Herder’s instinct saves dinosaur bonanza

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Herder’s instinct saves dinosaur bonanza

Dumangwe Tyhobela's gut told him to ignore a sangoma's instruction to burn the ancient bone he had found

Journalist


When a sangoma told a herder to immediately destroy the bone he picked up in the veld because it “will bring bad luck”, instinct told him to ignore the warning.
It was a good thing he did because the bone Dumangwe Tyhobela found in 2016 as he was tending to cattle, led scientists to the discovery of a dinosaur fossil estimated to be more than 200 million years old.
Wrapped in plastic, the bone he found in the remote village of Qhemegha in Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape eventually found its way to a local geography teacher before it travelled in the bag of a Wits student to campus in Johannesburg. There, about 600km from where it originally roamed the plains of the Eastern Cape, a professor from the university finally confirmed the “good feeling” the herder had about the bone.
But although they describe the discovery of the dinosaur fossils as great news for science, scientists said there was still a lot of work to be done to fully understand what the area had to offer.
Professor Jonah Choiniere, of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University, said what they found in Qhemegha was very rare.
“There is a lot of history coming out of this small remote village. It’s an amazing bunch of history we found here,” Choiniere said.
When Tyhobela found the bone in March 2016, the area had just had heavy rains. Picking up the “unusually” large bone, he set off to try to sell it to a sangoma.
His hope was thwarted when the sangoma advised him to immediately destroy the bone, since it carried bad luck.
Instead, Tyhobela took it to local teacher Themba Jikajika. Suspecting it might be a fossil, the teacher approached some of his colleagues. District director David Mei then suggested they send it to Wits, in the care of his daughter who studies there.
Choiniere explained that what they have gathered so far shows that the open space where Tyhobela found the fossils is a dinosaur graveyard, most likely where dinosaurs went to die. “We can see that there was a stream here and the animals were covered by mud.”
He said they believed soil erosion played a role in finally revealing the bones.
Academics from Wits, the universities of Johannesburg, Cape Town and the Free State, and the Free State museum are working together on the project.
The universities of Oxford and Birmingham and the Natural History Museum in the UK are also part of the research.
Choiniere said that during their stay last week in the village they interacted a lot with local high school pupils. “Every night we held talks with them and explained what we found on the day and what the next process will be in our research.”
They wanted to encourage an interest in following maths and science studies through to university.
Choiniere said the support they received from the villagers was heartwarming. Residents had worked with academics to excavate the remains of a dinosaur, estimated to have weighed more than one ton while roaming the plains.
They have also discovered the remains of another animal, which they have not yet identified positively. “It still remains a mystery to us. We still need to prepare the fossils and find out exactly what kind of a species it is. It is likely to be something new; one that science doesn’t know yet.”
Choiniere applauded the local residents for helping them to find more fossils.
“They rallied behind us and showed us all the places where we could dig. They also lent a hand in the excavation,” he said. “This is the beginning of a great partnership.”
He admitted there is still a lot of work to do. “It will take between five to seven years to fully excavate the whole area. It’s quite a big area and at this point we know little about what really went on here.”
Just to fully excavate this dinosaur fossil took close to three days, but they were unable to lift it up and take it to a lab for more tests. They planned to bring in a crane.
The teacher Jikajika said he hopes the discovery will be a stepping stone to opening great opportunities for the locals.
“It would really be great if the site can be declared as a heritage site. It can be a great tourist attraction that can open up employment opportunities for our young people.”

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