Every winter for the past decade, paleontologist Kenneth D. Rose returns to Vastan, one of the open-pit lignite (“brown coal”) mines in a corner of western India. On this dizzyingly bright March morning, as miners in hardhats and boots tirelessly scoop out tarry chunks of lignite with rumbling earthmovers, Rose and his team sift through a thin layer of sediment with ice picks and brushes. Their goal: piecing together fragments of the most archaic forms of mammals to walk the earth, and unraveling the story of modern mammalian evolution.
The fragments they’re seeking date back to the early Eocene epoch, about 54.5 million years ago. Around then, the earth was 12 degrees Celsius hotter, and gripped by the most intense global warming event the world had known. India was a tropical island that had recently broken free of Madagascar, and was headed toward an epic collision with the supercontinent Laurasia; a collision that would compress the ancient Tethys Sea and thrust up the Himalayan ranges. Vastan, a swamp on the edge of the island, lay beside a tropical rainforest teeming with rabbits, bats, snakes, lizards, frogs, birds, ancient relatives of horses and tapirs, and an extinct order of mammals—tillodonts—that resembled saber-tooth bears.
Rose, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, has recovered remnants of all of these creatures, many of which are archaic forms, and the oldest of their kind to be found in Asia. They provide a tantalizing set of clues to a long-standing evolutionary puzzle. Where did the world’s modern mammals come from? How did they evolve? How did they spread? Swiping at a dun-colored wall of sediment with a soft brush, his eyes trained for the promising black gleam of bone, Rose says, “What we’re asking, specifically, is how and when did this fauna get on India, how did they get off, and how much did they evolve here?”
The haul from Vastan is uniquely positioned to answer these riddles. “Its importance is its age and location,” explains Jessica Theodor, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Calgary. “The earliest Eocene is where we start to see the first appearances of a lot of the modern lineages of mammals.” Paleontologists had long been hunting for the lineages of modern mammals, such as cattle and camels, horses and tapirs. Finds at Vastan, says Theodor, suggests the lineage stretches back to India, from where the mammals may have immigrated. “Vastan gives us a window into an early time frame which we hadn’t had before,” she says.
She was horrified to see shark teeth poking up between the rows of planted cotton.
Paleontologists from around the globe agree the findings from the mines around Vastan are surprising, abundant, and important. “It’s no coal mine, it’s a gold mine,” says Ashok Sahni, a retired paleontologist who worked at the site for a decade. Theodor says Vastan’s richness brings to mind Germany’s Messel Fossil Pit, the world’s best-known repository of Eocene-era treasures. With one crucial difference: That site, a former oil shale mine, ceased commercial operations 40 years ago. Local protests prevented it from becoming a landfill, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared it a heritage site in 1995.
In India, however, laws to protect Vastan and other fossil sites are rarely enforced and so weak as to be nearly nonexistent. Three years ago, an immense excavation in the Vastan site, 5 kilometers wide and 100 meters deep, streaked with fossils, was closed. Mining itself destroys countless fossils. “Those mine people, they take our best stuff and throw it into the thermal plant, where it burns,” Sahni says.
In a recent essay, Naman P. Ahuja, a professor of Indian Art and Architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, decries India’s disregard of its heritage. “South Asia is encountering a pace of development which is unlike ever in its history,” he writes. “As the population rises and more rural areas and hinterlands are being converted into urban spaces, archaeological contexts are disturbed forever.”
India has a long tradition of scientific excellence. But to Sahni, a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, the country seems at odds with its scientific icons. “Ignorance and the motivation for short-term commercial gain overrides the long-term benefits in preserving our fossil heritage,” he says. “Regardless of science or geology, on the ground it’s all greed.”
Some countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, have done well to preserve their geological sites, says Murray Gray from the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of Geodiversity: Valuing and Conserving Abiotic Nature. “But I’m afraid that geological conservation struggles to make its case in every country in the world, particularly in developing countries where losses of important sites probably occur almost every day,” Murray offers.
Understanding how one of the world’s largest and most populous countries can neglect its rare and important fossil record requires the perspectives of scientists, archaeologists, and government officials. Together they answer the question: Was there ever any chance of keeping the excavators at bay?
A decade ago, as an enthusiastic graduate student of paleontology, Anjali Goswami decided to embark on a road trip to India’s most storied fossil sites. Goswami, a paleobiologist at University College London, was accompanied by her future collaborator G.V.R. Prasad, one of the country’s foremost vertebrate paleontologists. They decided to revisit sites from the Late Cretaceous, 66 to 100 million years ago. Their itinerary included spots where Prasad made many of his best discoveries in the 1990s, including the first Cretaceous mammal to be found in India. They also planned to visit fossil sites first excavated in the early 19th century. This was the largely accidental heyday of Indian paleontology, when great hauls of fossil bones were unearthed by military officers during lengthy cross-country marches, or by East India Company engineers while supervising landscape-churning work.
For her first pit stop, Goswami decided she couldn’t do better than Jabalpur in the badlands of central India, where the British paleontologist W.H. Sleeman discovered the first ever dinosaur to be found in Asia. He did so in 1844, three years before Sir Richard Owen even coined the term dinosauria. “Besides, it had the added advantage of being close to my bua’s (father’s sister’s) house,” she recalls with a laugh. When she got there, she was horrified by what she found. “The outcrop was entirely covered in garbage,” she says. “You could walk around, but it was pretty gross. Given that such a huge number of dinosaurs come from this site, you’d like to think they’d get some protection.”
The rest of her journey did nothing to improve on that inauspicious start. All five sites she visited across the southern state of Karnataka—some first explored by colonial officers, others by Prasad—were given over to farmland. She concluded that what she’d witnessed was the inevitable damage of more than a century. But once she began fieldwork in 2007, she realized just how rapidly the depredations were taking place.
“Is the state under an obligation to preserve all such places of beauty? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
When she first started work on her chosen field-site, the Cauvery basin in the southeast of the country, she worked in shallow ravines surrounded by gently undulating hillocks. During the next six years, while she and Prasad unearthed the remains of turtles, dinosaurs, and a strange snub-nosed crocodilian species between 67 and 100 million old, the hillocks got bulldozed and flattened into cotton fields. When she visited her “best shark site” last year, she was bemused and horrified to see the unmistakable spiky silhouettes of shark teeth poking up between the rows of planted cotton. “That was so frustrating!” Goswami exclaims. “They had survived for 100 million years—and now they’re gone. And they’re completely irreplaceable.” They’ve since found newer sites to move onto, but everywhere they go, fields, settlements, and quarries are quick to catch up.
The pace and certainty of the destruction made Goswami delay her departures and spend a few days screen-washing—pouring fine gray sediment from the site through running water and scouring the contents for flecks of fossils under an electron microscope. “It’s totally out of panic, because I never know how much will remain when I return,” she says. “For paleontologists, all our data is unique. And if we don’t get it out of the ground quick enough, that’s one branch of the tree of life gone forever from human knowledge.”
Some roots of life might well be traced back to Vastan. In 2014, Rose and his colleagues identified a small-hoofed creature as the descendant of the original ancestor of modern horses and tapirs. The creature’s anatomy, they found, combined the traits of two wildly disparate groups. Its fused jaw resembled that of the first horses and rhinos, but its teeth and limb anatomy placed it further back in time, helping the paleontologists fill a missing gap in the record of archaic hoofed animals.
“These fossils are more primitive than anything that’s been found from that order anywhere else in the world,” says Rose. “We think it’s the great-grandchild of the ancestor of horses and tapirs—an early relic of that radiation.” He reckons the creature’s presence in Vastan just before island India made contact with Eurasia suggested that the ancestors of horses and rhinos quite likely originated in India.
Vastan has also yielded as many as seven species of bats, belonging to seven separate genera, all of which appear closely allied to European counterparts found in France and Germany. Nancy Simmons, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and an expert in the evolutionary biology of bats, points out that the Eocene was a transformative epoch for bats, during which they went from “small scrambling creatures” to ones that fly, enabling their spread and rapid diversification. Simmons says the significance of Vastan’s bats is “amazing.” Before they turned up, she thought all significant Eocene bats were found in South America, Europe, and North Africa. “Suddenly we find this fauna, which has close connections to animals living in North America and Europe, but on this island continent of India that was floating out in the Indian Ocean,” she says, with a laugh. “It makes us wonder: What are we missing? Perhaps they diversified much earlier than we thought.”
Over the past three decades, a trove of fossils from the mountain ranges across India and Pakistan has helped paleontologists put together a picture of whale evolution. Scientists can now see, with the hypnotic clarity of a flipbook, how whales might have transitioned from housecat-sized river-bottom waders to enormous traversers of oceans in the space of 10 million years. In the late 1990s, Sunil Bajpai, a vertebrate paleontologist, found several such tantalizing evolutionary snapshots from Babia Hills in Kutch in the country’s northwest border. “It looked like a graveyard of whales!” Bajpai recalls. When he returned to his old field-site a few years ago, he was shocked at what he found. “The whale-bearing horizon was covered with the dark gray overburden from a coal mine,” he says. “I had worked there for so many years, and suddenly everything was destroyed. It was unimaginable!”
Many factors in India have combined to making the unimaginable inevitable. Everything remotely mineral belongs to the government; specifically, the Ministry of Mines, which caters to extractive interests. The occasional question posed by members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents puts central and state mining ministers on the spot, asking what they’re doing to protect a particular geo-heritage site or set of fossils. The lucky few among these cases get graced with a red-tape-redolent “notification and instruction for protection and conservation” from the Geological Survey of India (GSI).
Dhananjay Mohabey, a former Deputy Director General of GSI, admits that monuments can only be “declared,” not maintained. “They’re in very bad shape because there are no laws to be able to prosecute or take action against builders or offenders,” he says. “So all we can do is put up a display board saying: ‘This is a unique feature of this or that importance.’ ”
Such bureaucratic niceties are put aside in an instant when they come up against anything in the “national interest.” Take, for example, Varkala-Vizinjam, the country’s sole stretch of spectacular laterite cliffs in the southern state of Kerala. Although they were declared a geo-heritage site in 2014, they’re about to be lost forever due to the construction of a deep-sea port project that began late last year.
In January, activists opposing the project at the Supreme Court were told to step out of the way, since this was a “project of national importance being set up for the benefit of the country.” When the activists pointed out that the cliffs were eco-sensitive, and that their beauty was worth protecting, T.S. Thakur, the Chief Justice of India, shot back: “Is the state under an obligation to preserve all such places of beauty? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The country’s lack of concern for fossils can be seen in its ineffective crackdown on thieves and smugglers. Sahni, the retired paleontologist, says he once discovered that fossilized dinosaur eggs that he’d excavated in western India had been ransacked by vandals for trade and even worship. Further, he has seen paleontologists get stymied by the arbitrary application of a vaguely worded law meant to protect antiquities and art treasures. “It doesn’t define what is an antiquity or what is a fossil,” says Sahni. “But it’s so restrictive and draconian that genuine researchers are shooed away and others [smugglers] get away scot-free.”
Sahni laments that India doesn’t have a major natural history museum for the country’s fossils. Other than a repository maintained by the GSI in Kolkata, which extends to colonial finds, most fossil collections under study in the country are maintained by individual scientists and their research institutions. Sahni, for instance, has preferred to maintain “a personal catalogue” throughout his career—for his own “sanity and science.” The lack of one centralized repository leads to a second problem: Research takes place concurrently in separate silos.
Mohabey says, “When a [fossil] skeleton is found, one person removes the leg, another the arm. They end up in different places, and it becomes very hard to study.” What makes things even harder is that when professors retire, the collections they’ve amassed over a lifetime have nowhere to go. “They’re large fossils,” says Sahni. “You can’t just carry them around the country.”
Sahni has spent the past few years of his retirement trying to do what he can about these limitations. In 2010, he helped a forest officer, Pankaj Srivastava, frame a fossil preservation act in Madhya Pradesh, where some of the country’s most important fossils, including dinosaur eggs, were unearthed, and subsequently stolen. Srivastava had been frustrated at his inability to do anything about the widespread smuggling and destruction of fossils. “There is nothing in the law to punish those who take dinosaur eggs worth a fortune and sell them for 100 rupees,” he says. But despite Sahni’s and Srivastava’s continued efforts, the bill never made it to the assembly. “The fossil protection law,” Srivastava says, “is getting fossilized.”
Ahuja, the professor of Indian art and architecture, says the nation’s scientists might gain public support through an information campaign, held in conjunction with museums. “If paleontologists created a public interface through a museum, more people would be aware of the value of what they’d be losing,” he says. “But if you call for fossil sites to be protected without disseminating information, it’s pointless. You’ll just be holding off destruction until some other dam or road is made.” He adds, “No one is here to forestall progress. But it’s shocking how callous the government is toward the country’s history.”
Sahni agrees, and regrets how far India lags behind other countries in paleontology and preservation. “China has about 40,000 active paleontologists, 17 natural history museums, and laws protecting fossils and fossil sites,” he says. “If we had half the support they did, we would be to mammals what they have been to dinosaurs since 2007.”
Early this year, in Vastan, tractors and excavators kept roving about, churning up mud and carting away lignite. Rose and his colleagues found an as-yet-unsavaged spot where they could look for fossils, one crumbly handful of sediment at a time. They were excited about an upcoming paper describing a miraculously intact skull they found on a previous trip. Its owner, they’re convinced, will soon set the vertebrate paleontology world astir. Unlike its confreres, which vanished in a cloud of brown dust.
Shruti Ravindran is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes about science, health, the environment, and urbanism.
This article was originally published in our “Currents” issue in June, 2016.