Get a glimpse of how life on Earth was 500 million years ago

From May 18 – Nov 14 this year, you will get a rare chance to see how life forms existed on Earth 525 million years ago. Visit the ‘Exceptional Fossils from Chengjiang, China: Early Animal Life’ exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the first major exhibition of these fossils outside China.

Chengjiang Fossils Courtesy: University of Oxford

The Chengjiang fossils on display at the museum, which were first unearthed in 1984 in Yunnan in China, open up a window onto one of the most important events in the history of life on earth: the so-called Cambrian explosion, a period of rapid evolution from unicellular organisms to complex animals. If you expect life from 525m years ago to look rather primitive then you’re in for a surprise: these fossils reveal fully-formed, finely-adapted animals that seem as sophisticated as many of their relatives we know today – something we wouldn’t be able to say but for their extraordinary preservation.

At first glance they may not be as impressive as the Museum’s dinosaur skeletons or stuffed dodos but, get your nose close enough to the glass cases, and you’ll enter a different world. They are like tiny jewels encased in stone, only a few millimetres or centimetres long but full of incredible detail – boasting tiny tentacles, eyes, legs, and forceps-like pincers.

Yet, what is more exceptional about these fossils is that they have survived only because of an amazing stroke of luck. ‘The preservation of all the soft tissues is a result of the organic materials of these animal bodies being replaced by fool’s gold – iron pyrite.’ explains Derek Siveter of the Department of Earth Sciences, ‘It’s an amazing treasure, the material is every bit as wondrous palaeontologically as the Terracotta Warriors are archaeologically’.

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About Akshat Rathi

Akshat Rathi is a science journalist. He has previously worked at The Economist and The Conversation. His writing has appeared in Nature, The Guardian and The Hindu. He has a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.
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