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Recalling India’s Fossil Relics – and Protecting Them

Recalling India’s Fossil Relics – and Protecting Them

Fossils from the Cretaceous period. Photos: Public domain.

“To greet each day ossified;
Like fossil remains forgotten beneath the feet of something more lively.”
– Taylor Patton

Fossils are the dead remains or evidence of past organisms. Apart from impressions of skeletal or structural features, burrows, footprints and poo can also be preserved as fossils. India has a rich legacy of ancient marine creatures, dinosaur bones and eggs, and the occasional hominin (modern human) fossil as well.

Here’s an overview of some of the places where one can see fossils in India.

1. Petrified forests, Thiruvakkarai and Sathanur, Tamil Nadu

Remember the gorgon Medusa in Greek mythology, who was able to turn people to stone merely by looking at them (as did the basilisk in Harry Potter)? That’s ‘petrification’, meaning ‘turning to stone’. In geology, petrification involves a much longer process. Roughly 20 million years ago, massive tree trunks were submerged in a swamp and their cellulose – the main substance in plant walls – was replaced by silica, a rock forming mineral. At Thiruvakkarai and Sathanur, giant, petrified tree trunks lie supine, with their annular rings a testimony to a woody past.

What’s astonishing is that these trunks may not have been at the same location all those millennia ago. They were transported by water and deposited in the softer layers of soil around these sites today.

Fossil wood in Thiruvakkarai. Photo: Ranjith Kumar Inbasekaran

2. Dholavira Fossil Park, Kutch, Gujarat

During my masters’ days, I was lucky to visit the fossil park near Dholavira. It isn’t always accessible as it lies close to the India-Pakistan border. Despite its small area, the park boasts of some petrified logs and dinosaur eggs just metres away from the salty stretches of the Rann of Kutch.

At Dholavira. Photo: Nagarjun Kandukuru

3. The region of Kutch as well as the Zanskar valley in Kashmir bear fossils of ancient marine creatures. Trilobites, ammonites, molluscs and other vertebrates abound. Most Indians are familiar with these in the form of ‘shaligrams’ – dark, river-smoothened, #fossil-bearing rocks. Considered to represent Lord Vishnu, legend says that if you have collected enough punya, or goodwill, a closed shaligram will open in your lifetime. Most shaligrams that are sold to the devout are obtained from the Kali Gandaki gorge in Nepal or from the upper stretches of the Ganges.

Kali Gandaki gorge. Photo: Jmhullot

Ironically, creationists believe that fossils were placed in the rock strata to test our faith in god. A discontinuous fossil record – since not all conditions may have been favourable to preserve impressions or remains – is often cited as an impediment to the theory of evolution.

However, more fossil finds and better dating technologies are teaching us that life did indeed evolve from the oceans and then conquered land.

How do we know this? Stromatolites.

Stromatolites are fossil colonies of ancient cyanobacteria – the earliest adaptation of single-celled microbes that evolved at the interface of ocean and land. Found in shallow waters occupying calcium carbonate structures, like limestone or chalk, stromatolites create extraordinary shapes and patterns. Scientists have dated these formations to the Precambrian era, the geological time when life on Earth evolved, roughly 4.6 to 0.5 billion years ago.

(If you are interested, I would highly recommend chapter 2 of Pranay Lal’s 2016 book Indica, which explains the formation of stromatolites.)

There are numerous fossil parks in India that have some interesting specimens on display. But lamentably, we have little value for our fossils, fossil sites and our geoheritage. Most of our fossils are in poor condition, maintenance costs are high and some lie nearly forgotten in back rooms at institutes. As tourists, we have also been collecting fossils from their sites, eroding the record for those who might want to study it later.

Our fossil sites need to be legislated (read this article by geodynamics expert C.P. Rajendran to know more), so that we can better understand and cherish our geological past for generations to come.

This article is a compiled version of what the author first published as a Twitter thread. It has been published here with permission.

Devayani Khare is a geomorphologist, science communicator and communications consultant.

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