New Fossil Mammals From Eritrea Help Understanding Modern African Fauna Origins “Missing Link” Of Elephant Family Unearthed In Eritrea

Extinct Elephants from Mai-Ghebro

 National Museum of Eritrea
Dr. Yosief Libsekal,

Amanuel Solomon, an ex-fighter, engaged in farmingactivities discovered fossils in Zoba Debub at a place known as Mai-Ghebro near Adi kudu-Felassi in the surroundings of Mendefera formerly called Adi Wegri.  Amanuel who lives and farms in Kudo-Felassi, recognizing the signifi cance of the fossils found he reported immediately to the National Museum of Eritrea Soon after the discovery, field survey researchers of the National Museum of Eritrea investigated the area collecting more new fossil mammals. These new fossils discovered in the highlands of Eritrea are of crucial importance to fill gaps in our understanding of the evolution of African mammals.  

In November 2010, the Eritrean researchers studied the discovered fossils with a paleoanthropologist from the University of Rome. Then an intensive survey was conducted, by the Museum staff member and the research team that included scientists from the Earth Sciences Department of the University of Florence, Italy.

This international team of archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists and geologists (sedimentologists) relied on high-resolution satellite imagery to fi nd the best outcrops of sedimentary rocks and then recorded the position of the fossils with GPS technology.

Deinotherium from Mai-Ghebro(Kudo-Felassi)

Adi Wegri/Mendefera is a locality already known in the paleontological literature since an isolated single molar of an extinct mammal called “Deinotherium” was found several decades ago in a lignite mine. The age of these sediments were referred to the late Oligocene (from about 24 million years ago back to 32 million years), a time span that includes a portion of African mammals evolutionary history substantially unknown to science. It is signifi cant that these “missing years” record the origin of modern mammal guilds.

Geologists have known about the sediments in this region for nearly 100 years because of the lignite deposits. But it wasn’t until the new fossils fi nding that the study of the region began to provide results and evidences useful for depicting the early history of Eritrea and East Africa in general.

One of the newly discovered fossil mammals represents the earliest evidence for today’s favourite Africa mammals, the elephants. One of the identified species is, in fact, a primitive proboscidean, a very old relative of modern elephants. It is known by scientists that early elephant evolution have occurred entirely in Africa, and these new fossils provide new evidences on the early phases of the evolutionary history of these fascinating animals. Such ancestral early elephants were much smaller than today’s African elephants, reaching about 1000 kg in body size.

Other fossils found near Mendefera represent the last holdouts of species that are long extinct. These fossil mammals are more unusual, like the deinothere, an animal comparable in size with today’s rhino but totally extinct since the Miocene. This species is a holdover from much earlier times, but the new discovery confirms that it survived until these times in Eritrea.

Deinotherium from Mai-Ghebro(Kudo-Felassi)

Unlike other paleontological fieldwork centred in much younger rocks in the fossil-rich Danakil depression of Eritrea (the Buia project, that yielded the oldest human fossil from Eritrea, a skull dated 1 million-yearsold), this project is based in the highlands of the central part of the country. This rugged terrain sits at about 2,000 meters in elevation and consists of massive flows of basalt lava that poured out of the Earth during the Oligocene-Miocene transition about 30– 20 million years ago. The sediments that contain the fossils were deposited intercalated within these basalts and are now exposed among agricultural fi elds in stream and gully cuts.

Extinct Elephants from Mai-Ghebro near Kudo-Felassi

The age of the sedimentary rocks is estimated between 25 and 22 million years. The geological framework of the fossiliferous sediments in the Mendefera region is favourable because the basalts occur both at the base and at the top of the succession, thus allowing a very precise radiometric dating of the time span in which these “old” African animals were living in our country.

During this time period, today’s Red Sea had not yet begun to rift open and Africa and Arabia were still joined together as a single continent that was isolated from the other landmasses by surrounding oceans and seas. The Afro-Arabia mammals continued to evolve and produce new species on this isolated continent during this time span, but many of the more primitive forms were going towards extinction. At about 24 million years ago in fact the continent of Afro-Arabian began to dock with Europe and Asia and this event set into motion both the eventual extinction of the more primitive species as well as the modernization of the rest of the African fauna brought about by an infl ux of new species. Some of the more primitive proboscideans became extinct, perhaps being out competed by the invading species, while the ancestors of today’s elephants fl ourished in spite of the new immigrants and managed to carry their adaptations out of Afro-Arabia to successfully colonize the rest of the world.

Results of such a research is further of wider signifi cance even on conservation biology and ecosystem history and management, since it also sheds light on the role that pre-modern animals played in establishing the worldwide distribution of mammals today.

More fossil localities closer in age to this major event are needed to fully evaluate competing hypotheses; and Eritrea has a high potential for that. In fact, fossil remains of similar age (27million years old) are already discovered in the area of Dogeli, close to Mitswa’e (Massawa), on the costal region of Eritrea. The fi nding of Dogeli also discovered in 1997, by another former combatant now a farmer Melake Ghebrekristos a, was published in 2006, the researchers named the species as Eritreum melakeghebrekristosi.

We are convinced that more fossils are out there waiting to be found and that the work of this Eritrean-Italian team with the active participation of the local people will continue to unveil the fossil record encased in the Eritrean rocks. The different discoveries in Buya, Dogeli, Abdur, Asfet and the newly discovered sites of Mai-Gebro (Kudo Felassi) and Mulhuli-Amo (Ma’ebele) area have placed Eritrea as one of the key potential regions of both human as well as animal evolution.

(Source:   P#2)