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For A Thousand Years, Humans Believed in a Mysterious Continent Called Terra Australis

Terra Australis, translating to “southern land” in Latin, was a hypothetical southern continent that for many years was thought to be real. People believed in this mythical continent despite the fact it was never actually discovered.

About 2,000 years ago in the first century A.D., explorers said a large southern landmass had to exist. So for centuries, everybody believed in a continent they called Terra Australis.

It was believed that the northern landmass had to be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere because Aristotle, a famous philosopher, theorized that the Earth needed to be stable. This hypothesis was applied to the creation of maps starting around 400 A.D.

Ptolemy, the revered Greek cartographer living in Egypt, included Terra Australis on all his maps. He surrounded the Indian Ocean with Terra Australis, India, and Africa. Other mapmakers followed suit and most people felt assured of its existence. No one at the time, however, had ever traveled far enough south to see it. Still, that did not stop mapmakers from including Terra Australis in charts.

Even though there was no evidence of its existence, Terra Australis remained on European maps for over a thousand years. Throughout centuries, the continent continued to change its size and shape on maps. The drawings of this mainland showed no clear coastlines since it was never explored.

In 1520, famous explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, traveled through the Strait of Magellan in Chile. The landmass he passed through was believed to be part of this false continent. Similarly, subsequent explorers thought they had discovered Terra Australis, however, it was the real continent of Australia.

Throughout the years, maps depicted many versions and sizes of Terra Australis. However, as science developed, sailors and scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries doubted and challenged this misconception.

Captain James Cook, who led an unsuccessful systematic search for Terra Australis in the 1770s, stated that if such land existed, it would only be found in polar regions. His claim is what led to subsequent searches for the South Pole and Antarctica during the 19th and 20th centuries.

[Sources:; BBC News]

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