The West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaan north of Cape Town has one of the world’s richest concentration of fossils dating back to the early Pliocene era five million years ago. Once sabre-toothed cats roamed this land, along with short-necked giraffes, four-tusked elephants and strange, three-toed horses.

Did you know?

The teeth of the fossilised animals found here tend to be malformed, either by environmental stress or excess fluoride.

Five million years ago, the arid West Coast of South Africa looked exotically different to the way it looks today. Back then, strange creatures roamed a land that was green and well-watered.

There were four-tusked elephants called gomphotheres and three-toed horses. There were stocky short-necked giraffe called sivatheres. There were sabre-toothed cats and there were great big African bears.

Alongside this startlingly different wildlife, there were an assemblage of smaller beasts very like the frogs, chameleons, lizards, moles, molerats and fish we know today.

The Berg River once flowed here, a mighty watercourse that swept all before it. All the creatures mentioned above become fossilised bones washed up in a jumble along its former banks.

These fossils might not have been discovered were it not for a phosphate mine started here in 1943, but the importance of the bones was not appreciated until much later. The mine was closed in 1993, and this museum opened in 1998.

The West Coast Fossil Park is one of the world’s richest fossil deposits from 5 million years ago, the late Miocene and early Pliocene era.

It has attracted scientists from all over the world to study the extinct creatures whose bones lie here.

In total, the remains of 200 animal species have been uncovered. The majority of the fossilised bones come from giraffe-like sivatheres. There must have been vast herds of them roaming around here. Did they suddenly become extinct? Or was it a slow extinction because their necks were too short for them to browse nutritious leaves? Did the climate change?

The West Coast Fossil Park is about 150 km from Cape Town (a two-hour drive or so), not far from the West Coast National Park and the beautiful Langebaan lagoon. It is particularly interesting because the exhibits are not just bones under glass. This is a working museum; you are able to ‘take part’ in the dig too, and go to the actual place where excavations are taking place. You feel part of the process of discovery.

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