If, like me, you love myth and folklore, you may know Lewis Spence as the author of numerous books, in the early twentieth century, about the mythology of different parts of the world. I find his books more readable and useful than the rival series of similar books by Donald Mackenzie. Spence’s sphere of interest extended also to the fabled continents of Atlantis and its Indo-Pacific counterpart, Lemuria, and hence to the fascinating interface between mythology and geological science.
Being educated as a geologist but routinely working with mythology these days as a storyteller and writer, I can’t help getting turned on by this kind of thing, but the waters of scholarship in this area are treacherous. From today’s vantage point, Spence’s The Problem of Lemuria (1933) may be considered ancestral to the lurid speculations of Velikovsky and von Däniken and the whole genre of ‘mysteries of the unknown’, whose distinction from fantasy hinges more than anything else on the use of journalistic form. From the perspective of the 1930s, however, the distinctions between science and speculation were probably less clear. Spence is keen to dismiss the Lemurian theories of Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and James Churchward as fantasy, and yet his own conclusions about the sinking beneath the Pacific of civilisations and continents now look equally far-fetched.
What fascinates me in The Problem of Lemuria is seeing Spence struggling to make sense of geological and biological data in a way that might be logical without the discovery of plate tectonics. The distribution of various groups of animals and plants in places as far apart as Madagascar, India, Australasia, and South America plausibly points to the existence of a land mass that once connected these regions. Only, rather than being intervening land that has subsided to the bottom of the ocean, this land mass – we now know – was constituted by the regions themselves when they were joined together as the supercontinent Gondwana. Tantalisingly, Spence does briefly mention Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, but moves on without comprehending its crucial importance to his subject; this theory itself being regarded as wild speculation until conclusive proof of it was discovered in the 1950s.
There is perhaps less excuse for Spence’s confusion of the apparent ‘dispersal’ of fossil animals and plants from an ancestral land mass, which took place tens of million of years ago, and the apparent dispersal of human cultures from such a land mass, which can only have taken place a matter of thousands of years ago. He simply ignores the difference of timescale, which I believe was known to science in his day. What may have contributed to his conflation of these two ‘dispersals’ is that the human populations of the Pacific islands may well have originated from a land mass that has partly vanished beneath the waves: not Gondwana, but Sundaland – comprising Southeast Asia, the nearby islands of the East Indies, and the area of continental shelf linking them that was flooded by the rise in sea level after the last ice age (as discussed at length in Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East).
To prioritise evidence derived from mythology above rigorous use of science, as Spence does by his own admission, may seem foolhardy. His conclusions about Lemuria have been sunk by what we now know about the workings of the Earth’s crust. Yet I remain sympathetic to the idea that the legendaria of cultures around the world, in Europe and the Middle East as much as the Pacific, have preserved a folk memory of the flooding of large tracts of land after the last ice age. We know that it happened, so why shouldn’t the stories dimly remember it? Of the cultures that existed in those lost lands we know little. In that space of uncertainty the legends of Lemuria and Atlantis may continue to stir our imagination; as well they might, now that we face, in our own time, the prospect of further permanent flooding of the world’s coastal regions.