Thu, 30 Nov 2023

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BEIJING, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- After billions of years of evolution, Earth has borne witness to the ebb and flow of life. The time span of humans stepping onto the historical stage is but a fleeting instant in Earth's vast timeline.

Contemporary scientists persistently delve into their studies on the ancient Earth with unwavering dedication, endeavoring to construct a comprehensive portrait of the entire evolutionary saga.

But how can they uncover the deep-seated mysteries that have been hidden for such a long time? Hezheng, a remote county in northwest China's Gansu Province, may have some answers. The county has managed to preserve a wealth of fossil specimens and geological strata, due to its unique geological structure.

Here, people have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what the Earth looked like from the time following the extinction of dinosaurs to the period preceding the emergence of humanity.


Hezheng County is situated within the Linxia Basin, and at the juncture of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Loess Plateau. During the 1950s and 1960s, the county was renowned for a distinctive Chinese herbal medicine known as Long Gu, meaning dragon bones in Chinese, which is believed to be effective in soothing the heart and calming the nerves. Back then, nobody even imagined that this natural substance could reveal an undiscovered facet of this rugged mountainous terrain.

The man behind the great discovery was the vertebrate paleontologist Qiu Zhanxiang.

In the 1960s, Qiu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) had just graduated from Moscow University and embarked on an investigative journey to Hezheng County. He soon learned that local farmers were unearthing and selling items such as Long Gu that bore a striking resemblance to paleontological fossils.

Long Gu, a substance widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, has now been scientifically confirmed as the skeletal remains of ancient large mammals. However, in the 1960s, numerous farmers sold a substantial quantity of these fossils due to their limited knowledge and financial hardships. In some cases, they even broke the fossils into pieces, selling bones and teeth separately in pursuit of maximum profit.

Following extensive collection and research, Qiu appealed to the local government to gather specimens from the local residents and establish museums to safeguard the fossil species.

"Once a fossil was damaged, its unique historical value would be irrevocably lost. These specimens are vital data and evidence for the study of ancient Earth," said Qiu, the 87-year-old expert.

In 1987, Qiu, in collaboration with researchers from the Gansu Provincial Museum, published the first-ever academic paper on new species derived from Hezheng fossils. This paper introduced Acerorhinus hezhengensis, notable for its absence of a nasal horn, which garnered widespread attention both domestically and internationally, and brought Hezheng, a place rich in fossils, to the spotlight.

In 2003, Hezheng County built the country's first museum on late Cenozoic paleo-mammal fossils.

Today, the Hezheng Paleozoological Museum boasts a collection of over 40,000 ancient animal fossils, which are categorized into three classes, 17 orders, and encompass over 250 distinct species, including 43 classified as first-class finds. Among the wealth of fossils, a representative discovery is the giant rhinoceros fauna dating back 26.5 million years.

"The abundance, diversity and exceptional preservation make it a rarity on a global scale," said Zhang Hailian, an instructor with the museum.


Around 65 million years ago, the era of dinosaurs came to an end, followed by the emergence of humans seven million years ago. But what creatures inhabited Earth during the vast intervening 60 million years or so?

People's fascination with ancient beings often centers on the colossal dinosaurs or diminutive single-celled organisms like paramecia. Yet, this is just a fraction of Earth's extensive evolutionary history, with countless untold stories awaiting discovery.

The fossils unearthed in the Hezheng area now bridge this intriguing gap in people's knowledge. Today, the area encompassing Linxia Basin, Hezheng County, Guanghe County, and Dongxiang County, collectively known as the Hezheng area.

It is at the forefront of vertebrate paleontology circles, boasting a wealth of Cenozoic fossils including over 250 species of reptiles, birds, and mammals. Among them, more than 80 are newly discovered species. These fossils hail from the period after the dinosaurs' demise and precede the arrival of humans, providing a vital window into the enigmatic history of Earth.

Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, which administers Hezheng, is merely 8,000 square kilometers, yet it hosts 100 fossil discovery sites, with Hezheng County leading the way in uncovering these invaluable relics.

"Hezheng is a treasure trove of ancient animal fossils," said Deng Tao, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, CAS.

Deng added that the elevation of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau plays a crucial role in the richness of fossils found within the Hezheng area.

"The collision between the Indian subcontinental plate and the Eurasian plate instigated the ascent of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, thrusting the surrounding Linxia Basin into an era of heightened geological activity. During this period, sediments were continually deposited into the Linxia Basin, enshrouding the remains of recently deceased animals," Deng explained. "Over thousands of years, these remains underwent fossilization, ultimately transforming into the fossils we now uncover."


Under the leadership of Deng, a collaborative Sino-American team successfully identified a novel species of giant rhinoceros, Paraceratherium linxiaense, which thrived approximately 26.5 million years ago. During this period, northwest China experienced a warm and humid climate, with towering trees gracing the landscape. The giant rhinoceros would have dined on leaves found at the very tops of these trees.

Moreover, the Hezheng area is home to a multitude of the world's most exceptional fossils. In June, the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, CAS and the Hezheng Paleozoological Museum jointly released 10 world-leading research findings relating to Cenozoic fossils uncovered in the Hezheng area.

These revelations include the area's significance as a gathering ground for giant rhinoceroses, the world's largest terrestrial mammals, and fossils of the earliest savanna fauna and the unique Hezheng sheep.

Deng, a student of Qiu Zhanxiang, is a second-generation scholar dedicated to the study of ancient animal fossils in the Hezheng area.

When Qiu first arrived in Linxia, he was under 30 years old and brimming with enthusiasm. Now, in his advanced years, he continues to lead the charge in fossil research and preservation. His students such as Deng have taken up the mantle of their mentors, ensuring that research in the Hezheng area thrives and yields continuous results.

Jiangzuo Qigao, an associate researcher at Peking University, represents the third generation of researchers committed to exploring the Hezheng fossils.

"Our current discoveries merely scratch the surface of what lies beneath in the Hezheng area, and the future holds vast research prospects," Jiangzuo Qigao added.

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