The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 24, 2009

Geological Jingoism

Nationalists of every ilk and hue like to bolster their legitimacy and aggrandise their putative nations by hearkening to ancient glories. They construct legends of power, which are then used to promote contemporary ideologies. Look at the Balkans, or the Caucasus, or the Middle-East, or the Communist world – every one of the peoples of these benighted lands insists on primacy based on some or the other myth. These are propagated not only by political means, but also by radical changes in the educational curriculum, the demonisation of plurality in culture and public discourse, and, of course, by the radical rewriting of history.

We in India are no different. Consider the Tamils.

Two ideologies combine in southeast India. One is that of the independence and hoariness of Tamil language and culture as opposed to that of the Sanskritised remainder of the country. The other is a class and caste struggle against so-called Brahminical (and hence Sanskritic) domination. The curious aspect of the Tamilian wish for differentiation goes beyond the usual historical whitewash, however. The promoters of Tamil exceptionalism have co-opted pseudo-science and discredited geological theories. The researcher Sumathi Ramaswamy investigated this, and in 2004 published a book titled The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories.

So what is the connection with geology? In 1864, Philip Sclater wrote up a putative explanation for the remarkable similarities between the lemurs of Madagascar and certain small primates as far apart as the African continent, India, and the Malay peninsula. As it was unlikely that lemurs could swim such large distances as these various landmasses, they would most likely have walked. Sclater therefore proposed a hypothetical supercontinent that he named Lemuria, which he said encompassed these disparate lands, and later collapsed and split up and separated, thereby sundering the original primate families into their descendants that we see today. Others before him had suggested similar theories, but he named this original supercontinent, and that evocative name suddenly entered popular discourse. By the 1880s, people like Friedrich Engels were talking of Lemuria as the land where anthropoid apes gained intelligence, and even H. G. Wells’ popular Outline of History in 1919 mentioned it as the possible birthplace of humankind. Lemuria became textbook fact, although by then geologists themselves had largely abandoned the idea.

Sumathi Ramaswamy points out that Lemuria attracted the attention of Tamil nationalists in the 1880s. There was a widely popular cycle of tales of Katalakol, the destruction of the ancient Tamil people by a terrible deluge. The Tamils, of course, dwelt in vastly greater splendour before the coming of the flood, suzerains of a large homeland called Kumari Kandam, a golden land of poetry and wealth that was reduced thereafter to the peninsular domains they now inhabited. Attracted by the Lemuria hypothesis, some Tamil writers conflated Kumari Kandam with Illemuria Kandam, and now, almost a century later, many commoners in Tamil Nadu believe that their myths of grandeur are corroborated by Western science, and hence even more legitimate.

While academic historians in Tamil Nadu do not give much credence to this ‘theory’, politicians have found it useful to propagate the tale, either through various faculties of Tamil Studies or, worse, in vernacular education – Tamil-medium textbooks of history and science that are taught in government-run schools across the state. Because Lemuria is supposedly the ancestral land of the first humans, the story promoted here is that the Tamils are the original, oldest people, and the Tamil language is the linguistic forefather of every language on earth, including the reviled Sanskrit that subsequently dominated most of India. In 1971, the first textbook was written to educate the little Tamilians in this story. As R. Nedunchezhian, the education minister, observed at the time: ‘When we say history, we mean from … the time of Lemuria that was seized by the ocean.’ According to this article (reviewing Sumathi Ramaswamy’s book) in the newspaper The Hindu, it appears that as late as 2005, the same story was being peddled to students in the state.

Check out Ted Nield’s Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet for the true story of Lemuria and our current understanding of geology.


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