"Shocking Success" in Libya
Carnegie Museum scientists dig up new clues about our ancient origins during the first scientific expedition in post-Arab-Spring Libya.
By Julie Hannon
For nearly a decade, an international team of scientists has been searching for fossils at Dur At-Talah, a steep, 100 mile-long ridge in the southern part of the North African country of Libya. They get there by way of the northern capital of Tripoli, following a main road along the northern coast before dipping south to begin the grueling, days-long journey across the trackless Sahara Desert. Along the way, they usually stop in Zallah, a small desert oasis town in the Sirt Basin—home to the vast majority of Libya’s oil supply—and stay for two or three days to refuel and gather supplies.
Chris Beard (top right), Pauline Coster (bottom left), and colleagues prospect for tiny fossils near Zallah. Photo: Yaowalak Chaimanee
In 2009 and 2010 respectively, Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologists Pauline Coster and Chris Beard were among the group of French, American, and Libyan researchers to make just such a trip, discovering important fossils that have revealed new clues about our distant past. But on their return visit this past January—marking the first scientific expedition to post-revolutionary Libya—safety and security concerns prevented them from traveling to that particularly remote part of the Sahara Desert. A lucky break, as the story goes.
Despite the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi just four months earlier, which resulted in a U.S. State Department warning against all nonessential travel to the country, the pair trusted the reassurances of longtime scientific contacts in the region and got busy thinking about what wasn’t off-limits. Using high-resolution satellite images, the team pinpointed new areas to explore near Zallah, at the northern tip of a giant volcanic field named Al Haruj.
What Beard, one of the world’s foremost experts on the origin and early evolution of primates, and Coster, a post-doctoral research fellow from France specializing in early rodents, sought and found was a new fossil-rich site dating back approximately 31 million years. It provides the first evidence of ancient life during the early part of the Oligocene epoch, one of only three such locations across Africa and Arabia (the others are in Egypt and Oman). In other words, they hit the jackpot.
“It’s a site that was previously unknown to scholars,” explains Beard, the Mary R. Dawson Chair of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Museum of Natural History. “This is the first time paleontologists went to look specifically at Zallah. Before, we all just passed through that region on our way to Dur At-Talah.
“We had shocking success,” he adds. “What we found is a spectacular place to look at evolution during this poorly known interval.”
This snapshot in time is crucial, explains Beard, who has spent his career charting our earliest history: when our earliest ancestors, very primitive, monkey-like creatures originating in Asia, got to Africa, and what happened when they arrived. “The fossils at the site provide yet more clues,” he says.
The discovery of the fossil stockpile, which Beard describes as a former coastal community comparable to today’s Florida Everglades in terms of climate and diversity of wildlife, wouldn’t have been possible without his longtime collaborative relation- ships with foreign colleagues, including Professors Michel Brunet and Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers in France and Libyan geologist Mustafa Salem of the University of Tripoli. It was Salem who connected the international team with Zuetina Oil Co., a Libyan company that provided, as an in-kind gift, a well-armed security detail and chartered flights from Tripoli to the company’s Sirt Basin facility, which the scientists used for lodging. The company was hardly being overprotective.
A third of the way into the researchers’ two-week-long expedition, Islamist militants seized a natural gas facility in nearby Algeria, a crisis that left three Americans dead among the 38 workers killed. “We had some discussions at that point about whether to pull out,” says Beard. “We talked with our trusted sources, who felt that we were secure. We never felt unsafe or were under any threat,” he continues, noting that pickup trucks armed with machine guns accompanied the group as a precaution.
“This is cutting-edge science,” adds Beard, “and not because it’s the wild-west frontier in Libya, but because we came back with fossils that tell a story.”
Among the team’s finds: the discovery of at least three species of hyrax, small, plant-eating mammals that vaguely resemble groundhogs, as well as fossils of fish, crocodiles, leaves, rib fragments from a manatee, rodents, a hippo-like mammal, and more evidence of early anthropoids, whose modern descendants include monkeys, apes, and humans. The primate fossils from Zallah are the first Oligocene anthropoids to be discovered in Libya, representing a significant addition to our knowledge of their evolution in Africa.
In 2010, Beard and his collaborators described three new species of even older anthropoids from Dur At-Talah—big news, he notes, because “we found a diversity of these early monkeys all living together and surprisingly old.” The finding added weight to the team’s belief that these early ancestors were them- selves descended from even earlier primates that had made it to Africa from Asia at a time when the former continent was an island, like Australia is today.
But the big find this trip—the oldest known carnivore yet discovered in Africa—still has Beard and Coster scratching their heads. “We never would have predicted it and we’re still surprised that we found it,” says Beard.
Previously, scientists thought carnivores arrived in Africa about the time that the continent collided with southwestern Asia, walking there from the Middle East. “Now we know that’s not true,” says Beard. “This carnivore is about 8-10 million years older than the collision between Africa and Eurasia. It couldn’t have simply walked there—instead, it had to cross a wide marine barrier to get to Africa.”
It’s also a member of an extinct and very primitive group of carnivores that are not direct ancestors of such familiar modern African carnivores as lions, jackals, and cheetahs. “We didn’t think these primitive carnivores ever lived in Africa, so our colleagues will be amazed that we found this,” Beard notes.
“The plot thickens,” says Beard, who hopes to return to Libya as soon as this fall.