It’s hard to imagine animals surviving here. The gravelly West Coast soil is populated sparsely with scrub and small bushes crouching low to keep out of the wind. This is not the stamping ground of the Big Five, but step back in time a little and the West Coast picture changes dramatically. Try 5 million years. That’s what happens when you walk into one of the excavation sites at the West Coast Fossil Park.
Located approximately 150 km north of Cape Town the Langebaanweg fossil site is world-renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved fossil remains that dates back to 5.2 million years ago.
Emerge from the introductory lecture with an armload of books and enthusiasm for fossils… imagine yourself discovering the remains of sabre-toothed cats, giant African bears (yes, there were once bears in these parts), elephant ancestors of 40 million years ago called Gomphotheres (they went extinct about two million years ago) and giant antelopes which browsed the woodlands about five million years ago called Sivantheres. This is not forgetting the birds from bygone millennia, of which about 60 different species have been found, including an ostrich larger that our feather-duster model.
The deeply buried fossil deposits were uncovered during phosphate mining in the Langebaanweg area. The mining started in 1943, when solid phosphate rock was mined for fertilizer and it is thought that many tons of fossils were crushed up along with the rock before scientists were made aware of their existence.
The mining eventually stopped here and a new kind of prospector moved in. A national and international team of researchers are currently unraveling the fascinating and unique history of fossils from the West Coast Fossil Park and attempting to recreate the environment and climate of the west coast some 5 million years ago. To date, more than a million skeletons of small animals have been preserved at the Iziko Museums in Cape Town, where they will be painstakingly studied to reveal more secrets about our past.
Upon entering the half-round plastic tunnels protecting the excavation sites, the floor is strewn with thousands of fossilised animal bones. There’s an otherworldly feel about it – appropriate because this really is a different world.
This is the old site of the Bergriver, which today enters the sea about 20km to the north. Five million years ago, in a much warmer and wetter climate, it was the site of a mass burial ground when the river came down in flood, carrying thousands of plants and animal carcasses with it.
They were deposited at a bend in the river and were soon covered with mud. There they lay, preserved for the future while their families slowly went extinct on the ground above them due to a changing climate and its impact on the surrounding vegetation.
It was only early in the last century that homo sapiens interrupted their slumber while digging for phosphates.
Among the fossils on display at the park is that of sabre-toothed cats; Hipparion, a three-toed horse that moved into Africa about 12 million years ago; the Gomphotheres, an elephant group that moved to Africa 40 million years ago and became extinct 2 million years ago; and Agriotherium Africanum, the only African bear ever found, whose ancestors entered Africa from Eurasia approximately 6 million years ago and spread across the continent to the Cape. Another highlight is the Sivatheres, the extinct ancestors of giraffes. They had short necks and long horns, and they were huge.
The Fossil Park is also an excellent play pen for children. Along with the sheer excitement of seeing fossils, kids can also become a palaeontologist (a specialist in the study of the forms of life existing in prehistoric or geologic times, as represented by the fossils of plants) for the day.
Outside the tunnels are sifting trays in which buckets of gravel from the excavation sites have been dumped. In a few minutes, you’re likely to find the teeth of prehistoric rodents, the rib of a frog or the vertebrae of a snake.
What this fossil park does, if nothing else, is to shift the mind to a different place and time and give one an inkling of how long it took for life to arise and diversify on our planet – and how quickly we are destroying it.
Open Weekdays (Monday to Friday): 08.00-16.00; Saturday, Sunday & Public Holidays opening times vary according to season.(You are advised to phone or email ahead of your visit). The Park is closed on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day & Good Friday.
Entrance Fees: Adults: R10.00 Seniors and Students: R8.00 Children: R5.00