After 27 years of civil war Angola is rising from the ashes and, with its vast, previously unexplored expanses, is becoming known as a treasure chest for palaeontologists.
During the three decades of war scientific exploration was forbidden as the country was all but closed off. Now, seven years after the war’s end, the great palaeontological wealth is waiting to be explored, and scientists are flocking to the Southern African country to make up for lost time.
The first discoveries were made during the 1960s, but a liberation struggle against former colonial master Portugal broke out a few years later, followed by years and years of civil war that devastated the country and put paid to any further exploration.
“Museum in the ground”
Louis Jacobs, professor of geological sciences at Dedman College, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, described Angola as a “museum in the ground. Due to the war, there was little research carried out, but now we are getting in finally and there is so much to find. In some areas there are literally fossils sticking out of the rocks …”
Jacobs is part of the PaleoAngola project, an initiative that promotes palaeontology in Angola through research and exploration, and also oversees the training of young Angolan scientists so they can ultimately run the project themselves.
PaleoAngola is a collaboration between research and educational institutions in Angola, Holland, Portugal and the US. Funding comes from the National Geographic Society and the Petroleum Research Foundation of America, among others.
Results so far have been spectacular and have yielded not only Angola’s very first dinosaur – dating back to the Late Cretaceous period (between 99.6 and 65.5 million years ago), and other fossils of mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites, sharks and turtles – but also a number of research papers.
Several have appeared in National Geographic, the Bulletin of the Geological Society of France, and Palaeontologica Polonica journal, and have also been presented at international scientific gatherings.
In 2005 Jacobs and his team came across the remains of the first dinosaur to be excavated in Angola. They discovered five ancient bones from the left front leg of a massive sauropod, embedded in a cliff at Iembe, 65km north of the capital Luanda.
Since then fossils have been found in abundance. In honour of the area’s importance to science, a genus of the extinct marine reptile mosasaur has been named Angolasaurus.
Dr Octavio Mateus of the New University of Lisbon, also a palaeontologist with PaleoAngola, believes there is much more to be discovered: “Some of the places here are the best in the world in terms of fossil [remains],” he said. “We keep finding new animals, so it is always exciting to be here.”
To date the team has excavated from Bentiaba in the province of Namibe on the Namibian border in southern Angola, right up to the coast of Cabinda province, Angola’s exclave.
During the warm Late Cretaceous period much of the region was under water, which is why Angolan fossils belong to marine creatures such as turtles, plesiosaurs and mosasaurs. The scientists hope that Angola’s fossils can help them better understand the geological events of this time, such as the break-up of the megacontinent of Gondwana, and their effect on plants and animals.
Although it is one of the continent’s poorest countries, Angola is one of the richest in terms of natural resources, particularly oil and diamonds.
The country is starting to rebuild its ravaged infrastructure after the war, but still faces many challenges as a legacy of the conflict. Landmines litter the country, the civilian population is still heavily armed, and child mortality is high. Many residents who became refugees during the war are still waiting to be resettled.
But in recent years Angola has paid off a substantial part of international debt, and many building projects are underway in towns and cities around the country, although citizens are struggling to adapt to the growing economy. The country, like countless others, has been hard hit by the global financial crisis.
As further proof of its progress, Angola has been selected to host the 27th African Cup of Nations in January 2010. Matches will be played in Luanda, Benguela, Cabinda and Lubango.
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