While planning a touring holiday, which encompassed part of the west coast of South Africa, I spotted the words “fossil park” on the map, about 150km north of Cape Town, some distance from a village called Langebaanweg. Intrigued to find out more, I searched the Internet to determine if it was accessible to the public and, if so, its opening times. I found nothing. Not to be deterred, my husband and I decided that, once we were in the country, the usual tourist literature would give us the required information. Unfortunately, once again, there was nothing. So, determined not to be defeated, we drove to the area in the hope we could find it and visit it. Fortunately, we managed both.
The fossils in the park date back to the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (Fig. 1). These are important periods in human evolution, since it is believed that the last common ancestor of humans and our closest living relatives – chimpanzees – lived during this period. Mio-Pliocene hominid fossils are extremely rare and have only ever been found in East Africa and not among the deposits found at the West Coast Fossil Park to date.
With more than 200 different kinds of animals being identified, the park possibly represents:
- the greatest diversity of 5 to 5.2myr-old animal fossils found anywhere in the world, and
- the richest fossil bird site older than 2myrs in the world.
The fossils incorporate those of many animals that are new to science and many that are now extinct. They include sabre-toothed cats, short-necked long horned giraffes (Fig. 2), hunting hyenas, three-toed horses, three species of elephants (including four-tusked elephants), giant pigs, African bears (which are the first ever found in sub-Saharan Africa) (Fig. 3) and antelopes (including one species now only found in Asia).
There are also fossils of smaller animals similar to those we know today of fish, frogs, lizards, chameleons, mole rats and mice, and over 80 species of birds, many of which made their first appearance in the fossil record at the park.
In the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras, the area was adjacent to an ocean and consisted of a mixture of lush, riverine forests, wooded savannah and open grassland. A vast river flowed through it and was the force that swept the animals, whose bones later became fossilised, to rest along its estuary banks in jumbled disarray.
The fossils may have remained undiscovered if an opencast phosphate mine had not opened in the 1940s and an alert employee in the 1950s had the foresight to alert scientists to a fossilised anklebone from an extinct short-necked giraffe and a fossilised tooth of an extinct elephant found among the rocks. Unfortunately, it can only be assumed that, until then, many tons of fossils had been crushed along with the phosphate rock.
In 1996, a 14 hectare fossil-rich area was declared a National Monument Site and, subsequently, 700 hectares – the entire mining area – was made a National Heritage Site. It and its contents now form a valuable resource for researchers from all over the world.
Currently, over 80m² of fossil beds and a small museum, with a vast collection of excavated fossils, are open for viewing by the public and information about the park is now available on the Internet. However, the park is very isolated, which means visitor numbers are likely to be low – there were only four people on our tour; and it does not have much in the way of visitor facilities, as the main focus of the park is scientific discovery and research. However, they have a pleasant cafe and (if our experience is anything to go by) well-informed and interesting guides.