Human fossil founder Arun Sonakia dies in accident

Human fossil founder Arun Sonakia dies in accident

Fossil hunter Arun Sonakia, who four decades ago discovered the Narmada Man — the only human fossil found in India, was killed in a car accident in Madhya Pradesh on Saturday.

Sonakia, who was settled in Bhopal after retiring from the Geological Survey of India, was returning to the Madhya Pradesh capital from his ancestral village Hirankheda, when his car was hit by a truck on the highway, killing the man whose work put into a club of nations from where fossiled remains of human ancestors were found.

 On December 5, 1982, Sonakia was surveying a stretch on the banks of Narmada in Hathnora village – 35 km east of Hosangabad – as a part of his regular GSI work when he came across what look like a "half-ring bone". 

It turned out to be the fossilised skull of a human ancestor, which Sonakia in a research paper later described as Homo erectus.

The discovery changed the face of human origin studies in South Asia as it remained the only species of that antiquity found in the region till date.

 Unlike Africa where stone tools had been discovered next to human skeletons, the Narmada Man remains the only human fossil in India, though many stone tools were found.

Like many other human fossil discoveries, Sonakia's discovery, too, had its share of controversies.

There were people who challenged the antiquity of the species and there were others who objected to its identification as Homo erectus.

"Someone filed a legal complaint against Arun for not giving him any credit in the Narmada Man discovery. The case took place in a small court in Ambala for which he had to travel to from Madhya Pradesh regularly. After a year, the case against him was dismissed," recounted Ashok Sahni, a former professor at Panjab University, Chandigarh and one of India's foremost fossil hunters.

Scientists admit that there is still scope to undertake further research with the skull, beginning with its dating.

In the absence of a proper dating, the skull – kept at GSI's Nagpur unit – can belong to an era anywhere between 1,50,000 and 7,50,000 years ago.

"I approached GSI with a dating request for which I required 20 micrograms of samples. But GSI didn't give permission because it feared that extracting samples will damage the fossil," Rajeev Patnaik, a professor of geology at Panjab University told DH.