It’s a deer… It’s a crocodile… It’s a ….

The deer-like, dog-nosed, hoofed terrestrial mammal Indohyus existed more than 50 million years ago in the early Eocene, an epoch of wet and balmy weather. What did it evolve into?

The deer-like, dog-nosed, hoofed terrestrial mammal Indohyus existed more than 50 million years ago in the early Eocene, an epoch of wet and balmy weather. What did it evolve into?

My train lumbered into Lucknow, a cultural whirlpool in North India, famous for its silken kebabs, exquisite embroidery and soulful poetry.

But I was here for something even more compelling. My trip was stoked by half-a-century-old discoveries in India — finds that deemed the subcontinent as the ground zero of a fascinating mammalian evolution.

I was at the home of 78-year-old Ashok Sahni, the sensei of Indian palaeontology.

“This was in the 1970s,” said Ashok Sahni. “There had been reports that there were large skulls but nobody in India, in fact, had identified them. One of my students — he was a young guy then — went to Kutch and he came up with several fossils.”

Vijay Prakash Mishra is the student Ashok was talking about. He’s now in his sixties. But four decades ago at the age of 21, Vijay Prakash started scouring the desiccated Kutch region in western India.

This white, salt-crusted desert was once a shallow sea, rife with plankton and fish.

“So, naturally we expected marine vertebrates -- crocodiles,” said Vijay Prakash Mishra. “But we didn’t think we would find certain things that were not known from India.”

The last supper

Fossil 2 small.jpeg

About 70 million years ago, a limbless reptile crunched into dinosaur eggs to slurp out its contents, which included a squirming hatchling. But this beanfest collapsed under a wet blanket of mud.

When you think of fossils you imagine grimy skeletons or frozen silhouettes of creatures from eons ago. 

But then there are those rare gems. Fossils that zoom beyond anatomy. That bullhorn behaviour. 

This is a tale of discovery and rediscovery. The chronicle of an extraordinary fossil. One that doesn’t merely frame a picture of the past, but pans into its action. To part the curtain on this drama, we’ve got to travel to Nagpur, a city wedged in the heart of India.


Raider of the lost art -- newfound cave-drawings hold pouched secrets

The landscape was a geological crumb cake.  It was a tableland bristling with a garrison of boulders, rocks and pebbles. For archaeologist Jinu Koshy every step was an ankle twist, an accidental shuffle dance.

rock+art.jpg

At some point in the trek, echoes of bleating goats boomeranged. Jinu had come closer to a ravine. He stood at the nibbled edge of this chasm, spying rock shelters.

Early last year, the 42-year-old archaeologist made his first trip to this desolate mesa. The upland was located in the south-Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

A bird’s eye view of an online map showed a rumpled terrain, very similar to a spot nearby that Jinu had helped excavate. That archaeological dig had happened more than a decade ago and had unwrapped some of south India’s oldest rock art on the walls of cave shelters — prime studio pads for prehistoric man. Since the landscapes bore close resemblances, Jinu was sure that this site too could have housed doodling hunter gatherers.

On his debut march across this tableland, Jinu climbed up and down ravines, combing craggy cave walls for ancient art but the Chennai-based archaeologist was left twiddling his thumbs.


Real-life Flintstones yabba dabba doo, experiment to trace human evolution

Imagine being shipwrecked and solitary on an island. I know that sounds like a cliched introduction to a reality show. But hang on to that that driftwood.

Archaeologist Akhilesh Kumar flaking a quartzite stone to make a handaxe — a stone tool that is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of ancient man. Stone-tool experiments such as these have revealed that archaic man came to India much earlier than previously assumed.

Archaeologist Akhilesh Kumar flaking a quartzite stone to make a handaxe — a stone tool that is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of ancient man. Stone-tool experiments such as these have revealed that archaic man came to India much earlier than previously assumed.

Being alone in the wild is certainly a terrifying idea for screen-staring city-slickers because most of us don’t even possess mildly practical skills to survive like Robinson Crusoe.

But for tool-making archaeologists, the real McCoys with Sherlockian skills, a castaway’s life is clearly, elementary. Meet the authentic Flintstones!

This is a story about reliving the past. A narrative about archaeologists rewriting dates of early human migration to India, new-age stone-tool butcherers and a deerskin-clad hunter.

Found and Lost: Indian fossil hunters yearn for a safe haven

IMG_8442.JPG

Vishal Verma is a 48-year-old fossil-hunter and conservationist who lives in Manavar, a sleepy town in Central India, surrounded by rolling hills of pale limestone and dark volcanic basalt.

Dinosaurs once walked on these lands.

The moonlighting palaeontologist had found numerous breathtaking fossils in his lifetime. But one particular kind eluded him — those of dinosaurs.

This is a tale of triumphs and disappointments. The story of an Indian fossil hunter.

Unearthing India's treasure chest of rocks and fossils with Pranay Lal

Scoop a spade through the soil beneath your feet and you could reveal eye-popping, fantastical proofs of creatures that existed a hundred, thousand, million or even a billion years before you.

IMG_8537.JPG

The book Indica -- A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent with its vivid illustrations and lucid prose, slices through India’s mountains, rivers, rocks and fossils to reveal the intricate layers of India’s natural history.

In this interview, Pranay talks about the inspiration for Indica, his mentors, the crisis facing geological monuments in India and the recent push for conservation of these relics.