Resolving the Enigma of Ancient Bead-Like Fossils: Unveiling the Secrets of Frankincense and Myrrh

by Santiago Fernandez
Frankincense fossil mystery

In a groundbreaking discovery, paleontologists have identified the earliest fossils of the Frankincense family, originally found in India in the 1970s. These small, bead-shaped fossils, once a puzzle, have now been linked to the southern hemisphere, offering new insights into plant evolutionary history.

During the early 1970s, a paleontologist exploring near an Indian village uncovered these enigmatic fossils in gray chert fields. Known for yielding hard-to-classify plant fossils, including the enigmatic “Enigmocarpon” fruit, the site presented another challenge with these new findings. Despite decades of further discoveries across India, their plant origins remained elusive.

Advancements in Fossil Analysis

The mystery was finally unraveled through modern CT scanning techniques. Steven Manchester, a paleobotany curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, used 3D reconstructions to examine these fossils and similar ones. In a revelatory moment, a colleague identified the five triangular structures inside as pyrenes, not seeds. Pyrenes are protective woody pods, like those in cherries or pistachios, safeguarding seeds from digestion.

Seed vs. Pyrene: A Crucial Distinction

Distinguishing seeds from pyrenes, particularly at minuscule sizes, demands meticulous examination. Traditional paleobotanical methods, involving incremental fossil dissolution and microscopic layer analysis, had been inadequate. Manchester acknowledged the challenges faced due to the fractures and material limitations of the specimens.

Linking to the Frankincense Family

Through elimination, Manchester and Walter Judd, a botany curator, attributed these fossils to an extinct Burseraceae species. Fossilized Burseraceae wood, leaves, fruits, and flowers, often found in India between basalt layers from massive volcanic eruptions, provided additional context.

Geological Background and Its Importance

During this period, India, then an island near Africa, was drifting towards Europe and Asia. Volcanic eruptions, lasting nearly a million years, devastated the landscape and vegetation. However, these fossils were preserved during the eruptions’ lulls in newly formed ponds and lakes.

The implicated shield volcano was active around the time of the asteroid impact ending the Cretaceous, contributing to subsequent extinctions. Most Frankincense family fossils were found post-impact, but these original 1970s fossils predate it, making them the oldest known of their kind. Their discovery has significant implications for understanding the family’s origins and evolution.

Climate Change and Species Migration

Historically, ancient Burseraceae species were prevalent in fossil beds across southern England, the Czech Republic, and parts of North America. However, a gradual global cooling, leading to recent Ice Ages, saw these species shift predominantly south of the equator. The initial emergence and distribution of these species remain subjects of debate.

The Indian fossils’ close relation to Frankincense-producing species and their southern hemisphere location suggest a reevaluation of the family’s origin.

This study’s findings have been published in the International Journal of Plant Sciences by Steven R. Manchester, Dashrath K Kapgate, and Walter S. Judd.

Reference: “Cretaceous Burseraceae in India” by the same authors, December 2023, in the International Journal of Plant Sciences. DOI: 10.1086/729091

Walter Judd from the University of Florida and Dashrath Kapgate from J. M. Patel College also contributed to this research paper.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Frankincense fossil mystery

What was the significant discovery about Frankincense family fossils?

Paleontologists identified the oldest-known fossils of the Frankincense family in India, dating back to before the Cretaceous asteroid impact, reshaping our understanding of plant evolution.

How were the mysterious fossils discovered in the 1970s identified?

Using CT scanning and 3D reconstructions, scientists identified the fossils as pyrenes from the Frankincense family, providing key insights into the origins and evolution of these plants.

What challenges did researchers face in identifying these fossils?

The small size and complexity of the fossils made them difficult to study using traditional methods. CT scanning technology played a crucial role in their accurate identification.

How do these findings impact our understanding of the Frankincense family’s origins?

The discovery suggests that the Frankincense family may have originated in the southern hemisphere, challenging previous beliefs about their northern origins.

What is the significance of these fossils in the context of geological history?

These fossils, preserved between volcanic eruptions in India, are the oldest known of the Frankincense family, offering new insights into plant life before the major asteroid impact of the Cretaceous period.

More about Frankincense fossil mystery

  • International Journal of Plant Sciences Article
  • CT Scanning in Paleontology
  • Frankincense Family Evolution
  • Geological History and Plant Fossils
  • Steven Manchester’s Research at the Florida Museum
  • Volcanic Eruptions and Plant Fossils in India
  • Paleobotany and Fossil Identification Methods

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PaleoLover December 22, 2023 - 11:11 pm

amazing how CT scans are changing the game for paleontologists, always thought those fossils were just rocks, mind blown!

HistoryBuff247 December 23, 2023 - 12:58 am

so these fossils are like really old right, older than dinosaurs? or am i getting it wrong, history is so fascinating but confusing sometimes…

ScienceGeek December 23, 2023 - 1:19 am

this is a big deal for plant evolution study, but i’m curious about how they dated these fossils accurately, the article doesn’t go into much detail on that part, anyone knows?

MikeJones December 23, 2023 - 6:18 am

wow thats pretty cool didn’t know they could find out so much from old fossils, frankincense always seemed like just a christmas story thing to me?

GreenThumbGina December 23, 2023 - 11:09 am

Frankincense plants are so interesting, never knew they had such a mysterious past, nature’s full of surprises I guess


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