[Podcast] Imprints: Digging up bones with Advait Jukar

  • Paleobiologist Advair Jukar talks about megafaunal extinction and explains why some species like elephants and tigers and rhinos survived in India, and some species disappeared.
  • While talking about the four major species that India lost during the extinction – elephants (Palaeoloxodon namadicus and Stegodon namadicus), a zebra-like horse (Equus namadicus) and a hippopotamus – Jukar reveals how the biodiversity changed through time, with the arrival of humans and climate change.
  • Jukar believes that there is lot of scope for indigenous palaeontology in India, although colonialism took away a wealth of information.

Extinction is the termination of all members of a species and it occurs because of environmental forces, overexploitation or evolutionary changes. What can fossils tell us about extinction? They provide evidence of these long-term environmental and evolutionary changes and show the progress of evolution.

Paleobiology is an interdisciplinary field that combines earth sciences and life sciences. Paleobiologists study fossils from millions of years ago, to analyse and answer questions about evolution and past extinction, which also helps to understand the current and on-going extinctions.

In this episode of Imprints Mongabay-India Contributing Editor and podcast host, Sahana Ghosh speaks with paleobiologist Advait Jukar, Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University, to understand how megafauna goes extinct, why some megafauna in India survived extinction events, how the Kashmir Valley looked like millions of years ago and the challenges faced by paleobiologists.

Jukar answers questions such as ‘Why do we still have animals like elephants and tigers and rhinos in India, but not elsewhere on the planet?’,  ‘How has biodiversity changed through time with the arrival of humans and climate change?’ and ‘How can India improve the scope of indigenous palaeontology?’.

Listen here:



Full transcript

Sahana Ghosh (SG): You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India.

Turn the clock back in time 50,000 years and you would have seen two species of giant prehistoric elephants (Palaeoloxodon namadicus and Stegodon namadicus), a hippopotamus and a zebra-like horse (Equus namadicus), alongside other great beasts roaming the Indian subcontinent. You would have seen ostriches too.

Imagine this: Modern humans had arrived by then on the Indian subcontinent from Africa and they did see these creatures. Infact, these large mammals stuck around in the region for at least 20,000 years after the arrival of humans.

A low-magnitude extinction began about 30,000 years ago when some megafaunal species, such as the giant elephants started disappearing. This is in contrast to the Americas, Europe and Australia where the arrival of humans led to more rapid, large-scale extinctions of megafauna such as woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.

So, why did the megafauna persist even after the arrival of modern humans on the Indian subcontinent? Why did some species disappear? Why do we still have animals like elephants and tigers and rhinos in India, but not elsewhere on the planet?

Welcome to our show Imprints. I am Sahana Ghosh, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India.

In this episode, we have paleobiologist Advait Jukar who is trying to answer these questions. And his clues lie in fossils. His work helps us understand how biodiversity has changed through time with the arrival of humans and climate change.

You will often run into Advait at museums. He uses fossils of extinct mammals and dinosaurs, or samples from present day elephants and horses. Coupled with a lot of computer programming he asks and answer questions about ecology and evolution. At Yale, his research with collaborators in India has shown that the Kashmir Valley was a very different place, than it is today. There were elephants in the valley and the valley floor was actually a giant lake!

With one of the world’s best fossil records in India, Advait believes that there is a lot of scope for indigenous palaeontology in the country.

SG: It’s great to have you on our podcast Advait. You remember when we first met? It was at the Smithsonian, in DC. I remember walking through the galleries and being awed by these fossils, by the dinosaur fossils specifically. I felt like I was back in the Jurassic Park days, the movies that we watched when we were growing up. I was surrounded by an awe about these dinosaurs, about a prehistoric world, which we are now realising, is so important. And I remember thinking that Advait has the coolest job in the world – tinkering with fossils. Who would not want to do this? So, Advait my first question is what triggered your interest in studying fossils? Why did you do it?

Advait Jukar (AJ):  You know, I’m like a kid that never grew up. And I get to play with dinosaurs all day, which is just I think, as you said, the best job on the planet.

I was always interested in the natural world. I think my parents encouraged this by buying me encyclopaedias and dinosaur toys. And I watched a whole bunch of documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic growing up. And I think that’s where I sort of developed my passion for the natural world and dinosaurs and everything prehistoric. But I didn’t really study fossils properly until I got to graduate school in the US. And that was sort of a long journey.

But as a kid, I was always going out collecting rocks and shells on the beach. Actually, my first fossil expedition was an amateur expedition that I went on in Kachchh in Gujarat, because you actually have lots of Jurassic marine fossils there, like ammonites. And my mom had found out about some of these sites because she does a lot of work in Kachchh as a doctor, going out there with some of these medical camps. And so, both of us went out for a couple of years, and I collected a few fossils out there. So, I think that was my first foray into the field palaeontology in India.

A fossilised tree in Kachchh. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/Flickr.
A fossilised tree in Kachchh. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/Flickr.

SG: Okay, so tracing your journey basically from Kachchh to Smithsonian, and then to Yale — Where has that interest taken you and how has your research also evolved over the years? Could you take us through that journey?

AJ: You know, my journey was never a straight path. It was always sort of convoluted. So, I went to the Bombay Scottish School and John Connon School in Mumbai. And I was always passionate about Biology, and I knew I wanted to be a researcher. And to do that, I left India and went to a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, called Reed College where I studied ecology and evolution of frogs — not dinosaurs, not fossils, but living frogs. It’s because my advisor, they’re specialised in that. But what I worked on was how the environment affected the population biology and ecology of these frogs in Korea, and how when humans came into the ecosystem, how that changed their ecology and developmental pathways.

So, I started to think about all of these issues of how humans and climate are affecting animals from a very early stage in my career. From then, I went on to do a master’s in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University in Washington DC, and I worked with the famous Tom Lovejoy, who’s a great conservationist. And I also worked with a number of coral reef researchers like Jeremy Jackson and Nancy Knowlton and an environmental economist Chris Kennedy. And I tried to understand what drives the stability of a coral reef community.

I went from studying the populations of individual species to studying an entire community to then trying to understand how human impacts like fishing have impacted the integrity and structure of coral reefs in the Caribbean. And that got me thinking about more long-term patterns, how do long-term changes in the climate, and how do learn long-term impacts of humans have affected ecosystems? And unfortunately, our modern ecological datasets only go back maybe a couple of decades to about 100 years, at the most. So, to get a truly long-term perspective, I have to look at the fossil record.

And I then was in a Ph. D. programme at George Mason, I was already at the Smithsonian as a research associate. And I think that really honed my interest towards studying fossil mammals and towards studying long-term ecological change through time.

SG:  So, you are talking about long-term ecological change. In that context, what are these mega beasts, these giants that are tickling your interests currently? What are the big picture questions that they help answer? Why are you studying them?

AJ: Yeah, so the world not that long ago was full of megafauna and they are basically animals that weigh more than 50 kilograms. It’s a definition that we’ve come up with in the community. And that’s sort of what we’ve gone with.

For instance, North America was home to mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, bison, horses and camels. Today the largest land mammal here is the bison. Continental Europe had animals like the Irish elk, the woolly rhino, and mammoths again; Australia had these giant wombat-like animals called diprotodon and the marsupial lion called thylacoleo. And of course, South America also had elephants, they had these massive ground sloths, and armadillo-like giant glyptodonts with armoured tails. Even oceanic islands, like New Zealand, was home to giant birds like moas, Madagascar was home to the elephant, bird, and the human-sized lemurs. And then all of a sudden, all of these animals go away. And the only places on the planet where we still have lots of these large animals are Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

Skeleton of Mammuthus columbi on display at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.
The skeleton of a Mammuthus columbi on display at the Page Museum, California. Photo by Jonathan Chen/ Wikimedia Commons.

The questions that I’m interested in are why are these places what is so special about Africa and Southeast Asia? Why do we still have animals like elephants and tigers and rhinos in India, but not elsewhere on the planet? And answering these questions can help us understand how biodiversity has changed through time with the arrival of humans and climate change. And where we might go in the future? Are some ecosystems more resilient to global change than others? And how might we then alter our conservation strategies to account for that?

SG: But why is the Indian subcontinent of particular interest in all these regions that you’ve referred to? What’s so special about the Indian subcontinent and India?

AJ: So, a part of it is because I’m from India, and I feel a sense of ownership to the fossil record of the land of my birth. And what’s also interesting about India is that we have a fossil record of mammals, which goes back almost 18 million years. And we have almost continuous deposition, which is rare in most parts of the planet. The other reason is that it’s been largely unexplored. And it’s been unexplored for a number of reasons. They have to do with colonialism, they have to do with the priorities of the post-colonial state. And we can get into that a bit later. But India is particularly interesting because we do have this fossil record. It’s a record of animals in the tropics and subtropics, which rarely gets studied.

Most palaeontological investigations take place in places like North America and Europe, which do have excellent fossil records, but they represent the temperate portion of the world. So, what about the tropics? And what about a part of the world that still has all of these large animals? This is why I work on India.

SG: Now, I’ve seen your Twitter threads and your website. There are a lot of travel photos. And most of them are you in museums or museum specimens. There is something special about museum collections, right? So, what is so special about them?

AJ: Museums are these great repositories of biodiversity. These are the only places where you do have basically an accumulation of life on Earth, present and past. And they’re these excellent places where you can study and start to ask and answer these questions about past biodiversity change. Palaeontologists have been going out to the field for a couple of 100 years now. And when they find stuff, it all gets deposited in museums, and oftentimes, the stuff in museum floors still has to be studied. It’s almost as exciting as going out to the field and finding something new because you can find something brand new in a museum drawer as well.

SG: Now, coming back to India, where do I find these best-preserved Indian fossil specimens? What are the museums in India that I can go to, if I want to really see these amazing awe-inspiring fossil records?

AJ: So, that’s an interesting question. The Indian fossil record is partly in India, and partly in museums in the UK, in Europe and in the US. And part of that is because of colonial palaeontology in the Indian subcontinent. The best place to see fossils in India is in Kolkata. The Indian Museum has one of the best collections of symbolic mammals. These were collected by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) from about 1831 onwards, and all those fossils are still here, they’re still with us, in our museum.

The GSI also has smaller, provisional museums where you can still go out and see fossils. If you’re interested in Indian dinosaurs, you have to just go to the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, where there’s a mounted specimen of Barapasaurus, which is a large Indian sauropod dinosaur. So, these are animals with long necks and long tails. You can go out to the Raiyoli Fossil Park, in Gujarat, where there’s this massive egg site. And this is also where Rajasarus was found. This is a big carnivorous dinosaur from India. So, there are lots of opportunities to go and see fossils in India. They’re just not as well publicised as some of the sights in the West.

Palaeoloxodon namadicus, an extinct elephant display at Indian Museum, Kolkata. Photo by Royroydeb /Wikimedia Commons.
Palaeoloxodon namadicus, an extinct elephant. Model on display at Indian Museum, Kolkata. Photo by Royroydeb /Wikimedia Commons.


SG: We are used to seeing palaeontologists with a specific dress code, a specific toolkit – courtesy the Jurassic Park. What do you have in your toolkit? Do you have a hat and a shovel? What are the other modern-day tools that you need and you use?

AJ: Yeah, absolutely. And the thing is, I own that hat, I own that waist pack, and a backpack, and a shovel and rock pick and all of that. So, all of that is also part of my toolkit. And I use that when I go to the field. I don’t wear them when I’m in a museum. But palaeontologists use all kinds of different tools.

I’ve got colleagues who use 3D surface scanners, who will take a surface scan of the skull or parts of the skeleton and then try to understand how evolution has taken place in that group by looking at changes in the patterns of those skulls. I’ve got colleagues who look at the microscopic pits and scratches on the surface of teeth using both microscopy and using peels. So, if you take a polymer and you put that on the tooth and you peel it off, and then you can look at the pits and scratches on that, and that gives you a sense of the animal’s diet. I’ve got colleagues who do geochemistry so they will take an animal’s tooth and drill out a small piece of the enamel and then analyse the proportions of the carbon isotopes there. To understand it these animals, were grazers or browsers. So, palaeontologists use all kinds of tools, ranging from databases and complex statistics to geochemistry.

People think that palaeontologists are only out in the field digging up stuff in the dirt. But actually, most of my time is spent behind a computer screen doing complex statistics and programming. So, if you’re thinking about being a palaeontologist, you also have to have to think about being a computer programmer, because we do a lot of that in our field as well.

People think that palaeontologists are only out in the field digging up stuff in the dirt. But actually, most of my time is spent behind a computer screen doing complex statistics and programming, says paleobiologist Advait Jukar. Photo from Advait Jukar.
“People think that palaeontologists are only out in the field digging up stuff in the dirt. But actually, most of my time is spent behind a computer screen doing complex statistics and programming,” says paleobiologist Advait Jukar. Photo from Advait Jukar.

SG: And in one of your latest research, based on occurrences of fossils from India from the last 100,000 years, Advait, you’ve highlighted that the Indian subcontinent experienced a low level of extinction of these giant beasts, right? And that this extinction started about 30,000 years after the arrival of humans in the region. So, what were these giant beasts that roamed India? What did happen to them? Did they all die out or do we see them in some form even today?

AJ: Yeah. So, this was a fascinating study that I started when I was a Ph.D. student. And it’s just taken me a long time to complete it because accumulating all of that data took a long time.

So, I had this question about megafaunal extinctions in the Indian subcontinent, because every single global analysis of the megafaunal extinction had this giant blank space in India. And it was like, what is going on here? Why do we not know about anything that is going on in this in this part of the world?

And the first thing that I did was basically collect all of the data that I could get my hands on, on the occurrences of extinct species or fossils from India from the last 100,000 years, because that’s when we know the extinctions have taken place elsewhere in the planet. So, after collecting all of that data from the published literature (so all of these are studies that were undertaken by Indian paleontologists and archaeologists with different aims, but all of those data are there), and I just synthesised it in a different way.

And what I found, which was actually very curious, is that we see a very low magnitude extinction, we only lose four species. So, four true extinctions, and all of those species, you have Palaeoloxodon namadicus, which is a giant elephant. We think about the modern Asian elephant. Big males weigh about six tons, Paleoloxodon would have weighed about 15 tons. So, this was a real monster of an elephant one of the biggest ones to ever live. There was another species called Stegodon namadicus. So, these were these elephants with enormous tusks about 12 feet long, which was actually quite common in peninsular India. We had hippos, not the same kind of hippos that you have in Africa. This was a slightly different group, which had been around in the subcontinent for about 5 million years, and they go extinct at about 10,000 years ago. And we lose a zebra-like horse Equus namadicus. So, these represent the true extinctions.

We also have an extirpation, what that means is that a species goes extinct and part of its range, and this was the ostrich. So ostriches in, the latest part of the Pleistocene, up till about 12,000 years were found all the way from Ethiopia, and actually South Africa, Ethiopia, all the way into India. And India had ostriches! We actually have lots of eggshell fragments. And, and these early people in India were using those eggshell fragments, creating art on them. So, you actually have etched eggshells, just which is kind of neat. And these and this species seem to go away around 10,000 years ago as well.

And, of course, this zebra-like horse is part of this very old lineage of horses, which disperses over into Eurasia from North America about two and a half million years ago and then diversifies into the modern zebra and a variety of different species of horses in China, in Europe and in India. This horse Equus namadicus, as was the last species from this lineage in India. So, these are the two extinctions.

We also lose the wild type of the modern Indian cattle. So, the modern Indian zebu cattle or the hump cattle is a domesticated variety with the wild form is actually very, very common in these palaeontological and archaeological sites. And we start to see this transition from these wild types to the domesticated forms about 5,000 years ago.

Our ancestors saw all of these animals, you know, it’s so incredible!

So, what I found was that these extinctions actually take place fairly late in the record, people show up so our species shows up in India, sometime between about 100,000 -60,000 years ago, and we don’t start seeing the extinctions take place until about 30,000 years ago. And they continue on up until about 10,000 years.

And this extinction window corresponds to periods of drought. But it also corresponds to a period of time when human populations are growing, and our technologies are getting more and more sophisticated. And because we only see the extinction of large things compared to small things, we think that humans did play a role in driving these species extinct.

The more interesting question is why this time lag? And why the survival of so many large species in India today, animals as elephants and rhinos? The answer to that I think, is that all of these animals like Indian rhinos, and elephants have very large geographic distributions. Elephants, at one point, could be found from Turkey all the way to China. So, they had this incredibly large range. And when local populations go extinct, either because of environmental change, because of habitat change, or because of anthropogenic activities, there are other populations that can come and take their place.

All of the species which go extinct in India seem to be restricted to the Indian subcontinent. They seem to be endemics. And we know that endemic species tend to have a higher risk of going into extinction just because they have a smaller distribution. So, you don’t have other populations which can come in and rescue them. If those local populations go extinct. Animals like the hippo and these two elephants, which went extinct, were probably stressed because of the droughts we know from modern elephants and hippos that they don’t do so well, when, when they when there’s a shortage of water. And big animals in general don’t breed well. This is some work that my Ph.D. co-advisor Kate Lines and colleagues have done. And what they showed is that it’s not always good to be big. Being big gives you certain advantages, like being immune to predation after a certain point or being able to travel large distances between patches of food. But it also means that you that you give birth very infrequently. And in a stressed-out condition, if a population doesn’t grow at a steady rate. And if you have an additional pressure of people coming in and hunting at low levels, you basically go from mom elephant and dad elephant producing two baby elephants to mom elephant, and dad elephant producing one baby elephant. And so, you don’t get a replacement of the population through time. And eventually, that population goes to towards a decline and an extinction.

So, that’s what we learned from the megafaunal extinction in India, is that all of these factors, both promoted the survival of, of species, which you see in India today, but also cause the extinction of the megafauna.

Now coming to the present-day scenario, animals in India, animals like elephants, and tigers are now in isolated pockets of habitat in a sea of humanity. You know, they once occupied these massive distributions across most of Western Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. But because they’re in these isolated pockets, it’s very hard for the populations to come back. If there is an additional stressor beyond the immediate pressure from human populations and causing habitat destruction and hunting, there is now this additional pressure of habitat change caused by changing climates. They’ve been increasing droughts. You have erratic, monsoonal patterns and we know that all of this stuff affected past megafauna. We know that all of these factors will affect modern day animals as well.

The first thing that species do when the environment changes when the climate changes are that they move. And because these animals are now in these isolated pockets in the sea of people, they’re going to come into increasing contact with people, it’s going to increase human-wildlife conflict. So, all of these factors, I think, are going to increase the extinction rates, as has been shown in a number of different studies. What I can conclude from all of this is that the megafaunal extinction, which started about 50,000 years ago, in most parts of the world and in India, about 30,000 years is continuing today. This is the sixth extinction crisis that everyone talks about. It starts quite early on, and it will keep going unless we do something about it.

SG: So, this sounds like a slow burn event. It’s cooking slowly, but it’s happening. And eventually you see the impacts. And you can see the impacts already on the species that we have now. And I was fascinated to read one of your latest papers, where you talked about elephants – the ancestors of modern-day elephants in Kashmir. And these are gomphotheres. Am I pronouncing it correctly?

AJ: Yeah. So, these gomphotheres are this is just incredibly successful group of proceedings or elephant relatives. They first evolved in Africa, just like most groups have of elephants. And then they disperse out into Eurasia and then go off into North America and South America. Incidentally, elephants are found on every single continent, except for Australia, Australia is just the oddball place where they never end up.

So, these gomphotheres dispersed out into Eurasia, they diversify into a number of forms, we actually have a, a very high diversity of them, in the Shivalik range. So between about 18 million years and about three and a half million years, actually quite a gomphotheres kicking around in India, and then they start to go extinct. And for the longest time, we thought that they all went extinct at about, you know, three and a half or two and a half million years ago.

But then a colleague of mine at Sri Pratap College in Srinagar found this very interesting tooth, and it was immediately apparent to me that it was a gomphotheres. And what was more interesting is that he found it alongside horse teeth. So, horses only show up in Eurasia after two and a half million years ago in the Pleistocene. So, we know that this elephant had to be younger than two and a half million years because it was found alongside these horses. This means that this that this horse becomes an index fossil, or it’s an index of a particular period of time. But it also shows that the Kashmir Valley was a very different place than it is today. Today, it’s an intermontane, high Himalayan Valley, with a lot of you know, conifers and meadows, and this big lake. But back when these elephants were in the Valley, the valley floor was actually a giant lake. And these teeth, and these fossils are preserved in the sediments that were formed at the bottom of this lake. So, it was a very different time, it was a lot warmer. But then as the glacial and interglacial cycles or the ice ages, of the Pleistocene, things started to ramp up, the climate change, things got cooler, things got more variable. And as the Himalayas kept rising, this environment got substantially colder and less hospitable for these kinds of elephants.

Today, the Kashmir Valley is intermontane and a high Himalayan Valley. But back when the elephants were in the Valley, the valley floor was actually a giant lake, says paleobiologist Advait Jukar. Photo by Satya Kipal/Wikimedia Commons.
Today, the Kashmir Valley is a high Himalayan Valley. But back when the elephants were in the Valley, the valley floor was actually a giant lake, says paleobiologist Advait Jukar. Photo by Satya Kipal/Wikimedia Commons.

But in Kashmir for the, for a good chunk of the Pleistocene for the last two and a half million years, you had three kinds of elephants. You had the Elephas hysudricus, which is the ancestor of the modern Asian elephant. You had the Paleoloxodon, which is this giant elephant that I just talked about. And I’m working with colleagues from Jammu University to describe to us a skull that they that my colleague GM Bhatt there found. and is it’s currently housed in Jammu. Now you have the Sinomastodon, which is this gomphothere that I just described. Kashmir Valley completely different place. As the climate changed, the environment changed, and we have a completely different fauna up there now.

Listen: [Podcast] Imprints: Finding molluscs with Devapriya Chattopadhyay

SG: It’s really cool how you’ve shown how Kashmir Valley was once like. And it’s quite difficult to imagine, you know! It’s very different. But when you work on these kind of specimens are there any ‘aha’ moments? Was this one of your ‘aha’ moment, specially with the Kashmir fossils? And have there been moments of despair when you were trying to read between the lines and you discover something and you understand the implications and it’s not really great, right? What are these moments like?

AJ: I think my favourite ‘aha’ moments are when I figure out what a particular fossil belongs to. So, this gomphothere, for, for example, I thought it was a different kind of species. And then after, you know, doing a lot of research, like, it can’t be anything but Sinomastodon, because it’s the right age is the right kind of morphology. And that was kind of wild! Because now this becomes the westernmost occurrence of this species. And now it’s in an intermontane Valley in Kashmir, which means that the story of Kashmir is a lot more interesting than we thought it was previously. So that’s a good example of an ‘aha’ moment.

A moment of despair, I think, comes when I think about these early collections of fossils from India, those that were collected by the British. And it’s not because they were collected by the British, or they’re currently stored at the Natural History Museum in London or in other repositories, it’s because we don’t have a lot of information about where these fossils were found. Now, palaeontologists depend on associated information like where on the surface a particular fossil came from, because that tells us a lot about where it came from in time. And if you can’t pinpoint that fossil in space and time, it loses a lot of useful information that we can then apply to analyses of evolution or ecology through time. So, then it just becomes an interesting specimen that we can use for comparisons. And a lot of these early fossils that we then use to describe these species from India, come from unknown contexts in the Shivaliks. It is because back in the day, much of this palaeontology was carried out by you know, engineers and officers of the East India Company who weren’t trained as geologists, they weren’t trained as palaeontologists. They employed a lot of local students to go and dig these specimens out. And they don’t seem to have kept a lot of good notes on exactly where the fossils came from. So, in many ways, it’s disappointing because I want to use this massive collection to answer all of these interesting questions. But I’m limited by the actual information that’s associated with the specimens.

SG: Earlier in our conversation, you talked about the impacts of colonialism on palaeontology in India. So, could you elaborate on what were these impacts? And is it something we can address now – the legacy impact? And, what happened 200 years ago? And as we advance the field in India, how do those impacts also matter and how do we address them?

AJ: Oh, absolutely. So, palaeontology in India, in many ways, was a colonial endeavour. The scientific establishment meant at the time in Bengal at the Asiatic society was promoting the discovery of India’s prehistory and history. And when Princep, who was one of the secretaries of the Asiatic Society of Bengal found out about these fossils coming out of the hill, he sent out notices to more people to just send these fossils from elsewhere to Bengal. And eventually, they made their way to London. The second group of fossils that were collected by the Geological Survey of India are still here, we still have them. So, about half of the fossils that were found ended up in the UK and the Americas. The other half is still here. So that was, I think, the biggest impact of colonial paleo; it took away some of our fossils, arguably some particularly important fossils. But in many ways what colonialism did in India is that it prevented Indians from being trained in these disciplines as these disciplines were being developed elsewhere.

It also took away a lot of wealth from India, which could have then been devoted to museums and institutions of learning, where fields like palaeontology can flourish.

There are accounts of British officers of the East India Company talking about how Indians aren’t capable of doing Geology, despite the fact that most of the people doing the field surveys and collecting were Indians. I think they didn’t start to train Indians up until after the First World War, when there was a loss of a lot of young men in Europe who would ordinarily do these tasks in the colonies. And so, they decided that well, maybe we can create some Indians.

This opinion wasn’t shared across the Board, but it was shared by enough High-Level officers that it took a toll on the development of these sciences in the subcontinent. So, what can we do about this today? I think there’s a lot of scope for indigenous palaeontology in India, we have one of the best fossil records on the planet. And just because the British excavated and took a lot of stuff out doesn’t mean that it was all taken away. There’s still a lot of stuff in those hills. There are a lot of fossils in peninsular India. And there are lots of excellent palaeontologists at Punjab University, at IIT Roorkee, at ISI doing stellar work to try and tell this story of India’s past.

But palaeontology is an esoteric field, it doesn’t have a lot of direct applications to industry. But it is an inspiring field and gets a lot of kids interested in the sciences. And if you if we want to encourage this, if we want to encourage our future generations to be interested in the natural world, we want to get them excited about and we want to get them exposed to our past. And India, you know, we are very interesting people, we are obsessed with our history. And I feel like this is something that would come naturally to us, you know, and an investigation of our past. So, what needs to be done is a broadening of the departments of geology and biology at universities in India to include palaeontologists. You can’t tell the story of the earth or life on Earth without telling the story of the fossils. And one way the field can actually progress is if Indian universities hire more palaeontologists to teach a more holistic picture of evolution or earth history.

Talking about the importance of indigenous palaentology Advait Jakur says that one can't tell the story of the earth without telling the story of the fossils. Photo from Advait Jakur.
Talking about the importance of indigenous palaentology Advait Jukar says that one can’t tell the story of the earth without telling the story of the fossils. Photo from Advait Jukar.

I think the most important thing that needs to be done is to create a world-class Museum. The Indian Museum was great, but it was built in the 1820s and 30s. And it needs an upgrade. And we need more museums. We need museums so that kids like me, growing up would actually see Indian fossils in India. I saw my first fossils in London, I thought that was a shame, because we have so much here. And we need repositories and research institutions where fossils are collected in the field can come and be stored for perpetuity so that future generations of palaeontologists not just in India, but from abroad can come and collaborate and study them and uncover this past. We need better conservation of resources, we need better prep labs. And we need more outreach, just like this too, you know, promote Indian palaeontology and talk about India’s fossil wealth and why it’s important.

AJ: I think India can be a leader in this. There are lots of very interesting evolutionary stories that are unique to the subcontinent that we can tell in our own way, in our museums, if we choose to build them.

SG: You know, I’m sitting, you know, right here in Calcutta (Kolkata), and I didn’t realise that I could just step out and take a look at these specimens. So, this conversation has been very enriching. There’s so much right outside our doorstep, right in our backyards. We really need to think about them. We really need to conserve them. And they are going to give us a lot of information of what possibly can also happen in the future, right?  So, thanks for that and thanks for your time, and helping us understand what you do, why you do and why this field needs to be strengthened. Why do we need the resources to spend in this field in India particularly. So, thanks for being here with us, Advait.

AJ:  Thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

SG: In our next episode, we’ll make a trip into the oceans with micropaleontologist Rajani Panchang and know more about her subjects – microfossils.

Please subscribe and share our podcast, Everything Environment by Mongabay-India. And if you haven’t heard the other episodes of Imprints, now is a good time.

This episode was hosted and produced by me, Sahana Ghosh. Co-produced by Kartik Chandramouli. Edited by Tejas Dayanand Sagar. Cover art by Kartik Chandramouli. Copy edits by Sapna Verma and Priyanka Shankar.

Listen: [Podcast] Imprints: Lake and archive diving with Atreyee Bhattacharya

Banner image: Palaeontologists look for information about the past stored in fossils. Photo from Advait Jukar.

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