For anyone interested in the history of life on the planet, India is a uniquely fascinating natural experiment. The tectonic plate that the country lies on was once stuck to Antarctica, close to the southern pole. About 100 million years ago, it began drifting northwards, and about 55 million years ago, it collided with Asia, which resulted in the gargantuan Himalayan mountain range. “So a fossil you find in India today might be the remains of a life form that lived at some point close to Antarctica,” said Devapriya Chattopadhyay, a palaeobiologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune.
When I met Chattopadhyay in 2017, I learnt how scientists like her collect fossils from geologically rich regions such as Kutch in Gujarat and study them to reconstruct a picture of the ancient earth, what is called “deep-time biodiversity”. I also learnt that Indian fossils are at grave risk. Each time Chattopadhyay embarks on an expedition to Kutch, she witnesses more and more fossil-rich areas being lost. Some have been converted into mustard fields, a few have become sites of new building projects or are excavated for limestone; once, she was heartbroken to find a structure being built using bricks embedded with fossils. Another time, she worked at a site with a particularly valuable selection of rocks, only to find out two days later that the area had been bulldozed to make a parking lot.
Such losses, coupled with the lack of a legal framework governing who has rights over geological heritage sites, have denied India a prominent place in the global palaeontology scene. Chattopadhyay and her colleagues have been campaigning hard for over six years to establish India’s first natural history museum so that fossils can be conserved better. The campaign gathered momentum in 2019 when the group met with K. VijayRaghavan, who was then the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. News reports announced that a “high-level inter-ministerial committee” would be formed to set up the museum. “The Indian Museum of Earth” would come up in the National Capital Region and would be supported by philanthropic and public-private funding. Unfortunately, the pandemic struck a few months after, and four years since, progress has been slow.
Somewhere between the back-to-back waves of COVID-19, Chattopadhyay—while recovering from a bout of ill health—received an interesting email from two young researchers: Nussaïbah Raja and Emma Dunne. The pair were looking for collaborators around the world to conduct a study investigating biases in the paleobiology database, a global repository of information on fossil animals, plants, and microorganisms. We rely on fossils for an understanding of deep-time biodiversity, so if most of our knowledge comes from only a small region of the earth, it is likely that we are not getting an accurate picture. Raja and Dunne’s concerns aligned with Chattopadhyay’s, so she joined the cross-continental, and incidentally all-women, team of palaeontologists to embark upon this investigation. Their results were published in the online Nature Ecology and Evolution journal in 2022.
They found that biases exist. The paper states that researchers in high- or upper-middle-income countries have a monopoly over palaeontological knowledge production by contributing to 97 per cent of the fossil data. And it is not just natural factors (such as environmental conditions leading to the better preservation of fossils in these countries) that are behind this. “A legacy of colonialism and socioeconomic factors, such as wealth, education and political stability” is just as much to blame for countries in North America and western Europe dominating palaeontology.
“India loses ancient fossils every time a field site is destroyed and every time a palaeontologist retires.”
India is one of the countries under-represented in the paleobiology database. “India was in a really bad economic situation after independence,” said Chattopadhyay. “As a result, things like food security and transportation were prioritised, and many field sites were transformed into roads, dams, and agricultural land. I see this in Gujarat all the time.” Also, many fossils of Indian origin are in museums in Europe. These remain inaccessible to Indian researchers because Indian funding agencies do not provide funding for fieldwork/museum visits outside India. Why can we not ask for these fossils to be returned to India? “Because we do not have a repatriation treaty of fossils,” replied Chattopadhyay. “Even if we did, where would they send it? We do not have a national repository, remember?” The lack of a repository is why India loses large numbers of ancient fossils every time a field site is destroyed and every time a palaeontologist retires.
- India is one of fossil-rich regions of the world, but its geological wealth is under-represented in the global paleobiology database.
- A study found that high- or upper-middle-income countries contribute to 97 per cent of the fossil data although countries in the tropics are typically the richest in terms of such biodiversity.
- Natural factors (such as environmental conditions leading to the better preservation of fossils in these countries) are one reason for this but a “legacy of colonialism and socioeconomic factors, such as wealth, education and political stability” is equally to blame.
- The problem is compounded In India because it lacks a research/national repository for fossils and because there is no legal framework governing who has rights over geological heritage sites.
A museum can solve many of these problems. “Many places, in South America for example, may not match India in terms of GDP and other economic indicators, yet they have research museums with a proper collection protocol. Their researchers are free to access those materials. And most importantly, when a particular field site is getting destroyed, they have a place to keep these materials for future research. Somebody might not be interested today, but at some point when someone with the right expertise turns up, they will be able to access these fossils. This is where India has a big gap.”
What would The Indian Museum of Earth look like? The displays would be a prominent part of the establishment of course, but Chattopadhyay clarified that what the public sees and marvels at would be just the tip of the iceberg. “A museum needs a really large space for the research repository. There should be mechanisms to house incoming collections, and people who can manage them. We will need curators, facility managers, designers, communicators, and associated researchers,” she said. “The museum is not a dead place where you simply dump stuff. It’s a dynamic entity, constantly using materials to create knowledge about deep time.” Many of the under-represented countries in global paleobiology databases lie in the tropics, regions that are typically the richest in terms of biodiversity. This was the primary reason they were so attractive to European colonisers.
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By excluding data from the most biodiverse areas and replacing it with a temperate-heavy dataset, we will end up with a biased understanding. It would be a loss for global science,” Chattopadhyay said.
Nandita Jayaraj is a science writer and co-founder of the feminist science media platform TheLifeofScience.com. She is the co-author of Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science.