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Fossil feeds river myth

Jaipur, Dec. 15: Fossils of an elephant have been discovered in the most unlikely of places — the Thar desert — lending credence to the theory that the mythical Saraswati once flowed through the now arid region.

Miners digging for gypsum in Bhadwasi, a village in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district, about 350 km from here, stumbled upon the remains last month. The fossils were found embedded in a layer of gypsum at a depth of 10 feet from the surface.

Prof. B.S. Paliwal, head of the geology department of Jainarain Vyas University, Jodhpur, could not believe his ears when he came to know of the discovery on November 30. He rushed to the site.

“I saw with my own eyes. It was unbelievable, but I couldn’t disbelieve it too,” Paliwal, who is also dean of science at the university, said when contacted over phone.

Paliwal got down to work immediately. He collected a 61-cm-long part of a femur bone with “conspicuous condyles” (the rounded end of a bone), about 20 cm in diameter, a vertebral bone — probably a lumbar with small spine and a large body — and a metatarsus suggesting a size big enough for more than two toes. The fossils belong to an elephant or its ancestor Stegolophodon, which lived in the Holocene or Pleistocene period, Paliwal said.

Although gypsum denotes arid climate, the fossils, he claimed, showed that thousands of years ago, favourable conditions must have existed in the region for an animal like elephant, which needs forests and sweet water lakes to survive.

This, he asserted, strengthens the theory that the mythical Saraswati once flowed through what is now the Thar desert and a Vedic civilisation flourished along the river’s banks.

According to the professor, neo-tectonic disturbances altered the geography of the land and turned it into a desert, while abrupt changes in climatic conditions caused reversal of drainage, blocking of river systems and formation of saline lakes.

Droughts for centuries resulted in migration of animals and their large-scale deaths. The fossils indicate that the pachyderm must have gone in search of water to a drying-up lake and died there.

The gypsum in Nagaur is of two categories — one that belongs to the Marwar super group of neo-Proterozoic to the Cambrian age and another to the Quaternary age. The fossils were found in the latter category. Paliwal has sent parts of the fossils to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for carbon dating.

The discovery will throw light on the geological history and climatic condition of the region during the Holocene times, said M.L. Jhanwar, former director of the Geological Survey of India.

It calls for a new approach to the study of unravelling the stratigraphy of the area, he added, but stressed on caution till the identity of the fossils and their age are scientifically proved.

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