Chengjiang Fossil Site in Yuxi

Chengjiang County, located in Yunnan Province, China, is renowned in evolutionary biology and paleontology for its remarkable soft-tissue fossil finds, particularly within the Maotianshan Shales. These fossils, dated to less than 518 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion, are comparable in significance to the renowned Burgess Shale fauna but are notably older.

The fossils discovered in Chengjiang County are considered among the most important fossil finds of the 20th century due to their exceptional preservation, diverse fauna, and significance in unraveling the mysteries of early life on Earth. Initially described by Henri Mansuy and Jaques Deprat in 1912, their true importance was not fully realized until 1984 by Hou Xian-guang, a professor at Yunnan University.

Despite its scientific significance, Chengjiang County is economically underdeveloped, relying heavily on phosphate deposits found above and below the fossil-bearing formation. These deposits have been extensively mined, with phosphate mining accounting for a significant portion of the county’s revenue. However, this mining activity poses a threat to the fossil-bearing strata, leading to concerns about the preservation of the invaluable paleontological heritage.

Efforts have been made to close the region to mining in order to support Chengjiang’s bid for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, these efforts have been met with challenges, including renewed mining activities that jeopardize the fossil sites through erosion and overburden slumping.

Chengjiang County faces a complex dilemma, balancing the need for economic development with the imperative to preserve its unique paleontological treasures. Finding a sustainable solution that protects the fossils while supporting the local economy remains a significant challenge for the county.