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Lion Mountain, in southeast Mauritius.

Lion Mountain (pictured) is located in southeastern Mauritius.

Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published February 25, 2013

Evidence of a drowned "microcontinent" has been found in sand grains from the beaches of a small Indian Ocean island, scientists say.

A well-known tourist destination, Mauritius (map) is located about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) off the coast of Africa, east of Madagascar. Scientists think the tiny island formed some nine million years ago from cooling lava spewed by undersea volcanoes.

But recently, researchers have found sand grains on Mauritius that contain fragments of the mineral zircon that are far older than the island, between 660 million and about 2 billion years old.

In a new study, detailed in the current issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists concluded that the older minerals once belonged to a now vanished landmass, tiny bits of which were dragged up to the surface during the formation of Mauritius. (Also see "World's Oldest Rocks Suggest Early Earth Was Habitable.")

"When lavas moved through continental material on the way towards the surface, they picked up a few rocks containing zircon," study co-author Bjørn Jamtveit, a geologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, explained in an email.

Most of these rocks probably disintegrated and melted due to the high temperatures of the lavas, but some grains of zircons survived and were frozen into the lavas [during the eruption] and rolled down to form rocks on the Mauritian surface."

Prehistoric Atlantis

Jamtveit and his colleagues estimate that the lost microcontinent, which they have dubbed Mauritia, was about a quarter of the size of Madagascar (map).

Furthermore, based on a recalculation of how the ancient continents drifted apart, the scientists concluded that Mauritia was once a tiny part of a much larger "supercontinent" that included India and Madagascar, called Rodinia.

The three landmasses "were tucked together in one big continent prior to the formation of the Indian Ocean," Jamtveit said.

But like a prehistoric Atlantis, Mauritia was eventually drowned beneath the waves when India broke apart from Madagascar about 85 million years ago. (Also see "Slimmer Indian Continent Drifted Ten Times Faster.")

Ancient Rocks

Scientists have long suspected that volcanic islands might contain evidence of lost continents, and Jamtveit and his team decided to test this hypothesis during a layover in Mauritius as part of a longer research trip in 1999. (See volcano pictures.)

The stop in tropical Mauritius "was a very tempting thing to do for a Norwegian in the cold month of January," Jamtveit said.

Mauritius was a good test site because it was a relatively young island and, being formed from ocean lava, would not naturally contain zircon, a tough mineral that doesn't weather easily.

If zircon older than nine million years was found on Mauritius, it would be good evidence of the presence of buried continental material, Jamtveit explained. (See lava and rock pictures.)

At first, the scientists crushed rocks from Mauritius to extract the zircon crystals, but this proved difficult because the crushing equipment contained zircon from other sites, raising the issue of contamination.

"That was a show stopper for a while," Jamtveit said.

A few years later, however, some members of the team returned to Mauritius and this time brought back sand from two different beaches for sampling.

The scientists extracted 20 zircon samples and successfully dated 8 of them by calculating the rate that the elements uranium and thorium inside of the samples slowly break down into lead.

"They all provided much older ages than the age of the Mauritius lavas," Jamtveit said. "In fact they gave ages consistent with the ages of known continental rocks in Madagascar, Seychelles, and India."

Missing Evidence?

Jérôme Dyment, a geologist at the Paris Institute of Earth Physics in France, said he's unconvinced by the work because it's possible that the ancient zircons found their way to the island by other means, for example as part of ship ballast or modern construction material.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which are not given by the authors so far," said Dyment, who did not participate in the research.

"Finding zircons in sand is one thing, finding them within a rock is another one ... Finding the enclave of deep rocks that, according to the author's inference, bring them to the surface during an eruption would be much more convincing evidence."

Dyment added that if Mauritia was real, evidence for its existence should be found as part of a joint French and German experiment that installed deep-sea seismometers to investigate Earth's mantle around Réunion Island, which is situated about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from Mauritius. (Learn what's inside the Earth.)

"If a microcontinent lies under Réunion, it should be depicted by this experiment," said Dyment, who is part of the project, dubbed RHUM-RUM.

More Dismembered Continents to Be Found?

But Conall Mac Niocaill, a geologist at the University of Oxford in the U.K. who was also not involved in the study, said "the lines of evidence are, individually, only suggestive, but collectively they add up to a compelling story."

The zircons "produce a range of ages, but all yield ages older than 660 million years, and one is almost 2 billion years old," he added.

"There is no obvious source for them in Mauritius, and they are unlikely to have been blown in by the wind, or carried in by human activity, so the obvious conclusion is that the young volcanic lava sampled some older material on their way through the crust."

Based on the new findings, Mac Niocaill and others think other vanished microcontinents could be lurking beneath the Indian Ocean.

In fact, analyses of Earth's gravitational field have revealed other areas in the world's oceans where the rock appears to be thicker than normal and could be a sign of continental crusts.

"We know more about the topography of Mars than we do about the [topography] of the world's ocean floor, so there may well be other dismembered continents out there waiting to be discovered."

19 comments
Nigella Smith
Nigella Smith

Its long been suspected that first pre-WW-2 Germany, and now the US have been working on ancient technology found in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2010, a book was found in a box buried beside a hundred thousand year old cadaver in Jaguariuna in Brazil, which was successfully translated by Pentagon's computers. A few details did emerge, but all blogs and news items about that story have since been removed. Recently an archaeologist called Ronald Bradshaw wrote a book called 'The Tale of Atlantis' that is purportedly fiction, but the chronology of the book is eerily similar to the Jaguariuna book. I hope that book survives the purge.

Debra Hall
Debra Hall

A question , a few years ago there were sandy deposits all over vehicles in europe ,thet were attributed to a major dust storm in the middle east that took the particles high into the atmosphere and then dumped them . If the wind was to blow the other way it could reach the islands , we've seen sand storms in Australia swallow entire cities . Could this not be a possibility ? 

Christian Duerig
Christian Duerig

This very large time span ( 2000 - 600 Ma ) has produced 3 supercontinents.

Columbia about 1800 - 1500 Ma

Rodinia at about 1250 - 750 Ma

Pannotia at about 600 Ma

It would be a big surprise to accept another one. Where does it fit ? 

Ann S
Ann S

Honestly, NatGeo, it is called "Plate Tectonics" - island arcs are built by plate activity at a subduction site and are eroded by the action of waves and weather. Alleged "science" media need to be more responsible than this.

Alicia Armstrong
Alicia Armstrong

Wow, great find!! Very interesting... Got me wondering what else could be found on the ocean floor to support this theory??

Babu Ranganathan
Babu Ranganathan

NOT MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD! Evolutionary dating methods are not infallible and far from accurate. Please read my popular Internet article, ARE FOSSILS REALLY MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD?

Sincerely,
Babu G. Ranganathan*
(B.A. Bible/Biology)

Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

*I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I've been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who in The East" for my writings on religion and science.

Sean Hunter
Sean Hunter

@Debra Hall Yes and no. If you sample sand that a dust storm happened to deposit on you'd find zircon in the top layers. If they drilled and found zircon, it could mean that it was there due to erosion/weathering of the native rocks, or older storms. I'm sure they've done other studies on this area to confirm. Also, they stated that they found the zircons in other rock, not just sand deposits. This would indicate the rock itself contained the zircons when it was forming. It's also noted that, while there is no clear proof, all the little things seem to lead to this conclusion.

Artie Funk
Artie Funk

@Babu Ranganathan All you had to say was it has been observed in many experiments now, researchers at both Purdue and Stanford, that radioactive decay rates are NOT CONSTANT.  

Half-lives can be manipulated.  This has been demonstrated more than once.  Biggest news to blow my mind in a while.  Geologists used Rutherford's statements to turn their field of study into a "hard science" and gain credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world. 

Carbon-dating and so many other things are based on the "fact" that radioactive decay rates are constant.  It seems the half-life of facts has finally caught up to this.  What we once thought was true without a doubt, we now know without a doubt to be untrue.

Christian Duerig
Christian Duerig

@Babu Ranganathan please go via You Tube to the Mistaken Point of Avalon Peninsula , Newfoundland. Here You can find of the oldest traces of multicellular life forms. Life has been dated back until 3. 4 Ga ( billions years ). Lern about GSSP and start to enjoy the sciences. Crigs 

Jacob N.
Jacob N.

@Babu Ranganathan "Are fossils really millions of years old?" has some great points. 

1 Corinthians 1:19 : For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Jamila Mirzaeva
Jamila Mirzaeva

@Babu Ranganathan  sounds interesting about your lectures onto creation topic (against evolution faculty I mean)- would be interested to read your articles if possible online?

Morad Eghbal
Morad Eghbal

@Babu Ranganathan You are relying on "successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards)" to disprove something scientifically proven?  You gained this knowledge while studying theology at undergraduate level at Bob Jones University (with ranking 2165). Also what are you references for the popularity of your article on the internet? Is that all? your name is on WHO IS WHO in EAST?

Queued Queuedington
Queued Queuedington

@Babu Ranganathan It demonstrates a wonderfully poor grasp of how science works.  Maybe a bachelor's degree in theology from Bob Jones isn't the best qualification to be speaking authoritatively about fossils, or science, or history, or critical thinking

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