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Scientific research has uncovered so much knowledge about the planet that it’s almost impossible to believe. From how humans evolved to how continents separated, it’s hard to imagine what new information will surface next. But there’s a hidden continent near the land down under being studied right now. But it’s underwater, and researchers are trying to determine how it sank. Could this be the real-life Atlantis?
You probably learned all about continents in school. Your teachers might have also talked about several theories regarding our world. But despite all the knowledge available today, there’s still so much to learn. The bottom of the ocean is fascinating, and researchers from New Zealand knew it. That’s how they discovered the missing part of a puzzle decades ago.
One of the things your teachers told you is that all the continents in the world were once together. They might have shown how it seems like South America fits perfectly next to Africa like a huge puzzle. It was a massive continent that we call Pangea or Pangaea. But geologists are still trying to understand exactly how they fit together. There was an important gap.
You can take all seven continents worldwide and fit them into what Pangea would have looked like. However, there’s an area that doesn’t coincide that well. It’s in the southwest Pacific, east of Australia. Scientists knew that something was missing there, and they finally discovered what happened.
The continents formed Pangea more than 250 million years ago, in an era called the Permian Age. 50 million years later, Pangea broke into two big landmasses. This discovered area was part of Gondwana and what is known today as New Zealand.
So, researchers for looking for that missing piece of Gondwana when they discovered underwater crusts. That’s when the International Ocean Discovery Program came in. Led by Dr. Nick Mortimer, these scientists wanted to know what these crusts were. In the end, they uncovered why more than they were expecting.
Unbelievably, this is a decades-old discovery. Mortimer’s team started their research in 1997 and continued until 2017. They gathered as much data as possible given their limited resources and technology in the late 1990s. However, one huge development changed their entire exploration.
The research team was working on the theory that this area had once been above water. But to prove it, they needed to collect evidence. Divers could easily see how large the area was below the ocean. However, the use of seafloor mapping changed their study for the better, and as technology advanced, they were able to discover much more.
The technology of seafloor mapping starting truly advancing in the early 2000s, and researchers also used satellite images to pinpoint the area. That’s how they discovered how big the underwater land truly was. Geologists estimated that it might be the size of India. But there’s another question: is it an underwater continent?
Scientists eventually named it “Zealandia.” Interestingly, there’s 6% of the crust over water, which is most of New Zealand. 94% is submerged underwater. So, now scientists also had to answer if this area was a former continent as most theorized. New questions seemed to pop up every time their research advanced.
Firstly, researchers had to prove that this land or crust was above the ocean floor. For regular people, all kinds of dirt below the ocean probably look the same. So, they needed to collect all kinds of samples. Additionally, they also had to prove that the land was similar to its over-water version, New Zealand. Finally, they had to determine that it was once above water.
The International Ocean Discovery Program consisted of 32 scientists from 12 countries, exploring this new underwater finding in 2017. They used the JOIDES Resolution ship to get near Zealandia and gather evidence from this land in an adventurous expedition. But could they find what they needed to solve all those important inquiries?
Their expedition took two months. Their team of divers and workers excavated for long periods of time. They looked for fossils, samples, rocks, dirt, etc. By the end of their journey, they had more than 8,000 specimens to be studied later on, and they were all stunned by what they evidenced.
“We’re really looking at the best place in the world to understand how plate subduction initiates,” explained Gerald Dickens, co-chief of the expedition. The answers to that question could really help humanity in the future, especially regarding climate change. But their other findings are even more exciting.
"The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past," Dickens told National Geographic. But you are probably wondering why this lost area submerged in the first place.
Zealandia is located in what scientists call the “Pacific Ring of Fire, " an active seafloor area in the Pacific Ocean. According to Dickens, it “caused dramatic changes in ocean depth and volcanic activity and buckled the seabed of Zealandia.” So, scientists hope that continued studies of this continent could help prevent something like that from happening again.
Originally, researchers believed that Zealandia had sunk after its separation from what would later be called Australia and Antarctica. Expedition co-Chief Rupert Sutherland explained, “That is still probably accurate, but it is now clear that dramatic later events shaped the continent we explored on this voyage.” So, the information gathered here could be added to computer models to predict what climate change could do to other continents.
But the discovery of Zealandia also helps the world understand evolution. “Big geographic changes across northern Zealandia, which is about the same size as India, have implications for understanding questions such as how plants and animals dispersed and evolved in the South Pacific,” continued Sutherland.
Zealandia has been described in many ways over the years, and experts are still divided on whether it can be called a continent or not. Geologist Christopher Scotese doesn’t think so because the definition of a continent states that it’s a “landmass above and surrounded by water.” Others have called it a “submerged continent,” “microcontinent,” or “continental fragment.”
Despite being submerged, Zealandia is full of life. All kinds of sea creatures thrive in the area, and marine life is abundant. It’s a very fertile piece of land on the ocean, and it’s rich in mineral deposits. However, undersea mining is strictly regulated by the New Zealand government. Additionally, the northern part is full of volcanic activity.
Local fishers benefit from the booming marine life thanks to Zealandia’s fertile soil, and it’s important to continue its exploration with new technologies. It could help save humanity in the long run. Eventually, it could also lead to the answer we have been looking for since the beginning of our time: where did human life begin?
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many records of the past. Fossils are one of the only pieces of history that can truly reveal a lot to researchers. Thanks to these findings, scientists have determined so much about humans. But the various theories surrounding evolution need to be studied further. Luckily, there’s a pretty clear analysis of the beginning of human life. It’s a theory, but it’s the most accepted explanation we have today.
One of the most interesting theories is the multiregional hypothesis, as it states that the first human came from the same location and migrated all over the world. These immigrants mixed with the humanoid population in various areas of the world and would eventually evolve into the species we are today with genetic mutations and differences.
While the multiregional theory sounds plausible, the “Out of Africa” notion is widely accepted among scientists today. This model begins in much the same way, explaining that humans came from a location in Africa and moved around the world through migration. However, instead of mixing with local humanoid populations, these immigrants replaced them completely. So, Homo Sapiens supplanted any other similar species in other areas. Which one is more credible to you?
The origin of humankind can be traced to an individual known as “Mitochondrial Eve.” She lived in pre-historic times, and scientists theorize that there were only around 10,000 humans in the world at the time. She wasn’t the first woman in the world or Eve from the story in the Bible. However, most humankind today shares her DNA. It’s just a tiny fraction of our entire genetic makeup, but it has revealed so much about evolution.
Eve is known as humankind’s earlier common ancestor and discovering this pre-historic person was definitely not easy. However, it wasn’t enough for scientists. What else did her DNA mean for humans today? If we all descend from a single person, that means that we all come from the same place: Africa. So, both theories mentioned earlier sound even more reasonable now, right? But the “Out of Africa” notion has even more evidence.
Once scientists realized that the OOA theory was way more likely, they started to map out exactly how humans started migrating from Africa to the rest of the world. They believe that the first big migration happened around 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, as people started traveling towards Asia.
Humans continued their journey through the continent. They reached Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia around 45,000 years ago. A few thousand years later, those that remained in Africa decided to venture north into Europe.
During the Pleistocene Ice Age, there was a land bridge that connected Asia with Alaska. That was around 15,000 years ago. So, people were able to enter the American continent back then. They continued going down and reached South America too.
While the scientific community accepts that humans come from Africa, they have yet to determine exactly where in the entire continent. It’s a huge piece of land. In fact, Africa is bigger than China, the United States, and Canada put together. Luckily, there are already studies and research that pinpoints one specific area. Additionally, a team of geneticists is on a mission to uncover more!
Geneticist Vanessa Hayes from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research is determined to discover exactly where humans come from. Her study also shows how climate changed enough to allow their survival as well as their eventual migration. "It has been clear for some time that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200 thousand years ago. What has been long debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors," Hayes explained.
Her team collected more than 1,200 DNA samples from modern Africans, mostly from southern regions. They also included people from indigenous tribes. Their main goal was to locate the L0 lineage known as the genetic code that links all humans to the Mitochondrial Eve. “Mitochondrial DNA acts as a time capsule of our ancestral mothers, accumulating changes slowly over generations. Comparing the complete DNA code, or mitogenome, from different individuals provides information on how closely they are related," Hayes continued.
Looking into the L0 branches, they followed the DNA back to a specific area in southern Africa. It looks like these DNA samples all stem from an area in Bostwana. "We merged 198 new, rare mitogenomes to the current database of modern human's earliest known population, the L0 lineage. This allowed us to refine the evolutionary tree of our earliest ancestral branches better than ever before," said Dr. Eva Chan, Hayes’ colleague at the institute.
To be more specific, the lineage pointed them south of the Greater Zambezi River Basin region, which is northern Bostwana, west Namibia, and east Zimbabwe. This is what the team called their “homeland.” They also later determined that when the climate changed, these populations started moving and adapting.
But before they moved to the desert, the original population lived near Lake Makgadikgadi. Due to the movement of tectonic plates, the lake drained around the area, creating a wetland. That’s the perfect place for people to settle as it’s a great ecosystem.
This population managed to live well on that fertile land for 70,000 years. However, climate change forced them to move. “We observed significant genetic divergence in the modern humans’ earliest maternal sub-lineages, that indicates our ancestors migrated out of the homeland between 130 and 110 thousand years ago,” Hayes explained. “The first migrants ventured northeast, followed by a second wave of migrants who traveled southwest. A third population remained in the homeland until today.”
“These first migrants left behind a homeland population. Eventually adapting to the drying lands, maternal descendants of the homeland population can be found in the greater Kalahari region today,” Hayes continued. As populations grew and more regions became fertile thanks to rainfall, people started to migrate around the world.
It’s amazing what scientists can uncover, although it’s been millions of years. It's also amazing how DNA testing has advanced so much that we can trace our genetics back to the very first ancestor and continue learning. Let us know what you think happened to Zealandia and why it sank. If you liked this article, share it with your friends who love learning new things about the planet. See you next time!