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From The Bolt’s Farms Exhibition, Ditsong: Museum Of South Africa’s Education Officers Traced The Big Cats’ Footprints To The Site

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From The Bolt’s Farms Exhibition, Ditsong: Museum Of South Africa’s Education Officers Traced The Big Cats’ Footprints To The Site

By: Lazarus Kgasi, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

 

It is essential for knowledge dissemination that the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) (associated with the National Museum of Natural History of Paris and Sorbonne University), the University of Johannesburg, and the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH) work together and share their findings via peer-reviewed journals, exhibitions, and short articles with colleagues from the Museum and local communities. 2020 saw the completion of the Fossil World of Bolt’s Farm, an exhibition made possible by this partnership. Bolt’s Farm (or Bolt’s Farm Cave System) is situated in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. Bolt’s Farm is not what one would usually picture as a palaeontological or archaeological site. It is spread over three properties (Main Quarry, Klinkert’s property and Greensleeves property) and comprises more than 20 fossiliferous occurrences which are of diverse dimensions. The site is well known because of the discovery of one of the best preserved skulls of Dinofelis, which is an extinct large cat. A discovery such as this is significant in understanding biodiversity evolution and past environments. On the 15th of February 2023, Dr Vilakazi a senior researcher at University of Johannesburg and Mr Lazarus Kgasi a junior curator at DNMNH welcomed the education officers and guides from DITSONG: Museums of South Africa (DMSA) at Bolt’s Farm fossil site.

From left to right, Tidimalo Moerane, Tebogo Pitso, Matilda Sono, Terence Mkhoza, Lucia Rangata, Lebogang Molwelang, Lebogang Mnisi, Hope Makutu, Selaelo Sethome, Khanyisa Hlungwani, Martha Masha and Dr Vilakazi at X-cave.

 

Mr Lazarus Kgasi and Dr Vilakazi (Bolt’s Farm co-permit holders) had the pleasure of hosting education officers and tour guides from the DMSA at the Bolt’s Farm site in the Cradle of Humankind. The site visit was prompted by the Bolt’s Farm permanent exhibition housed at the DNMNH in Pretoria, South Africa. The Bolt’s Farm team deemed fit to take all the relevant officers on site to give them the context of

the site and felt that this would be beneficial when hosting visitors at the Museum.

From L to R, Dr Vilakazi, Tebogo Pitso, Tidimalo Moerane, Martha Masha, Matilda Sono, Selaelo Sethome, Hope Makutu, Khanyisa Hlungwani, Lebogang Molwelang, Terence Mkhonza and Lucia Rangata at Brad Pit fossil site.

 

A brief history of the sites

 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bolt’s Farm was originally used as a speleothem quarry. This speleothem was collected by miners for use in making lime production. On a 1936 trip to the Transvaal, palaeontologist Robert Broom sampled and examined the fossil beds that were uncovered as a result of this process. Many of the fossil taxa found at the site were given names by Broom. The University of California Africa Expedition, a team of scientists from the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) under the leadership of palaeontologists Frank Peabody and Charles Lewis Camp, started exploring palaeontological sites throughout eastern and southern Africa in 1947 and 1948. The first survey at Bolt’s Farm was carried out by a group from the southern branch of the expedition under Peabody’s supervision. Early research removed material from the dumps formed by the mining rather than excavating the fossiliferous breccia in situ. Moreover, the primary quarry was the focus of the UCMP excavations. Since then, a number of minor excavations have been undertaken. Bolt’s Farm has historically received less attention from archaeologists than other sites where hominid remains have already been found and are of considerably greater interest. As a result, the site’s excavation has fallen behind that of nearby Sterkfontein.

 

The precise positions of numerous fossiliferous pits within the larger site were poorly recorded prior to the 1990s, making it impossible for succeeding palaeontologists to find them. The 1940s saw little, and between 2002 and 2011, the Human Origins and Past Environments Research Unit (HRU) team at the Cradle of Humankind conducted a survey that uncovered eight new and 23 old sites. GIS and aerial drone surveying were used in additional surveys conducted in the late 2010s to more precisely locate these sites.

Hence, in an effort to locate the deposits that were first suggested during Peabody and Camp’s exploration, additional surveys began in the 1990s. Interestingly, these surveys have inadvertently uncovered more sites. Basil Cooke published the first updated map of the location since the excavations in the 1940s, although attempts to compare Peabody’s original map and site descriptions with those from more recent surveys continue to befuddle researchers. Nonetheless, Cooke’s survey signalled the start of an era of rekindled interest in Bolt’s Farm. Between 1996 and 1999, a survey by French researchers uncovered new fossil species and sites, including Waypoint 160, which is thought to be the Cradle of Humankind’s earliest site. 

 

Several of the fossils remaining from the 1940s excavations are kept at the University of California Museum of Palaeontology at the University of California, Berkeley. However, some were lost. Several of the fossils have been given to the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg since the late 1950s thanks to loans and repatriation initiatives. Bolt’s Farm specimens are also maintained at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria, where many of them are placed in semi-permanent public displays.

 Illustration by C Letenneur) Reconstruction of the landscape of Bolt’s farm site, South Africa (between 2 and 1 million years ago).

 

The Bolt’s Farm cave systems have yielded a variety of macrofauna fossils. During the Plio-Pleistocene, big cats, non-hominid primates, snakes, horses, mustelids, bovids, pigs, antelope, rodents, jackals, reptiles, and birds of prey were all present in the Bolt’s Farm region. Other microfauna evidences have also been found, albeit they have not been thoroughly examined.

 

The deposits have also produced some of the oldest primate fossils in the Cradle of Humankind; these come from extinct baboon species known as Parapapio, specifically P. broomi and P. whitei, and have been found at Sterkfontein, Taung, and Makapansgat. The most complete specimens of P. whitei that have been found so far are those from Bolt’s Farm. Theropithecus, Papio robinsoni, and Cercopithecoides williamsi are three more primate species with fossilized remains. Many researchers have proposed the idea that hominid fossils could be discovered at Bolt’s Farm as well because hominid fossils concurrent to the depositional period have been recovered in similar situations in east African archaeological sites.

Antidorcas recki, Ictonyx bolti, Metridiochoerus andrewsi, Euryotomys bolti, Elephantulus antiquus, Boltimys broomi, and Proteles cristatus are other species found in the fossil deposits of Bolt’s Farm. Some of the best Plio-Pleistocene large cat specimens in South Africa have been discovered at Bolt’s Farm, including the full skull and jaw of the saber-toothed cat Dinofelis barlowi. In 2009, Bolt’s Farm yielded the first fossilized snake remains from the family Elapidae discovered in southern Africa. The first fossil Agama lizard retrieved from the Cradle of Humankind was found in 2016 at Bolt’s Farm, and the discovery was announced in 2020.

 

A collaboration between South African and French researchers is still ongoing in the Bolt’s Farm Cave System, and more significant announcements about new discoveries are on the way.

 

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