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More Than A Bone To Pick

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Butler, Timothy; Hugh Falconer (1808-1865); Moray Council Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hugh-falconer-18081865-248986

 By: Ganesh Saili

‘Our Forest Department has found a fossil,’ a thrilled Sanjay Kumar says from Saharanpur. A friend and skilled wildlife photographer, he adds: ‘Looks like the molar of a baby elephant!’

This journey began when Mussoorie was five-years old. Precisely a hundred and eighty-eight years ago, when there were thirty-eight houses here. Among them you would have found a  geologist and an engineer. Twenty-nine year old Dr. Hugh Falconerhad bolted from the heat and dust, after being appointedsuperintendent of the Saharanpur Botanical Gardens. In our cooler climes, he built himself a house, naming it Logie. His next door neighbour was six years his junior, ProbyCautley.

Except that they had many a bone to pick, for the life of me, I cannot figure out what brought the two, given their diverse backgrounds,together? The discoveries the twain made opened up  more mysteries than solutions. However together they have done the town proud. Excavating the clayey soil of the much eroded mountain ranges of the Shiwaliks– the mountain rangesthat run parallel to the Himalaya, rarely breaching a width of more than six miles and stretch from the Ganga to the Indus.

They discovered a prehistoric giraffe and named it SivatheriumGiganteumobserving: ‘It was one of the most remarkable past tenants of the globe’. More followed. Out tumbled the fossilised remains of giant ostriches and cranes; the skulls of primitive camels and the skeletal remains of rhinos. Falconer announced thesefindings in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. It gives an impressive list of finds from the Lower Pliocene period. Included were the bones of tortoises, crocodiles, and other animals. When they were sent to the British Museum, it required 214 packing cases, each weighing four quintals.

Falconerbegan life as a devout Believer. He had thrown his lotwith those believing that God had created the Universe. That phase lasted until the winter of 1859, when Charles Darwinpresentedhim  a copy of hisbook On the Origin of the Species. Being a polite man, he thanked Darwin profusely. That was that!Done and dusted! Or so he thought. As the digging rattled more bones, he converted to the Theory of Evolution. Cautley’sdiscoverieshad left him no other option as he uncovered an elephant with fourteen-foot tusks; a hippo and an extinct giraffe with antlers looking like  stag-horns. Addedto this was an extinct sabre-toothed tiger with sword-shaped enlarged upper canines. And rhinos too aplenty, both single and double-horned. They seemed like first editions of an African ancestor. Along came horses, alongside wild boar that looked like African river-hogs.

The piece de resistance was the fossilised shell of a tortoise. It measured a staggering twelve feet long and six feet high. Could this area have once been underwater once? How else does one explain elephants with trunksstretching to ten and a half feet? This riverside zoo of animals long dead had bells ringing in the scientific community aroundthe world. Fortunately for Falconer and Cautley, their hard work found recognition. 1837 saw them get the prestigious Wolleston Medal in geology.

A geologist’s eye makes time elastic. Oftener than not,a hundred thousand years may pass in the blink of an eye. What happened millions of years ago might as well havebeen yesterday.The diversity of the fossilscaught the scientific community by surprise. It revealed types that had either disappeared from the earth, or were now found only to be found in some remoterparts of Africa.

In March of 1856, John Lang, the Australian-born author, who went on to spend his last days in Mussoorie,sat near a window of the Himalaya Club,gazing down at the vista of the Doon, writing: ‘The eye commands one of the grandest scenes in the known world. From the elevation of about seven thousand feet the eye embraces a plain containing millions of acres, intersected by broad streams to the left, and enclosed by a low belt of hills.’

Perhaps in the once-upon-as-time days,  this valley was a vast inland sea. It must have drained when the Earth moved, leaving behind,for us, these bones to pick.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide