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90. Peace in Africa during the Jurassic

MAY. 2, 2024


Pete takes Ryan to Africa during the Jurassic in search of peace, but will he find it? Learn how to tell the time on a molecular clock, discover the lizard-mammal that wasn’t, and find out why paleantologists can’t stop looking at the legs of one particular gigantic dinosaur.


This week we visit Africa, the source of all human life.

It is not a nation but of course a continent, so it doesn’t have an official name. And there’s some debate as to the orgin of the word Africa as well.

Possible source words include the Egyptian word Afru-ika, which means “Motherland”, the Greek word aphrike, “without cold” and the Latin word aprica, meaning “sunny.”

To find Africa, take your average world map and have a look at the middle bit. It’s the big pointy down continent that, if you bend your neck, slightly resembles the head of a rhinoceros. Which is quite the coincidence, as it is the home of the rhinoceros which is an endangered species.

But in a bit of good news, in 2023, African authorities estimated there were 23,000 rhinos across the continent at the end of 2022, up 5% on the year before.

It’s the world’s second largest continent, after Asia. It is 30,365,000 square km , (11,724,000 square miles), whilst France is about 2.1% the size of Africa, or you’d need 48 Frances to make an Africa.

It’s also the world’s second most populous continent with 1.4 billion people living there. Between them they speak over 2,000 or maybe even 3,000 languages.

Unfortunately, despite all those people, it is not commensurately wealthy. Africa is second poorest continent when you count by total wealth, with little Oceania that’s behind them.

More importantly, per capita it is the least wealthy continent, for a wide range of reasons, some of which will be apparent in the history section.

But it does have the most countries of any continent. There are 54 countries in Africa, from A to Z - Algeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Countries range from the huge populations like the 222 million people of Nigeria to tiny nations like the 107,000 of the Seychelles.

Not being a nation there’s no flag, however there is a thing called the African Union (AU) which is a club of 55 member states. You might notice that that is one more than there are countries in Africa. The culprit seems to be Western Sahara, which is a disputed territory that is a member of the African Union. .The AU Flag was adopted on 31 January 2010.

It’s a dark or forest green flag, with a white sunburst image in the centre, but in green on top of the white sun, is the outline of Africa, kind of making it picked out of negative space. Around this is a circle of 55 gold stars
It was the winner of a competition, created by Yadesa Bojia, an Ethiopian-born American artist.

As for an anthem, the AU comes in handy again as they have provided a song. It was adopted in 1986, as the African anthem by the predecessor of the AU, the OAU – the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

It was composed by Ethiopian poet Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin as a poem and the music was composed by Arthur Mudogo Kemoli, a Kenyan.

It got quite a lovely chorus which, in English, goes
 O Sons and Daughters of Africa
 Flesh of the Sun and Flesh of the Sky
 Let us make Africa the Tree of life

Africa is famous for the Sahara desert, a bit ol’ desert that kind of divides the continent it two. It is, in fact the world’s largest hot desert, that contributes a fair bit to Africa’s status as the hottest continent.

The Sahara is in fact one of eight geographic regions which Africa can be divided into:
• the Sahel
• the Ethiopian Highlands,
• the savanna,
• the Swahili Coast,
• the rainforest,
• the African Great Lakes,
• and southern Africa.

Africa also has animals – a classic African holiday is to go on Safari in search of the amazing animals, particularly the big 5 animals. Originally identified as targets for hunting, nowadays people on safari are only shooting them with cameras.

The big 5 are…

Elephant – specifically African elephants, obviously. Lots of plant species in Africa have evolved seeds that have to pass through an elephant's digestive system before they can germinate. Apparently at least one third of tree species in West African forests rely on elephants in this way for dissemination.

The lion, whose tongues have sharp-pointed rasps, called papillae, which they use when licking bones, as they scrape the meat of the bone.

The leopard, who is known to go into the water and hunt for fish and apparently they even eat crabs.

The rhino, who have very poor eyesight, but a great sense of smell, so next time you’re on the savannah, go easy on the Lynx or you might attract an amorous rhino.

African buffalo. Which are a social herd animal with a sense of vengeance, they have been observed killing a lion after it has killed a member of the group.

Africa is less famous for being ‘normal’
Whilst it’s easy to think of the savannah and exotica animals, we should also remember that Africa is a massively diverse place, with as much demographic diversity as it has diversity of landscape. There are big cities, small towns, villages, rich people and poor folk, industry, technology and everything in between. There are 14,000 millionaires in Johannesburg alone.

So there it is – Africa.

History of Africa

Around four to seven million years ago, there was an creature wandering around largely on all fours and thought, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to stand up and walk properly’

And that was the very earliest of early man, or the earliest common ancestor between man and chimpanzee.

Fast forward to 300,000 years ago, and evolution had worked its magic, creating a species we’d recognise as human, this guy went by the name of Homo Sapiens. They first emerged in Africa and could be identified by such recognisable factors as bipedality, large brains, tool use, and having a mortgage.

For the record, there is also a multi-regional model of humanity’s evolution but it does seem to be less supported than the out of Africa theory.

So, history happened everywhere, but it really got started in Africa.

About 60,000 to 90,000 years ago, some of these Homo Sapiens decided that it was time they expanded their horizons, and went out into the rest of the world, rather successfully.

Some stayed behind though, hunting and gathering and whatnot . By about 10,000 BCE they had invented pottery, so they could finally have a nice cup of tea.

3000 to 4000BCE saw them smelting metals including bronze, enabling them to finally reward people who came third in things.

Also around this time, civilisations started to pop up, such as Carthage, where Tunisia is today, Nubia around Northern Sudan, and of course Ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile, around the same time, from West and across Central Africa we start to see the expansion into Southern Africa of one particular group of people – the Bantu in what are know as the Bantu expansions.
Meanwhile, across Africa, various civilsations and cultures rise and fall, including
o Ghana empire
o Mali empire
o The kingdom of Nri (Nigeria)
o The Benin empire
o The Ashanti empire
o And so on

Now we probably have to separate Northern Africa, which had been known to Europe since antiquity, from sub Saharan Africa, which remained a relatively unknown quantity.

Until the 15th century, who should come creeping around the coast to find their way to sub-Saharan Africa and all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope but the Portuguese.

And as ever, when the Portuguese show up, others are not far behind.

That said, things remained mostly coastal during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Eureopeans remaining content to establish trading posts.

Then during the mid1800s there were a number of expeditions to Africa which rather opened the place up and triggering what is known as The Scramble For Africa, wherein the European nations carved up the continent between each other to access all those lovely resources, without caring too much what the people who lived there thought.

In 1870, 10% of the continent was formally under European control. By 1914, this figure had risen to almost 90%.

So almost entirely colonised, various African countries endured various European countries ‘running’ them, and by ‘running’ I of course mean ‘looting’.

Then the 20th Century came storming in with a couple of World Wars to keep things interesting, which affected Africa both in fighting terms, especially North Africa, and as a source of troops, with African nations supplying to the war effort such as the Kings African Rifles.

After World War 2 a pattern begins which we have seen in a number of previous episodes.

Post-war rumblings leading to a rise in the power and effectiveness of independence movements, often some violent resistance on the part of the Coloniser, but with eventual capitulation and independence achieved, with 50 countries achieving independence by 1977.

From there, stories vary by nation, but oftentimes there are challenges that come with the arrival of independence, often without much of a transition period such as the rise of dictators, civil war and international conflict.
On top of which we’ve also seen the resource curse sees international organisations quite happy to show up and help whichever regime is most likely to help them profit, often resulting in less money finding its way to the people than more.

Which is part of the reason, as we established, that Africa is the poorest continent per capita.

Nowadays, there’s a lot of attention being paid to the relationship between China and Africa as the communist nation invests heavily across the region with foreign direct investment from China grew from $75 million in 2003 to $5 billion in 2021.

So, what happens next, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a place with bags of potential and ripe for growth and development, so as ever, we wish the people of Africa all the best for a safe and prosperous future

Africa in the Jurassic
To orient ourselves in geological time we have to have a little reminder of the context.

There are Eons, of which there have been four, broken into eras, of which there have been ten, broken into periods of which there have been 22 so far, and epochs which there are 37 ish of depending on your view.

You can also have an age, which is not very long at all at this scale, of which there are 96ish.

The Jurassic is a period, located within the Mesozoic era, in the Phanerozoic eon, which happens to be the eon we are currently in.

Before the Jurassic we have the Triassic and after we have the Cretaceous. And there’s a lot going on.

As we’ve said, it ran from 201.3 million to 145 million years ago and during this time, Africa is making its way across the globe.

We start with a supercontinent called Pangaea and this starts to split apart. The northern half is known as Laurentia and went on to form North America and Eurasia. The southern half, Gondwana, was also splitting up due to artistic differences - into an eastern segment that would go on to create Antarctica, Madagascar, India and Australia.

Meanwhile, the western portion would go on tour elsewhere to create Africa and South America.

Temperature-wise things were getting warmer and a new and dominant type of creature was making itself felt – big old reptlies we know today as dinosaurs.

Some of these were huge, vegetarian collosi such as the brachiosaurus and, one that was at first believed to be the largest of the dinosaurs called Giraffatitan, which I only mention because clearly when naming it the palaeontologist was just trying to think of big things. But even this fell down the rankings and the biggest dinosaurs are now believed to be the Titanosaurs.

It wasn’t all lizards though, oh no, mammals could also be found – although this is way way way before early man but if you looked around, you might just come across Early Shrew, as represented by Juramaia a little creature that was discovered in 2011 in China and caused much excitement because it showed that placental mammals, that’s mammals that have a placenta in the womb diverged from marsupials 35 million years earlier than previously thought.

So, a lot going on in Africa during the Jurassic.

But what about peace? Or, if you say it with headphones on, could it be… peas?

Peas in the Jurassic in Africa

To get us started I thought we’d have a look, not at dinosaurs, but at the plants of. The Jurassic.

Specifically, we’re going to ask, and I think you’re going to like this Ryan, ‘were there peas in the Jurassic’.

Now a pea is a flowering plant, also known as an angiosperm, and I came across a paper in the prestigious journal Nature, entitled “Fossil data support a pre-Cretaceous origin of flowering plants” and one of the authors of this paper kindly agreed to talk to me to see if we could find peas in the Jurassic.

He told us about the classic debate of the origin of the angiosperm.

But to get us started, I asked him for a brief description of what the world of the Jurassic may have looked like. And he told us, including introducing angiosperms and gymnosperms.

I asked the professor to explain the difference to me and it boiled down to more complex flowers. Clearly that was important though, because at some point, angiosperm arrive and start to outcompete the gymnosperms, but the question remains as to when that happened.

So surely we can find a fossil – Phil explained the problem to me there – there aren’t any. However, we can use the molecular clock to see if they may have been around. So you find a fossil ancestor you know the date of, look at 2 species that are related, see how mutatedly different they are and that gives you a rate of mutation. Then you can use that to look at any 2 species, see how different they are and use the rate of change to calculate back to when they might have been the same. And that is the molecular clock.

But, we’re here to talk peas Ryan, so finally, I asked the question of questions – were there peas in the Jurassic.

There were not.
So that’s my first dead end, no peas in the Jurassic, although there is evidence that the family of angiosperms, or flowering plants were present, according to our friend the molecular clock.

Piece in the Jurassic in Africa

Ok, so no peas, but what about a piece of something. Eh? Eh?

So, let us go to Scotland in 1797.

A boy is born, young Andrew Geddes-Bain. Sadly both of Andrew’s parents died and he was raised by his Aunt, near Edinburgh, where he was educated.

In 1816 his uncle, a soldier in the 83rd Regiment, travelled to where he was stationed in South Africa and Andrew went with him… see we’re getting closer.

Andrew Geddes Bain made his way to a town called Graaff-Reinet where he first became a saddler and later became known as a hunter and explorer.

In 1832 he offered to construct a pass in an area North of the town. Now it’s not clear what ‘constructing a pass’ entailed here, but I’m assuming digging out a way through the hills and implementing some kind of path or road.

And I would remind you that although he was educated, he wasn’t in any way a trained engineer or anything. Which is ok, because neither was he paid for his efforts, instead receiving a medal for 'gratuitously superintending the construction of Van Ryneveld's Pass, Graaff-Reinet'.

Gratuitiously meaning ‘without payment’ in this case rather than ‘without good reason, although I do like the idea of someone going around gratuitously building national infrastructure.

He served as a Captain in the army. He tried farming for a bit, but eventually he got another job with the military, when he became the assistant to a Major in the Corps of Engineers.

Here his talent met training and he was put in charge of the making another pass - the Ecca Pass as well as a bridge across the Fish River, at the time the biggest in Africa.

This was the start of a prolific engineering career– but it’s not his work as an engineer that interests us.

Whilst he was creating these engineering projects, he would from time to time discover things in the rocks – little creatures.They were, of course, fossils.

These fascinated Geddes and he read up about them and he developed his collection of fossils and notes until he was ready to submit a paper that was happily received by the Royal Geological Society who published his paper and gave him £220.
But one fossil he found in 1844 was particularly interesting. In the Karoo desert – an area known today for its remarkable abundance of fossils Bain discovered a skull - a very special skull.

It was of a short head with a beak like a turtle but the funny thing was it also had two large tusks coming down from the upper jaw which he’d never seen anything like.

He duly sent it to the Geological Society in Britain who duly sent it to eminent anatomist, Richard Owen.

Owen concluded that the skull had belonged to some kind of reptile but not like any he had seen before either.

He called it Dicynodon for the two enlarged canines sticking down from the upper jaw, and it was a particular mystery, because it consisted of both mammalian and reptilian parts – what was it?

This piece of the puzzle was not alone for long, further dicynodont fossils followed on the path to Owen’s office along with more and more other fossils that combined the mammalian with the reptilian, some of which Owen named to reflect this. Galesaurus ("weasel reptile"), Cynochampsa ("dog crocodile"), Lycosaurus ("wolf reptile), and Tigrisuchus ("tiger crocodile").

So what did all this mean?

Sadly, nothing Owen was going to discover, because he was not a believer in the recently popular theories of Mr Charles Darwin.

In fact, what Owen never knew in his lifetime, but that we know now, is that these creatures were not lizards or mammals, but synapsids.

These are beasties that lived long before the first "true" mammals evolved, making them a precursor species to mammals.

So Ryan, Bain’s skull was an incredibly important piece of an ancient creature that was found in Africa, do you know when it dates to?

That’s right, the late Permian and early Triassic (or between about 265 to 250 million years old). In other words, before our time period even began. Bugger.

But, to go back to our chap Andrew Geddes Bain, engineer and amateur paleantologist, he was celebrated in his lifetime, and made an honorary member of the Athenaeum club, which is a private members' club in London for men and women with intellectual interests, and distinction. The first chairman and secretary were Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday – famous scientists and overall 51 Nobel Laureates have been club members.

And it’s still going today – if we wanted to apply for membership Ryan.

Bain eventually died in 1864 but he is still memorialised today in the form of Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky, distilled by the Sedgwick distillery in Wellington, South Africa and whose reviews include ‘lovely and smooth’.

So, here’s to you, Andrew Geddes Bain, who found a piece of the evolutionary puzzle, in Africa, but not in the Jurassic.

Looks like I’m going to have to try again.

Big dinosaur in pieces
So is it the end of the road for the place, time and topic Ryan?

Of course not, and I’ve got some quite recent news. In 2023 a team of paleantologists led by Professor Jonah Choiniere (shwanyeah) of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) published the news of an exciting discovery.

They found, in the Free State Province of South Africa, a piece, in fact more than one piece, of a new species of giant dinosaur from the Jurassic.

They named it Ledumahadi mafube, and it was the largest land animal alive on Earth when it lived.

It lived nearly 200million years ago, stood about four metres high and weighed in at 12 tonnes.

One toenail is about this size of your hand.

The name Ledumahadi mafube is Sesotho, an African language, for “a giant thunderclap at dawn” and lead paleantologist Choiniere said “The name reflects the great size of the animal as well as the fact that its lineage appeared at the origins of sauropod dinosaurs,”

But did it like peace, Ryan? Why yes, yes it did, because it was a plant eating dinosaur so had no interest in running around after other dinosaurs, disturbing their day - it was happy munching on a leaf.

And what’s particularly interesting is that this early form of dinosaur shows that evolving giant size wasn’t a one-time affair – because this dino has rather different legs to the big brontosaurs that we’re familiar with.

When you picture them, their legs are like 4 columns supporting their body. But Ledumhadi has what look a lot more like arms, with elbows/knees, giving them a much more crouched appearance.

Dr Blair McPhee said of the creature “It was of similar size to the gigantic sauropod dinosaurs, but whereas the arms and legs of those animals are typically quite slender, Ledumahadi’s are incredibly thick. To me this indicated that the path towards gigantism in sauropodomorphs was far from straightforward, and that the way that these animals solved the usual problems of life, such as eating and moving, was much more dynamic within the group than previously thought.”

So there it is Ryan, a piece of a peace loving gigantic dinosaur that ate, well, not peas, but vegetables, in Africa, during the Jurassic.

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