The hunt for fossils in active mines started in 2001, when professor Rajendra Rana of Garhwal University, Kenneth Rose from Johns Hopkins University and geologist Ashok Sahni of Panjab University started looking into lignite mines in Rajasthan.
They aimed at exploring Palaeocene-Eocene sediments because it had been proposed that hoofed animals (perissodactyls and artiodactyls) and some other mammal groups might have originated in western India.
Having found fossils of only fish but no mammals in the active mines in Rajasthan, initial work at the Vastan Lignite Mine at Gujarat was started by Rana in 2001.
“In 2002, I found some isolated teeth of a bat and primates along with fishes, snakes, frogs, lizards through the screen-washing process. The following year, I found big bones and jaws,” said Rana of HNB Garhwal University, Uttarakhand.
“In 2004, with collaboration, we recovered many jaws, isolated teeth and bones of bats, primates etc through the process of hand picking and screening-washing.
Since then, the research team has been at work in the mines of Gujarat for almost two weeks at a time once every year or two.
The teeth were sent to Rose. “My comparisons showed that two of them were the first fossil bat teeth from Asia,” said Rose. In 2004 the team expanded to include Thierry Smith and colleagues from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.
Since then, the research team has been at work in the mines of Gujarat for almost two weeks at a time once every year or two. However, working in an active mine has not been easy since miners who work 24/7 extract coal from the layer below the fossil-bearing tier. This means that the shovel takes away the layer that is productive and valuable, leaving the team to move to a different site within the same mine or a new site.
“We have no choice but to search for fossils in active mines. These layers have not been found exposed at the surface, and once the mines are no longer active they are filled in or closed for safety reasons,” said Rose.
“There can be no question that enormous numbers of fossils are being destroyed by the mining process. Nevertheless, without the mining process these fossils would never have been found at all,” he added.