A skeleton of Kentrosaurus on display in a museum.

There is a long history of dinosaur digs on the African continent, including the one that unearthed Kentrosaurus. ©Faviel_Raven/Shutterstock

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A history of African dinosaurs: Unique narratives starting to be told

In parts of Africa, almost every single dinosaur fossil unearthed is a new species.

But historically, this continent's dinosaurs have been largely ignored. Now a new generation of palaeontologists is rising up to tell the stories of these important animals.

Almost three quarters of all known dinosaurs come from just 10 countries, with China, the United States and Mongolia claiming the top spots.

Despite Africa being the second largest continent, its dinosaur fossil record as a whole is - comparatively speaking - incredibly sparse. This can give the impression that there simply aren’t many dinosaur remains to be found on the continent, or that perhaps those that have been found are not as interesting or significant as those from Europe or North America.

But the majority of our knowledge of these ancient animals is massively skewed.

Dr Kimi Chappelle is a South African researcher who studies dinosaurs across southern Africa, but particularly focuses on those contained within a layer of rock known as the Elliot Formation. These rocks date to a period that straddles the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event roughly 200 million years ago.

‘There's definitely a collection bias when it comes to fossils,’ explains Kimi. ‘Yes, there are fewer dinosaur species known from South Africa, but that has to do with the fact that it just hasn't been explored as much.’

‘A typical example is that we thought the Lower Elliot Formation [of South Africa] was much less diverse than the Upper Elliot Formation. But a lot of it is just under sampling. Every animal we have found in the formation is a new species. Every single thing.’

But it wasn’t always this way. There is an extraordinarily rich history of dinosaurs from Africa, dating all the way back to the very start of the study of palaeontology itself.

A group of people sat in an arid landscape digging dinosaur fossils out of a hole.

Digging in the Elliot formation of South Africa has revealed an extraordinary diversity of animals that lived there 200 million years ago. 

Ancient history

The first dinosaur discovered by scientists in the entire southern hemisphere was found in South Africa just three years after the word ‘dinosaur’ was created by Sir Richard Owen in 1842. On top of that, one of the very first dinosaurs ever to be named was an animal called Massospondylus also from South Africa, and also named by Richard Owen.

Whilst during the nineteenth century the attention of palaeontologists would turn to the extraordinary fossils being unearthed in the American Midwest, the largest dinosaur expedition of all time was not conducted in North America or Europe as many might expect, but in Tanzania in east Africa.

Between 1909 and 1913 teams of scientists from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, visited a site called Tendaguru in what was then German East Africa. The colonial expedition used hundreds of local workers to collect 225 tons of material from an area spanning 80 square kilometres. From this they excavated thousands and thousands of fragmented dinosaur fossils.

Eventually, scientists would piece these together to describe a number of new species, including the short-necked long neck Dicraeosaurus, spikey Kentrosaurus and towering above them all, Giraffatitan. All of these fossils remain in Germany to this day.

A picture of the dinosaur hall at the Museum Fur Naturkunde, Berlin, filled with the skeletons of giant dinosaurs.

The Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, is still one of the best places to go to see African dinosaurs on display ©Perekotypole/Shutterstock

The fossils unearthed in Africa are therefore historically important, but there are also a number that are scientifically important too.

By the 1930s, the possession of Tanzania had passed into British hands and was known by then as Tanganyika Territory. It was here that a few scrappy remains of fossil bones were collected and eventually made their way to the Natural History Museum, London. Fast forward to 2013, and these bones were finally described as the new species Nyasasaurus parringtoni.

At roughly 230 million years old, it is potentially the earliest dinosaur ever discovered (or at least very close to the origin of dinosaurs). This means that, despite the relative lack of attention that has been placed on the continent, Africa might have played a critical role in the evolution of dinosaurs themselves.

And yet, despite this long history and clear potential, by and large the continent has been overlooked.

Dr Nizar Ibrahim is a palaeontologist and comparative anatomist based at the University of Portsmouth who works extensively on the dinosaur remains from Africa, and in particular northern Africa.

‘I think, if we take a step back, there was sometimes the underlying assumption that maybe dinosaur assemblages in Africa were simply replicating what we see in North America or Europe, that it was more of the same,’ says Nizar. ‘But what we're finding out with animals like Spinosaurus, for example, is that there are unique African narratives.’

‘And when you look at the size of Africa and the number of potential outcrops, you realise that we have a massive gap in our understanding of dinosaurs. And I think that's a deep flaw.’

Nizar stood on the side of an arid mountain with a pickaxe, as someone else digs with a power drill.

Nizar thinks that the lack of attention paid to dinosaurs from the African continent is limiting out understanding of dinosaur evolution as a whole. Image courtesy of Nizar Ibrahim. 

Nizar explains that this gap in knowledge has the potential to completely change our understanding of dinosaurs, such as what they were doing in their final days before the asteroid hit. But that is not the only extinction event that is recorded in the continents’ rocks.

‘We know that the fossil record in southern Africa straddles a part in time that's extremely important,’ explains Kimi.

‘It's one of the only places in the world where we have an uninterrupted sedimentary record of the end-Triassic extinction. So for things like faunal turnovers, it's really important for understanding what those extinction events did to the biodiversity.’

Neglected sites

If Africa contains such a wealth of fossils from such critical moments in Earth’s history, then it begs the question of why there has been relatively little interest in the continent. The answer to this is likely varied.

Part of the issue is simply how remote a lot of the sites are. Many of the rich fossil-baring rock formations are a long way from towns and cities, or in some cases in politically unstable regions. This can make it simply difficult to work in these places due to the logistics.

This lack of infrastructure is particularly striking when compared to other well-known fossil locations, such as those in North America.  

‘If we look at places like the Morrison Formation in Utah when doing fieldwork,’ says Kimi, ‘you think you're in the middle of nowhere but there's actually probably five or six different teams working in Utah at the same time.’

‘Whereas if we look in South Africa, basically there are only a small handful of teams that are currently doing dinosaur fieldwork in the entire country.’

A view looking out across the arid landscape of Morocco.

Kimi is a massive advocate for South Africa's prehistoric heritage and does everything she can to increase understanding. 

Another major factor is one of expertise. For a long time, the fossils found in Africa were taken out of the continent to Europe and the Americas to be studied by scientists there, rather in building capacity and expertise in country.  

This has resulted in a dearth of local experts and a historic reliance of scientists from Europe and the United States to interpret what was being found. While this lack of capacity is slowly improving, particularly in places such as Morocco and South Africa, it still has an extraordinarily long way to go.  

Colonial legacies

One thing here is clear, however. The history of fossil hunting on the African continent is inherently wrapped up in the colonial projects of European nations.  

The early fossils from South Africa only made their way into the hands of Richard Owen in London because the British were exerting brutal control over the southern Cape, whilst Germany occupied Tanzania by imposing bloody rule across swathes of eastern Africa.   

As always this means that there is a huge, complex history to unpick. While many of the major fossil finds from Africa were legally collected and would have likely been eroded away if left in the ground (meaning we’d know even less about Africa’s dinosaurs), they were taken from occupied land which was the direct result of acts of war, genocide and death.

The Museum für Naturkunde has not been immune to these conversations. For example, in the past some Tanzanian politicians have called for the return of Giraffatitan to the country from which it was dug up, although it is important to note that this is not the Tanzanian government’s position. But whilst there has been an increase in the calls for repatriation of dinosaur fossils over the past few years, Nizar suggests that things are never quite as simple as they first appear.   

A fossil shop on the side of the road in Morocco.

Nowadays, one of the biggest threats to Morocco's fossils is the illegal fossil trade. 

‘Repatriating fossils is actually a lot more complicated than many people realise,’ says Nizar. ‘I've repatriated fossils to places like Morocco, but it's a lot of hard work.’

‘There are many examples of fossils being returned to countries that then basically crumbled to pieces because the infrastructure wasn't there. So the hard thing is to raise funds for infrastructure and capacity building on the ground.’

‘You then have to train the next generation of guardians for this ancient heritage.’

But the removal of fossils from African countries didn’t stop with the end of colonialism. In some countries, one of the biggest threats to their fossil heritage is the illegal trade in fossils. This is a big issue particularly in Morocco, which now has a booming trade in illicit fossils.

This is not an insurmountable problem. But it does mean that palaeontologists need to be thinking further ahead than the simple act of repatriation, which in many cases is not solving the problem. They need to be considering how this vital heritage will be protected for generations of scientists to come.  

When it comes to the remains still held in the collections in Berlin, it is now actively setting up collaborative projects with Tanzanian scientists and inviting them into the collections to study the remains.

Two Moroccan palaeontologists digging.

In some parts of Africa there are now an increasing number of local dinosaur experts. 

It is these collaborative initiatives that Nizar thinks are particularly valuable.   

‘One of the things I really deeply care about is actually furthering collaboration between African scientists,’ explains Nizar.

‘For African scientists, there's often an underlying assumption that, for example, Egyptian palaeontologists only work in Egypt. You're not going to see them somewhere else in the world even though they share some of the same kinds of rocks as, for example, Morocco. Scientifically it doesn't make a lot of sense.’

‘So what I'm now doing is inviting scientists from, say, Niger, to dig in Morocco. They have so much information to share, and that is one of the things that I am really excited about.’

Increasing expertise

There is a long way to go to increase and improve expertise within Africa, but there are clear paths forward.

Over recent decades, there has been a move away from the dominance of North America and Europe within palaeontology. China in particular has emerged as a massive player, with countless fossils being unearthed and described in country by Chinese researchers each year. But it is not alone, as other historically neglected regions have also risen to prominence, such as South America.

This shows how there can be quite rapid movement when capacity and infrastructure is improved.

While this is the start of the journey for some parts of Africa, in others there are already signs of shifts to have more in-country palaeontologists. These people can not only train more scientists but also expand the scope of what is currently being studied. 

A portrait of Sginyane, who is stood in front of pink blossom.

By building expertise in South Africa, it is hoped that more local people like Sginyane Ralane from Qhemegha will value the nation's fossils.

‘I think having more people in house is not only important because then we get to train students and have more experts in South Africa,’ explains Kimi, ‘but it also just allows us to cover more areas and find more fossils.’

‘I think we have a lot of excellent local students in the country right now, and I think that there's great potential for that community to grow more so than it has been.’

There have also been a number of fossil finds more recently – such as the truly bizarre Spicomellus from Morocco – that highlights how the dinosaur fauna of Africa is telling its own unique story. This is helping to shine the spotlight on the continent once more.    

‘There’s a lot happening in Africa,’ says Nizar. ‘And while it is true that in the first 200 years of dinosaur science African dinosaurs have not played the most prominent role, I have no doubt that in the next 100 years a new generation of trailblazing young scientists - mainly from Africa - are going to reveal many new incredible things about Africa's age of dinosaurs.’