‘Lost Continent’: Was An ‘8th Continent’ Really Spotted Underneath Mauritius?

‘Lost Continent’: Was An ‘8th Continent’ Really Spotted Underneath Mauritius?

News of the remnants of a so-called “lost continent” found underneath the Indian Ocean may have been greatly exaggerated. In other words, the “continent” scientists have dubbed as “Mauritia” may not be one in the truest sense of the term.

Earlier this week, reports pointed to the discovery of a peculiar find beneath Mauritius, an island located east of Madagascar with an estimated population of 1.3 million. According to TIME, the island nation had piqued the interest of scientists for quite some time due to its strong gravitational pull, and the possibility that Mauritius may sit atop a “mascon” – a mass concentration caused by the constant tectonic changes within the Earth’s crust. Mascons are more commonly found on the moon, where they were created by metallic meteor fragments that had buried themselves under the lunar surface after landing.

Scientists theorized that there might have been a large mass of land that sank into the ocean, with Mauritius then rising to “mark the burial site of the (lost continent) like a giant tombstone.” That was proven by University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) geoscientist Lewis Ashwal, who had discovered 13 tiny grains of zircon aged about two billion years old. Mauritius, by contrast, is only eight million years old.

Based on their findings, which suggest that other samples from the purported lost continent may be about three billion years old, there may have been a huge landmass between where India and Madagascar used to be; this would have formed part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. That part of Gondwanaland may have sunk beneath the ocean about 200 million years ago when the supercontinent had split apart. The zircon would have then been expelled in volcanic explosions that followed the earlier eruptions that gave birth to Mauritius, while the mass concentrations would have come from the sunken landmass.

However, is it really right to refer to Mauritius as a “lost continent”? Speaking to the New York Times, Ashwal hoped to end any misconceptions with a simple and succinct statement about his team’s discovery.

“It’s a continent in the geological sense, not in the geographical one.”

The New York Times offered its own explanation for Mauritania, using musical analogies to describe how Gondwanaland had formed, and ultimately fractured.

“Remember about 200 million years ago when you were going through one of your “supercontinent” phases? Africa, South America, Antarctica, and Australia had joined together with India and Madagascar to form Gondwana. When that rock band broke up and you all drifted your separate ways, you left a piece behind. You probably didn’t notice because it was small. Then about seven million years ago it was blanketed in lava when a volcano in the ocean erupted, creating the island of Mauritius.”

Further, Snopes also tried to clarify things, writing that the original reports of a “lost continent” may have been sensationalized to make it appear as if North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica may have once been joined by an eighth continent.

“This description, though generally accurate, is a sensationalized wording of more specific geologic discovery, which confirms a 2013 suggestion that a 2.5 billion-year-old fragment of continental crust (but not a continent itself, strictly speaking), through eons of tectonic shifts, found itself buried under the much younger volcanic rocks that make up the island of Mauritius.”

All in all, Ashwal believes that the processes that take place when continents break up can be quite complicated, due to how the various pieces, regardless of size, can end up in different parts of Earth. Moreover, Mauritania, instead of being dubbed a “lost continent” as media has taken to calling it, may be better referred to as a smaller piece of a onetime supercontinent – a “continental fragment,” as Ashwal prefers that it be called.

[Featured Image by David Cannon/Getty Images]