35-million-year-old rare cetacean fossils discovered in Meghalaya | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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35-million-year-old rare cetacean fossils discovered in Meghalaya

ByDavid Laitphlang
May 12, 2024 12:11 AM IST

The fossil discovery in Meghalaya's South Garo Hills has piqued global interest. However, there are growing concerns about preserving these ancient relics

Siju, a serene haven nestled amidst the verdant South Garo Hills of Meghalaya, has recently emerged as a focal point of global fascination, not merely for its breathtaking limestone caves but also for an epochal discovery that has reverberated through the scientific community.

Fossilised jawbone in South Garo Hills(Geological Survey of India- North East Region) PREMIUM
Fossilised jawbone in South Garo Hills(Geological Survey of India- North East Region)

In February 2024, a team of intrepid explorers from Core Geo Expedition (CGE), a distinguished non-profit organisation, unearthed rare fossil specimens estimated to be approximately 35 to 40 million years old. These extraordinary relics were discovered in the remote enclave of Gongdap village near Tolegre, a mere 10 kilometres from the renowned Siju cave, colloquially known as the Bat Cave.

Guided by the expertise of Tudor Tamas, a geologist from Romania, and accompanied by local guides Milton M Sangma and Salban M Sangma, the CGE team embarked on their expedition crawled into the narrow cave and after some time identified what looked like a fossil which was ascertained by Tamas as a remarkable find.

Thereafter, the few pictures taken were shared by the team on social media, which attracted much attention from many quarters, especially geologists and other people invested in the field of geology.

Since these fossil specimens bore striking resemblance to prehistoric whale ancestors belonging to the genera Rhodocetus or Ambulocetus, the CGE team promptly alerted authorities, including Shivansh Avasthi, the deputy commissioner of South Garo Hills, underscoring the imperative need for rigorous scientific scrutiny and preservation of these invaluable relics.

Responding to the state government’s request for assistance, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) North Eastern Region dispatched Bashisha Iangrai, an experienced geologist renowned for her extensive experience in palaeontology, who successfully carried out national geochemical mapping in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi NCR.

Iangrai embarked on a mission to unravel the mysteries shrouded within the ancient limestone recesses of Siju accompanied by a cadre of experts and seasoned local guides, including members of the Meghalaya Adventures’ Association (MAA) and its founding general secretary Brian Daly Kharpran, and the village nokma (chieftain).

Cave interior(Geological Survey of India- North East Region)
Cave interior(Geological Survey of India- North East Region)

As the expedition set forth on April 6, Iangrai told HT about the geological significance of the discovery over the phone. Tracing the provenance of the fossil specimens to the Siju limestone member of the Shella formation and Jaiñtia group of rocks, she stated the geological timeline, dating back to the Middle Eocene epoch, an epochal period spanning approximately 39-47 million years ago. Drawing parallels with previous cetacean discoveries within the Indian subcontinent, Iangrai expressed optimism regarding the transformative implications of this discovery for paleontological research.

However, the expedition's momentum was abruptly stymied following an official missive from the state government, relayed through Meghalayan Age Limited (MAL), a subsidiary entity of the state tourism department, undersigned by Robert Lyngdoh, the chief administrative officer of MAL. Though the contents of the directive remain ambiguous, Iangrai intimated the government's intention to convene a stakeholder assembly prior to embarking on further investigative endeavours.

“We are uncertain about the implications of this directive, but we apprehend that the imminent onset of the monsoon season, coupled with the burgeoning influx of inquisitive visitors, may imperil the integrity of the excavation site,” Iangrai remarked.

In response to inquiries regarding the abrupt cessation of exploration activities, Lyngdoh attributed the decision to burgeoning visitation rates, which he contended posed a latent threat to the site’s sanctity. “We have liaised with district authorities to institute measures to secure the area until further notice,” Lyngdoh remarked. “The onus now rests with the tourism department to chart the course of future action, while we, from MAL, extend unwavering support to the expeditionary team,” he added.

Meanwhile, a little probing by HT revealed that a significant reason for the sudden directive to stop was to prevent outside agencies from easily entering the treasure trove and staking claim to an undeserving discovery.

Sharing a brief insight into the matter without revealing much, the MAA founding secretary Brian Daly Kharpran told HT over the phone that the government decided to prevent any outside interference in the expedition. “You see, soon after the discovery, the news was shared with people and agencies from outside the country and some vested interests had embarked upon conducting the expedition on their own, thereby, possibly staking claim to the find. We from MAA don’t want that and we would like the expedition to be conducted in an orderly and professional manner while taking all stakeholders, especially the local residents who are the custodians of the land,” he said.

Echoing similar sentiments, and reflecting upon antecedent paleontological discoveries within the region, including an 18 cm long fossilised rib bone unearthed in 1978, Iangrai underscored the exigency of assiduous preservation endeavours to shield these delicate fossilised remnants from the vicissitudes of nature and human interference. With the monsoon season looming ominously, posing an imminent threat to the exposed relics, she issued a heartfelt appeal to the local community and village leaders, imploring their “collaborative stewardship in safeguarding this invaluable heritage for posterity”.

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