Island of Mauritius (Photo Credit: Prof Susan J Webb, University of the Witwatersrand)

Move over, Atlantis! A real lost continent has been discovered by a team of geologists led by Lewis D. Ashwal from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. The scientists, who have named it Mauritia, believe that the landmass was once part of Gondwana, the supercontinent that included most of the landmasses in the modern-day Southern Hemisphere and the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent that are now part of the Northern Hemisphere.

They further hypothesize that when the supercontinent broke up about 180 million years ago Mauritia split into fragments and drifted across the Indian Ocean. The volcano eruption that gave birth to Mauritius nine million years ago, blanketed one of the pieces, burying it three to six miles below the surface of the beautiful island.

Ashwal says that though Mauritius has always been intriguing to geologists because of its volcanic origin, the discovery of the ancient continent was accidental. In 2008, he and some colleagues heading to Johannesburg had a stopover in Mauritius. Instead of “wasting” time on the beautiful beaches, the scientists decided to examine rocks. One of the team members, Prof. Bjorn Jamtveit, suggested testing the relatively young volcanic rocks for minerals like zircon, that can be dated accurately from the radioactive decay of some of its components. Though he did find 250 million year-old zircons in the rocks, the grains were later deemed contaminated from the crushing equipment that was used.

Prof Lewis D. Aswal studying trachyte rocks in Mauritius. (Photo Credit: Prof Susan J. Webb, University of the Witwatersrand)

Not one to give up, Jamtveit tested for the mineral in the volcanic beach sand that would not need to be crushed. To his delight, he found evidence of zircon in two of the samples — one dating back 660 million years and the other, an astounding 1,970 million years! However, when the team shared their findings with other geoscientists in 2013, and suggested that it indicated the presence of an ancient continent, they were met with much skepticism. Many of their peers believed the zircons had been transported to the island by wind or ocean currents.

To prove them wrong, in 2015, Aswhal analyzed the island’s six-million-year-old igneous rocks. Sure enough, he too found traces of zircon grains dating back 2,500 and 3,000 million years. Ashwal says, “Mauritius is an island, and there is no rock older than 9 million years old on the island. However, by studying the rocks on the island, we have found zircons that are as old as 3 billion years." This according to the team, undoubtedly proves that the island is harboring a piece of the ancient continent of Mauritia. Fortunately, this time, they are meeting with no resistance from fellow experts.

Image Credit: Lewis Ashwal, University of the Witwatersrand)

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature Communications in January 2017, believe that before it broke into slivers and dispersed, Mauritia was most likely a 20,000 square kilometer microcontinent situated between Madagascar and India. However, Ashwal says visitors to Mauritius hoping to see the ancient continent are out of luck, as it lies deep below the surface!