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Past Life at Langebaan: West Coast Fossil Park

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Article published in The Cape Odyssey, June/July 2002

fossilsWhen Commander van Riebeeck first set his eyes on the west coast region his view was that, ‘there is no land in the whole world so barren and unblessed by the Lord God’.Today this region of the Western Cape is still found to be relatively dry and windswept, the vegetation stunted, and few wild animals inhabit the area.

The region, however, has a charm and down to earth beauty of its own. Five million years ago things were a lot different. Sediments and fossils discovered in the region testify to periods of warmer temperature, higher rainfall, lush vegetation and an abundance of animal life.

elephantIllustration right: The elephant, Mammuthus subplainifrons, roamed around Langebaanweg 5 million years ago
The Fossil Park, a member of Iziko Museums of Cape Town in partnership with BHP Billiton, has been instrumental in uncovering a fascinating story – five million years old. The Chemfos Mine first discovered fossils at Langebaanweg in the late 1950’s during the course of phosphate mining operations. Since then, under the aegis of the South African Museum, it has been established that this deposit contains the greatest diversity of 5 million year old fossils in the world. These fossils have attracted the interest of leading overseas scientists and together with local researchers led by Dr Brett Hendey have generated over seventy publications.

Some important and exciting discoveries include Agriotherium africanum, the first bear ever found in Africa south of the Sahara, Homiphoca capensis, an extinct true seal and four extinct species of penguins.

Over the past 40 years, the South African Museum has forged an excellent working relationship with the mine to ensure that the palaeontological wealth of the site was properly sampled. When mining operations ceased in 1993 the South African Museum, together with SAMANCOR, recognised the potential for developing a West Coast Fossil Park. Phase one of this project was launched in September 1998. A unique field centre for further palaeontological research and education and specialist tourism programmes has been established. A 14 ha. area of the mine floor has already been proclaimed a National Heritage Site in an effort to protect the fossil deposits for posterity.

The story started in 1958 when Mr. I S Brown, a mine employee, showed prominent visitors to the phosphate mine two fossilized specimens. One was an elephant tooth and the other a short-necked giraffe anklebone. It was unimaginable that these two specimens would be the foundation of one of the largest collections of this kind in the world.

These first fossils were found in Baards Quarry, an open cast mine, on the farm Langeberg. Subsequently more fossils were found in ‘C’ and ‘E’ Quarries on the nearby farm of Varswater. It was soon evident that ‘E’ quarry would yield fossils of unprecedented quality and quantity.

Here are some of the exciting ‘blasts from the past’ whose relics were uncovered at he Fossil Park.

sabre-toothed catA sabre-toothed cat distinguishable from the other large cats by the enlarged upper canine teeth, smaller hindquarters and shorter tail.

Hipparion, a three-toed horse that moved into Africa about 12 million years ago.

The wolverine, Plesiogulo monspessulanus. This representative of a ferocious group of carnivores was as large as a small bear.

agriotherium africanumThe bear, Agriotherium africanum. The ancestors of this enormous carnivore entered Africa from Eurasia some 6 million years ago and rapidly spread across the continent to the Cape.

The gomphothere, Anancus. The gomphotheres belong to the elephant group and they became extinct about 2 million years ago,

A visit to the Cape’s West Coast would be incomplete without a tour of the Fossil Park. The expertly led guided tours takes one back in time to a period when the region was inhabited by extraordinary life.

The Park is easily found on the Vredenburg – Hopefield Road (R45) at Langebaanweg and is open daily. To gain maximum benefit from your visit telephone the Park at: 022 766-1606 for updated tour arrangements.

Langebaanweg - A Record of Past Life
by Dr Q B Hendey
Media releases by Pippa Haarhoff
Illustrations by Cedric Hunter © South African Museum

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