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Mammoths and the Mammoth Ivory Trade

Dick Mol and Bernard Buigues (The Netherlands) The ivory industry is flourishing using mammoth tusks and, illegally, the tusks of modern elephants. The growing hunt for mammoth tusks hampers palaeontological research and, as the two ivories are hard to distinguish, enforcement of endangered species legislation is impeded. Changes in legislation may not be practicable. However, education of the mammoth hunters may result in a win-win situation. This has now begun and the resulting co-operation has already lead to, and may lead to, more important discoveries and the securing of the remains for scientific exploration. Introduction The use of mammoth ivory for the construction of tools and artefacts is already known from Palaeolithic time. Our ancestors have used it for weapons and ornaments. The quality of the ivory of woolly mammoths, Mammuthus primigenius, found in the permafrost of Siberia as well as in North America (Alaska, USA and Yukon, Canada), is of outstanding quality and easily processed by the ivory industry. The quantity of traded ivory is substantial and the first overview of those traded amounts has been archived by Tolmachoff (1929). After this inventory, the trade has continued at an accelerated pace, especially during the last decade. Apart from the commercial value for the ivory industry, individual collectors and natural history museums often want to possess complete tusks. These intense collecting activities destroy enormous amounts of palaeontological data and obstruct the investigation of Pleistocene mammals and their habitats. It was our objective to start a discussion on how to counteract … Read More

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In search of dinosaur eggs in Mongolia

Steven Ballantyne (UK) The Scientific Exploration Society is a well-established, UK-based charity that undertakes scientific research and community aid work in remote parts of the world. As an expedition leader for the Society, it proved to be an exciting challenge for me to lead a  month-long expedition in 2006 across the infamous Gobi Desert in Mongolia in search of dinosaur fossils. Professor Altangerel Perle, the renowned palaeontologist from The National University of Ulaanbataar, headed the scientific team. (Professor Perle has no less than six dinosaurs named after him.) The team totalled 20 in number and included Mongolian palaeontology students, botanists and zoologists, and also team members from the UK, Australia, Tasmania and Greece, all with a deep-seated interest in science. Fig. 5. The redoubtable Professor Perle. As an introduction to then non-palaeontologist members of the team, we spent our first day surveying and working at the Flaming Cliffs. This is an historic site, made famous in the 1920s by the great explorer and palaeontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews. Here, we found tiny fossil fragments of the dinosaur Protoceratops andrewsi. This was achieved by gently and methodically brushing the surface sand – a job we would become expert at over the forthcoming weeks. Jinst was the location of the first of our two significant finds. This was a very well-preserved turtle shell, a stark reminder to all that this seasonally hot and dusty land was once an ocean. The fossil included the complete upper and lower body shell and, excitingly, the small … Read More

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Alluvial gold: A geological model (Part 2)

Philip Dunkerly (UK) In A geological model for the alluvial gold environment (Part 1), the first part of this article, I discussed how alluvial gold is found and suggested a geological model for alluvial gold deposits. (Readers are recommended to have another look at that part to remind them of the model.) In this second part, I now turn to the nature of the gold itself. Fig. 1. Gold bullion bars of 400 troy oz. Fig. 2. Sites from around the world. Gulch gold Gulch gold is the coarsest that exists in any part of a river system. If nuggets (pieces of gold weighing more than 0.1g) are present, they will mostly be found in gulches (narrow ravines), provided suitable traps are present, such as irregular bedrock. In gulch alluvium, the vast majority of the gold will be found on, or in crevices within, the bedrock. Gulch gold is often coarse and angular and may contain silicate debris, especially quartz. As examples, gold from Victoria Gulch on the Klondike was described as “sharply angular”. In the Ballarat gullies, some enormous nuggets were found and Canadian Gully yielded nuggets of 50.4, 34.7 and 31.4kg. At Bendigo, White Horse Gully, a 17.8kg nugget (including some quartz) was found. (Interestingly, of a list of 92 Victorian nuggets, 34 came from localities specifically named “gullies”.) Finally, in the Sierra Nevada of California, most of the gold is from gulches or minor streams close to croppings. Fig. 3. Old hydraulicking operation of terrace gravels, note … Read More

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Alluvial gold: A geological model (Part 1)

Philip Dunkerly (UK) Mankind almost certainly first found gold when a yellow, glint from the bottom of a stream bed attracted the attention of one of our ancestors in pre- historic Africa. Ever since, the allure of gold – its colour, improbable density, malleability and scarceness – meant it has been prized, and great efforts have been made to accumulate it. Most ancient peoples venerated and coveted gold and used it for decoration, and empires used gold as a store of value and a medium of exchange. The Egyptians are known to have used gold as early as about 5000 BC, followed by many others, including the Romans, the Incas, the Spaniards and, of course, the Anglo-Saxon invaders of North America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Fig. 1. Spectacular Roman paleogravel workings at Las Medulas, NW Spain, now a World Heritage site. The mouth of one of the tunnels through which water was released from a header tank is visible in the shadow. Fig. 2. Panoramic view of Las Medulas, worked by sluicing using water brought through canals up to 60km long. Though gold was won from hard-rock deposits in ancient times, most gold until perhaps 1900 was won from riverbeds, and was traditionally called alluvial or placer gold. Prospecting for alluvial gold required relatively little equipment and always attracted hardy pioneers willing to forego the comforts of society in the hope of ‘getting rich quick’. The gold they found – if they were lucky – could almost instantly be … Read More

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The Deccan Traps, India (Part 4): Quaternary sediments of the Godavari River basin, Maharashtra

Mugdha Chimote (India) The discovery of Quaternary sediments around Godavari River in Maharashtra (Fig. 1) was something of an accident. Sankalia (1952) first encountered these sediments while excavating the Lower Palaeolithic Industry in the region. Upon discovery, Sankalia brought onboard many geologists, such as Prof S N Rajaguru, Shanti Pappu, Gudrun Corvinus and R V Joshi, to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the study. Based on their geomorphic studies, Sankalia et al. (1952) concluded that the Quaternary palaeoclimates differed from present climates: the bedload stream represented wet climates, while the fine-grained sediments represented dry climates. Following this discovery, the Archaeological Society of India conducted similar such studies in the Narmada, Pravara and Tapi basins. Fig. 1. Location map of the study area. Quaternary records of upland Maharashtra include colluvial (material transported by the action of gravity) and alluvial (material transported by river) sediments. Along the river channels, alluvial sediments occur as discontinuous outcrops, whereas those in the basins do not exceed a thickness of 50m. Quaternary sediments account for the recent geological strata, which lie on the uppermost layers of earth and have been exposed relatively to the least amounts of erosion. The Earth underwent dynamic climatic variations in the Quaternary period, from glacial-interglacial events, development of monsoonal wind patterns, the formation of deserts and palaeomagnetic reversals, to mass extinctions. These incidents in turn led to geomorphic processes, such as the rejuvenation of rivers, alteration of those rivers’ courses during each rejuvenation and the occurrence of flash floods. It is … Read More

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Book review: Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity, by Pratik Chakrabarti

Maybe it’s a result of my social anthropology and geological background, but I found this difficult but fascinating book a great read. It’s about nineteenth century India. It is not about the modern geological science or social anthropology of the subcontinent, but rather, the geological imagination of India, as well as its landscapes and people, and its history.

India’s ‘Dinosaur Fossil Park’ – Raiyoli

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) Raiyoli is a village near Balasinor in the state of Gujarat, India, which has been attracting palaeontologists because of its dinosaur fossil park (Fig. 1). Curious to know more about the park, I visited Balasinor to meet Princess Aaliya Sultana Babi (Fig. 2), who is also known as the ‘Dinosaur Princess’. I had booked my stay at The Garden Palace, which is the private residence of the royal family of Balasinor. The property also offers guests’ accommodation and signature experiences. While relishing a sumptuous dinner and chatting with the warm and hospitable princess, I learnt about how she got involved with the site: “In the year 1997, Raiyoli was visited by leading palaeontologists from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan for excavation purposes. They came to our residence for tea and, during the conversation about the site, I realised that it was time to act on my calling. I say “act” because my mother, Begum Farhad Sultana, used to tell me that, as a child when I was learning the alphabet, when it came to the letter ‘D’, it was not D for ‘dog’. Instead I learnt D for ‘dinosaur’. Spellings like Brontosaurus fascinated me even then,” she mentioned nostalgically. Fig 1. The Dinosaur Fossil Park at Raiyoli. The timing to get involved with dino-tourism was right, as foreigners began to express an interest in visiting the site. So, who better than Aaliya to guide and show them around the site? Her passion and dedication … Read More

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The Deccan Traps, India (Part 3): Evidence of recent tectonic activities in Deccan basalts

Mugdha Chimote (India) The term ‘Quaternary’ is derived from the Latin word “Quaternarius” (meaning “four”, such that the Quaternary is “the fourth great epoch of geological time” in the now-abandoned system of dividing geological time). It refers to the most recent period of the Earth’s history, covering a span of about 1.77 million years extending up to the present day. The Quaternary System is divided into Pleistocene and Holocene Series. The term Holocene was introduced for the part of Quaternary that contains only living species. It covers the last 10,000 period of the Quaternary. The Quaternary has witnessed some very important events of great consequence, characterised by dramatic climatic changes. It witnessed repeated glacial and interglacial periods, more so than any other period of geological history. Monsoonal wind patterns also developed during this period, and deserts were formed during the latter part of the Quaternary. Although the Quaternary recorded a few extinction events, a great biological diversity still exists on Earth. Most of the present-day species of vertebrates, invertebrates and plants are believed to have remained unchanged during this period. By now, you must have realised, the Quaternary is not a separate entity of geology. It rather refers to the time period ‘Quaternary’ and all the geological processes pertaining to that period. Quaternary rocks and sediments are the most recent geologic strata, which lie on the uppermost layers of earth and have been exposed to the least amount of erosion. As such, they are one of the most well studied … Read More

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The Deccan Traps, India (Part 2): Its geomorphology and stratigraphy

Mugdha Chimote (India) Fig. 1. The natural arch/bridge at Ahmednagar, Maharashtra (see text box below). The Deccan Traps occupy approximately 25% of the total of peninsular India, that is, the triangular shaped landscape of southern India. They traverse the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat. The Deccan Traps are currently believed to occupy about 500,000km2 of northwest peninsular India. It is estimated that the total exposure prior to erosion (including the region beneath the Arabian Sea) is of the order of 15 million square kilometres (Krishnan, 1956) or even up to 18 million square kilometres (Todal and Eldham, 1999). The differences in estimations of the total area of the Deccan Traps resulted from the fact that, an unknown area of the Deccan Volcanic Province (DVP) was rifted away as the Cambay rift system moved south and the Seychelles-Mascarene Plateau, along with part of the DVP, migrated to the west. The earliest basaltic eruptions took place along the north-western margins of the Indian continent, that is, in the Nashik-Narmada region. Later lava successions were emplaced on the southern flank of the evolving volcanic edifice as India migrated northwards over the plume head. The last of the flows were erupted in the southern DVP near Belgaum in Karnataka. As a result, the thickness of the flows gradually reduces from north-western to southern region of Indian subcontinent. Given the massive extent and volumes of Deccan Basalts, extensive studies have been carried out over the years to better understand the petrography, geochemistry, … Read More

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The Deccan Traps, India (Part 1): The story of its genesis

Mugdha Chimote (India) Fig. 1: Deccan Traps exposed in Mahabaleshwar region of Maharashtra, India. Introduction Sandwiched between the Arabian Sea to the west and the vast Indian subcontinent to the east, the Western Ghats, a haven for trekkers and travellers, are a 1,600km long range of mountains along western edge of Deccan Plateau. Also known as “Great Escarpments of India”, the range extends from Gujarat in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. The Ghats traverse the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. They comprise of more than 39 wildlife sanctuaries, reserve forests and national parks. The Western Ghats were declared as one of the eight hottest ecological hotspots in the world in the year 1988, as the area is home to nearly 325 globally threatened floral, amphibian, fish, bird and faunal species. Famous hill stations such as Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani, Munnar, Wayanad, Coorg and Ooty are among some of the perfect weekend getaways and popular tourist attractions here. Thanks to the rich ecological reserve and tourist attractions, Western Ghats were awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The Western Ghats however cover just a small portion of Deccan Traps (see also box: Kaas Pathar below). Deccan is an anglicised word derived from the Sanskrit word “Dakshin”, meaning south (the region is located in the southern part of Indian subcontinent). “Traps” mean step-like features. Thus, the Deccan Traps are step-like volcanic features found mainly in Southern India. The laterally extensive basaltic lava flows of the Deccan … Read More

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Siwalik Fossil Park, Himachal Pradesh State, India: Part 2

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) In the first part of this article (see Siwalik Fossil Park, Himachal Pradesh State, India: Part 2), I introduced Siwalik Fossil Park, its geology and some of the animals and plants whose fossilised remains have been found there. In this second and last part, I cover some more of the mega fauna that once lived here. In fact, the Siwalik Fossil Park, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India is a significant step towards the preservation of prehistoric animal sites, conserving and repairing the current natural environment and utilising them for scientific and educational purposes. In fact, the park is a rich geological heritage. The environment and climate was highly favourable for the development of elephants in the Siwalik region between 20 and 1.5mya (Figs. 1 and 2). Approximately 22 fossil species have been found, but all became extinct one million years ago with the beginning of the Ice Age. Fig. 1. The section displaying elephant fossils. Fig. 2. The proximal end of an elephant’s femur, which became extinct 1myrs ago at the beginning of the ice age. Nowadays, only one species is found in India (the Indian elephant, Elephas maximus indicus). The fossil skulls, jaws, teeth and bones of extinct species are displayed at the museum along with a life-size fibre glass model of the extinct giant species, Stegodon ganesa (Figs. 3 and 4). Fig. 3. The cranium of Stegodon insignis, which existed during the Plio-Pleistocene period. Of the species that existed during the Plio-Pleistocene period, … Read More

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Siwalik Fossil Park, Himachal Pradesh State, India: Part 1

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) The Siwalik Fossil Park is located amidst the scenic Siwalik Hills in the district of Sirmaur in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India. On 23 March 1974, the park was established by the Geological Survey of India in collaboration with the Himachal Pradesh Government. It contains many life-size, fibreglass models. These models are outside in the park and are based on the study of the fossils that have been found here and a field museum. The models are of prehistoric animals, which thrived in the area from to 1 to 2.5mya. The museum displays Siwalik vertebrates collected from the area. A catalogue of all the fossils and specimens displayed in the museum has now been documented providing their photographs, taxonomic status and locality, along with collectors’ names and the field season during which they were collected. Fig. 1. Fossil wood found in Siwalik, where a prehistoric animal site is being preserved. The Siwalik rocks are famous the world over for the remains of various vertebrate animals and plants. There are varied geological formations of the park, like the Jarasi, Spiti and Giumal Formations. The Jarasi consists of red purple shale with gypsum bands and are Neo-proterozoic to Ediacaran in age. Fig. 2. This rock from the jarasi formation is neo-proterozoic to ediacaran in age. The Spiti Formation is one which has fossiliferous shale containing ammonites, belemnites, bivalves and brachiopods. Its broad age is Oxfordian to early Valanginian. The Guimal Formation has fossiliferous sandstone with shells and it … Read More

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The Bhimbetka rock shelters and paintings of India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) The naturally formed rock shelters and caves of Bhimbetka in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India (Fig. 1) have a number of interesting paintings, which depict the lives of the people who lived here (Fig. 2). These rock shelters exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India. The Stone Age rock paintings can be seen on the walls, ceilings and hollows, and were created during a period when microliths were evolved. The paintings date back to the Mesolithic period. Fig. 1. The first rock shelter that greets you at Bhimbetka. Fig. 2. Rock art showing daily life at Bhimbetka. Due to their integrated nature, the Bhimbetka rock shelters were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2003. From the UNESCO website, it is clear that two of the criterion for the selection were: Bhimbetka reflects a long interaction between the people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its rock art.The area is closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy as can be seen in the pictures below, as shown in the rock art and in the relics of this tradition in the local Adivasi village on the periphery of this site (The name ‘Adivasi’ is an umbrella term for a heterogeneous group of ethnic and tribal groups, which are thought to be the aboriginal population of India.)The excavations carried out have yielded evidence of continuous human occupation from the Lower Palaeolithic until Medieval times. During this long span of … Read More

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Akal Wood Fossil Park, Rajasthan, India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) The Akal Wood Fossil Park is located about 18km from the desert city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India. It has preserved fossil evidence dating back to the Jurassic Period (Fig. 6) indicating a hot and humid climate characterised by dense forests. In particular, 180-million-year-old fossils of animals and plants are preserved here. Fig. 1. The fossilised logs have been protected by iron grill cages with overhead tin sheds. The Jaisalmer Basin formed part of the southern shelf of the Tethys Ocean during Jurassic times. The area is well known for its rich geo-diversity, both in terms of landscapes and outcrops of rock types, and the variety of fossils that these rocks have preserved. When I spoke to him, Dr Sudesh K Wadhawan, who is Adviser (Geosciences) and Visiting Faculty, Director General (Retired), Geological Survey of India, explained that, “Lithostratigraphy of the geologically mapped formations displays an array of Jurassic siliciclastic, mixed carbonate-siliciclastic and carbonate rocks that range in age from Lower Jurassic to Upper Jurassic in geological timescale. A variety of depositional environment, ranging from continental fluvial to near-shore and off-shore deep marine, are interpreted and well documented in the Jaisalmer basin”. Fig. 2. Fossilised tree trunks lying scattered in an area of 21 hectares. The fossil logs, representing gymnosperms, belong to the dicotyledonous stems of these trees (Figs. 7 and 8). (In such stems, the vascular bundles are arranged in a ring, with pith concentrated at their core, rather than being scattered throughout the plant interior.) … Read More

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Brihadeeswarar Temple, India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) Construction of the Brihadeeswarar Temple (also spelt Brihadisvara or Brihadeshwara), which is in Thanjavur in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, began in 1003 AD by Rajaraja I and was completed in 1010 AD. It is made of blocks of granite that were sourced from around 50km away. Almost 130,000 tonnes of granite were used to build this temple. The popular theory of how the blocks were transported is that they were gradually rolled here with the help of elephants. The design of the temple is meant to represent a cosmic structure called Mahameru, which symbolises energy from the universe, including from living as well as inanimate beings. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of a lingam (that is, a symbol of divine generative energy often in the form of a phallus), which is 3.66m high. The courtyard inside which the temple is built measures 240m by 120m. The Brihadeeswarar Temple, also known as the Big Temple, is an architectural marvel in stone of the Chola dynasty. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower, which is built over the sanctum, has a height of about 66m and has 13 storeys (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. The tower built over the sanctum has a height of 217 feet and has 13 stories. There are eight sikharas (spires), which are also made of stone and weigh about 81 tonnes. There are two circumambulatory passages. The walls of the lower passage are decorated with … Read More

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Rock paintings of Bundi, India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) The River Rewa bifurcates into the Ghoda Pachad and Mangli Rivers while flowing through the region that is located 33km to the south of Bundi, in the state of Rajasthan, India.Probably the world’s largest rock paintings can be found in the rock shelters along the banks of the Mangli River here. They belong to the Mesolithic and Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods, and depict hunting scenes – the life of gatherers, human stick figures, bulls, antelopes and wildlife (Fig. 1). Cultural scenes portray dancers, musicians and daily life. There are also inscriptions made from the plant Brahmi on the sandstone rocks lining the River. The rock shelters stretch across a distance of almost 35km. Fig. 1. Animals depicted in one of the rock shelters, which is part of the world’s largest rock painting site. Om Prakash Sharma, also known as Kukki, a local resident of Bundi is credited with discovering this site, as well as nearby sites. On 4 December 1993, he explored a Chalcolithic (Neolithic) mound in the village of Namana, where he found terracotta toys, an axe and chisel. While investigating these discoveries, a historian suggested that he try to locate rock paintings. As a result, for three years, he spent most of his time near rivers and boulders in the hope of locating rock paintings, but with no success. Not one to give up, he continued looking. Even in his dreams, it was always mountains and rock paintings that he envisioned. In one of … Read More

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Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 2) – decorative and ornamental jade

Sonja McLachlan (UK) In the second part of this five-part series of articles, I will be exploring the beautiful examples of ornamental and decorative jade carvings that can be found in many places around the world. Ancient peoples collected and sculpted jade into unique symbolic items representing their own cultures and beliefs. Today, modern jade sculpting honours this ancient symbolism whilst introducing contemporary themes, thereby widening the appeal of this ancient art form. Maori Jade Carving The Maoris valued jade for its toughness and it was often made into weapons and tools such as adzes and chisels used for working with wood. Modern jade carving reflects the Maori traditions with new interpretations on fishhooks, circular koru pendants and beautiful double and triple jade twists that represent bonding and friendship. Models of Kiwis, Turtles and Dolphins can also be found carved in jade. Fig. 1. Maori-style Pendant, carved out of solid Jade. Inspired by Maori designs. Spiral – Koru – The fern fronds represent life, new beginnings, life unfolding, growth & harmony. The stylisation of Koru represents the spirit of rejuvenation. Fig. 2. Another Maori-style pendant, fish hooks – Hei Matau. Represents strength & determination. Brings peace, prosperity, abundance and good luck. It also provides safe transport over water. Chinese Jade Carving The highest quality Burmese Jade is sent to China where it is used for the finest objects and religious figures. It is often found in the grave furnishings of high-ranking members of the imperial family. The raw stone is … Read More

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Jade: Imperial green gem of the East (Part 1) – mining the gem

Sonja McLachlan (UK) In this, the first of a five-part series exploring the mineral Jade, I will explore  the various locations around the world in which Jade is found and mined. The world geography of jade mining Imperial jade, in all the colours and forms in which it is found, has appealed to many Eastern cultures since early times. It has been extensively mined and collected across the ages by many different people. However, in 1863, it was finally realised that the name “Jade” was being applied to two different minerals: jadeite and nephrite. Both jadeite and nephrite deposits are found in various places around the world. However, the jadeite mineral is much more rare than nephrite and, therefore, has a greater value to both the miner and collector. Nephrite deposits Nephrite jade deposits have been found in Khotan and Yarkand in Turkestan in China. Khotan is a city oasis and located on the famous “Jade” or “Silk Road”. New Zealand jade or “Pounamu” is found only in river boulders on the South Island. Deposits are also found in the Swiss Alps at Salux, Val de Faller, Poschiaro and the Gottard Range. Nephrite jade has been found in British Columbia, Canada where it is surface-mined. Large-scale mining began in Canada in 1995 and    currently  approximately 100  tonnes  a  year  are  mined and  sent  to  China. The finest jade found here is called “Polar Jade” and is especially translucent and green, which is rare in nephrite specimens. Jadeite deposits The most … Read More

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Mysterious blue orbs of K2 granite

William Wray (USA) K2 granite is found near the base of K2, the mountain it is named after, in the Himalayas from a rarely visited site. K2, also called “Mount Goodwin Austen” is the second highest mountain in the world, rising to 8,611m (28,253 feet). K2 got its name from the British surveyor TG Montgomerie. The “K” comes from the Karakoram mountain range and the “2” means that it is the second tallest peak recorded. Fig. 1. An oval cabochon made from K2 granite found on K2, a mountain between Pakistan and China, revealing several bright blue azurite stains. The blue azurite stains formed after the granite cooled and hardened. (Photo by the author. Specimen from the William Wray collection.) K2 granite has impressive splashes of blue circles or orbs on its surface. The blue circles are azurite inside of white K2 granite rock. The white granite is fine-grained and composed of the minerals: quartz, feldspar, muscovite and biotite. The azurite stained parts of the granite, making blue dots, which range from a couple of millimetres to about two centimetres. Azurite has a relative hardness of 3.5 to 4 on the Mohs hardness scale, but assumes the hardness of the white granite, because the azurite is only a stain. The azurite formed after all the other minerals in the granite had cooled and hardened. With a hand lens or microscope, azurite spheres reveal that the azurite appears along the edges of mineral grains, in tiny fractures in the granite, and … Read More

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Fossil of hairy, squirrel-sized creature sheds light on evolution of earliest mammals

Kevin Jiany (USA) It appears that a 165myr-old omnivore may have had an armadillo-like gait. A newly discovered fossil has revealed the evolutionary adaptations of a 165myr-old proto-mammal, providing evidence that traits such as hair and fur originated well before the rise of the first true mammals. University of Chicago scientists have described the biological features of this ancient mammalian relative, named Megaconus mammaliaformis, in the August 2013 issue of Nature. “We finally have a glimpse of what may be the ancestral condition of all mammals, by looking at what is preserved in Megaconus. It allows us to piece together poorly understood details of the critical transition of modern mammals from pre-mammalian ancestors,” Zhe-Xi Luo, professor of organismal biology and anatomy told me. Fig. 1. A new Jurassic fossil, Megaconus mammaliaformis, was recovered in the Inner Mongolia region of China, at the famous Daohugou fossil site in the Tiaojishan Formation, which is dated to be 165myrs old. The site is northeast of Beijing. Megaconus comes from a group of primitive mammal relatives, predating modern mammal ancestors. Luo shared the details of this discovery with me during the summer of 2103 at a meeting in his third-floor office in the Anatomy Building on the UChicago campus. Discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, Megaconus is one of the best-preserved fossils of the mammaliaform groups, which are long-extinct relatives of modern mammals. Dated to be about 165myrs-old, Megaconus co-existed with feathered dinosaurs in the Jurassic, nearly 100myrs before Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the earth. A … Read More

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Khajuraho stone temples of India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, was the cultural capital of the Chandela rulers of the tenth century and, even today, is a place that pays homage to artistic talent. There was no mechanisation involved in the labour intensive process, where artists hand sculpted slabs of stone into medieval sculptures depicting gods, demigods, nymphs, other celestial beings, humans and animals. Several thousand statues and iconographic carvings can be seen in the temples of Khajuraho. The stone temples are known for their mature temple architecture steeped in eroticism. Of the 85 richly carved temples built more than a thousand years ago, 22 have survived the test of time. Dr Devangana Desai, a well known art historian, has commented: “The Khajuraho temples represent a creative moment in Indian art when artistic talent combined with religious aspirations to produce a meaningful form. Aesthetically they express a superb harmony of architecture and sculpture.” The name ‘Khajuraho’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharjuravahaka, where Kharjura refers to the date palm and Vahaka means the carrier. It is believed that two imposing date palm trees formed the gate to the temple complex. Kharjur also refers to scorpion in the local language of Bundelkhandi. Another derivation comes from the scorpions in the garland of Lord Shiva, while yet another philosophy states that it represented women who bore the scorpion shape on their thigh. However, there is no debate on the aesthetics, beauty and finesse of the sculptures of Khajuraho. The … Read More

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Sands of the Gobi Desert yield new species of nut-cracking dinosaur

Steve Koppes (USA) Plants or meat – that’s about all that fossils ever tell palaeontologists about a dinosaur’s diet. However, the skull characteristics of a new species of parrot-beaked dinosaur and its associated gizzard stones indicate that the animal fed on nuts and/or seeds. These characteristics present the first solid evidence of nut-eating in any dinosaur. Fig. 2. Artistic rendering of a newly discovered species of parrot-beaked dinosaur, Psittacosaurus gobiensis. Scientists first discovered psittacosaurs in the Gobi Desert in 1922, calling them “parrot-beaked” for their resemblance to parrots. Psittacosaurs evolved their strong-jawed, nut-eating habits 60 million years before the earliest parrot. Art Credit: Todd Marshall “The parallels in the skull to that in parrots, the descendants of dinosaurs most famous for their nut-cracking habits, are remarkable,” said Paul Sereno, a palaeontologist at the University of Chicago and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Sereno, and two colleagues from the People’s Republic of China, announced their discovery on 17 June 2008 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The palaeontologists discovered the new dinosaur, which they have named Psittacosaurus gobiensis, in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia in 2001, and spent years preparing and studying the specimen. The dinosaur is approximately 110 million years old, dating from the mid-Cretaceous. The quantity and size of gizzard stones in birds correlates with dietary preference. Larger, more numerous gizzard stones point to a diet of harder food, such as nuts and seeds. “The psittacosaur at hand has a huge pile of stomach stones, more than 50, … Read More

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Fossil sword pommel from Malaya

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) Fossil hunters have a well-deserved reputation for finding rare things in difficult places. However, there are times when fossils are ‘hidden’ in plain sight as material for the decorative arts. While not as informative as specimens found in situ and undisturbed, nevertheless, they still have palaeontological interest and may yet be of genuine scientific value. The pommel is a carved Stegodon molar, as a stylised cockatoo head.The fossil material on my kris is attached as a pommel to a wooden grip, bound with metal wire.Malay kris sword (keris sundang), Peninsular Malay,s 19th century.This short discussion will take that optimistic approach with a fossil Stegodon molar attached to a Malay sword in my collection. The Stegodon genus, widely acknowledged as closely ancestral to modern elephants, lived in habitats across southern Asia into the Pleistocene, so humans may have developed an awareness and liking for Stegodon remains during their co-existence (Rich, Rich, Fenton & Fenton 1989). Anyway, by early modern times, Stegodon molars (‘garham gaja’ in Malay) were a recognised luxury commodity, whose biological origins were understood and to which totemic significance was attached. Form and context My sword belongs to a class of bladed weapons falling under the general rubric of ‘kris’. Krisses are documented from southern India through mainland Southeast Asia and eastward to the Philippines, but are concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia (especially the Malaya peninsular, Sumatra, Java and Bali). While there is an unmistakable relationship in these weapons’ blade shapes (particularly the asymmetrical shoulders … Read More

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Visiting the Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Michał Zatoń (Poland) During the 8th International Congress on the Jurassic System 2010, which was held in Shehong, Sichuan Province in China, I had an opportunity to visit several palaeontological museums, exhibitions and geoparks. However, one of them exerted on me incredible impression – the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Fig. 1. Dinosaur Hall with sauropods. Shunosaurus lii on the right, Mamenchisaurus youngi on the left, and a theropod, Szechuanosaurus campi, in the background. The Zigong Dinosaur Museum, known as the ‘Oriental Dragon Palace’, is located at Dashanpu, a town situated 11km northeast of the Zigong City in the Sichuan Province. The museum opened to the public in 1987 and was built on the site where a vast amount of more or less complete skeletons of a diverse range of dinosaurs (as well as other vertebrates) were discovered in the 1970s. It is China’s first museum to be built on the actual burial site of dinosaurs. The museum covers 66,000m2 and the fossil bones are embedded within Middle Jurassic sandstone. To date, about 100 dinosaur skeletons have been excavated, of which 30 are more or less complete. As well as bones, dinosaur skin impressions have been discovered. Equally impressive are the complete skulls of dinosaurs found belonging to both herbivores and carnivores. In all, some 22 dinosaur species are known from the Zigong area, including three species of stegosaurids, two species of hypsilophodontids, three species of fabrosaurids, four species of megalosaurids, one species of plateosaurid and nine species of sauropods. Fig. 2. … Read More

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Book review: The Tunguska Mystery, by Vladimir Rubtsov and Edward Ashpol

It appears that I was naive to assume the Tunguska explosion of 1908 had been adequately explained. It was a meteorite or, more probably, a comet that exploded above a remote area of Siberia. Wrong! This fascinating book shows that we still await an adequate scientific explanation and the jury is still out on what precisely the object was.