Balkanatolia: Long Forgotten Continent May Have Been Rediscovered

A long-forgotten continent dubbed Balkanatolia may have been discovered by scientists.

In a study published in the journal Earth-Science Reviews, a team of scientists from France, the United States and Turkey said they had found evidence for a previously unknown continent that once separated Europe from Asia.

Earth is made up of a series of tectonic plates that move around, shifting the planet's land masses over huge time scales. Around 250 million years ago, all the continents were joined under one supercontinent known as Pangaea. This began to split around 200 million years ago, leading to the development of Gondwana and Laurasia.

During the Jurassic period, it split even more, with the continents that exist today starting to emerge. At the start of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, the landmasses started to drift apart—although North America and Asia were still relatively close, as were Antarctica and Australia.

The newly discovered continent was wedged between Africa, Asia and Europe and existed around 50 million years ago. The name is a conjunction of the two present-day regions that made up the ancient landmass—the Balkans, in south eastern Europe, and Anatolia in Turkey.

Map shows Balkanatolia then and now
Map shows Balkanatolia then and now. Scientists said the previously unknown landmass impacted the development of life either side of mass extinction event around 39 million years ago. CNRS

The paper examined a pivotal mass extinction event in Earth's history known as the Grande Coupure or "great break." This event saw large numbers of marine life and mammals across the Earth—including what is now Europe—go extinct around 34 million years ago, between two eras called the Eocene and Oligocene.

Animals lost from Europe were replaced by others from Asia and beyond. However, fossil evidence suggests they had arrived in Europe before the mass extinction. How they had managed to get there was not known.

Geologists and paleontologists found jaw fragments of a Brontotheres—an animal like a modern-day rhinoceros that died out at the end of the Eocene epoch. It was dated between 38 and 35 million years ago and was the earliest known fossil of the animal found in Anatolia.

The Balkanatolia land bridge, the scientists say, connected the Asia, Africa and Europe for millions of years and allowed animals to migrate between the continents for millions of years.

Balkanatolia existed 50 million years ago and was colonised by Asian mammals 40 million years ago, long before the Grande Coupure, researchers said. Why animals from this southern continent migrated there is not known, although it is thought to relate to geographical changes.

It is thought Balkanatolia became connected to the European landmass at the end of the Eocene era, around 34 million years ago. This was when the Late Cenozoic Ice Age began, spreading glaciers across the world—including those that still blanket Antarctica.

Researchers believe that glaciers connected Balkanatolia to Europe and gave rise to the Grande Coupure.

Stock image of Anatolia.
Stock image of Anatolia. The region in modern-day Turkey was once part of a larger continental landmass dubbed 'Balkanatolia' by scientists. Ozbalci/Getty Images