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Gondwana was originally the Westernization of the Sanskrit gondavana, the name of a region in north central India. It comes from Gonda, Sanskrit name of a Dravidian people (said to mean literally "fleshy navel" or "outie belly-button"), and vana, meaning forest.

The name was later used by geologists to refer to a series of sedimentary rocks found in the area (c. 1873), and later to identical rocks in other places. Matching rock with matching fossils found in Africa, Madagascar, and India helped encourage a new, radical theory, that of continental drift. In 1885 German geologist Eduard Suess theorized the supercontinent of Gondwanaland.

This idea of Gondwanaland reached the English-speaking world around about 1896; at this time it was largely ignored, as continental drift was a crackpot theory that respectable people ignored. In the 1960s the matter became the subject of respectable debate, and in the 70s-80s it was the hot new theory everyone was talking about. In the mid-1980s it became popular to criticize 'Gondwanaland' as a redundant construction, what with 'vana' and 'land' both meaning 'land' (the fact that they do not mean the same thing was not taken into consideration at the time). The use of the term has decreased since then, and most people now use the term Gondwana, although there are still people who defend Gondwanaland as a useful way to disambiguate the supercontinent from the sedimentary layer.

Gondwana originally formed in the Neoproterozoic (c. 550 Ma), before merging with Pangea in the Paleozoic (c. 335 Ma); Pangea split again in the Mesozoic (c. 175 Ma) into Laurasia and Gondwana/Gondwanaland, and later Gondwana split into South America, India, Africa, Madagascar, Arabia, Australia, Zealandia, and Antarctica. The first bit to break off was Atlantica, consisting of today's South America and Africa (c. 150 Ma) and the last was Australia parting from Antarctica (c. 34 Ma).