Cenozoic palaeontology

These collections include fossil and sub-fossil vertebrate material, the earliest of which in our collections is 7 million years old. Five million years ago at Langebaanweg there were many genera and species different to our modern ones; some, like Ceratotherium (a white rhino) were ancestral to our modern species; but many, like Agriotherium (a large bear) became extinct; bears no longer occur south of the Sahara and ancestors of boselaphines (a kind of antelope) now occur only in Asia. Elsewhere, from about 5 million years ago we see the beginnings of the development of early hominid and human ancestors and; the establishment, essentially modern faunas took place. Some assemblages are also directly or indirectly associated with landscapes on which archaeological material also occurs. The collections provide palaeoenvironmental and palaeoecological contexts for faunal biodiversity and the development of human behaviour. They also contribute observations for developing long-term palaeoenvironmental frameworks which are used in assessing modern issues such as global warming. 

Quaternary Faunal Collections

Key Samples

  • Skurwerug (open, inland) (Plio-Pleistocene).
  • Elandsfontein (open, inland) (Early to Late Pleistocene). 
  • Duinefontein (open, inland) (Middle Pleistocene). 
  • Springfontein (open, inland) (Middle Pleistocene). 
  • Sea Harvest (open, coastal) (Middle/Late Pleistocene). 
  • Hoedjiespunt (open, coastal) (Middle/Late Pleistocene). 
  • Ysterfontein (open, coastal) (Middle/Late Pleistocene).
  • Swartklip (open, inland) (Middle/Late Pleistocene).
  • Spreeuwalle (open, inland) (Middle/Late Pleistocene).

Pleistocene Fossils

For the most part these collections include fossil and sub-fossil terrestrial, marine and freshwater vertebrates and invertebrates from the last million years. Hipparion (a three-toed horse) was replaced 2 million years ago by single-toed Equus (the genus to which zebras belong). This period also covers much of the development of our early human ancestors. The collections provide environmental and ecological contexts for faunal evolution and biodiversity as well as the development of human behaviour. These observations also contribute to our knowledge of long-term environmental change and understanding of modern issues such as global warming.

Some collections from this period are directly or indirectly associated with archaeological material. They add to our knowledge of early hominid populations, which were small and sparsely distributed, leaving only ephemeral remains in the ancient landscape (see Social History Collections)

The material is mostly mammalian, but includes birds and reptiles. Although essentially modern faunas are represented a number of ancestral and now extinct species were still present. Some, like the long-horned buffalo Pelorovis antiquus, giant ‘hartebeest’ Megalotragus priscus and Cape zebra Equus capensis, become extinct as recently as 12 000 years ago.

Elandsfontein Collection

There are some 20,000 specimens from Elandsfontein. The main assemblage dates to between 700,000 and 400,000 years ago, although earlier and more recent elements occur.

Earlier elements, which are rare, include TheropithecusMegantereon gracileSivatherium maurusiumKolpochoerus paiceae and Metridiochoerus andrewsi.

An early Homo sapiens was found at Elandsfontein. Early, Middle and Later Stone Age artefacts also occur. The excavated Late Acheulian ‘Cutting 10’ artefact and bone assemblage is curated in Pre-Colonial Archaeology.

Duinefontein Collection


A large assemblage of excavated Middle Pleistocene fauna with Late Acheulian stone artefact dated to between 330,000 years ago. The material is mainly mammalian, but includes birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Assemblages from Swartklip, Hoedjiespunt and Ysterfontein were probably accumulated during the penultimate glacial period 160,000 and 130,000 years ago by hyaenas. Samples from Sea Harvest and Spreeuwalle were probably accumulated later, between 90,000 and 50,000 years ago. All indicate periods of lowered sea level.

Upper Pleistocene Collections

Assemblages from Swartklip, Sea Harvest, Hoedjiespunt and Ysterfontein were accumulated during the Last Glacial period by hyaenas.

Taphonomy Collection

This collection, assembled for modern ecological research and comparison with palaeontological and archaeological assemblages, includes remains of prey of leopard, hyaena, jackal, viverrids, and large and small raptors. Samples of barn owl pellets from a range of habitats comprise a significant element of the collection. The collection also includes comparative assemblages of marine molluscs from modern contexts. 

Tertiary Fossil Collections


Fossil Cetacean Collection

The cetacean fossil collection consists of 142 rostra as well as other remains, including cochleae, teeth and post cranial material. A few fragments exhibit cut marks, presumably from predation or scavenging by very large sharks, such as Megalodon.
Rostra are recovered because they occasionally get caught in bottom trawler fishing nets. Rostra recovered in this manner cannot be accurately dated, since no undisturbed geological context, exists, as is generally the case for terrestrial fossils. The rostra, as well as all other fossilized cetacean skeletal remains, have been eroded from their in situ context, and could quite possibly have undergone a series of exposures and coverings over millions of years,

Miocene and Pliocene Fossil Collection

These collections comprise over half a million specimens representing some 300 marine and terrestrial vertebrate species.

Langebaanweg Collection

The largest collection by far is from early Pliocene deposits at a phosphate mine at Langebaanweg, which includes many type specimens. Large mammal species from Langebaanweg include an ancient gomphothere Anancus sp., an extinct type of elephant which had tusks in its upper and lower jaws, an ancient mammoth Mammuthus subplanifrons, a short-necked giraffe Sivatherium hendeyi., an ancestral white rhino Ceratotherium praecox, two sabretooth cat genera Machairodus sp. and Homotherium sp., false sabre-tooth cat Dinofelis sp. and a large bear Agriotherium africanum. The giant pig Nyanzochoerus sp. is also well represented. There are several hyaena species, including Percrocuta australisHyaena abronia and Hyaenictis preforfex, and a wide range of other carnivores, including phocid seals, which are related to crab-eater seals. Three-toed horses Hipparion sp. are present. Antelope remains are common.

Rodents, insectivores, reptiles and amphibians are common. The marine and terrestrial bird assemblage is extremely diverse. Fish include sharks and rays. Molluscs are also present.

Miocene Whale Collection

This is an important collection of Miocene ziphid whale (beaked and bottle-nosed whales) rostra, dredged from the continental shelf by commercial trawlers.