Masol, a remote, neglected hamlet lying in the vicinity of the ‘modern’ city of Chandigarh, caught not just the attention of the local authorities but also international scholars when some fossils from a prehistoric era were discovered around the village.
Nearly 1,500 fossils and 250 stone tools were found on the site. Most were of extinct animals belonging to millions of years ago.
These include the stegodon (a giant elephant with tusk up to four metres), sivatherium (a giraffe), prehistoric ancestors of modern-day cows that weighed more than 300 kg, sheep, goats, antelopes, one-toed horse, various types of turtles, rhinoceros, etc.
There were also carnivores which included panthers, hyenas, crocodiles etc.
In the two years that it took for the Mohali district administration to protect the discoveries, most of them have been lost to plunder. Instead of being used in research that could have told us more about the past; or being kept in museums, the prehistoric fossils have been lost to private collectors.
Village Sarpanch, Harnek Singh had told The Tribune, “Some visitors and foreigners have taken these fossils for free or after giving sweets or gifts to children who had collected these. Later, some residents and labourers started selling these fossils.”
The discoveries were carried out by a joint team of interdisciplinary experts from the Society for Archaeological and Anthropological Research, Chandigarh, and the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, and published in the French journal Comptes Rendus Palevol.
The subsequent findings were massive in stature–experts found cut marks on 2.58 million-year-old bovid fossils (members of the cow family) from the area which, following extensive tests, suggested that they were carried out by early humans who seemed to live off scavenging.
The period would make them the first members of our genus ‘Homo’ to settle in Asia, and it also raised questions on the out-of-Africa migration theory related to modern humans.
“The fossil site around Masol is what we call a ‘buttonhole’ formation, which is being exposed due to the tectonic collision of the Himalayan and Eurasian plates. Due to this, mounds bearing fossils show a series of layers whose geological age can be ascertained through various types of testing. The layer bearing the said fossils belongs to the transition time between Pleistocene and Pliocene epochs, that is around 2.58 million years ago. At this time, giant mammals roamed the area in what was then a type of Savannah grassland,” said Mukesh Singh, scholar and President of the Society for Archaeological and Anthropological Research.
The Shiwalik mountain range, the lower-most Himalayan range which lies on the Himachal-Punjab border in Northwestern India, was already a well-known fossil site where various layers have thrown up fossils of extinct ancestors of modern animals and also Sivapithecus, an ancient species of apes that thrived around 12 million years ago.
“The Chandigarh hills are the oldest localities in the world where prehistorical activities are normally attributed to the oldest species of Homo genus,” reads a description in the Masol discoveries’ section of Museum of Natural History, Chandigarh, which was added post the findings.
Back in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the museum along with French President Francois Hollande to celebrate these findings.
Even though direct fossils of early humans have not been found, experts engaged in the project believe that the cut marks found on several fossils and also stone tools provide ample evidence of human scavenging activity. Since stone tools are attributed to the Homo genus, the discoveries showed that the transition from a primitive species to a more intelligent ancestor of humans, for example, the Homo habilis, had already been made by this time.
The discoveries sparked a worldwide debate among scholars about the origins of early modern humans. Mukesh Singh said that an upcoming Congress of experts in France this year would delve deeper into these questions.
The Archaeological Survey of India has initiated the process to get the site reserved, said V S Rawat, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist of ASI, Chandigarh. However, this process has already taken a long time. Mukesh Singh says that it is an important discovery and ideally, should only be handled by experts. “Due to the slow process it takes for such sites to get reservation status, it is a harsh reality that opportunists may pocket important fossils or distort findings. This is also true of several African countries which are rich in such discoveries.”
Be that as it may, the last decade seems to have infused a breath of life to the hamlet by bringing some amount of media glare, and, in turn, government’s attention.
(Written by Gagandeep Singh and Edited by Shruti Singhal)
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