Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dinosaurs in a Trash Heap

Earlier this year, The National Archives UK released a collection of photographs as part of a project called Africa Through a Lens. Originally held by the Colonial Office, a government agency that handled the affairs of British colonial territories, they document a hundred years of British involvement on the continent. The photos have also been shared at Flickr. The sets are organized by country, and in the Lesotho set, I found this 1955 photo depicting an excavation in Triassic rocks in a village called Mahputseng.

CO 1069-209-59

In his essential 1968 book Men and Dinosaurs (republished by Dover in 1984 as The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries, Edwin Colbert touches on this dig briefly. He writes,
One of the most interesting of recent excavations in this part of the world was carried on at a locality known as Maphutseng, in Lesotho. Here, in the very backyard of an African house - a typical Basuto house with walls of mud and a thatched roof - a shallow quarry was developed by two French residents among the Basutos, the brothers Ellenberger, with [AW] Crompton and his associates participating in the dig. Many bones of large Triassic dinosaurs not unlike the bones excavated by von Huene at Trossingen in southern Germany were dug up...
The brothers he refers to are Fran├žois and Paul Ellenberger, who would later erect the name Thotobolosaurus for the Maphutseng bones. It's likely that it's one of the brothers in the photo. The name Thotobolosaurus is derived from the Sesotho word for "trash heap," referring to the village refuse pile near the spot where the fossils were found.

In the early sixties, the Ellenbergers wrote that the bones "represent nearly all parts of the skeleton except the skull, and come from 7 to 8 individuals of variable size but, it seems, a single species... The preparation of all this material and the reconstruction of the skeleton evidently will be long-term." (PDF). Long-term is right; unfortunately, they still have never been formally described. They describe the dinosaur as being something close to Plateosaurus or Melanorosaurus, another basal sauropodomorph from South Africa. Considering all of the work recently done at the bottom of the sauropod family tree, it would be interesting to see some serious attention given to the Ellenberger's refuse pile find, especially since there's some doubt about whether any of the bones are sufficient to support a unique genus.

As an additional bit of colonial African history, notice the name in the lower right corner, Alwyn Bisschoff, presumably the photographer. Formerly an aircraft technician for the South African air force, at the time this photo was taken he was an agricultural officer for the British government in Basutoland, Lesotho's colonial name until independence in 1966. As it turns out, he's also a bit of a hero among the Land Rover off-roading crowd.

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