Why India’s fossil wealth has remained hidden

Colonial footprints

Certain locations like North America have an established reputation as fossil hotspots, often on account of rich dinosaur finds that have been extensively popularised through museum exhibitions, literary works, films and, more recently, the internet, says Amelia Bonea, a historian on contemporary India and researcher at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg, Germany.

“By contrast, fossil localities in other parts of the world have not always enjoyed the same degree of visibility, notwithstanding their scientific significance,” says Bonea. In India’s case, there are two main reasons for the neglect, she feels.

For one, Bonea blames the colonial past.

For example, it used to be common practice to ship groundbreaking finds back to Europe or North America, where they would be studied there and benefit Western science, rather than the local people. A recent study found that, even over the last 30 years, 97% of fossil finds in one major database were added by authors based primarily in high or upper-middle income countries.

 And the second, Bonea says, is the postcolonial state’s failure to recognise the value of its fossil heritage, the public relevance of the scientific disciplines that study it as well as its failure to support their development.

“This is an ironic development, considering that India is home to an institution of research – the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow – that is rather unique,” says Bonea. “At the time of its establishment, in 1946, it was one of only two institutions in the world dedicated specifically to the study of palaeobotany, the other similar institute being the Palynological Laboratories at Pennsylvania State University,” she says.

Even before the word dinosaur was coined, we know that the earliest fossils were recorded in the UK in 1824 – the Megalosaurus was found in Oxfordshire and dated back to the Middle Jurassic period (around 174 to 164 million years ago). However, a lesser-known fact is that the discovery of the first dinosaur bones from India came hot on the heels of this.

In 1828, just four years later, W H Sleeman found the first two fossils of what would eventually be called the Titanosaurus indicus (meaning “Titanic Indian lizard”) in Jabalpur Central India.  They passed through many hands, until a British man sent them to England along with thousands of other fossils that were packed away in chests and loaded onto ships.

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