A podcast about ancient humans and fossils in India
Tamil Nadu’s Chembarambakkam Lake Foretells an Aridity in the Sands of Time
“Look at that,” Hema Achyuthan cried out loud.
She was pointing to an ivory-tinted flake. It was a prehistoric, handcrafted stone tool wedged like a white chocolate chip on a red mud-cake.
Achyuthan, a short-haired, medium-built woman with an easy manner and brisk strides, was trodding along a shrubland on the northern bank of Chembarambakkam lake, a large potable water reservoir outside Chennai.
The 61-year-old geologist hunched to run her fingers over the contours of her discovery before unplugging it from the soil with her rock axe.
Her praise was operatic. “Beautiful, beautiful!”
But in the ballad of Chembarambakkam lake, this chorus could well be a thing of the past. The story that commenced with the percussion of stone-tool-makers now echoes the cacophony of factories around a shallow lake with fluctuating water levels from climatic changes triggering floods one year and droughts in another. It is set to hit an arid tempo as evident from a layer of sandy deposit on its banks – geological evidence that portends increased water scarcity in this region.
Found and Lost: An Indian Fossil Hunter’s Chase for Dinosaur Relics
The fossil of the cidaris looked like a self-embroidered Christmas ornament. It was the relic of a slate-pencil sea urchin, or cidaris, a punk-styled marine critter. Alive, it looks like a golf ball with spikes, or a comic-book version of an exploding firecracker.
Vishal Verma, a 48-year-old fossil-hunter and conservationist, was rummaging through an overcrowded closet, sifting through a wobbly pile of electrical-fan cartons. They were now stuffed with fossils of ancient life, some wrapped in plastic, others in old newspapers.
Entombed in one of these boxes was the million-year-old, petrified fossil of the cidaris. It was blonde from the limestone that had meticulously ripped through every cell of its existence.
Verma had found numerous breathtaking fossils like this one. But one particular kind eluded him: That of the poster children of these relics, the dinosaurs.
Meet the archaeologists chiseling stone tools to trace human evolution
In a two-storied building, past twinkling glass facades of software makers, Akhilesh Kumar was buried in a relatively low-tech activity. He was rhythmically hammering a quartzite stone block with hard and soft blows.
It’s a ritual he settles down to everyday at his workspace in Chennai. This stone-tool-making experiment is his key to unraveling stories about prehistoric humans in India.