Big circles in stone near Broome are believed to be dinosaur FOOTPRINTS.

…..  are they the largest tracks made by animals in the history of the earth?

Dinosaur tracks in the Broome Sandstone have been known for decades, and became a tourist attraction at Broome.

These big circles, sometimes dishes or craters, sometimes displaying onion-skin-like peripheral rings, occur at many places from Boome northwards, and have been extensively interpreted as marks left from large dinosaur footprints.

Although there is little absolute proof of this (as large sauropod prints do not leave toe marks like the tracks of the three-toed dinosaurs show (also present at Broome) these structures in the rock are widely accepted as giant sauropod prints – and tourists have been taken to see them as such for a long time.   Very similar features overseas are also accepted as sauropod trackways.

The ‘Black Ledge’ occurrence in the bay a little east of Broome was nominated as heritage both to the local (Broome) Council, and also to the State Government (as State significant heritage).   Both the State Government and the Council have been slow to act on such nominations though.  During the course of doing this I came upon mentions of there being “human footprints” set in stone on or near the shore at two places well north of Broome.   Searching for those with Google I soon came upon information that an Aboriginal man (“member of the Broome Aboriginal community”) had been trialled at Broome courthouse in 2000 for having cut out both dinosaur and ‘human’ footprints, apparently using and angle grinder, hoping to sell the items to collectors.   There are a number of references to this easily findable, e.g. Amanda James on 22 December 2010 in Australian Geographic ( ).   

Amanda James stated:

In 1998, a missing carnivorous dinosaur footprint stolen from a sacred Aboriginal site was recovered.   A 120-million-year-old dinosaur footprint was among a series of fossils illegally removed from a sacred Aboriginal site in Broome, WA in the mid-90s. The footprint was recovered on 30 December 1998, its thief charged thereafter, while another invaluable fossil remains missing and shrouded in mystery ….. ‘The subject of illegal fossil trading has not been taken very seriously by the law,’ says Dr Henk Godthelp, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who works to intercept the trade of protected fossils from Australia overseas ….. The fossils recovered in 1998 included ancient human footprints from a secret site in the Dampier Peninsula and a single large Megalosauropus broomensis footprint from a sacred site near Broome on the north-west coast of WA. The human footprints have been dated at 7000 years old, while the dinosaur footprint is an estimated 120 million years old”……. This 1997 heist was the second blow in two years to the scientific community, which still hopes to recover rare stegosaurus prints stolen from another site, near Broome, in 1996. Unlike the 1996 robbery, the perpetrator of the 1997 crime was caught.  Michael Latham, a member of the Aboriginal community in Broome, pleaded guilty to the theft of the dinosaur and human footprints. His punishment: two concurrent sentences of two years in jail” …….( The stegosaurus tracks stolen in 1996) are thought to be the only evidence of the stegosaurus in Australia.   Police were unable to link the two thefts.   ‘We have intelligence that those prints were collected to order,’ says Henk.  He says that some people believe that a private collector commissioned a thief to take the stegosaurus prints and may have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire them. ….  The missing stegosaurus prints have caused dispute between the Aboriginal people who govern the site in Broome, and palaeontologists who study the prints.  ‘It was controversial because it’s an inter-cultural thing,’ says Mike Archer, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales. ‘There was a presumption that a researcher had taken [the prints] away for study, based on the logical assumption that the prints were worthy of study and that palaeontologists collect fossils'”.

Other accounts differ slightly from Amanda’s.   Some suggest that Michael Latham was not so much “caught” as that he surrendered/confessed – apparently after finding himself unable to offload the footprints in rock which he had cut out.  

Who has dated the human footprints at 7,000 years?   Amanda James did not say. 

  Amanda James –


Re the trial, Tim White in Broome filed this report for PM: ( “Fossil thief gets two years jail”), on 22 February, 2000.

According to Tim’s report, “Latham removed the dinosaur print using a portable generator and an angle grinder, with the intention of selling it and the human prints on the black market. But once he had the prints, he couldn’t find anyone to buy them. He made an approach to a collector in New South Wales and offered the print for $250,000 but the offer was refused. When other attempts to sell them failed, he returned the human prints to their traditional owners and the dinosaur print to the police. The human prints have since been returned to the ocean, but the court was told Latham’s failure to sell the footprints was more to do with his lack of contacts rather than the lack of a market ….. Mr Hasluck says the footprints also had a considerable scientific value, particularly the human prints which apparently had dingo footprints walking alongside. He says the fact the footprints have been removed greatly diminishes their use for scientific research” … and needless to add, if the persons Latham gave the human+dinosaur prints threw them in the ocean then that too greatly diminishes their use for scientific research’ — yet the original trackway presumably still exists (minus a print or two)?

The  slowness to recognise the (dinosaur) footprints as heritage is somewhat surprising as dinosaur tracks are found off and on all the way up the coast from Broome to James Price Point.  They have been ‘threatening’ a major development site at James Price Point according to some.   The Weekend Australian Magazine of 27 August 2011 did the following article on this:


Palaeontologist Steve Salisbury says the Broome coastline is unique for  the number of dinosaur footprints.

( Photo:  Nigel Clarke.   Source: The Australian – See more at:

THE footprints are all around me, as large as spa baths or as small and delicate as a modern pawprint. It feels sacriligious to tread on them, even though I know they are firmly embedded in Broome’s orange sandstone. I skip over the smaller three-toed impressions, and leap across bigger, bath-like imprints.

As far back as 130 million years ago, a huge dinosaur lumbered past this spot and left its distinctive tracks. I hastily catch up with my guide, Louise Middleton, as she traces the animal’s giant steps across a wide, pitted rock shelf. Had we been transported back in time, we might have glimpsed a procession of plant-eating giants as they squelched their way across mudflats or browsed in tropical undergrowth. Looking down at my feet, I notice an exquisite, feathery fossil that hints at the fern-like plants that might have surrounded us.

Middleton has spent years combing the rocky shores of the Dampier coast. We squat to peer at the sharp-clawed print of an ornithopod, a two-legged plant-eater. “I was sitting on one boulder the other day, looked up and down the rock platform and realised there were tracks going in each direction for 500 metres,” she tells me.

In the mid-1980s, her late partner Paul Foulkes guessed that dinosaurs had caused the curious markings on sedimentary rock platforms; a keen naturalist, Foulkes had tracked them north from Crab Creek, near Broome, to beyond James Price Point, a distance of about 80km.

Decades ensued in which scientists occasionally arrived to check out the tracks; so did perpetrators of a famous fossil theft. After a WA Museum team filmed footprints at Gantheaume Point, near Broome townsite, in the early 1990s, the media exposure prompted fossil thieves to chainsaw a couple out of the rock.The experience left insiders reluctant to reveal any more information for fear of vandalism. It’s partly why so few Australians know about the Kimberley’s prehistoric riches, apart from the few bird-like dinosaur prints identified in the 1950s at Gantheaume Point.

But “Dinosaur Paradise”, as one researcher describes it, can no longer escape the glare of national fame. For it seems that Kimberley dinosaurs trudged along the very expanse that – millions of years later – is earmarked for Woodside’s $35 billion gas hub at James Price Point.Earlier this month, one of the proposed gas hub’s fierce opponents, Anne Poelina, was pictured in The Australian sitting on a rock near Broome.

When palaeontologist Steve Salisbury saw the photograph, he burst out laughing. “I thought it was quite funny – although I imagine she didn’t realise it, she was sitting on a whole heap of dinosaur footprints. You can actually see the cross-section of them in the rock layers,” he explains. “It illustrates the fact that a lot of people don’t realise what they’re looking at.

Once you do, it changes your perception of that coastline. There’s simply nowhere else like it.”A University of Queensland lecturer and research associate at the US Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Salisbury recently spent a week documenting small expanses of dinosaur trackway between Broome and James Price Point. With Middleton and photographer Nigel Clarke, Salisbury waited each day for low tide to reveal large pavements of rock. It was the week that anti-hub protesters had clashed with police on a barricaded road into James Price Point, but the trio were too excited by what was being revealed to dwell on the conflict.

Recalls Middleton: “I’ve walked these platforms for a long time, but when we went down with Steve Salisbury it was magical. I don’t know if it was visiting in the right light, at the right time of day, but the rocks came alive for us. We were seeing hundreds of prints and numerous tracks,  and the water sat like silver in ponds that were huge footprints. Steve said to us, ‘This is just one incredible megasite.’”“We documented it properly,” says Salisbury, “and my intention is to get it published in a peer review journal as quickly as possible so there’s no doubt about what’s there and how significant it is.”

His excitement lies in the breathtaking diversity of track sites. “There’s anywhere around 15 different types of dinosaur tracks along that coast, and often close to that many at a single site. Around the world, rarely do you find track sites where there are more than two or three dinosaurs. So the diversity is incredible.“Some footprints are the first record of their kind in any part of Australia. For instance, there are footprints belonging to some armoured dinosaurs, some of which may be stegosaurs. We don’t have comparable body ¬fossils for either of those [in Australia], meaning there’s no other record for them. It’s the first evidence that these animals ever existed on this continent.“

It doesn’t stop there,” continues Salisbury. “For the sauropod footprints, which are the most abundant in the area, there are none in the rest of Australia.” Sauropods were four-legged, slender-necked creatures up to 30-40 metres in length and weighing 70 tonnes. “Some tracks contain perhaps the biggest dinosaur footprints in the world,” he says.

That so few Australians are aware of the Kimberley’s dinosaur past is as puzzling as the delay in recognising its value. Only this month, the Australian Heritage Council found that the dinosaur tracks “have outstanding heritage value to the nation… as the best and most extensive evidence of dinosaurs from the western half of the continent”.   It said sauropods had left prints of “exceptional size and diversity” which represented a unique record of the dinosaur community.  The comments were contained in the Council’s final recommendation for heritage listing of the West Kimberley, the largest land area ever nominated for ¬ listing in Australia.

It cited as “rare, if not unique” the fact that Kimberley Aborigines have incorporated ancient dinosaur prints into their cultural stories. Traditional elders say certain tracks are the footprints of Marrala Man, an emu spirit that shed his tail feathers to form fern-like fossils. Twenty years ago, they created Broome’s coastal Lurujarri Heritage Trail that follows the dreaming path of Marrala Man and the roaming dinosaurs.

Salisbury readily acknowledges that he is not the first scientist to describe the vast extent of fossil prints along the Kimberley coast. Former University of Queensland academic Tony Thulborn, author of the textbook Dinosaur Tracks (1990), visited the area ¬ several times.

Thulborn recalled his early findings in a letter to the journal Nature in May. “The trackmakers represent every major category of dinosaurs: Theropoda or predaceous dinosaurs, Sauropoda – loosely speaking ‘brontosaurs’ – and Ornithischia or beaked plant-eating dinosaurs, both bipeds and quadrupeds.”

Salisbury adds that the Kimberley’s fossilised tracks far outnumber those at Australia’s famous dinosaur track site at Lark Quarry, near Winton in Queensland, where both men have worked. “It’s an area the size of a tennis court, with over 3000 footprints on it, quite a dense track site,” says Salisbury.

“It’s National Heritage listed, it’s got a $3.2 million building put over it to protect it, and it’s a major tourist attraction. But it pales into insignificance compared with this.

There are many Lark Quarries along this coast, so the same amount of investment should go into the Kimberley coastline.”

That these issues are being raised amid acrimonious debate over the proposed development at James Price Point has prompted cynicism about timing and intent. Has it all been a ploy to secure heritage status from Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke? Inclusion on the National Heritage List would mean that Woodside would have to avoid wholesale destruction of dinosaur prints, complicating its plans to build the massive gas processing plant and 6km-long jetty.And what about the three reports – commissioned by the pro-gas Barnett state government and Woodside – that claimed few dinosaur tracks of “museum grade” existed at James Price Point? (And if any were found, the reports stated, they could be removed and preserved.)

Thulborn is scathing of the reports, which he says were done by researchers unfamiliar with interpreting dinosaur prints, including geologists and a fossil shark expert. “One might as well expect any trained GP to undertake open-heart surgery or kidney transplants,” he says.

One report described “potholes” at James Price Point, which, says Thulborn, are in fact “perfectly good sauropod tracks”.  Near-perfect specimens also exist there, he says, plus a therapod track never before seen. As for suggestions about removing the prints, “it calls to mind those naturalists who would ‘save’ an endangered bird species by shooting the last few survivors and installing them in a museum cabinet”.

In 2009, Thulborn flagged the gas threat to Kimberley dinosaur sites when he addressed an international symposium in Spain. Eighty colleagues from 16 countries signed a letter expressing their concern.

The following week, Thulborn was threatened with eviction from a paleontology conference in England when he tried to muster more support. “They threatened to have me forcibly removed from the venue,” he says. “In retrospect, I should have taken up their offer; it might have generated some useful publicity.”

According to Woodside spokesman Dr Michael Hession, any destruction of prints would be “regrettable but … negligible considering the vastly superior quality of trackways found further south.” The WA government says if disturbing fossils is necessary, “traditional owners and the Western Australian Museum will be consulted on appropriate action”.

Thulborn says dinosaur footprints are not moveable items; nor is James Price Point a location that can be “sacrificed” due to “better” sites elsewhere. He says a wealth of information about animal weight, gait and motion is literally embedded in situ; what dinosaurs ate is revealed in rock-bound catalogues of clearly ¬visible ferns and tree vegetation. “A dinosaur track is a ¬complex four-dimensional object, the outcome of a dynamic interaction between a dinosaur and its environment,” says Thulborn. “It is not just a neat impression in a piece of rock.”

Middleton says she and traditional owners offered to help each survey team, but their offer was declined. “It’s not as if it’s something we made up because there’s plans for a gas hub here,” she says. “We’d concentrated on Gantheaume Point, but with the threat of development we’ve had to start talking about other areas. Yet we couldn’t just jump up and down and say, ‘Hey, there’s dinosaur prints all along the coast.’ We needed backing and recognition.”Traditional owner Phillip Roe says it’s time to bring worldwide attention to the dinosaur footprints.  “Woodside has got options – they can pipe the gas elsewhere so why destroy things?”

Regardless of whether the hub goes ahead or not, Salisbury says management is needed to make sure the footprints are properly protected. “Isolation and high tides are all that’s kept them safe over the years.”


“Large sauropod dinosaurs once inhabited the coastal plains near Broome, Western Ausrtralia, about 110 million years ago.  By Michael Skrepnick.  Various magazine authors have apparently covered the Broome circles and this is from one early article

Broome Hovercraft operator is pointing to funnel like deformation in sediment layering below one of the shallow circular dish like structures which are likely where big dinosaur feed once descended.  However, note that in the foreground there is another disruption ‘funnel’ with does not have a visible circle above it.  Note the red cliffs of “Pidan” earth.  This place is also sometimes called Red Cliff by tourists.

Broome Hovercraft –


Same place as above, by Nik:  “We have done this attraction twice. April 2010 and Oct 2011. The sunset in May was a lot more colourful. The nibblies are basic but very nice – only just enough for the 20 odd people on board.  The tour across Roebuck Bay to the dinosaur prints is very informative and interesting.  Watching the sun set from the tidal flats in the middle of Roebuck Bay is wonderful.  If you are thinking – mud flats – yuk.  YOU ARE WRONG.  These flats are silky to the toes and DO NOT SMELL.  The guide both times was very informed and very friendly.  A must do attraction”.

Tourists standing on the circles at the red cliff near “Black Ledge”, Broome.  (Photo:  Brian Kane) 


Site near Black Ledge which is visited by the hovercraft tours.


“Black Ledge Big Dinosaur Impression – Hmmmm Big foot” (Photo:  Mark Spark, 2005)


“Black Ledge Dinosaur track – Foot print trail”  (Photo:  Mark Spark, 2005)

Stated to have been discovered by Paul Foulkes in 1987 – and authenticated by the WA Museum 1990

( fide )

 Showing location of ‘Black Ledge’, near where the Crab Creek road runs south the meet the shore. 


Occurences of the big circles in the rock platforms close to Broome (there are occurrences at the red cliffs shorewards of Black Ledge – check also re Ganteume Point, at 500m towards town from Gantheume Point (at very low tide), at 2 km on the far side from Gantheume Point (at low tide), at Quondong as seen at the lowest tide, and also at the town beach down from the old meatworks site.

Variation in weathering  expression of sauropod tracks in the Broome Sandstone.  A) a shallow dish-like recess in exposed bedding plane (concave epirelief); the footprint’s filling is slightly more susceptible to erosion than the surrounding rock.  B) with sediment filling being eroded at about same rate as the surrounding rock surface.  C) footprints filled and capped by erosion-resistant filling persist as pedestals while less durable surrounding rock has been removed by erosion.  Broome Sandstone. All footprints shown are between 30 and 40 cm in length.    ( Thulborn, 2012)


Anonymous, 2009. Geology of James Price Point, Broome, Western Australia. 7 pp. Geological Survey of Western Australia, East Perth.

Colbert, E. H. and Merilees, D., 1967.  Cretaceous dinosaur footprints from Western Australia. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia. 50:21-25.

Dutuit, J.M., and Ouazzou, A., 1980.  Découverte d’une piste de Dinosaure sauropode sur le site d’empreintes de Demnat (Haut-Atlas marocain). Mémoires de la Société Géologique de France, Nouvelle Série 139:95-102.

Glauert, L., 1953.  Dinosaur footprints near Broome. The Western Australian Naturalist.  3:82-83.

Long, J. A., 1998.  Dinosaurs of Australia and New Zealand and other animals of the Mesozoic era. 188 pp.  University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.  

Playford, P. E., Cope, R. N., Cockbain, A. E., Low, G. H., and Lowry, D. C., 1975.  Phanerozoic. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Western Australia 2:221-433.

Thulborn, R. A., 1990.  Dinosaur tracks. 410 pp. Chapman and Hall, London.

Thulborn, T., 2012.  Impact of Sauropod Dinosaurs on Lagoonal Substrates in the Broome Sandstone (Lower Cretaceous), Western Australia.  PLoS ONE,7(5)   [ e36208. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036208 ]

Thulborn, R.A., Hamley, T. and P.Foulkes, P., 1994.   Preliminary report on sauropod dinosaur tracks in the Broome Sandstone (Lower Cretaceous) of Western Australia. Gaia 10:85-96.


Bones at phosphate mines

Phosphorus (P) is a non-metallic element which is almost always present in a maximally oxidised state (PO43-) as inorganic phosphate rocks due to its reactivity.  Elemental phosphorus can exist as red and white (known to students in chemistry classes and once used in warfare but not found as a free element in nature).   It is one of the essential building blocks of life and life simply wouldn’t exist without it.   It is a key component of DNA, RNA, ATP and phospholipids and is essential to cell development, reproduction and in animals, bone development.

The use of phosphorus compounds in fertilisers is due to the need to replace the phosphorus that plants remove from the soil.  There is no substitute for this element.    In the mineral form of phosphate rock (mostly the apatite family of minerals) is not bioavailable to plants.  It must be processed to convert it to a plant-available form.   The mined product is is used to produce phosphoric acid which is then used to produce fertiliser products.

In this post I discuss a couple of ‘terrestrial’ phosphate deposits well known for associated bones.

Of these the Wellington Caves phosphate deposit in New South Wales is far more terrestrial than the West Coast Fossil Park one in South Africa.    The former is well inland in part of NSW which has not seen the sea since the Devonian period.   The latter was inundated by Tertiary high level sea and the fossils although mainly or terrestrial animals were likely deposited in peri-marine environments near a river mouth.

Phosphatic rocks go by the names of phosphorite, phosphate rock or rock phosphate.     The most appropriate choice of name may depend on the interpretation of origin.    At Wellington Caves the substance that was mined is probably best called phosphate rock.   The more extensive stratified bed of phosphatic rock, often marine sediments, are usually called phosphorite.

Most of the world’s commercial phosphorite  (used in fertiliser manufacture) is actually from marine deposits.

Phosphorites are calcium phosphate-rich sedimentary rocks, generally considered to have more than 15% phosphate content.

Texturally, phosphorites can be obviously granular, with fossil fragments or oolites or peloids or lithic fragments, or they can be composed of extremely fine-grained, phosphate-rich mud.  Compositionally, the phosphate component in phosphorites is principally a mix of apatite minerals: chlorapatite (Ca5(PO4)3Cl), fluorapatite (Ca5(PO4)3F), hydroxyapatite (Ca5(PO4)3OH)), and carbonate fluorapatite (Ca10(PO4,CO3)6F2-3).

Phosphorites are generally marine sedimentary rocks and they are known in sequences ranging in age from Precambrian to Holocene.  In modern oceans, they tend to occur along the eastern margins of some ocean basins where deep-water upwelling occurs under areas of high biologic productivity.

One of the most famous phosphorite unit is America’s Phosphoria Formation.

A piece of Phosphoria Formation phosphorate is shown below, as can be seen it is not a remarkable looking rock, looking just like dark sandstone.

Phosphorite can be explored for in the field with a reagent that turns the rock yellow if appreciable phosphate is present.

Since agriculture is nationally important, phosphorite can be considered a strategic material.

In the sphere of environmental opposition to mining phosphorite has been noteable on account of the “Phosphorite War”.   This is the name given to a late-1980s campaign in the then-Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, against the opening large phosphorite mines in the Virumaa region.  The movement, which peaked in 1987, was successful in achieving its immediate goals, but is also regarded by some historians as influential in strengthening the nationalistic movement which led to the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991.   There was fear in Estonia that the new mines’ need for a workforce would start a wave of migration, bringing tens of thousands of workers from other parts of the Soviet Union to Estonia (the proportion of Estonians in Estonia had already dropped from about 97% immediately after World War II to 61% in the late 1980s.   The Estonian phosphorite deposits are in the Obolus sandstone at the Cambrian/Ordovician boundary.   These deposits include the largest phosphorite deposit in Europe, and they had started to be mined in the 1920s.   The central government of the Soviet Union in Moscow took interest in exploiting the phosphorite deposits in Lääne-Viru County in the early 1970s.   The plan became known to the general public on 25 February 1987 when revealed on Estonian TV.    Numerous protests broke out and lead to an unprecedented size public debate later that year.   Faced with wide opposition to the new mines, the Soviet authorities abandonned the plans by 1988.   Although it might not have been intended or foreseen by the original environmental campaigners, the “Phosphorite War” activated the Estonian masses to the power of collective action for overcoming fear of the regime.   This is why it is said that it acted as catalyst for the destabilization of the Soviet government in Estonia ( ).

The general principle for expecting phosphate enrichment in sediments is associated with still-stands in sedimentation and/or the influence of phosphate-rich deeper seawater at areas subject to ‘upwellings’  ( ).  The most common occurrence of phosphorites are related to strong marine upwelling of sediments.  Upwelling is caused by deep water currents that are brought up to coastal surfaces where a large deposition of phosphorite may occur.   In addition to uprisings, estuaries themselves are also known as phosphorus entrapment places.    This is because coastal estuaries contain a high productivity of phosphorus from marsh grass and benthic algae which allow an equilibrium exchange between living and dead organisms.

Wellington in New South Wales is on the N-S running “Molong High” (a.k.a. Molong Geanticline) which is interpreted as a Lower Palaeozoic palaeogeographic high (volcanic high?) flanked by areas of deeper water.   The Molong High/Geanticline is rich in andesitic volcanics and also had abundant limestone deposition in each of the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian (Early Devonian) periods.   In case upwelling, as described above, had occurred against the Molong High and enriched any of the marine sediment in phosphate, this area was extensively explored for phosphate.   No marine phosphorite was found.   The region does have many small phosphate deposits.    These are of cave filling type and the phosphorus may have come from bat guano and/or bones.

The Wellington Caves phosphate deposit is one of these cave filling type deposits, and the only one in the region that was ever attempted to be mined on any significant scale.   Smaller deposits elsewhere along the Molong High was mined and very quickly exhausted in the 1800s.   The Wellington Caves phosphate mine had a lot of development work put in, and it did produce some phosphate rock but overall the operation probably resulted in a sizeable loss of money.

After the crossing of the Blue Mountains, Wellington became a distant military outpost in the Colony of New South Wales.   A painting by Augustus Earle ca. 1826 (nla.pic-an2818409-v) clearly shows the entrance to what is today called Cathedral Cave at Wellington Caves .   This painting is labelled ‘Mosman’s Cave’ (who was Mosman?).   The first written account of the caves was by explorer Hamilton Hume in 1828.   Two years later the local magistrate George Ranken reported and collected fossil bones.   Due to Ranken’s exertions there,  this is possibly the first site from which fossils were collected for scientific study in Australia.  The Wellington Caves bones were sent to England for determination.   From them the genus Diprotodon was erected and a giant kangaroo species was recognised.

Ranken took the NSW Surveyor General  Thomas Mitchell (later Sir Thomas) to the caves and Mitchell collected a large quantity of the bones to dispatch to England.   They were subject of an address by Mitchell to the Geological Society of London in 1831.

In 1884 the Wellington Caves were declared a natural reserve and in the following year organised tours began, with  James Sibbald appointed caretaker.

The Phosphate Mine was developed during WWI, in 1914-1918, and probably produced about 6000 tons of phosphatic rock, despatched from Wellington by rail.   Where the phosphate rock was sent to and processed I have not yet traced.

The Wellington Council cleaned out the old mine passage and installed electric lighting in 1996, to enable tourism.

The phosphate mine is essentially part of the caves system, which by 2005 was receiving 50,000 vistors  annually.

Apart from viewing the old workings, visitors can see the ?800,000 year-old phosphate and bone breccia deposits containing fossil bones.   A number of loose bones have been piled on a dirt shelf in one part of the mine where visitors can pick them up and examine them.

Wellington Caves phosphate mine

The tourist brochures describe this site as the “Wonder of the West” and that “The Caves and Phosphate Mine complex is one of the world’s most significant fossil sites and specimens from Wellington are included in collections at museums around the world”.

Bones can be seen at the phosphate mine, a very popular tourist stop.   ( Photos: )

Walking through the restored underground mine one may learn about past mining techniques, along with the history of the area. In some sections there are walls full of un-excavated bone fragments from 300,000 years ago.  Towards the end of the tour you actually get to handle some bones that have been found on the site.

The Wellington Caves and phosphate mine  (Sources: Tourists October 1, 2010 )

Map of the phosphate mine at Wellington Caves.

The Wellington Caves phosphate mine is an old phosphate mine at Wellington Caves, situated a few kilometres south of the town of Wellington in NSW.

The production figures for phosphate rock from “Wellington”, presumably entirely from this mine, are:

1914 – 700 tons ; 1915 – 1,110 tons ; 1916- 2,002 tons ; 1917 – 2,000 tons ; 1918 – 300 tons.

Most of the best rock was extracted in 1916 it seems, for although a similar amount of rock was railed off in 1916 it brought a lesser return and so grade must have fallen off after 1916.   The site was virtually worked out in 1918.

The mine has been renovated and opened up for tourists by the Wellington Council.  It is regarded as one of the best tourist mine attractions in the State.   Wellington Council says:  “The mine not only features the workings of a World War 1 mine, but bone fragments and fossils from 300,000 years ago. Paleontologists from all over the world have been making pilgrimages to this cave since the 1930s and now you can too!”

Layers of calcite (dogtooth spar) cave rock over white phosphorate layer, and close-up. 

( Photos:  OzLadyM – )

One of the bones.   ( Photo: Vanessa M  )

Diprotodon skeleton (model).   This is the genus of giant marsupial which the site is best known for.  

A Heliolites coral in the Devonian limestone (Garra Formation) that the caves are developed in.   ( Photo: LadyOzM ),%20NEW%20SOUTH%20WALES&priorFolder=Caves%20-%20Australia

The Wellington Council has also developed at the Wellington Caves a Fossil Trail along which one may find noteworthy specimens of marine invertebrates in the Garra Formation limestone that the caves (and phosphate deposit) have formed in.


I personally suspect it was just another “failed” or unsuccessful mining venture, likely spurred by commercial need due to WWI cutting shipping supplies and so on – as also affected other commodities (e.g. for copper, causing the Great Cobar copper boom in WWI further west in NSW).

However I have not tried to investigate the matter closely for myself and some note may be made of the rumours one will encounter in Wellington, from the Council or Tourism office, or from the cave guides.

They may tell you of a “giant cover up” and this has been written up by the Sydney Morning Herald (at ).    The only thing lacking is proof but the story runs as follows:


“Scratch the  surface in Wellington, a peaceful farming town about a half-hour drive  south-east of Dubbo in central-western NSW and you’ll soon uncover a dastardly  tale of deception, intrigue and paleontological larceny on an international  scale; a mining mystery involving 300,000-year-old three-tonne wombats and an  illegal trade in rare bones”.

“The scene of the alleged crime is an old World War I-era phosphate mine on  the grounds of Wellington Caves Reserve. Today, it’s a veritable time tunnel  that has been preserved and restored to show just what it would have been like  to work in an underground mine almost 100 years ago, complete with original  timber sets and nails, old train tracks and pick marks on the walls”.

“But before it was a mine, it was a cave, according to guide, Bruce Day, and  home to vast colonies of bats that left behind tonnes of droppings, or guano,  rich in phosphates. The New South Wales Phosphate Company began mining the cave,  by hand, in secret, in 1914.  By the time the mine was abandoned five years  later, 6000 tonnes of phosphate had been removed for fertiliser.  But according  to Day, 6000 tonnes is a pretty poor yield and the phosphate was of poor  quality.  What they were really after, he reckons, were bones”.

“He leads me to a section in the eastern loop of the mine, known as the Bone  Cave, explaining as we go that the mine, or cave as it initially was, burrows  into a virtual hill of bones.  But these weren’t any old bones; they were  megafauna bones – the skeletal remains of marsupial lions, diprotodon (think  three-tonne wombat), giant kangaroos and huge seven-metre-long carnivorous  goannas.  The walls are embedded with thousands of bone fragments and fossils;  lit by ultraviolet light, the ancient bones glow eerily in the darkness. It is,  Day says, one of the world’s most significant fossil sites”.

“Despite all the visitors, many of whom left traces of their explorations on  the cave walls in the form of black carbon from their candles, oil from their  hands and, in some cases, graffiti, no one in Wellington had any idea the  phosphate mine was working for the first two years of its operation.”

The SMH article concludes with “The real answer about exactly what was extracted from the mine will probably  never be unearthed but, in the meantime, Day’s tale of fossil intrigue makes for  a fascinating tour”.


This article says that cave guide Mr. Day thinks that bone diggers looking to  make a quick buck from the illegal sale of the bones, were a “possible reason why there are no known records of what really happened during the five years the mine was operational”.

This would be an interesting little supposed ‘mystery’ to follow up.   Did the Council not know?   Indeed when was the Wellington Council formed?    The Wellington Council website is at but it does not appear to have a history of itself there(?).    Although it does have a webpage about itself ( ) this really describes the Wellington local government area rather than the Council itself.

Last year the Council actually had planned to convene a seminar on geological/mining history and heritage.   For some un-ascertained reason, however, this did not eventuate as planned.   Hopefully it is still planned to hold it some time in the future.


West Coast Fossil Park,  Langebaan. South Africa


Location of the fossil park, near Langebaan

This fossil park is close to Langebann and is associated with the West Coast National Park along the Atlantic coast.

This too was a phosphate mining area, where extraction began in 1943.   Similarly as at Wellington, many tons of fossils were possibly crushed along with the rock that was made into fertilizer.   Although many fossils were doubtless destroyed by mining, the mining also brought the fossiliferous nature of the area to light and over a million specimens have been collected and stored in the Iziko: South African Museum in Cape Town.   The area is probably one of the richest fossil sites in the world, and one with the greatest diversity of 5 million year old fossils; ,  well-suited to document the global climate and environmental changes that were taking place during the Late Miocene to Early Pliocene transition.   Thus far over 200 different animal species have been identified from the bones, which is why it may have the greatest diversity of five million year-old fossils found anywhere in the world

A recent (2011) major interpretation of the area is this one:


Regional and global context of the Late Cenozoic Langebaanweg (LBW) palaeontological site: West Coast of South Africa

a Council for Geoscience, PO Box 572, Bellville 7535, South Africa ;  b Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town, South Africa  ;  c John Goodsell Building (F20) Room 312, University of New South Wales Kensington, Sydney, NSW, 2052, Australia ; d Sheffield Centre for International Drylands Research, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Winter Street, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK ; e Department of Plant Sciences, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

( Earth-Science Reviews, Volume 106, Issues 3–4, June 2011, Pages 191–214 )


The palaeontological site of Langebaanweg is internationally renowned for its prolific, diverse and exceptionally well preserved Mio-Pliocene vertebrate fossils.   The site is ideally situated to document the complex interactions of ocean, atmosphere and land and their respective influence on climate evolution, given its location near the coast and mix of marine, estuarine and terrestrial faunas and depositional settings.

During the Oligocene drawdown in sea levels, the landscape was etched by river incision. Fluctuating sea levels of the Neogene periodically reversed the trend from erosion to deposition, preserving contemporary faunas and floras in the Oligocene palaeovalleys.  Earlier Miocene pollen from fluvial facies indicates a humid sub-tropical climate, reflecting a warm southern Atlantic Ocean. The abrupt late Middle Miocene global cooling (Monterey Excursion) coincided with intensified cold upwelling in the Benguela Current and extensive phosphate authigenesis.  A globally documented Early Pliocene highstand possibly related to the shoaling of the Isthmus of Panama reached ~ 90 m above sea level (asl), implying extensive melting of the cryosphere.

Palaeomagnetic data in tandem with global sea level reconstructions suggest an age of ~ 5.15 ± 0.1 Ma for the faunas and a correlation with the earlier part of this transgression. A subtropical C3 vegetation is indicated by the faunas and floras, but with a significant contribution by sclerophytic fynbos pointing to a cooler and more seasonal climate than in the Miocene. A mid-Pliocene highstand to ~ 50 m asl truncated the Early Pliocene succession and the globally documented Late Pliocene highstand to ~ 30 m asl saw the Atlantic shoreline approaching the park area for the last time. With the progressive climatic cooling and instability of the terminal Pliocene, culminating in the growth of the Arctic ice cap, strengthening southerly winds driven by a tighter coiled South Atlantic Anticyclone deposited extensive coastal dune fields over the region.

The phosphorate mining here was in the 5 million year old Muishond Fontein Phosphorite Member, which is a pelletal textured phosporite.

Fossil Park is in the sediments of the former Langebaanweg ‘E’ Quarry.  These sediments form part of the Varswater Formation which is in turn part of the Sandveld Group as shown in the above section.   The Varswater Formation is underlain by the Middle Miocene Elandsfontyn Formation, or otherwise by Neoproterozoic/Cambrian bedrock.

Overlying the Varswater formation is calcareous aeolianite of the Langebaan Formation, or else the unconsolidated quartzose aeolian sands of the Springfontein Formation.

The Varswater succession consists of four members, the oldest of which (The Langeenheid Sandy Clay Member) probably dates to around the early Middle Miocene . The Clay Member is overlain by the Middle Miocene Konings Vlei Gravel Member (KVGM). Above the Konings Vlei Gravel Member is the Langeberg Quartzose Sand Member (LQSM), which in turn is overlain by the younger Muishhond Pelletal Phosphate Member (MPPM).

The LQSM and the MPPM are the main fossil bearing deposits of the formation.   The latter contained the commercially exploitable phosphate ore mined at Langebaanweg.

The LQSM represents a number of different depositional environments, and although some sub-aqueous deposition of fossils does appear to have taken place, the majority of fossils are thought to have been accumulated on a flood plain.

The MPPM may have accumulated in river channels.

The MPPM and LQSM represent two separate, depositional events but the time period over which these two horizons were deposited, and the age difference between them is uncertain as the stratigraphic relationship between the two horizons is complicated and poorly understood.
The MPPM has been further divided into the “fossiliferous bed 3a” (which consists of northerly and southerly parts, namely bed 3aN and bed 3aS) and other undifferentiated, largely non-fossil bearing beds.  Bed 3aS is thought to have been laid down during a northwards shift of the river’s course, and bed 3aN by yet another, later, northwards shift of the river.  Bed 3aN has been the main focus of recent research into the ungulates (hooved mammals) at Langebaanweg.
Some 5 million years ago when the phosphorate formed,  the sea level was higher and the mouth of the Berg River was in the area of the Fossil Park (it is now 20 km to the north).    It is thought that fossils accumulated behind a sand barrier which kept many carcasses from being washed out to sea.   when the sea level later dropped Aeolian sand transgressed over the area.   The LQSM and MPPM deposits were probably laid down during the global, early Mio-Pliocene transgression which has been linked to global sea level changes.  The Varswater Formation occurs at ± 90 m at the nearby farm of Elandsfontyn, and this provides evidence for the sea level reaching ± 90 m at the time of deposition of the LQSM and MPPM.   Today the erosional remnanst of these units are found between elevations of 30 m and 40 m at Langebaanweg.   The late Pliocene regression truncated and covered both the MPPM and LQSM.

Conceptual model explaining the fossil occurrences in the LQSM and MPPM: A), Terrestrial to marginal marine palaeontological settings of the LQSM ( ~ 25 m asl); B), MPPM Estuarine conditions with phosphate authigenesis with further transgression to ~ 30 m asl; C), Glacio-eustatic regresssion to below 25 m and incision of ephemeral streams and concentration of fossils from different environments in channel lag; D), transgression and a return to Estuarine conditions (MPPM).


Bone bed (Channel 3aN) at the dig site, with the large fossils mainly consisting of the short necked giraffid Sivatherium hendeyi. Note the lack of orientation of the long bones and steep (southwesterly) dip of the channel base (in (A) towards viewer).

During the late 1950s an ankle bone of the Sivathere and a tooth of an extinct elephant were noted and since then major systematic palaeontology has developed at the site.    Mining ceased in 1993 and in 1996 some 34 acres (14 hectares) were declared a National Monument.  Later on a much larger area of 1730 acres (700 hectares) was established as a National Heritage Site.  Or, in more detail, what happened protection-wise is that the former National Monuments Council in 1996 declared the site a national monument there; and with the introduction of the National Heritage Resources Act in 2000 this became a provincial heritage site.  Then in March 2012 the provincial heritage resources authority, Heritage Western Cape significantly expanded the area that is protected to its present size.
The West Coast Fossil Park was established at the site of the abandoned Langebaanweg phosphate mine in 1994, and the mining company subsidized the start-up and operational costs until the park could become self-sustaining.   Systematic palaeontological excavation began in “E” quarry in 1998.   It was at Quarry E in the 1950s that they started finding fossils near the bottom of the main phosphate-rich deposit.   Dr. Brett Hendey was allowed to collect fossils from the park and excavate a few areas to record the stratigraphy.   Although the current collection of Langebaanweg fossils numbers over a million specimens, Hendey estimated that about 80 percent of the fossils from the mined layer was destroyed.  The two main fossil-bearing layers occur at the base of the thick Muishond Fontein Pelletal Phosphorite Member (MPPM) and in the underlying and thinner Langeberg Quartzose Sand Member (LQSM). The MPPM was heavily mined, but most of the fossils in the member probably represented a reworking of fossils from the white, sandy LQSM.

Prior to the current Park administration and more carefully controlled excavation, Brett Hendey excavated in 1976, right next to the excavation currently open to the public.  Hendey excavated in meter squares, leaving “witness sections” (of 1 meter square) every so often.   This was where Hendey found a near complete skeleton of the African bear  Agriotherium africanum ( which was the first known bear found in Africa south of the Sahara). 

As the area is excavated, mapped and sediment samples taken, the fossils are left in situ and incorporated into the public tourism area.   The only fossils removed from the excavated area in future will be ones of specially important scientific value.

Sivathere jaw (  an extinct group of long-horned, short-necked giraffids )

Fossils finds at this area include the African bear, an extinct seal and four extinct penguin species.   Other large mammals include sabre-toothed cats, two kinds of elephant, ancestors of the white rhino, wildebeest and giraffe, three-toed horses and antelope.

Links:  Wild Pigs / Aardvarks / Giraffes and Bovids / Hyenas / Hippos / Birds / Hipparion or Three-Toed Horse / Elephants / Micromammals / Antelope

In addition over 20 marine invertebrats are recorded, along with land-dwelling insects and snails, fish, frogs, reptiles, 85 bird species, etc.

Some of the snails

Under the new Park administration excavation resumed at Hendey’s site in 2008.   Three experienced excavators participated, namely Deano Stynder (Iziko SA Museum), Lloyd Rossouw (Bloemfontein National Museum), and Pippa Haarhoff (West Coast Fossil Park). We had three volunteers sorting material under the supervision of Albrecht Manegold (Forschung Institute, Germany).
The work focussed on an area in the LQSM sediments which lay between Hendeys MPPM witness sections, and an area of one-and-a-half square meters was excavated.   Finds included bovid horn-cores and the remains of hyena? coprolites associated with large bones.   During the course of the excavation, Lloyd Rossouw took soil samples for phytolith analysis and this report has been published in the South African Journal of Science (2009, Volume 105).

The in situ fossils seen in the covered excavation area.    ( Photos:  Gaelyn Olmsted )

Close-ups showing how the individual bones are left supported on pillars of sediment.


Tourists at the site.


Although the focus of the Fossil Park is on the Tertiary, there is also a Quaternary archzaeological site within the park boundaries.  This is the Anyskop Blowout.   Archaeological materials were first discovered in the late 1970s atop a prominent hill called Anyskop, located about one kilometre south of the famous fossil beds of Langebaanweg.   In 2001 and 2002 a team of researchers from the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology of the University of Tübingen, Germany conducted extensive collections and detailed excavations of the archaeological sites atop Anyskop.   The archaeological remains collected here provide clear evidence that archaic and modern humans alike occupied this elevated setting during all of the South African archaeological periods, including the Earlier Stone Age (ESA), the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and the Later Stone Age (LSA).  The ESA at Anyskop is characterized by stone handaxes that are scattered across the landscape.  While these stone artefacts show no clear focus of human activities, they document the periodic use of this place by archaic humans about 500,000 years ago.  The MSA is marked by the more frequent occurrence of Still Bay bifacial tools and Howiesonspoort segments.  These types of stone tools were typically used by modern humans for hunting between 80,000 and 55,000 years ago.   At Anyskop, the LSA is characterised by numerous, small, microlithic stone tools that also show a focus on hunting activities between 8,000 and 1,000 years ago.   In addition, LSA hearths composed of burned stones show clear focal points of human activity where people camped and roasted food.