After the dramatic extinction of the dinosaurs, the bones of the largest land mammal were discovered in 1910 by English paleontologist Sir Clive Forster Cooper.
In Balochistan, Cooper discovered bones of extra ordinary size. He suggested that the mammal was the size of a dinosaur and named it as Baluchitherium or ‘the beast of Balochistan’. But for almost a century, the creature remained an enigma because no further investigation was carried out.
In the early 1990s, eminent French paleontologist Jean-Loup Welcomme set out on a journey towards Balochistan in order to find the fossils of the mysterious creature. He followed the footsteps of Cooper and finally discovered that Dera Bugti was the place where Cooper had first unearthed the bones of Baluchitherium. Welcomme came to Pakistan under a project named, "Mission Paleontologique Française au Balochistan". Pakistan Museum of Natural History was another stakeholder in that project.
Welcomme contacted Nawab Akber Khan Bugti and told him the story of that spectacular discovery. Bugti not only gave him the permission for further excavations but helped him with every day needs and workers. In 1997, Welcomme discovered the first finger of the Baluchitherium in a stony valley near Dera Bugti.
The giant of the hidden valley
After the first clue, Welcomme and other mammalian experts unearthed an array of amazing fossils. The team discovered uncountable fossils in a mere 200 square meter area, which could be considered the best exposed bone-beds on Earth. They found many remains of male and female Baluchitherium simply lying on the ground, which was a quite rare event in paleontological findings. Perhaps the massive creatures were swept away by a river and had accumulated on the banks. Scientists also found traces of crocodile’s teeth on bones which suggested that the Baluchitherium was also a common prey of crocodiles.
In 2003, the French team carefully examined every major and minor bone and finally put them in proper place, building a composite skeleton of the Baluchitherium. The skeleton suggested that the giant creature was five-meters tall and weighed 20 tonnes, almost as massive as the size of three large elephants!
Scientists got the rough idea of the Baluchitherium’s height by examining its bones. But defining the mass of any extinct mammal is a tricky job. Teeth and especially bones are very helpful to identify the mass of any mammal. Over decades of investigations, scientists have devised many techniques to find the mass of a mammal by looking at the length and diameter of its bones. These methods can be successfully applied to assess the bone-mass relation of the mammals.
In the geological time scale, Baluchitherium roamed Asia in Oligocene epoch or 30 millions years ago. According to plate tectonics, some 200 million years ago, the sub-continent was locked – it was a part of the great Gondwanaland which comprised South-America, Africa, Sub-Continent and Australia.
This block had been dismantled into parts and slowly moved towards Asia. 55 million years ago, one part of the Indian plate hit the Asian plate and 43 million years ago the contact between the two was complete. This collision brought about the Great Himalayan Mountains. The Indian-Asian plate collision changed the whole climate of the region.
Heavy rains and erosion turned Balochistan into a lush green rainforest like today’s Amazon. The conditions were suitable for a hornless rhinoceros or Baluchitherium to flourish. The lush forest provided enough vegetation for the bulk-eater mammal to survive. Baluchitherium lived for 11 million years, nearly 35 to 24 million years ago.
After working on the Baluchitherium, Welcomme tried to uncover the entire environment it shared. The team discovered the diversified fossils of fish, turtles, crocodiles, rodents and other small mammals. He studied 40 sites that described 12 distinct levels of different geological ages. He also discovered prehistoric trees, flowers and leaves.
Amazingly, the team found shark teeth, fish and shells which suggested that around 32 million years ago an epicontinental sea had appeared in the heart of Balochistan, which was a rare phenomenon.
Is Balochistan a cradle for humanity?
Prehistoric Balochistan can also be considered an exact place of migration of mammals coming from South East Asia on the road to Africa or Europe. Simply put, it could be called a cross road for African mammals. Amazing fossils of ancestors of elephants and lemurs also discovered in Balochistan, strengthened the hypothesis that many animal groups have Asian origins. We can assume that this place was an evolutionary highway for the kin of today’s many advanced animals. Surprisingly the French team discovered some 20,000 fossils of mammals only from and around the areas of Dera Bugti.
Two important discoveries are worth mention here, one is the mystery of lemur. Bug-eyed and slow moving lemurs now only live on the island of Madagascar. Before 2001, scientists had believed that only Africa was the birthplace of lemurs. But a lemur fossil discovered in Pakistan changed the paleontology text books.