, science and interaction, stretching from the time of the Indus Valley to this very day, interwoven with the story of the Earth itself, and all the peoples that lived in it.

Let's abandon these fallacies and fantasies that we don't need. Let's not teach them in schools, nor elevate them in academia. Let us take our place as rational and equal members of world society instead of dwelling in imagined glories.


Some of my references for this article: The quotations are from the works themselves – in the case of the Tamil works, they're from Project Madurai, and in the case of the Theosophy quotes, they're from The Tamil translations are obviously my own clumsy attempts. The photos of Lemurs and Lorises are from Wikipedia, as are the line-map of the Indian Ocean and Devaneya Pavanar's map of Kumari Kandam. The other maps are screen-shots from Google Maps.

A good source for more on the cultural side of Lemuria and Kumari Kandam is Sumathi Ramaswamy's book, “Fabulous geographies, catastrophic histories: the lost land of Lemuria”. I suggest that anyone who's interested in the subject pick it up. I must confess to not having read it completely, but I fully intend to.

Some bits are from Wikipedia, like Pavanar's timeline. I generally don't like to use Wiki as a primary source (though it's usually a good place to start searching), but often, the sources are difficult to reach, or are otherwise unusable.

Continental drift and plate tectonics theory is bits and pieces I've read and assimilated over the years, augmented by Wikipedia. Animation credit is obviously to those who put those videos up on Youtube, or those whom they filched it off!


1 Arvind Venkatraman says...

Good One Shash. Well condensed and narrated.

Posted at 1:57 a.m. on April 2, 2012


I just wish more of our people would not accept theories not based on evidence.

Posted at 9:55 a.m. on April 4, 2012

3 Aravindan says...

This is totally unrelated. I was reading your posts on [HTML_REMOVED][HTML_REMOVED] on Indus-Tamil link. Very interesting. You seem to have answers to every question thrown at you. I am no tamil nationalist, i just want to know the origins of my mother tongue. Whats your take on Brahui?

Posted at 1:58 p.m. on January 8, 2013

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