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Once upon a time… LEMURIA

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There are some mysterious, almost magical words, which ?re the imagination. One of these is Lemuria, the mythical continent dreamed of by poets before being con?rmed by science.

It is a lost continent, a magical world said to have sunk beneath the waves, of which Mauritius, Rodrigues, Reunion, Madagascar, the Seychelles and a handful of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean are the only remaining vestiges above water.

Legends abound of a lost paradise, another Atlantis, a golden age when men still lived in perfect harmony with beasts and plants.

But myths are often founded in reality. In any case, they are sufficiently rooted in the minds of men for some to seek to ?nd out more. In the case of Lemuria, the hypothesis of its actual existence was ?rst suggested by Philip Lutley Sclater, a British zoologist, who said it explained the presence of lemurs on continents as far a?eld as Madagascar and Malaysia.

The centre of the world

This hypothesis was taken up by the Reunion writer Jules Hermann in his Les Révélations du Grand Océan (“Reve-lations of the Great Ocean”), published in 1927, based on geological observa-tions. This notary public and amateur historian, who was also the mayor of Saint Pierre and chairman of the General Council in Reunion island, even put forward the idea that the mountains in Reunion and Mauritius were carved out by protohistoric giants. He believed that Lemuria was the true cradle of humanity. 

This reversal of the western view, which put the southern hemisphere in the centre of the world, found its echo in two great twentieth century French-speaking Mauritian poets, Robert Edward Hart and Malcolm de Chazal. The two friends often used to meet in “La Nef”, Hart’s little coral house near Souillac. They shared a taste for mystery, the supernatural and oriental philoso-phies. Hart introduced Chazal to the insular mysticism of Jules Hermann, which was for Chazal something of a powerful revelation. The whole island became, for him, a “great cosmic alle-gory”, which he idealised in Petrus-mok, published in 1950.

From poetic visions to dazzling illuminations, Chazal saw “people” sculpted in the mountains of Mauritius: Le Pouce, Les Trois Mamelles, Le Corps de Garde… Anthropomorphic shapes that impress tourists and explain the place names. In Mauritius, the mountains seem to speak: “Everywhere,” wrote Chazal, “on the slopes and   ridges you can see recumbent statues, sketches of sphinx, clearly carved initials, hieroglyphics, signs and acts of man.” Chazal too was convinced that these extraordinary shapes were the work of the men of the “Great Lemurian Continent, which spread its crescent shape from the south of Ceylon to Patagonia.”

From myth to reality

Atlantis: it was Plato who ?rst spoke of the fate of this legendary island thrown into the waters by an angry Zeus, a myth that has been passed down through the ages and civilisations. It symbolises worlds swallowed up, paradises lost, nostalgia for a golden age, when man and nature were joined as one.

The Mauritian poets are not the only ones to have dreamt of the lost continent. It also fascinated scientists. In the late 19th century, the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess claimed that a huge continent, Gondwana, encompassing Africa, India, the Antarctic, and Oceania allegedly broke up and separated tens of millions of years ago. The theory seemed too steeped in fantasy, but was validated a few years later in 1912, when the German astronomer Alfred Wegener proved the truth of the continental drift.

The story does not stop there. In 2017, a team of South African geologists revealed the presence of zircon on the ocean ?oor off the Mauritian coast: crystals dating back 2.5-3 billion years, much older than the island, which could therefore only have come from a very ancient subcontinent. Located between India and Madagascar, and named Mauritia by scientists, it is thought to have started to break up some 85 million years ago under the effect of moving tectonic plates. The intuition of poets con?rmed by the precision of science: what could be more wonderful?

By Antoine De Gaudemar
Watercolours Laval Ng