There was a time when mammoths roamed the area around the Etosha Pan. The South African mammoth (Mammuthus subplanifrons) was more than 3.5 metres tall and weighed nine tons. Fossils of this species have been found in the Ekuma Delta. The Ekuma and the Oshigambo River flow into the pan from the northwest.

A rhinoceros species (Ceratotherium praecox) that was one-and-a-half times the size of today’s white rhino, four types of primitive elephants (e.g. Loxodonta cookei and Elephas recki), antelope which were the ancestors of the oryx and the blue wildebeest as well as crocodiles and catfish lived in and around Lake Etosha more than four million years ago. The lake was much larger than the 4760 km2 clay pan as we know it. Top-quality fossils bear silent witness to a much earlier, but now largely extinct rich variety of wildlife in present-day Etosha National Park.   

Younger fossils, mainly snails and shells, are found in the sediments at the edge of the pan.

Experts like French palaeontologist Professor Martin Pickford need just one bone, a tooth or a snail shell to identify the respective mammal, reptile or mollusc which has been extinct for millions of years. Fossils were discovered near the Ekuma River’s mouth at the Etosha Pan already a hundred years ago. Huge volumes of water from the Cuvelai System in the north, which once again reached the pan a few years ago and partly filled it, also swept masses of sand into it. Ekuma sandstone was exposed and with it numerous fossils. A tusk, a molar, a shoulder blade and a thigh bone of a mammoth were found in the pan. Initially they were thought to be the remains of Elephas recki, an ancestor of the Indian elephant which lived four to six million years ago. Chunks of sandstone also contained clearly visible bones and joints of an extinct giant reedbuck (Redunca darti), an ankle bone of a prehistoric rhino, two crocodile teeth and countless skulls, vertebrae and bones of catfish which populated the lake in those ancient times.

Fossils of prehistoric hippopotamus, of a genus of horse (Hipparion), a flamingo-like bird and egg shells of a giant ostrich were found during another visit a year later (2014). Various parts of a mammoth skeleton (Mammuthus subplanifrons) were a particularly special find. Long-snouted crocodilians (Euthecodon), along with the ancestors of the Nile crocodile, caught fish in the lake while giant hogs (Notochoerus capensis) foraged for roots and tubers along the shores. Bones of a four-million-year-old hyena and of a small giraffe-like animal were also unearthed. A predator the size of a jackal and an antelope the size of a steenbok (Raphicerus) have not been identified yet. A gnawed fossil bone suggests that a rodent similar to a porcupine must have existed at that time. In addition, the fossil remains of a prehistoric aardvark were discovered. Tooth plates of bichirs (Polypterus) and the fossils of catfish indicate that fish were plentiful. There were also turtles in the lake and tortoises on the shore.

Etosha Fossils
A four-million-year-old crocodile tooth next to the tracks left by a present-day black-backed jackal at the Etosha Pan.

Just a few metres further on and about one metre higher, the sediments at the fringe of the pan contain fossils from more ‘recent’ times. The snails (Melanoedes tuberculata) and mussels (Mutela) are thought to be almost 200,000 years old. At Poacher’s Point, a few kilometres from the Ekuma River mouth, stromatolites formed by blue-green algae and bacteria five million years ago can be seen. In the upper layers of the limestone are snail fossils which are younger.

Wind and water continue to expose ancient layers and thus the history of the Etosha Pan. But when the Ekuma and the Oshigambo come down in flood, countless fossils are washed far into the pan and covered with mud.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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