It was once an old phosphate mine, and the remains of the old infrastructure and an air of an old mine can still be discerned on arrival. But for South African palaeontologists ththey have hit the mother lode – a treasure trove of Miocene and Pliocene fossils buried in the ancient sediments near Langebaan in the Western Cape. Reconstructions of the palaeo-environment 5.1 million years ago show that sea levels were much higher than now and that the area was under riverine forests, wooded savanna. The animals preserved in the rocks were the inhabitants of these environments and of course the shoreline which lay immediately to the west. Over 200 different species of animal have been uncovered to date which is arguably the greatest diversity of fossils from this period to be found anywhere on Earth. It is a provincial heritage site and is partnered with the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.
On arrival it doesn’t look like much, but once inside the protective tent which covers the current diggings all is revealed – before you lies hundreds and hundreds of bones which are currently being excavated. That it is a working dig is obvious with a grid stretched out over the area to provide a ready reference for locating the finds. Our tour guide was an entertaining lad and kept his audience laughing throughout his presentation. For those who wanted to dig for themselves there were tables filled with sand and specimens, presumably from within the excavations. Inside in the main laboratory was a team of white coated technicians sieving through tray loads of sand and rock, collecting tiny frog bones and other items of palaeontological interest. I have to admire those who do this work – to sieve, describe and catalogue the finds is a massive and possibly unrewarding task, but then, who knows what may be discovered in the future, and besides, it is only through painstaking work that the environmental conditions of 5 million years ago can be understood.