Fossils piece together the past, and sometimes — as in this case of a retired Indian geologist — can mend a reputation.
On March 14, news agencies across the world reported the discovery of a group of fossils of a 1.6-billion-year-old red algae, a precursor to plant and animal life, from Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh. The findings were reported by a group led by Stefan Bengtson, Emeritus Professor, Swedish Museum of Natural History, in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Biology.
What has been eclipsed in the announcement is that one set of these fossils are called Rafatazmia chitrakootensis, named after Rafat Jamal Azmi, a Dehradun-based geologist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, who was the first to report these unique fossils over two decades ago.
Then, however, Dr. Azmi’s findings were widely criticised by the Geological Society of India as the “small-shelly fossils” that he discovered seemed to suggest that animal forms evolved about 1.6 billion years ago, when the textbooks say that shelled creatures are thought to have first evolved at the beginning of the Cambrian “explosion of life”, around 550 million years ago.
Moreover, Dr. Azmi interpreted the age of those fossils to bolster his long-standing but unorthodox thesis that the Vindhya mountain ranges, from where he sourced the fossils, were much younger than the Himalayas — only about 500-600 million years old.
These are still matters of debate but Dr. Azmi was denied a promotion for two to three years because of these finds. Speaking to The Hindu over the phone, he said he had to “professionally suffer” for his finds and interpretations. “There were allegations in the media and even among the scientific community then that my findings were a fraud,” he said.
Professor Bengtson, however, played a crucial role in exonerating Dr. Azmi. He came to Chitrakoot and accompanied the latter to the fossil site to assess his claims independently.
“I found indeed the same fossils and was thus able to exonerate Dr. Azmi from the accusations of fraud in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (a top peer-reviewed journal) paper that we published in 2009,” Professor Bengtson told The Hindu in an e-mail.
“… the filamentous form of red alga that we report is named Rafatazmia, in honour of Dr Azmi.”
Professor Bengtson’s latest study, however, is based on collecting fossils from the same region in 2011, during an expedition in which Dr. Azmi wasn’t involved.
So far, the oldest known red algae was 1.2 billion years old, but the Rafatazmia predates them by 400 million years and though they are not skeletal animals of the kind Dr. Azmi believes them to be, they may represent an ancient form that could “rewrite the tree of life”, Professor Bengtson was quoted as saying in a news report.
‘Time of visible life’
“The ‘time of visible life’ seems to have begun much earlier than we thought,” he said.
The material structurally resembles red algae, embedded in fossil mats of cyanobacteria inside a 1.6-billion-year-old phosphorite, a kind of rock, found in the Chitrakoot region in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
“You cannot be a 100% sure about material this ancient, as there is no DNA remaining, but the characters agree quite well with the morphology and structure of red algae,” said Professor Bengtson.
His group came to their conclusions using X-rays to observe regularly recurring platelets in each cell, which they believe are parts of chloroplasts, the organelles within plant cells where photosynthesis takes place.
Honour for Azmi
While Dr. Azmi “accepted the honour” of lending his name for the oldest plant-like fossils, he disagrees with Professor Bengtson’s interpretation.
Rather than being an ancient precursor to plant life, he suggests that it was more likely that they were algae-like organisms with a shell, that were widespread during the Cambrian era.
“Incidentally, we disagreed and probably still disagree about the nature and age of the fossils, but disagreements about interpretation are healthy in science and have of course nothing to do with fraud,” said Professor Bengtson in his e-mail to The Hindu.