Lewis Ashwal, a scientist at the University of Witwatersrand, initially discovered in 2013 that the island of Mauritius had a stronger gravitational pull than other parts of the Indian Ocean.
With the oldest rocks on Mauritius believed to be around nine billion years old‚ the newly discovered zircons are around three billion years old‚ suggesting that these are far too old to belong to the island of Mauritius.
Known as a tropical holiday destination, Mauritius is a volcanic island, formed by the eruption of volcanoes. On continents, rocks can be billions of years old, but nothing that old exists in the oceans, explained Ashwal.
Scientists have previously identified ancient zircons among beach sands on Mauritius, but critics challenged the discovery, alleging the mineral could have been carried and deposited by humans or wind.
"The fact that we have found zircons of this age proves that there are much older crustal materials under Mauritius that could only have originated from a continent", said Prof. Some 160 million years later, Pangaea broke apart, forming the modern continents, but some land masses sank in the process.
The proposed "lost continent" would have once connected Madagascar and India in the Gondwana supercontinent, but likely disappeared into the Indian Ocean around 84 million years ago.
It is thought Mauritia separated from the rest of the continent around 60 million years ago.
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The age-old crystals are made of zircon, an incredibly resilient mineral capable of surviving geological processes and one that's typically found in continental granites.
By studying zircons, researches can also better understand the geological history of our planet.
"It's like plasticine: when continents are stretched they become thinner and split apart", says Martin Van Kranendonk at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "But rather, a complex splintering took place with fragments of continental crust of variable sizes left adrift within the evolving Indian Ocean basin".
The continent would have been 932 miles across and would have linked Madagascar and India together.
"Earth is made up of two parts - continents, which are old, and oceans, which are 'young, '" he said.
"(This) corroborates the previous study and refutes any suggestion of wind-blown, wave-transported or pumice-rafted zircons for explaining the earlier results", said Ashwal.
The study, titled "Archaean zircons in Miocene oceanic hotspot rocks establish ancient continental crust beneath Mauritius", was published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.