At a prestigious university in the Netherlands, a team of researchers are hard at work collating data from around the world. For ten years, in fact, these experts have been slowly piecing together the geological history of the Mediterranean. And so far, it seems, it’s been a little like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. Yet now that the work is mostly done, the researchers have reached a stunning conclusion: a lost continent is lurking somewhere beneath the Earth.
Currently, of course, there is consensus that the world is split into seven continents: Australia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Asia and Antarctica. The surface of the Earth hasn’t always looked that way, though. In fact, hundreds of millions of years ago, the land masses that make up our planet had an entirely different form.
Back in the Paleozoic Era – some 542-251 million years ago – most of the land that would become today’s continents was actually in one mass. Known as Pangaea, it covered approximately one third of the surface of the Earth. However, the landmass began to separate some 175 million years ago, towards the beginning of the Mesozoic Era.
As the Earth’s plates shifted and Pangea broke apart, then, two new continents were formed in its place. In the north, for example, Laurasia was born. This comprised of the land masses that today make up North America, Asia and Europe. In the south, meanwhile, the vast region known as Gondwana took shape.
Ultimately, too, Gondwana became the largest landmass on Earth, covering almost 40 million square miles. But over time, this supercontinent also broke apart. And eventually, the modern continents of Antarctica, Africa, South America and Australia were formed out of it. Yet some believe that there is a little more to this narrative than meets the eye.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the seven modern continents are not alone. So, might other land masses have split off from Laurasia and Gondwana, only to remain undetected for millions of years? Well, according to some researchers, this could indeed be the case. And now it seems that these lost regions are finally rearing their heads.
Back in January 2017, you see, a team of researchers from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, announced a fascinating discovery. It turned out that the group had been studying minerals left behind after a volcanic eruption on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. But to their surprise, the researchers soon realized that the material was far older than the island’s native rocks.
In fact, the team believed that the rocks were more than three billion years old. And this is despite the fact that Mauritius only formed nine million years ago. So how did such ancient minerals come to be discovered on a relatively modern island? Well, according to the researchers, the rocks are actually relics from a lost continent buried beneath the Indian Ocean.
Dubbed “Mauritia,” this newly-discovered landmass is believed to have once been part of Gondwana. Professor Lewis Ashwal claims, in fact, that Mauritia is just one of many landmasses that have yet to be discovered. And if he is right, that means that there could be any number of lost lands scattered across the Indian Ocean.
“The breakup did not involve a simple splitting up of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana,” Ashwal explained in a 2017 interview with CNN. He further argued that “a complex splintering took place,” meaning that “fragments of continental crust of variable sizes [have been] left adrift within the evolving Indian Ocean basin.”
At the time, some critics countered that the minerals may have simply reached Mauritius in another way. For example, the rocks could have been carried in by weather systems – or unknowingly brought to the island by human visitors. However, Ashwal insists that the minerals came from the “ancient continental crust.” And, interestingly, this wasn’t the only time that lost continents made the news in 2017.
Yes, eight months later, researchers from New Zealand’s University of Otago made another startling announcement. For their part, this team had concluded a period of research on the submerged landmass known as “Zealandia” – with seemingly exciting results. So perhaps a geographical divide between New Zealand and Australia was about to emerge.
Back in 1995, you see, scientists had proposed that Zealandia – located beneath the Pacific Ocean – might be a continent itself. And in September 2017, the team from the University of Otago published a paper in support of this theory. According to this new research, then, the region broke off from what is now Australia some 85 million years ago.
And for more than 20 million years, researchers believe, Zealandia has been almost completely submerged. But even though it covers roughly two million square miles, Zealandia has yet to be officially recognized as a continent. If this latest research is anything to go by, though, it could just be a matter of time before it is.
But Mauritia and Zealandia aren’t the only contenders vying for the title of eighth continent. For in September 2019 a team of researchers from Utrecht University published a study that uncovered a brand new mystery. Yes, the experts here have also seemingly discovered a lost land – this time dubbed “Greater Adria.” So this is perhaps Europe’s chance to take the limelight in the history of world geography.
Using cutting-edge software, then, the team from Utrecht University had been building up a picture of the Greater Adria landmass. And, much like the other theories posited above, the researchers claim that this is a continent that had existed millions of years ago and had once been part of the ancient Gondwana. But, the experts say, Greater Adria drifted away from North Africa back in the Triassic period – before the dinosaurs.
For hundreds of millenia, though, nobody knew that Greater Adria had ever even existed. But that all seemingly changed in the late 2000s, when the Utrecht University began to analyze the erratic geology of the Mediterranean. Using magnetic traces in ancient rock, the university’s researchers were able to track the paths of Earth’s shifting tectonic plates. And slowly, they say, a fascinating story began to emerge.
According to their research, then, the lost continent of Greater Adria disappeared some 120 to 100 million years ago. And today, only traces of the great landmass can arguably be seen. Yet now the team has published a paper that makes some astonishing claims. So, have the ruins of an eighth continent been hiding beneath our feet all along?
Featured in the scientific journal Gondwana Research, the study is the result of ten years’ work. Initially, the researchers were drawn to the Mediterranean region because of its unique geological terrain. But when they took a closer look, the team seemingly discovered more than any of them had bargained for. So let’s find out more.
In other parts of the world, then, the Earth’s plates do not deform when they rub up against one another. Yet in the Mediterranean, things are different. Or, as Douwe van Hinsbergen – the study leader – told CNN in September 2019, “It is quite simply a geological mess. Everything is curved, broken and stacked.”
This makes conducting research in the region no easy matter. Previously, in fact, some researchers had already suspected that the chaotic landscape of the Mediterranean might be concealing the remains of a lost continent. It was even believed that the relics were scattered across as many as 30 different countries. But in each country, researchers had their own way of doing things.
Before van Hinsbergen and his team embarked on their project, then, Greater Adria already existed as a concept. Yet there had been no collective effort to study the lost continent. Instead, a number of competing techniques, maps and models existed around the world. And in many places, the hypothetical landmass even went by different names.
So how did researchers build up a complete picture of the evolution of the Mediterranean over the eras? Well, for an entire decade, van Hinsbergen and his team dedicated themselves to aggregating scientific data from across the region. And after looking at some 2,300 locations throughout western Asia, Europe and North Africa, they came to a startling conclusion.
According to Business Insider, the team used a complex methodology to help them track the movements of the Earth’s crust. Apparently, you see, lava erupting at the edges of tectonic plates captures rocks as they cool. And these rocks, containing magnetic minerals, are then locked in position. Confused at all? Just bear with us.
In practical terms, this allows scientists digging up the magnetic rocks to calculate where they had been located millions of years ago. And by plugging this data into special software, the researchers can then simulate the movement of the Earth’s plates. Over time, then, work such as this has seemingly revealed the incredible story of Greater Adria and how it disappeared.
So, according to van Hinsenberg and his team, Greater Adria was once part of Pangea, the supercontinent that spawned the modern Earth. After Pangea had broken in two, however, Greater Adria separated from one of the resulting landmasses, Gondwana. And 40 million years later, Greater Adria also broke away from what would later become Spain and France – therefore becoming its own continent.
Currently, though, researchers are unsure exactly what Greater Adria looked like in its prime. But van Hinsenberg suspects that the landmass was mostly submerged 140 million years ago, with only a string of islands peeking above the surface. And then, between 20 and 40 million years later, the Earth began to rumble – sounding the death knell for this continent.
Sometime between 120 and 100 million years ago, in fact, the planet’s tectonic plates shifted. And in the chaos, Greater Adria apparently found itself pushed against the landmass that would later become southern Europe. But instead of colliding with this landmass, Greater Adria dipped down beneath it, vanishing beneath the Earth’s crust. Or, at least, so goes the theory.
Yet it seems that this process did not mean that Greater Adria disappeared completely. Instead, researchers believe that the top layer of the continent simply peeled off as one landmass slid beneath another. And in the September 2019 interview with Business Insider, van Hinsbergen explained this effect with an interesting analogy.
“Suppose you have a sweater on,” the tectonics expert began. He then explained that moving your arm under a table results in the sweater’s sleeve lifting upwards in the opposite direction. Van Hinsbergen said that the sleeve would now be the “equivalent of the upper few kilometers of Adria’s crust, and your arm is the plate that is now sinking in the mantle, hundreds or even thousands of kilometers below our feet.”
The researcher also claimed that, as a result of this process, mountain ranges formed that are still visible to this day. Yes, van Hinsbergen told Business Insider that these movements even helped create mountain belts such as the Apennines in Italy. Crucially, though, experts believe that this subduction did not just happen in one place.
In fact, the team have suggested that the process occurred in multiple locations across southern Europe. So in addition to mountain ranges across Italy, the Balkans and Greece, Greater Adria could also account for sections of the Himalayas and Alps. National Geographic even likened it to a “wreckage dumped onto overlying plates.”
“From this mapping emerged the picture of Greater Adria, and several smaller continental blocks too, which now form parts of Romania, North Turkey or Armenia, for example,” van Hinsbergen told CNN. “The deformed remnants of the top few kilometers of the lost continent can still be seen in the mountain ranges. The rest of the continental plate, which was about 100 kilometers thick, plunged under Southern Europe into the Earth’s mantle.”
Yet the experts believe that the Mediterranean’s mountain ranges are not the only relics of Greater Adria that can be seen today. In fact, it’s thought that some small sections of the continent escaped the subduction process. And as time passed, the researchers say, these remains have come to form parts of southeast Italy and northwest Croatia.
If this is the case, some of the modern regions that were once part of Greater Adria now arguably form popular tourist destinations. But, for now at least, most visitors to places such as Venice and the Adriatic coast remain unaware. Might that now change thanks to the work of van Hinsbergen and his team?
Well, the software – known as GPlates – used in this research has apparently become more reliable over the past 15 years. And according to van Hinsbergen, its simulations are vital to understanding our planet’s geological history. Through this, he believes, we can learn more about the Earth as it is today.
“Everything that you see around you that wasn’t wood or cloth was found by a geologist in a mountain,” van Hinsbergen told National Geographic. Some of these minerals are now deemed essential to modern life, too. And with studies such as van Hinsbergen’s, we can seemingly determine with greater accuracy where the minerals might be found.
Using the models created by software such as GPlates, researchers can theoretically also play back millennia’s worth of geological activity. And if something valuable has been detected in one place, they may even be able to find another remnant of it elsewhere. Remarkably, this can also be the case when the rocks have shifted to the other side of the world.
Effectively, then, researchers such as van Hinsbergen are creating the treasure maps of the modern era. “Metals, ceramics, building materials, everything came out of a rock,” he told Business Insider. “You don’t find the next copper mine, or the 25 materials you’ve never heard of that make your iPhone work, by taking a stroll in the woods.”
But while the technology no doubt has exciting implications, the discovery of Greater Adria has been more than enough for now. In fact, according National Geographic, even the team behind GPlates has praised the research as a “monumental undertaking.” So could it be only a matter of time before scientists discover another lost continent in our midst?