Amy Shapiro: Week 1, Langebaanweg

Hello from Langebaanweg!

I am Amy Shapiro, a teaching assistant for the ASU Paleoanthropology, Paleontology, and Paleoecology Field School in South Africa this summer. A total of ten undergraduate students, from ASU and seven other universities in “the states” along with faculty, have just started our fieldwork at Langebaanweg, a late Miocene/early Pliocene site (about 5.2 million years old) in the Western Cape of South Africa.

cape point group photo

Field school students at Cape Point

Langebaanweg is located in the West Coast Fossil Park (link to Google Map showing the location), an old phosphate mining area that was donated because of its rich fossil history and in order to rehabilitate the area after the mining operation was discontinued. The fossil park now has a number of objectives, including rehabilitation of the area with native plants, ongoing conservation of and research on the fossil beds, public education about the local fynbos environmentor natural shrubland or heathland vegetation occurring in a small belt of the Western Cape of South Africa—and the fossils found at the site, and increasing tourism to the site to further these goals. Since we are working in the park, our field school also mirrors the objectives of the park: we are teaching excavation techniques and fossil identification, but we are also teaching about the current fynbos environment and the importance of public education about the area.

"jackass" penguin

"Jackass" penguin at Boulders Beach

Being a field school, our primary goal is not research but education. For most of the students this is their first, and perhaps only, trip to Africa, and experiencing the culture, wildlife, and histories of each are all-important to a successful field experience. With that in mind, we’ve had and are planning lots of excursions. While in Cape Town, we learned about the history of the area and its life at the IZIKO museums (including a musical workshop and army marching in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 92nd birthday) and saw the spectacular wildlife of the area at Boulder’s Beach, Cape Point, and Hout Bay in the Cape Peninsula. These all afforded exciting encounters with wildlife: at Boulders Beach we cozied up to the native African penguins (or “Jackass” penguins as they’re sometimes called due to their call that sounds like a donkey’s braying) and saw a Southern Right whale; at Cape Point we were surrounded by animals during lunch—not baboons, which often frequent the area, but African starlings, one of which grabbed an entire slice of pizza right out of my hand!; and at Hout Bay, we also saw Cape fur seals being hand-fed off the dock.

Butcher Boys sculpture

"Butcher Boy" sculpture at the IZIKO National Gallery in Cape Town

We are just starting our excavation, and I will keep you updated with all our exciting activities at the site!

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3 Responses to Amy Shapiro: Week 1, Langebaanweg

  1. Jay Greene says:

    Great start, Amy! Thanks. Having so much about the fynbos’ status as a unique floral kingdom, I am curious as to its history: when did it come into being? Has its extent been the same over time or has it fluctuated in extent? I did not realize the fynbos could be found as relatively far north as you are; I thought it hugged the coast and its western limit was east of Cape Town.


  2. don johanson says:

    Amy, you all make me envious! I can only imagine how interesting each day must be for all of you. Thanks so much for letting us back home share in your exciting expedition.

    All the best, Don Johanson

  3. Amy Shapiro says:

    Hi Don and Jay,
    Thanks for your comments! Jay, you ask some very good questions which are part of the ongoing research in the area. Some evidence from Langebaanweg phytoliths (crystal structures found in plants), carbon isotope ratios in bovid teeth, and tooth wear analyses indicate that the fynbos flora may have been present at Langebaanweg by 5.2 mya. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of good fossil material from before this time period in the area, so whether if was present before then is one of the areas that is important to continue to research. This is also one of the research areas being investigated by members of our department including my advisor Kaye Reed in the project “Explaining a Confluence of Diversity & Complexity: Fynbos, Marine Ecosystems & Human Origins”–you can read more about this on the SHESC website. The fynbos comes in a couple “varieties” and can be found as far north along the western South African coast as the Olifants River (about 5 hours north of Cape Town). I’ll be talking more about the fynbos in my future posts, so stay tuned!

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