James Kitching and the Karoo

We all know how Indiana Jones went everywhere with his hat, and when the chips were down would always make sure that famous hat was never left behind.

Well, there is a real hat of a real adventurer that now lies preserved in a glass case in the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu Bethesda in the Great Karoo in South Africa. Perhaps the Indiana Jones movies provided the inspiration for preserving the hat, but that aside, James Kitching had a life as adventurous as that of Indiana Jones, but with perhaps a little less theatrics. The resting place of a great hat of a great man who grew up in the town.

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James Kitching’s hat.

So why is he so famous in palaeontological circles, and why is a museum in a tiny town in the vast Karoo named after him? Born in Nieu Bethesda in 1922, he began to hunt for fossils as a kid for Robert Broom, and this interest in the ancient life of the Karoo eventually led to a professorship and head of department of the Bernard Price Institute of Palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. For our non South African readers, the ‘W’s’ are pronounced as ‘V’s” so say Vitvatersrand, which means ‘ridge of white waters’ in Afrikaans. Everyone in South Africa affectionately knows it as Wits (say Vits). His knowledge of fossils was so great that in spite of not having a first degree Wits allowed him to register for a Masters and ultimately was awarded a doctorate in 1972 on his research on Karoo fossils. Not only was he an avid collector of Karoo fossils, but he discovered Australopithecus Prometheus in Makapansgat which was described by Raymond Dart as a new species of ‘Ape Man’. This name has since been revised to A. africanus but that doesn’t detract from his achievements.

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James Kitching in 1947

Alexander du Toit, the father of South African geology, wrote a book titled ‘Our Wandering Continents” and was one of the early proponents of continental drift. Back then the idea was much ridiculed by mainstream geologists. During the southern hemsiphere summer of 1970-1971 Kitching travelled with the Ohio State Universtity Institute of Polar Studies to the Queen Maud Mountains as part of the US Antarctic Research Programme. With James Collinson he was the first person to identify and collect therapsid (mammal-like reptiles) fossils there in the Lystrosaurus Zone. Needless to say we have exactly the same fossils here in the Karoo. Which added additional evidence for the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics which were at that time were being embraced by the new generation of geologists. Vindication indeed for those early proponents, including du Toit.  There is a rocky ridge at 85°12’S 177°06’W on the west side of the Shackleton Glacier in Queen Maud Land named Kitching Ridge in his honour. So a hat, a rocky ridge, a museum and collection of amazing bones are a fitting epitaph to a great man. Move over Indiana.