Paving Over the Fossil Record

Every winter for the past decade, paleontologist Kenneth D. Rose returns to Vastan, one of the open-pit lignite (“brown coal”) mines in a corner of western India. On this dizzyingly bright March morning, as miners in hardhats and boots tirelessly scoop out tarry chunks of lignite with rumbling earthmovers, Rose and his team sift through a thin layer of sediment with ice picks and brushes. Their goal: piecing together fragments of the most archaic forms of mammals to walk the earth, and unraveling the story of modern mammalian evolution.

The fragments they’re seeking date back to the early Eocene epoch, about 54.5 million years ago. Around then, the earth was 12 degrees Celsius hotter, and gripped by the most intense global warming event the world had known. India was a tropical island that had recently broken free of Madagascar, and was headed toward an epic collision with the supercontinent Laurasia; a collision that would compress the ancient Tethys Sea and thrust up the Himalayan ranges. Vastan, a swamp on the edge of the island, lay beside a tropical rainforest teeming with rabbits, bats, snakes, lizards, frogs, birds, ancient relatives of horses and tapirs, and an extinct order of mammals—tillodonts—that resembled saber-tooth bears.

A GOLD MINE FOR FOSSILS: American paleontologist Kenneth D. Rose and his team sift through sediment at the Vastan coal mine in India, which has yielded a trove of fossils that help explain the evolution of mammals.Shruti Ravindran

Rose, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, has recovered remnants of all of these creatures, many of which are archaic forms, and the oldest of their kind to be found in Asia. They provide a tantalizing set of clues to a long-standing evolutionary puzzle. Where did the world’s modern mammals come from? How did they evolve? How did they spread? Swiping at

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