History Comes Alive with New Fossil Exhibition

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Friday, 22nd April 2022

A beautiful reconstruction of the creatures and plants from the world-famous Waterloo Farm fossil site is now on show at a new fossil exhibition in Makhanda. The exhibition of these very rare fossils undertaken by the Devonian Ecosystems Project at the Albany Museum, does an incredible job of bringing Makhanda’s heritage to life.

The exhibit, which consists of a selection of rare and beautiful fossils recovered from Waterloo Farm accompanied by paintings of the prehistoric creatures and plants, takes you to the Waterloo Farm site, just two kilometres from Makhanda, without even moving a single limb or travelling back in time to the ancient world. 

The fossils are beautifully labeled with illustrations, linking them to the reconstructions in the paintings. Most of these types of fossils are known from nowhere else in the world.

This fossil site was deposited 360 million years ago when Africa was still part of Gondwana, a giant southern continent comprised of what are now Africa, South America, Antarctica, India, and Australia. What is now southern Africa was within the Antarctic circle, and Makhanda was on the shores of a semi-enclosed sea, the Agulhas Sea. The Waterloo Farm deposit represents a flooded estuarine lake where an ancient river met the sea. It is the most important site of its age in the southern hemisphere. It is here that remains of Africa’s earliest tetrapods (animals with four legs ending in toes) were discovered. They are 80 million years older than any other tetrapod remains from Africa. Although only known from distinctive isolated bones, these two types of tetrapod, named Tutusius (after Desmond Tutu) and Umzantsia (after Mzantsi), made world news, as they overturned textbook theories about where the earliest tetrapods (known from less than 20 species worldwide) lived. It was formerly thought that almost all of these came from a giant continent called Laurussia (made up of North America, Greenland, and Western Europe) that existed in the tropics 360 million years ago. Previously, only one tetrapod jaw of this age was known from Gondwana, from Easter Australia, which was on the far northern tropical coast of Gondwana. This has led people to believe that tetrapods evolved in tropical Laurussia before one kind spread to the tropical northern shores of Gondwana. But this idea was overturned by discoveries made outside Makhanda.

Waterloo Farm is also the ecologically best preserved tetrapod bearing site in the world which, since it was discovered in 1985, has yielded the remains of about 60 types of animals and plants, both those that lived in the lake and those that lived on the shore – including the remains of a scorpion that represents the oldest terrestrial animal known from Gondwana. Almost all of these plants and animals are entirely new to science, and so far, only 25 of them have been scientifically described and named. Waterloo Farm is the world’s only known latest Devonian (Famennian) estuarine site to preserve animal soft tissue, which also resulted in a number of other fossil stories that made world history. This includes the discovery of the world’s oldest fossil lampreys and the growth series of them that changed textbook views about the very origin of vertebrates. It also has evidence of the oldest known coelacanth nursery in the world, containing babies of Africa’s earliest known coelacanths (a mere 100 kilometres from where the first modern coelacanth known to science was caught!) 

Life was very different 360 million years ago. There were no vertebrates on land (i.e., no amphibians, reptiles, mammals, or birds), though the common ancestors of these lived in coastal estuaries and adjacent rivers. There were also many kinds of fish that went extinct later. These include armour-plated (placoderm) fish, abundant groups of lobe-finned (sarcopterygian) fish (of which coelacanths and lungfish are the only surviving groups), and spiny-finned (Acanthodian) fish (which included the ancestors of sharks). These coexisted with RayFinned (Actinopterygian) fish (which include the majority of the fish alive today) and early sharks (Chondrichthyans).There were also lampreys, an ancient group of jawless (Agnathan) fish (that still have representatives today).

The exhibit is currently available by appointment at 87 Beaufort Street in Makhanda, from Mondays to Thursdays. Visitors must phone ahead to arrange a viewing and will be hosted by a member of the Devonian Ecosystems Project. Depending on the day of the week, your visit may be arranged in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, or Xhosa. For appointments, visitors can contact Dr. Rob Gess on 082 759 5848 or Ryan on 083 390 3030.

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