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 Baardâ€™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 1960â€™s, the mining moved from Baardâ€™s Quarry to the nearby Varswater â€Câ€ and â€˜Eâ€™ 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 Baardâ€™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).