Angola is famous for its oil and diamond wealth. But it is also a ‘last frontier’ for another, less noted treasure: a mindboggling number of prehistoric fossils.
Dozens of mosasaurs, dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and turtles are excavated over one month each year by a small, international team of paleontologists (PaleoAngola). According to them, ‘Angola is the key to understanding the Atlantic rift which separated South America from Africa’.
“In Portugal, seventh on the list, I find a piece of a skull once every two years. Here, three a day! Since 2005, in the South of Angola the group has discovered roughly ten species of mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs, pterosaurs and turtles.” said Mateus.
He uncovered the bones of a sauropod dinosaur north of Luanda in 2005 and also was the first to discover a pterasaur in Sub-Saharan Africa. ‘We don’t know any other place on earth as rich as this one in vertebrates,’ he said. ‘Paleontologists will have plenty work in Angola for generations to come.’
There was electricity in the air that night before the PaleoAngola members travelled back to Portugal and the US to study their newly found fossils and bring them back next year. No wonder: Angola’s prehistoric treasure has only been unveiled on a larger scale during the last five years.
“When the war was going on it never occurred to us to do research in Angola,” explained Professor Jacobs. “We only knew there were fossils from a 1964 publication by Professor Antunes from Portugal, baptised Angolasaurus by Mateus.
According to PaleoAngola, Angola is ‘probably’ the richest country in the world for mosasaurs, or marine lizards. Angolasaurus, a mosasaur, was discovered by the group in 2005.
“The first mosasaur ever was found in 1766. After that, a few dozens were collected over hundreds over years. Here, since 2005 we’ve found six complete and twelve partial mosasaur skeletons!” says Jacobs.
Mateus: “And there are probably hundreds of them that haven’t yet been discovered.”
Dr. Anne Schulp, paleontologist at the Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht, is involved in the Angolan project because of the link with the low lands.
Angola’s geology is related to the rift of the Atlantic 120 million years ago, and PaleoAngola’s findings provide important additional evidence for its timing and consequences.
“Some of the first four-legged animals crossed the South Atlantic when South America separated from Africa. Angolachelys for instance, a newly discovered turtle and the oldest African marine turtle. Angola is the key to understanding why and where things were at that time in earth history.” says Mateus.