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Cenozoic Palaeontology

The Cenozoic period spans the Palaeogene (66 million years ago (Ma)) to the Quaternary (Holocene – present).

During the late Cretaceous (145.5–99.6 Ma) and Tertiary (23–11.6 Ma) Africa separated from its neighbouring Gondwana continents and began moving north. During this time there was erosion in the interior resulting in few onshore deposits surviving. These onshore deposits are related to sea level changes. The Cenozoic climate changed from relatively warm and ice free during the Paleocene (66 Ma) to massive ice sheets in the northern and southern hemispheres during the Pliocene (5.33–2.58 Ma). It was marked by long- term cooling and was further influenced by the opening of the circum-Antarctic seaway, with shallow and deep seaways. During the late Paleocene (58.7 Ma) to early Eocene (55.8 Ma) Southern Ocean high latitude sea surface temperatures were between 9 and 15ºC higher than present but by the late Eocene these temperatures had cooled. At the Eocene/early Oligocene boundary a further 1-2ºC cooling is noted. Cooling along the west coast of southern Africa is supported by the change in the nannoplankton off the northern Namibian coast from warm water forms in the Eocene –middle Miocene (16 Ma) to cold water dominant forms in the late Miocene (7.2 Ma)– early Pliocene  thus marking the establishment of the Benguela Upwelling System (BUS).

The Cenozoic Palaeontology collections house fossils and sub-fossils mainly from the Neogene and Quaternary. The animals preserved in these collections are ancestral to living animals, resemble modern animals or have become extinct. There is also geological and palaeobotanical information which help with building the palaeoenvironment. 


The Neogene includes the Miocene (23.0 – 5.33 Ma) and Pliocene (5.33 – 2.58 Ma).

Miocene – Pliocene Langebaanweg

The world famous collection from Langebaanweg (West Coast Fossil Park) straddles the late Miocene and early Pliocene. This collection includes the first fossil bear (Agriotherium africanum) from sub-Saharan Africa, a wolverine (Plesiogulo monspessulanus), 4 species of hyaena, four species of penguin, sabre tooth cats, Sivatherium (long horn, short neck giraffe), gomphothere, mammoth, elephant and numerous birds. This period marks a time of cooling along the west coast and higher sea levels.It was also possible that at this time dry summers and wet winters were already being experienced. 

Hondeklip Bay

This material was collected in Namaqualand, Northern Cape, South Africa. The Avontuur member (50 m package), was deposited on a prograding shoreline. The sediments represent intertidal (foreshore), breaker and surf zone (upper shoreface), a zone seaward of the surf zone with dominant storm deposits (lower shoreface) and a nearshore shelf facies as well as a tidal inlet and lagoon deposits.

Duinefontein (Koeberg)

The Duynefontyn member (Table 1) underlies the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station37. These early Pliocene sediments were deposited in an open a lagoon sheltered by an intertidal barrier spit37. It was initiated as a prograding sequence by the early Pliocene transgression with a barrier spit developing as a result of the regression and was replaced by marshes

Other deposits

Ysterplaat was a high energy beach during the late Miocene. This deposit is only 9 m to 10 m above sea level. The phosphatic sandstone was deposited in a shallow marine setting with molluscs suggesting the presence of a sandy beach.  There is a point bar deposit and along with a meandering stream.

The Hondeklip Bay Member (30 m package) was deposited along the Namaqualand coast during a late Pliocene regression which and preserves foreshore face, upper shoreshoreface and lower shore face facies.Prospect Hill Formation 25 m strandline in the Lower Quarry has fossils related to the 30 m package in Namaqualand.

Baard’s Quarry is a late Pliocene to early Pleistocene river channel complex that was deposited during a regression (low sea level).

Quaternary Collections

The Quaternary spans the Gelasian (early Pleistocene) to the present (Holocene). The following are some of the sites included: Swartklip 1, Swartklip 2, Ysterfontein-carnivore, Ysterfontein-L. Katz Street, Spreeuwalle, Sea Harvest, Hoedjiespunt, Duinefontein 2, Duinefontein, Duinefontein-calcrete, Duinefontein, Elandsfontein-Main, Elandsfontein-Bone Circle, Elandsfontein-HD, Donkerga, Hout Bay, Geelbek, Velddrif, Skurwerug – Saldanha, to name a few. These collections date from 2.58 Ma to present. 


The Elandsfontein collections holds about 20 000 fossil specimens. There are about 13,000 mammalian bones identified to skeletal part and taxon. There 49 species, 15 have no historic descendants. Its age is between 1 million and 600 thousand years. The site was close to a large marsh or pond, maintained bya higher water table. The bones accumulated during one of the mid-Pleistocene interglacials that were longer and cooler than later ones, including the Holocene. It is thought deaths probably resulted from attritional factors. The animals described include the long-horned buffalo, Pelorovis antiquus, the extinct Arambourg’s hartebeest, Rabaticeras, which probably gave rise to the extant hartebeest genus, Alcelaphus

Elandsfontein Main Large Animals

The relative representation of large-mammal taxa in the EFTM fauna, based on the minimum numbers of individuals (MNI) represented. The percentageswere calculated on a total MNI of 712 (Klein et al. 2007).


This site probably representing buried land surfaces. The levels are probably earlier late Pleistocene at youngest (older than 40 000 years) and may even be later Middle Pleistocene (older than 125 000 years) in age. The following animals have been identified: Loxodonta Africana (elephant),Dicerosbicornis (black rhinoceros), Ceratotheriumsimum (white rhinoceros)Equus capensis (Cape’Giant Horse’), Megalotraguspriscus (Hartebeest).


This site is located along the False Bay coast and the fossils were accumulated by hyaenas that were scavenging carcasses. This assemblage accumulated during a glacial period when a regression (low sea level) moved the coast kilometres away from Swartklip. Swartklip carnivores include lion, leopard, serval cat, hunting dog, Egyptian mongoose, water mongoose, clawless otter, black-backed jackal and hyaena. The herbivores include: giant long-horned buffalo, grysbok, vaalribbok, southern springbok, black wildebeest, southern reedbok, blue antelope, eland, kudu, hippo, white rhino, Cape zebra, quagga and ostrich. This area had more grasses, was more moist and cooler than present. There was a gentle undulating plain with a stream that was “dammed” into a vlei behind a low stabilised dune ridge. It possibly dates to about 110 000 years ago. 

Taphonomy Collection

This collection, primarily assembled from samples originally made in modern biological research, provides assemblages for actualistic studies of the taphonomy of palaeontological and archaeological assemblages. Assemblages of prey of leopards, hyaenas, jackals, mongooses and large and small raptors are held. Collections of Barn Owl pellets from a range of habitats comprise a significant element of the collection, which also includes comparative assemblages of marine molluscs from modern contexts.

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