Shepherd stumbles across sleeping giants in a dinosaur graveyard
In many ways the remote settlement of Qhemegha, tucked away among the mountains of South Africa, is typical of many local villages.
But for years, villagers walking the hills and riverbeds surrounding Qhemegha have been stumbling upon massive bones, too big and too old to belong to any of the local wildlife roaming the grassy plains.
These bones belonged to some of the earliest dinosaurs.
In the banks of a dry riverbed that courses among the foothills of the towering mountains of Lesotho, a team of dinosaur hunters are on their hands and knees chipping away at the ground.
As the Sun beats down on the exposed slope and dust fills the air, the researchers meticulously chisel away. The soft rock eventually gives way to the skull of a large meat-eating animal followed by a chain of vertebrae disappearing into the bank.
The last time these bones saw the light of day, early mammals were only just darting around the undergrowth, flowers were yet to evolve and dinosaurs had just begun their rise to dominance.
Now these remains are helping scientists to understand exactly what happened at the end of the Triassic Period some 200 million years ago, when the world experienced one of the biggest mass extinction events in its 4.5-billion-year history.
It is also helping the rural community remain at the heart of this discovery and benefit from the fossils that lie beneath their soils.
Discovered by shepherds
Until a couple years ago, this site in South Africa's Eastern Cape province was completely unheard of on the international stage. Today it is thought to be one of the most significant dinosaur sites ever found in South Africa.
It is being excavated by an international team of palaeontologists, led by Prof Jonah Choiniere from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Since 2018 Jonah and his colleagues from South Africa, the USA and the UK have been excavating this site. They were joined on the latest dig by Prof Paul Barrett, one of the dinosaur experts at the Museum.
'This is one of the richest dinosaur sites I've ever had the privilege to work on,' says Paul.
'It has been one of those places where you sometimes find yourself literally tripping over a dinosaur bone. There are very few other sites I've had the chance to work where we have this richness of fossils.'
The site was brought to light after Dumangwe Thyobeka, a local shepherd, found several pieces of large fossil bone not far from the village of Qhemegha. Dumangwe then showed these fossils to the local schoolteacher and village elder Sginyane Ralane, who just happened to be something of a dinosaur enthusiast.
'I've been researching dinosaurs since 1985,' explains Sginyane, 'when I read a report about an extinct creature with a wingspan of 13 metres. To me, it was really amazing to be learning about that. I then started searching the local area thinking that maybe I might find a piece of these animals, until in 2015 Dumangwe came to me and told me that he had dinosaur bones.
'I was so intrigued to finally see what I had spent years looking for.'
On the edge of an extinction
Sginyane was certain that what Dumangwe had found was important, so he began phoning around the universities of South Africa to tell them about the fossils from the village. Eventually news of the discoveries got to Jonah, who studies both the early dinosaurs that would once have been roaming these hills and the extinction event recorded in these rocks.
'I study the Triassic-Jurassic boundary,' explains Jonah. 'There was a big extinction event that happened at this point about 200 million years ago, and the questions I'm trying to answer with this fieldwork are how the animals crossed that boundary and how they flourished again in the wake of that mass extinction.
'During the Triassic there were crocodiles, dinosaurs, and big mammal-like animals and it really wasn't clear which group was going to win and take over the Earth. But by the time we get to the Jurassic - just a few million years later - it's obvious that the dinosaurs have won.'
How and why that happened is still not really understood, which is why studying rocks from this age - and the fossils they contain - can help give us clues.
When Jonah arrived at Qhemegha, he was astonished to see fragments of bone littering the hilltops, fossils falling out of every bank they looked at and even a few three-toed footprints preserved in the cliffs.
'When I came with a field crew in 2017 the locals showed me around, and when we found the first bones, it was just amazing,' says Jonah. 'We were elated, almost hovering off the ground a bit, because there were just dinosaurs all over this basin.
'It is very rare to find dinosaurs in this part of South Africa, or at least this low down in the rocks, so scientifically it is extremely important too.'
Historically, the remains of dinosaurs found in other South African rocks of this age were heavily damaged or incomplete, which has made studying them difficult. The site at Qhemegha, however, is beginning to reveal for the first time multiple articulated and semi-articulated specimens. This will allow an unprecedented look at the animals from this time period.
The site is important not just in the context of South Africa but also globally. Other rock formations from this age are found in Europe, India and western USA, but these sites tend to have mostly non-dinosaur reptiles.
What is so significant about this site is that it shows for the first time an ecosystem already teeming with dinosaurs that were living alongside these other animals.
Ancient river systems
The site at Qhemegha is part of what is known as the lower Elliot Formation. This layer of rock dates to around 210 million years ago and encircles the mountainous Kingdom of Lesotho. This layer, which reaches up to 500 metres thick in some places, has outcrops and exposures across much of Lesotho and the surrounding South African states.
The landscape in this part of South Africa is arid for much of the year, dominated by low grasses and scrub as the rivers flow only seasonally. But back during the Triassic Period, the scene would have been dramatically different.
Vast river systems once flowed year-round across this region. These wide, shallow rivers would have contained sediment which would give rise to the Elliot Formation millions of years later. They also supported huge numbers of wildlife.
'If we were transported back to this very spot in the Late Triassic, we would see a very wide variety of unfamiliar animals around us,' explains Paul.
'Dinosaurs would have been the most obvious animals because they were the largest living creatures at this time, but it would also include the ancestors of crocodiles, possibly the ancestors of turtles and mammals, as well as a variety of fish, small amphibians and reptile-like animals that would have been creeping through the undergrowth.'
Not only does this fluvial environment point to why the Elliot Formation itself exists, it also helps to explain why it is so rich in fossils.
The large, meandering rivers meant that any animals that died in or near the water would have been washed into the bends of the waterways along with branches and tree trunks. The high sediment content of these rivers then caused the bodies to be rapidly buried before any significant decomposition could take place.
This could be why many of the articulated fossils found so far are in aggregations that appear to be a jumble of bones, often involving multiple species in a single pile.
The rise of the dinosaurs
Plenty has already been found at Qhemegha. During the first expedition in 2018, Jonah and his colleagues discovered the remains of some fairly large animals.
These come from dinosaurs called sauropodomorphs, the early ancestor to the sauropods such as Dippy the Diplodocus. Measuring around five metres or more, these sauropodomorphs already had the long, slender necks characteristic of the much larger sauropods that would come later - but they were still walking on their hind legs.
Hundreds of specimens of sauropodomorphs - particularly a dinosaur called Massospondylus - are known from southern Africa from rocks that are younger than those at Qhemegha. It has long been thought that these animals were what is known as a disaster taxon, a group of animals that weathered the mass extinction event at the end of the Triassic and then became incredibly common as they took advantage of the resulting empty landscape.
Now this theory is looking increasingly unlikely.
More and more species of dinosaur that were similar in appearance to Massospondylus are being described from the end of the Triassic and the beginning of the Jurassic. This suggests that rather than a single species being the dominant herbivore, these ecosystems were far more complex.
There were perhaps up to a dozen species of sauropodomorphs ambling around the forests and prairies of the Late Triassic. This idea is supported by the finds at Qhemegha, which suggest that a whole range of different types of sauropodomorphs were present.
An extinct ecosystem
In addition to the dinosaurs, a number of other animals were roaming Qhemegha in the Late Triassic. A fragmentary skull has been discovered, thought to belong to a rauisuchian. These were a diverse group of animals distantly related to modern crocodiles and were one of the dominant predators on land throughout the Triassic.
There is also material of animals known as cynodonts and dicynodonts. Cynodonts are the early ancestors to all mammals, and they evolved into a huge array of animals. The team have uncovered possibly the most complete specimen discovered to date of a large cynodont called Scalenodontoides that would have weighed up to 300 kilograms.
An even earlier branch of the mammalian family tree gave rise to animals found in the region: dicynodonts, a diverse group of herbivores ranging in size from that of a rat to an elephant.
Recent excavations have also turned up other remains, including what may be the limb bone of a theropod dinosaur. The ample fossil wood that covers the ground in places shows that the landscape must once have supported dense woodland surrounding the rivers and lakes.
But the richness of the site at Qhemegha is not its only significant characteristic. What is also important are the benefits that this astonishing discovery can deliver for the community.
Like many rural villages in the South African countryside, Qhemegha relies heavily on the surrounding natural resources.
Many of the people there are farmers whose goats, sheep and cattle graze on the surrounding hills. There are also ample peach trees and a community-owned plantation which supplies firewood. It is vitally important that the discovery of the fossil site can also be used to benefit the community.
It's hard to miss the team of around 20 scientists descending on the village every year, and Jonah is aware of their duty to respect the villagers.
'It's really been a pleasure to get to know many members of the community,' says Jonah. 'And we're trying to give back to them.'
During the trip, Jonah and Paul met with a local government minister to sign a memorandum of understanding at an event that included celebratory dancing, a community barbecue and a talk on the importance that Qhemegha now has in the field of palaeontology.
The team have also been helping around the village, as the heavy machinery that Jonah and his colleagues have brought in to move the fossils is being put to use in improving access to and around the village. The settlement is fairly remote - it is about an hour's drive to the nearest town of any size - so it is often tricky to bring in such equipment.
By maximising what can be done with the machinery, the team can help the local economy in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.
'We're also developing a curriculum for the high school to improve the maths and sciences and include teaching about the fossil sites,' explains Jonah. 'On top of that we're also adding to the geography curriculum to teach about the site in more depth.
'As part of the excavations, we carry out geological mapping. So by adding geography to the curriculum we can add in these mapping skills which are in high demand not just in palaeontology but in many scientific fields as South Africa is so rich in mineral resources.'
By enthusing the younger folk in the village about the work, it is hoped that some may be encouraged to explore this route of study themselves. This may support students from Qhemegha studying the fossils found in the hills surrounding their own village.
The significance of the site is already a huge point of pride for the villagers.
'Long before our old great-grandfathers, they knew about these bones and they would tell stories about them,' explains Sginyane. 'But they didn't know what to do with them.
'Now Jonah has come and explained what they are to the community and it has sparked the quest to know more about them.'
The team has applied to UNESCO to have the area classified as a World Heritage Site. This would help safeguard the fossils and help attract tourists to the region and bring in another source of revenue.
It is estimated that perhaps only 10% of the fossils in the ground have been excavated so far, meaning that the site will continue to prove its significance for years to come. This will not only allow Jonah and his colleagues to deepen our knowledge of this critical point in Earth's history, but at the same time help the rural South African community.
In the meantime, the researchers will continue to crouch for hours, chipping away at the riverbank and uncover an ecosystem not seen for hundreds of millions of years.