The fossil site of Langebaanweg is located in the West Coast Fossil Park, approximately 150 km north of Cape Town (a 11/2 hour drive), and is world-renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved fossil faunal remains that date to the terminal Miocene/early Pliocene (circa 5.2 million years ago).
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. At this time many animals that are now extinct, such as saber-toothed cats, short-necked giraffes, hunting hyenas and African bears roamed the west coast which then had a more subtropical climate with lush, riverine forests and open grasslands.
The deeply buried fossil deposits were uncovered during phosphate mining in the Langebaanweg area. The mining started in 1943, initially at Baard’s Quarry on Langeberg Farm, close to where the airforce training base is today. Here 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 phosphates come from the Varswater Formation. In the early 1960’s, the mining moved from Baard’s Quarry to the nearby Varswater ”C” and ‘E’ Quarries. Mining ceased altogether in 1993 when Samancor made a decision to close down their Chemfos operations at Langebaanweg as it was no longer economically viable.
A remarkable number of different fossil animal species (and families) are represented at this site, making Langebaanweg one of the most diverse Mio-Pliocene occurrences in the world. The fossil rich deposits first came to light when Dr Ronald Singer (from the anatomy department at the University of Cape Town) visited Baard’s Quarry in 1958. He was accompanied by Dr Hooiijer (from Leiden University) and Dr Crompton (Director of the South African Museum). The mine superintendent, Mr Coreejes, showed them a small collection of unusual phosphate samples and bones collected by one of the mine employees, a Mr I.S. Brown. In amongst this sample was an ankle bone of an extinct short-necked giraffe belonging to the sivathere group (this became the subject of the first scientific paper published on the site), and a tooth of an extinct elephant called Stegolophodon (Stegolophodon has since been re-classified as Mammuthus subplanifrons).
During the 1960s, and the period up until the late 1980s, fossils from the Varswater Quarry were a focus of research by the South African Museum (now the Iziko South African Museum), under the leadership of Dr Brett Hendey, who published numerous papers on both the fossil fauna and geology of the Langebaanweg area. After Dr Hendey’s departure from the museum in 1986 research at Langebaanweg slowed down considerably. When the decision to close the mine was made in 1993, the future of the fossil site was precarious. However, museum personnel, together with the then National Monuments Council, managed to get a 14 ha fossil-rich area within the mine property declared a National Monument Site in 1996, thereby securing the site for posterity. Subsequently the entire mine area, approximately 700ha, has been declared a National Heritage Site.
Iziko Museums of Cape Town and SAMANCOR entered into a public-private partnership to form the West Coast Fossil Park, which was officially launched on 22nd September 1998, and at the same time excavation of the fossil deposits was resumed in 'E' Quarry. The remains of several extinct giraffes, called sivatheres, were uncovered and left 'in situ' for public viewing. This first phase also included the renovation of the old Chemfos mine office block to provide a display area, lecture room, laboratory, offices, tea room, curio shop and research accommodation for a team of up to 12 people. Excavations at the Park were extended annually thereafter, and to date a total of 80m2 of the fossil bone bed is open and available for viewing by the public.
Researchers from all over the world come to South Africa to work with these collections at the Iziko South African Museum as they provide an important context for interpreting and dating similarly aged sites in other parts of Africa, as well as providing a unique insight into the climate and environment of the west coast some 5.2 million years ago.