Fossils discovered recently in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, a good 400 million years older than the oldest plant-like fossils ever found, suggest that the complex organisms appeared earlier than assumed.

Researchers from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, who uncovered a pair of 1.6 billion-year-old fossils in Madhya Pradesh’s Chitrakoot region, claimed that it was an antique find. They published an X-ray tomographic picture, tinted to show detail, of the fossil of thread-like red algae that was unearthed in central India. According to researchers, the fossils may be the oldest plant-like life discovered on the Earth. So far, the oldest known red algae are 1.2 billion years old and the oldest dinosaur fossils, found in Africa, are about 240 million years old. The finding in Madhya Pradesh suggests that advanced multi-cellular life evolved much earlier than previously thought.

Stefan Bengtson of the Swedish Museum of Natural History has explained that the earliest traces of life are at least 3.5 billion years old. These are single-celled organisms, unlike eukaryotes, which lack nuclei and other organelles. According to the lead researcher, large multi-cellular eukaryotic organisms became common much later, about 600 million years ago, near the transition to the Phanerozoic Era or the “time of visible life”. Discoveries of early multi-cellular eukaryotes have been sporadic and difficult to interpret.

Bengtson has expressed hope that the Indian fossils, 400 million years older than the oldest and by far the oldest plant-like fossils ever found, would lead experts to rewrite the tree of life – a branching, tree-like structure representing the evolutionary divergence of all living creatures.

However, scientists – who found two kinds of fossils resembling red algae in sedimentary rocks at Chitrakoot – said that “you cannot be a 100% sure about material this ancient, as there is no DNA remaining”. But one can assume that “the ‘time of visible life’ seems to have begun much earlier than we thought”, stressed Bengtson.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]