Essay

The face of the Earth at the end of the world

Fragments of Gondwanaland

ONE SUMMER IN the late 1950s, a red-­hulled icebreaking ship of the Danish Lauritzen line, under charter with the Australian Antarctic Division, was loaded with a metre-­long glacial boulder at the vast icy continent’s rocky edge. This rock was transported across the tempestuous Southern Ocean and part-­way up the Yarra River before the ship discharged its cargo in Melbourne, where the boulder would find its new home. It became a monument in the grounds of the Royal Society of Victoria building. Unveiled on 7 December 1959, it commemorates ‘the completion of one hundred years of endeavour by the Society in its work for the advancement of science, and to mark its special interest in Antarctic exploration and research’. Six days beforehand, the Antarctic Treaty had been signed by twelve nations in Washington, DC. The treaty was intended to bring peace to the continent and demilitarise the region at the height of Cold War tensions. It advanced the shared international endeavour of science as the key activity for the region.

The Royal Society of Victoria had aspired to send a scientific expedition to the planet’s unknown Antarctic regions in the 1880s, hoping to gain knowledge both pure and useful to advance the colony of Victoria. But this early dream of Australian-­Antarctic and southern continental connections remained unfulfilled until 1947, when the Commonwealth Government established an Antarctic Division, with its headquarters in Melbourne.

This glacial boulder comes from Mawson Station on Horseshoe Harbour in East Antarctica. The station was named for the foundational Australian Antarctic hero, the geologist Douglas Mawson, whose exploratory efforts and political lobbying in the early twentieth century helped lay the groundwork for Australia to make its territorial claim to more than 42 per cent of the continent in 1933. Although almost no other country recognised that territorial claim – just as claims by other countries in Antarctica have also generally been rejected or ignored – the Australian Government established Mawson Station in 1954 to effect this southern colonial acquisition.

This station, like nearly all other Antarctic stations, is set on a small, rocky area of ice-­free coast – in this case known as Mawson Rock, ‘a moraine-­mantled, ice-­polished charnockite exposure’. The Mawson Rock charnockite is perhaps a billion years old, a metamorphic rock created from great heat and pressure. A kind of granite, charnockite is widely distributed across the Southern Hemisphere, with notable concentrations in India and a scattering in Australia, all formed over great stretches of time.

Charnockites have Gondwanaland histories: some were formed during the suturing and assembling of this supercontinent over a half a billion years ago. And while it is a central site of Australia’s Antarctic aspirations, Mawson Rock on the East Antarctic craton (cratons are ancient segments of the Earth’s continental crust) was once connected to the Indian craton. They were last connected around 130 million years ago.

These rocks that connect Antarctica and India hold not only geological histories but modern human histories too. Charnockite was named after the English East India Company official Job Charnock (c. 1630–1693), who arrived in India from England in his early twenties and spent most of his life working for the company, which was initially formed to promote English trade with the region. He ascended its hierarchy at the same time as the company was violently forcing itself into Mughal Bengal – and losing the first Anglo-­Indian war. In his later years, Charnock was part of the purchase and occupation of three villages formed into the fort – and then the city – that would become Calcutta. When Charnock died there in 1693, the magnificent mausoleum built for him was made from the ancient stone given his name 200 years later by a senior colonial geologist in the Geological Survey of India in 1893. The Mawson Rock, on the Antarctic coast, shares a particular geological history with the Eastern Ghats area of India, half a planet away.

But why was one modestly sized charnockite boulder hauled across the Southern Ocean by Australia’s Antarctic scientists? Granite is a ubiquitous monumental stone, but it’s more than that. This charnockite boulder, a fragment of Gondwanaland – as are the Australian and Antarctic continents – also offers deep Earth histories to think with. It speaks of connections between southern lands, of Antarctica’s and Australia’s earlier homes together in Gondwanaland, of modern histories of science and exploration, and of the cultures and geopolitics that continue to emerge from and be deployed by modern nations to make homes and meaning on the Earth.

 

ANTARCTICA SAT AT the heart of Gondwanaland – itself only one of the most recent of a series of supercontinents that have assembled and broken up over the Earth’s history, shaping its geology, climate and biology. East Gondwana (comprising the modern lands of East Antarctica, Australia, India and Madagascar) began to suture with West Gondwana (now modern Africa and South America) around 640 million years ago, completing the formation of Gondwanaland around 550 million years ago. In the formal language of geological time, these were the Neoproterozoic and early Paleozoic eras.

In the Carboniferous period, which began around 320 million years ago, Gondwanaland combined with its northern supercontinent neighbour Laurasia to form the mighty Pangea. But although combined into this megacontinent, the southern Gondwana – and especially its Antarctic core – and the northern Laurasia retained their distinct geological and biogeographic identities.

During the Carboniferous and Permian periods, Gondwanaland experienced a deep ice age that led to the growth of great ice sheets. While in earlier times the Antarctic segment of Gondwanaland had occupied equatorial and mid-­latitudes, it has been in the general vicinity of the South Pole for perhaps the last 250 million years.

The continents are always on the move; the face of the Earth is (slowly) transient. After 140 million years, the subsequent break-­up of Pangea began as the old West and East Gondwanas began to separate again. The African continent separated first, around 180 million years ago; the Indian plate began to make its break away 120 million years ago. Australia began its split around eighty-­five million years ago, with the final full separation culminating about thirty-­four million years ago. Around that time, the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South American was opening, allowing the developing Southern Ocean to flow around the Antarctica continent as the planet transitioned between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs. It was after this that the modern Antarctic ice sheet also began to develop: the frigid centrepiece of Earth’s modern climate system.

This grand but abridged narrative of Gondwana’s epic history, with confidently asserted dates and movements, can obscure ongoing debates in the Earth sciences about the timing and locations of assembly and break-­up. And this reminds us of the contingencies of the history of scientific ideas and fieldwork that led to the very idea of an ancient Earth that was different to our own.

 

THROUGH THE NINETEENTH century, geologists were becoming increasingly aware of similarities between rocks and fossils across the southern continents. The idea of Gondwanaland grew from these general scientific developments, but also from site-­specific encounters in India in the third quarter of that century – Antarctica itself was as yet an unexplored blank on the map at this time. British colonial geologists and cartographers working in India derived the name ‘Gondwana’ from Mughal texts and used it to refer to a great swathe of central India, especially the territories where Gonds and other tribes lived. This was a region of forests, ravines, hills and rivulets: Gondwana or Gondwanaland means the land or forest of the Gonds. And the rocks found in this region were notable because they contained evidence of the ancient Glossopteris plant – a small plant that lived in boggy, mire landscapes during the Permian period and a notable contributor of organic matter to coal. These rocks were labelled the Gondwana series or sequence.

Our understanding of nature, including the Earth’s geological history, comes from specific encounters between peoples, rocks, times, places. The earliest ideas of Gondwana emerged from sites of colonialism, imperial engineering and the extraction not only of fossil fuels but also of geological and natural knowledges from local and Indigenous peoples. Ideas about the deep past, of disappeared lands or continents, were formed in conjunction with ideas about a contemporary world and its peoples.

It was the Austrian geologist and geographer Eduard Suess who, in 1888, applied the name Gondwana-­Land to what he theorised had been an ancient and disappeared supercontinent in the Southern Hemisphere. Suess had almost no geological specimens or literature from Antarctica to draw on: major geological work on the continent would not really begin until 1901. But he nevertheless used the fossil plant Glossopteris and other rock formations to imagine uniting these southern lands. Others before him had openly theorised about a southern continent already. But central to their theories was the idea that land bridges, now sunken and covered by ocean, had formerly connected the modern continents, allowing plants and animals to move. A different north–south division was central to Suess’ conception of the face of the Earth – which was the title of his magnum opus, Das antlitz der erde, published in 1883.

In the next seven decades, two conceptual breakthroughs helped bring Gondwanaland onto a firm scientific basis. The first was the theorisation of continental drift in 1912 by the German scientist Alfred Wegener. Wegener noted, as others had done before him, the intimate relationships of the coastlines of many continents, but rejected land bridges and argued that the continents had drifted across the Earth. Without a compelling mechanism to explain why this might have happened, his theory did not find widespread acceptance – although it found favour among the geologists of the south. The South African geologist Alexander du Toit forcefully pursued Wegener’s theory and in 1937 published Our Wandering Continents, which stated that

the shield of East Antarctica constitutes the ‘key-­piece’…around which, with wonderful correspondences in outline, the remaining ‘puzzle-­pieces’ of Gondwana can with remarkable precision be fitted.

The second conceptual step was to discover the mechanism by which the continents moved. And here, rapid developments in the Earth sciences after the Second World War and widespread ocean-­floor observations demonstrated that the continents were moving because of sea floor spreading. As new crust is formed at mid-­ocean ridges, as magma from the Earth’s interior is pushed out, this moves tectonic plates across the face of the Earth, tearing them apart or forcing them to collide. These mechanisms made and unmade Gondwanaland and moved Antarctica to its current location.

 

AT THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, when modern Antarctic exploration was only just beginning and scarcely anything was known of the region’s geology, British explorers went south clutching The Antarctic Manual. This was a collection of instructions and overviews of scientific knowledge to guide their research. Although the Manual did not explicitly name Gondwanaland, the hope that evidence about the relationship of the southern continents would be found in Antarctica was clear. The manual instructed explorers to keep their eyes peeled for specimens of that ancient plant Glossopteris.

These instructions had been written by William Thomas Blanford, the first geologist to publish theories about southern continental connections through such fossils. His geological reasoning and speculations had been made in the heart of the British Empire. He joined the geological survey of India in 1854, first working in coalfields, which led to broader geological work on the Permian glaciation in the Southern Hemisphere. In publications on the Gondwana series – the strata and rocks he had extracted and examined in India – Blanford often noted the resemblance between plants found in the Indian strata and in the coalfields of New South Wales. By the mid-­1870s, he was confident that India, South Africa and Australia, at least, had been connected during the Permian period ‘by an Indo-­oceanic continent’ – and other scientists at the time were in general agreement.

The geological work on one of the first major Antarctic expeditions – Robert Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901–04) – fell to Hartley T Ferrar. A fresh-­faced Cambridge graduate, he was keenly aware that his job was to make as many accurate geological observations as possible and collect quality specimens for analysis back in London. On such a blank slate, any of Ferrar’s subsequent discoveries would have been revelatory: he identified new Beacon Sandstone and spotted coal seams in the Transantarctic Mountains. Yet poor initial analysis of his specimens – by a Cambridge colleague – suggested they were ‘of little value botanically’ and contained no Glossopteris. Thankfully, another British geologist reanalysed Ferrar’s specimens in 1928 to identify traces of this ancient plant.

It was on Robert Scott’s tragic second expedition (1911–13) that Glossopteris was formally recognised. In addition to Blanford’s earlier instructions, Scott also had the entreaties of the young Marie Stopes in mind. Later known as a leading women’s rights and eugenics campaigner, Stopes was a paleobotanist in her early career with an interest in Glossopteris and Gondwana. She enjoined Scott to keep his eyes peeled for these fossils.

If Scott’s main quest was to be the first man at the South Pole, he was narrowly beaten in this by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. And his party’s journey home from the South Pole would end in their deaths. Yet on that return journey, and with rapidly diminishing supplies, worsening weather and a sense that they might not survive, Scott and his team stopped to inspect a moraine – a mass of rocks and sediment – deposited by the Beardmore Glacier.

On 8 February 1912, Scott noted in his diary that Edward Wilson, ‘with his sharp eyes has picked several impressions the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers also some excellently preserved impressions of thick stems showing cellular structure’.

They collected nearly sixteen kilograms of specimens that day – which they protected over the next six weeks, before their demise. Analysed by the eminent paleobotanist Albert Seward, the specimens were found to contain clear fragments of fossilised Glossopteris. And in his report, noting Wilson’s many descriptions of coal, Seward wrote:

the occurrence of coal-­seams and carbonaceous bands favours the view that the wind-­swept hills of the Antarctic continent, though perhaps themselves sparsely clad with vegetation, overlooked some sheltered lowlands covered with the gregarious Glossopteris and its associates.

For Seward, it was ‘difficult to escape from the conclusion that the ancient continent of Gondwana extended to within a short distance of the South Pole or even to the Pole itself, whether as a continuous continent or as an archipelago of islands cannot be determined’.

 

IF THE FOSSIL and rock fragments chipped off Antarctica in the early twentieth century helped to build a picture of Gondwanaland, the prospect of coal also fired the imaginations of those piecing together Antarctica and the other southern lands into one ancient supercontinent. Both Blanford and Australia’s great geologist Edgeworth David, for example, always had coal seams in mind – as much as other elements – when they thought of Gondwanaland.

The prospect of exploitable minerals had been a persistent, if minor, aspect of Antarctic science in the first half of the twentieth century, leading up to the explosion of research in the 1950s, especially the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58. With so many basic scientific questions to be answered and the sheer difficulty of actually extracting minerals there, the pursuit of exploitable resources was pushed to the back of the stage. But two developments towards the end of the 1960s brought Gondwanaland and resource futures into the same frame again.

In 1969, talk of mining and drilling Antarctica for hydrocarbons and other minerals collided with the international geopolitics of the Antarctic Treaty system. Inquiries from an Australian mining firm to the governments of several nations active within the Antarctic Treaty set off negotiations around any potential mining and drilling. Antarctica, although no one had any real numbers or certainty about what was there, seemed a site of abundance in contrast to the apparent growing scarcity of energy and resources globally.

The idea of Gondwanaland animated these hopes for resources, and helped to paper over the giant gaps in knowledge. By the mid-­1960s, the modern theory of plate tectonics had been accepted by most Earth scientists, and research groups around the world were piecing together Gondwanaland, using reams of new data as well as newly emerging computational approaches. A greater sense of precision infused this research; visual reconstructions of Gondwanaland appeared in major scientific journals and in the media.

The cover of the December 1970 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – better known for its Doomsday Clock, counting down to potential nuclear annihilation – boldly illustrated the Antarctic, Australian, Indian and Madagascan fragments of Gondwana. Alongside a sober synthesis of contemporaneous Gondwana knowledge by America’s leading Antarctic geologist Campbell Craddock, the resource futurist Neal Potter confidently speculated about the promise of coal and other mineral resources in Antarctica’s Gondwana remnant. In a report of Antarctic mineral reserves a few years later in 1974, the US Geological Survey published not one but two maps of Gondwanaland strewn with symbols suggesting potential sites of useful minerals across the region; it conjured resource futures from fragmentary geological knowledge. The achievements of concerted, long-­term scientific research once again collided with the aspirations of empires and resource hegemons.

 

BUT IF GONDWANALAND has often been wielded as the tool of an extractive imperial power, the supercontinent is also an imagined landscape of joyful encounters and a field of thrilling exertions in Antarctica. In the summer of 1991–92, the Australian palaeontologist John Long, with New Zealand geologist colleagues Margaret Cameron, Fraka Harmsen and Brian Staite, spent weeks camping and sledging through the Cook Mountains in the Transantarctic Mountains, at the north-­eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Long was searching for the fossilised remnants of fish high up in the mountains, near their peaks. As he wrote in Mountains of Madness, his job was to ‘search for fossils and uncover the secrets of ancient Gondwana’. To encounter these traces, Long and other geologists had to get ‘nose-­down onto the outcrops for any little fragments of bone that might indicate…a potential fossil site’. As their instruction manual might have read, put your nose against the rock.

One day, Long ascended the peak known as Gorgons Head, a five-­hour hike at minus-17 degrees Celsius. Making this ascent, Long conjured connections across time and space:

Staring at the squashed impressions of 380 million-­year-­old-­plants whilst on top of an Antarctic mountain on a gloomy overcast day brought to mind a very different picture of what this region was like… At the time these Antarctic fossil plants were thriving, there would have been a sparse forest of low tree-­like plants…and an extensive ground cover of small stem-­like plants… These would have flourished near waterways…most of the plants grew to less than a metre above the ground.

Arriving at the peak, he came ‘face to face with the variegated green, red and grey banded rock unit famous for its ancient fossil fish remains!’ Again, he ‘worked on hands and knees with [his] nose down on the rocks’, finding scant traces of the bone and teeth of the long-­dead fish, and ‘sitting down…[to] carefully [examine] each surface with a hand lens’.

At a place named Fault Bluff, Long identified a large Gyracanthides fish ‘that characterised the Gondwanan deposits’ of the period, leaving Brian Staite to chisel the specimen out of the sandstone over two hours, the cold blunting and deforming his chisel. Long praised the geological work of his fellow expeditioner Fraka Harmsen, noting that her ‘skilled eyes could read the rocks as if she were browsing through a travel guide to some ancient faraway land’ and locate them in the midst ‘of what was once a large meandering river system about 380 million years ago’.

If Scott’s encounter with Gondwana had been tinged by the spectre of death, if some imaginings of Gondwana in the 1960s and 1970s were shot through with crude resource calculation and exploitation, here were scientists enjoying the ‘high of discovery’ in the early 1990s. Like other geologists before and since, Long’s experience of the field was concentrated and intense. Long days of work, climbing peaks, pressing noses to rocks, moving across precipitous ice. Peaks ascended with empty backpacks were descended with a new and promising weight. More than a century after the initial ‘discovery’ of Gondwanaland, its traces and fragments were still carried by scientists to new homes for analysis, to refine and reassess geological models and to help to interpret and reinterpret the Earth’s history. There are always new discoveries, new promises and new thrills and joys within what remains of Gondwanaland.

 

THROUGH MUCH OF the twentieth century, Britain and the United States as imperial powers wielded Gondwanaland in a world-­making geopolitics that sought fuel and knowledge to undergird their own globe-­spanning influence. At the beginning of the twenty-­first century, India – the home of the Gonds – tried to turn the tables.

In the 1950s, parts of the Indian political establishment had critiqued Antarctic geopolitics as the bastion of imperialist white men, pushing for an international regime within the United Nations that would allow the continent to benefit all nations. Three decades later, and leaving aside some of its previous critiques, India saw opportunities not only for shaping the governance of Antarctic minerals but also for taking on the mantle of an advanced scientific nation. It began an Antarctic research program, with its first scientific expedition sent south in 1981.

From 1983, when it joined the Antarctic Treaty, India became a conscientious participant in Antarctic diplomacy, contributing to developments around environmental protection and developing its own scientific program. During the 1980s and 1990s, it operated two successive bases in the Schirmacher Oasis of Dronning Maud Land – Dakshin Gangotri, and then Maitri.

Then, in 2006, India announced plans for a new base in the Larsemann Hills – an announcement met with consternation, as that area was being considered as a potential ‘Specially Managed Area’ by Australia, Russia, Romania and China. Under the Antarctic Treaty, the purpose of designating a ‘Specially Managed Area’ is to co-­ordinate human activities, especially scientific research, and to encourage co-­operation, avoid conflicts and minimise environmental impacts. Only seven such areas are currently in force: they take years of work to create, including diplomatic negotiation, and India’s announcement created uncertainty for that process. But India insisted that this precise spot was ‘important to the nation of India because it is at this point where the Indian subcontinent and Antarctica were connected during the time of Gondwana, 125 million years ago’. Furthermore, the Indian delegation and scientists claimed that the Indian holy river Godavari flowed in the Larsemann Hills when the continents were connected. In more orthodox scientific terms, they would be ‘fine-tuning the Gondwana fit’ between India and Antarctica.

Antarctica has withstood many acquisitive claims. If the era of the Antarctic Treaty has ostensibly elevated the idea of co-­operation as humanity’s guiding ideal in the south, possessive urges tenaciously remain. Here, geology ambiguously underpins both internationalism and nationalism. The anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly interpreted this linking of India and Antarctica through Gondwanaland as a ‘deployment of sacred geographies’. In her view, this was a tactic to position Indian scientists and officials ‘as both expert insiders and outsiders to the mainstream of the Antarctic Treaty meetings, scientifically and geopolitically’. These actions ‘implied a longer timescale of legitimacy and a deep, inalienable relationship between Indians and this piece of Antarctica’. In an issue of Nature at the time, the science journalist KS Jayaraman described the grievances of some Indian scientists who thought they were being kept from rightfully occupying Antarctica for science by other countries who wanted Antarctica’s hydrocarbons for themselves.

The meanings and intensities of feeling around Gondwanaland are not stable; in different times and places, people gather up the fragments of continents, haul them across the Earth (or across the conference table) and create new worlds with them. And these contemporary Indian politics take up and deploy an ancient landmass in new and fascinating ways. By tabling the supercontinent and its sacred meanings at a diplomatic Antarctic Treaty meeting, the Indian delegation was undoubtedly trying to claim the position of a major southern power. Yet once again, minerals and hydrocarbons informed this Gondwana talk. As some reports celebrated this spiritual Gondwanaland, others wryly pointed to the harder edge of Antarctic exploration: did India just want minerals and oil?

 

AT IMPORTANT MOMENTS in Antarctica’s short human history, the imagined presence of Gondwanaland – through extinct plants and animals locked in its strata to the fires latent in its coal seams – has animated quests for imperial glory and world-­making, the thrills and tragedies of scientific fieldwork and geographical exploration, and hopes for connection and control. Those many traces and fragments of Gondwanaland – the charnockite boulder in Melbourne; the Glossopteris transported to Britain; John Long’s Gyracanthides fish and other phyllolepid placoderms; the images and maps that continue to remake and reconstruct the landmass and its potential resources – have all been both physically chipped out of Antarctic rocks and landscapes and conjured from humanity’s imaginations. They’ve been moved around the world to say certain things at particular historical conjunctions about the southern continents.

Gondwanaland is at once deeply ancient and immediately modern. The ancient supercontinent, like the modern Antarctica at its heart, is both supremely pre-­human as well as all too human. In both, solid fragment and ephemeral word seem to collide. Playfully reflecting on these ambiguous geologies might challenge us to rethink our path into the future. What fragments can we toy with and puzzle over, assembling and reassembling a new face for the Earth?

 

References 

Antonello, Alessandro. The greening of Antarctica: assembling an international environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 

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 Blanford, W. T. ‘Notes on the geological age of certain groups comprised in the Gondwana series of India, and on the evidence they afford of distinct zoological and botanical terrestrial regions in ancient epochs’. Records of the Geological Survey of India, IX (1876): 80–95. 

Chakrabarti, Pratik. Inscriptions of nature: geology and the naturalization of antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 

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Ferrar, H. T. ‘Report on the field-geology of the region explored during the ‘Discovery’ Antarctic Expedition, 1901–4’. In National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904. Natural History, Geology, 1–100. London British Museum (Natural History), 1907. 

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Jayaraman, K. S. ‘India plans third Antarctic base’. Nature 447, n. 7140 (3 May 2007): 9. 

Long, John. Mountains of madness: a journey through Antarctica. St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2000. 

McLoughlin, Stephen. ‘Antarctica’s Glossopteris forests’. In 52 more things you should know about palaeontology, edited by Alex Cullum and Allard Martinius, 22–23. Nova Scotia: Agile Libre, 2017. 

O’Reilly, Jessica. ‘Tectonic History and Gondwanan Geopolitics in the Larsemann Hills, Antarctica’. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34, no. 2 (2011): 214–232. 

Ramesh, Randeep. ‘Blow to Plan for Polar Conservation Zone as India Joins the Cold Rush’. The Guardian, 11 August 2006, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/aug/11/india.conservationandendangeredspecies. 

Seward, A. C. ‘Antarctic fossil plants’. In British Antarctic (‘Terra Nova’) Expedition, 1910. Natural History Report. Geology, 1–49. London: British Museum (Natural History), 1914. 

Suess, Eduard. The face of the earth. Translated by Hertha B. C. Sollas, 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904. 

Young, David N. and Lance P. Black. ‘U-Pb zircon dating of Proterozoic igneous charnockites from the Mawson Coast, East Antarctica’. Antarctic Science 3, no. 2 (1991): 205–216. 

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