Went fossil-hunting up the West Coast today near the seaside village of Paternoster, about 200km north of Cape Town, South Africa. Explored an active dig site and took some photos.
Five million years ago, the Atlantic ocean was 20-30km “higher” or further inland than it is today. The West Coast towns of Saldahna, Vredenburg and Paternoster were islands and the fossil site where I was, was underwater (a river estaury most likely). The climate was wetter and was not fynbos-capped dunefields, but swamp and marshland with thick forest populated by hundreds of species of Miocene mammals, fish, reptiles and birds.
As the climate became more hot and dry, the flora adapted and became fynbos. Paleontological research of the fossilized teeth of ungulates indicates stress on the molars, suggesting that they could not properly ingest the newer vegetation (or digest it, for that matter), which probably contributed to their extinction.
It’s a fossil-rich area (like most of the West Coast), but the area was mined for phosphate which was used in munitions production during World War 2 and fertilizer production until 1993 when the mine closed. By that time, the open-cast operation had destroyed 20m of top soil and about 80% of the fossil record. The mining company then created a trust to rehabilitate the area and excavate the remaining fossilized remains.
There are three dig sites. One that has already been excavated and remains open to the public for education purposes, a second which is the “active” research site (for four weeks of the year by researchers from the Iziko Museum in Cape Town) and a third which is (according to my awesome guide, Eddie Adonis, the most promising site yet to be explored).
Most of the bones at the site are of a heard of prehistoric short-necked giraffe (Helladotherium) that lived during the Miocene era, about 5 to 23 million years ago. They were drowned when the river flooded and their bones were deposited in the soil (and subsequently trampled by other animals, which explains the crushed, broken bones). Helladotherium are not the ancestors of modern African giraffes. Other fossils I saw were those of sabertooths, prehistoric rhinos, a baleen whale and a mammoth. This is NOT the woolly mammoth most of us are familiar with, but the African one which was “hairless” and had long, straight tusks similar to its decendant, the African elephant. I also saw the vertebral remains of prehistoric snakes and frogs!
The coolest thing was the remains of the African bear! Millions of years ago, there were bears in Africa! The only bears found south of the Sahara. They were not very big in terms of height, but weighed about as much as the Kodiak of North America. Pretty powerful.
No fossilized remains of humans or settlements, BUT they did find a set of human footprints that are 120 000 years old!
Also had a springbokkie cross the road right in front of my car! But s/he was too quick for me and my camera :(
Hot and humid, but there was a thunderstorm coming in off the ocean. Cooled my feet in the Atlantic and collected seashells :) Awesome day!