Unearthing the treasures of Ariyalur: Documentary on a rich fossil site in Tamil Nadu

This is the first documentary ever on the fossils of India, and showcases a site with fossils of more than 5000 species from the past.
Unearthing the treasures of Ariyalur: Documentary on a rich fossil site in Tamil Nadu
Unearthing the treasures of Ariyalur: Documentary on a rich fossil site in Tamil Nadu
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Ariyalur district is over 250 kms away from Chennai, located in central Tamil Nadu. It is known for its abundant fossil accumulation and is a subject of awe and envy among paleontologists all over the world. More than 5000 species of animals that lived in the past can be found here – in the homes of people’s backyard. On a given day, you would be able to stumble upon fossils that went extinct over 65 million years ago, while taking an evening stroll – that is how rich and thriving the town is.

When we, members of Nirmukta met one evening, we didn’t realize that history was writing itself in that very room – few months later, we made the world’s first documentary on the amazing fossils found in India.

Nirmukta is a community, built to promote science, freethought and secular humanism in India and South Asia. Under its belt, there are various regional online groups and also a Youtube channel that addresses scientific topics, by breaking it down for a layperson to comprehend in a fun and simplistic manner.

Having been a member of Nirmukta myself, and a part of all the earlier videos, I jumped at the opportunity to make this documentary for two reasons. One: my love for science and contributing to the knowledge pool and two: my love for filmmaking. And with the help of numerous benevolent contributors who funded this ‘not-for-profit’ project, my Lime Soda Films crew and I set off to Ariyalur to unearth its treasures, firsthand. The whole experience was accentuated with the passion and zeal of two paleontologists Nirmal and Anurag as they explained the intricate and astute scientific pointers with the most profound examples and anecdotes.

The documentary gives a glimpse of various fossils available in Ariyalur, their identification, the geological time period they belong to and the reason behind their extinction. Through the documentary we travel millions of years back in time, by merely standing in the mass graveyard of prehistoric marine life and find evidences to understand evolution, the physical manifestation of time and life itself. Though modern form of humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, it is astonishing how science has enabled us to look beyond the realms of time – we have tried to capture it through this documentary.

“Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity,"  Mary Leakey, an extraordinary fossil hunter and flint-point expert, once said. The coolest thing she excavated was an 86-foot long trail of human footprints, dated at almost 4 million years ago. In a way, I could hear this quote resonating in my ears all through the production of our documentary – and during the postproduction of it as well. Having graduated from a non-science stream, I love science beyond institutional education – the one that makes mundane things in our lives more fascinating. So, to my absolute delight, finishing this documentary has made me an amateur paleontologist – I can now tell fossils by their name and the strata they belong to, just by looking at it.

The greatest learning was to observe how children from the nearby school were engrossed in Nirmal’s talk about fossils. Many of these children could grow up and become a ‘Mary Leakey’ and inspire so many more to follow suit. The importance of early initiation of topics like these couldn’t be stressed enough. And as Nirmal rightly points out, “We must sow the seeds of curiosity in their minds. We don't have museums like American Museum of Natural History here, but talks and documentaries like this would definitely make kids curious.”

The one thing that irked us the most, and it is probably the elephant in the room that everyone is trying to evade: the lack of conservation of these fossil sites. There are many cement factories in Ariyalur that thankfully serve as the chief source of excavation in mines. However, while procuring fossiliferous limestone content used in the making of cement, a lot of fossils get destroyed in the process. And as the top most layers keep getting depleted, the fossils belonging to that particular strata would disappear along with it – thereby restricting them from being used for research and development. Many officials from some of the mines were generous enough to let us shoot in the premises. It is true that we do not have expensive facilities like the west to initiate large-scale excavations or to convert these sites into national parks, but it is also heartbreaking to let this go without making some noise. And it is also about time that we initiate the much-needed introspection about the need for conservation of these sites, considering the paradigm shifting interest in geology and paleontology among students.

Having lived outside India and having visited many fossil sites abroad, Nirmal says, “I live in the Middle East and the government here is investing millions and trying to painstakingly conserve the remnants of our past. It is the same in the west too, where the number of national parks in a country reflects the level of involvement and interest in conservation. India has so much, but when it comes to conservative so much has to be done. We have a long way to go, and funnily we have so much more resources than other countries.”

We have finished making the documentary, but what seems like an accomplishment should hopefully become the beginning of a lot of radical changes that our government must direct its energy towards. Many news clippings from abroad have written so enviously about the fossils in Ariyalur. It is a pity that we aren’t giving it its due. We hope that through this documentary many young minds would be stirred and steered towards pursuing paleontology as a career and who knows, our next documentary could be about the Ariyalur National Park. We seem to have started off in the right path and some of the comments we received from our viewers are a testament to it.

You can watch the documentary here.

The writer is a director and founder of Lime Soda Films.

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