WEST COAST ELEPHANT SHOT BY CAPE HUNTING PARTY
Probably Sometime in the 1600 or 1700’s.
Either a band of sailors from the garrison at the Cape on a fresh meat hunting party from their ship moored in the Langebaan Lagoon while loading replenishments for the garrison, or were they hunters from the farm station at Geelbeksfontein, now known simply as Geelbek at the southern end of the lagoon? You decide!
Today, a temporarily exposed fossil bed in the Geelbek Dunes near Duinepos. (Note that in that year, the dunes had not yet covered this site, so the landscape was probably more similar to how it is outside the dunes today.)
After landing at the Cape of Good Hope in Table Bay in 1652, Jan van Riebeeck wasted no time in starting a replenishment station there in order to provision the large numbers of ships that rounded the Cape. Small bands of men were dispatched from the Cape in boats and small ships to create and manage farms in suitably nearby places. It did not take them long to populate the safe haven of Saldanha Bay, with its lagoon extending southwards, providing safe mooring and easy access to the hinterland. In March 1657, sailors plucked down from 700 Cape gannets to fill cushions and feather beds at the newly established colony. Later, about 10,000 salted fish were shipped every month from the lagoon to the Cape of Good Hope to be consumed by the slaves while building the castle and other Company buildings. Guano was found in abundance and collected from the islands for transport to, and use in the new Company gardens in the Cape.
Ever since the small military postal fort at Oudepost I was built in 1666 on the Postberg Peninsula (remains of which are still in evidence today), elephants had harassed the visiting sailors and the defenders of the fort. In fact, written records from 1708 show that one of the Oudepost I staff was killed by an elephant at Geelbeksfontein, which still stands in its renovated state today as the West Coast National Park’s Eco-education Centre, Visitor Information Centre and Restaurant.
The Geelbek dunes near Duinepos are a series of migrating sand dunes, which originated in the Yzerfontein area about six thousand years ago when the sea was about 2-3 m higher than it is today. Prevailing winds in the region are from the dry southeast in summer, with a wetter opposite northwesterly wind in winter. This wind transports the dry sand up the side of the dune and over the top to slide down the slip face, thereby slowly, but surely, moving the whole dune forwards. After computing the difference between the travel resultant from the southeaster, minus the travel from the northwester, the net result is that the dunes presently move approximately 8.5m per year in a northwardly direction up the coastal corridor. This means that in the dune field, the underlying calcrete rock formations are being exposed behind each dune as it moves along, uncovering evidence that had previously lain buried. . Various mineralized fossils have been detected lying on the 65,000+ year old calcrete deposits exposed by the wind-blown dunes, including the remains of the now extinct Cape Zebra, Giant Cape Buffalo and Giant Hartebeest, as well as the modern day Black Rhinoceros.
Imagine the surprise of the archeologists from the University of Tübingen when they first found a freshly exposed collection of unfossilised modern elephant bones in one of the depressions known as “Toaster” behind a mobile dune in the middle of the Geelbek Dunes back in 2002. Imagine how complete their surprise must have been when they discovered 9 musket balls in the immediate area, created by the original old method of pouring molten lead into water, resulting in misshapen ovoid lead balls. It is estimated that this method of making lead shot was discontinued at the end of the 18th century in favour of metal molds, placing the elephant shooting somewhere before the early to middle 1700’s. The hunters must have spent some time cutting up and packaging the meat in preparation for their journey back to the Cape, most likely leaving the rest to the local population of Khoisan, which is evidenced by a number of recently exposed fireplaces around the carcass remains where they obviously gorged themselves on this generous supply of fresh meat.
Today, as a result of weathering and the activities of scavengers during periods of exposure, many of the carcass bones have disappeared or been reduced to splinters, leaving many fairly large fragments of ribs, some foot bones and bits of skull scattered over an area roughly 20m square. Their presence today is due only to having been buried for most of the period by the dunes, and is probably the sole surviving hard evidence that elephants were present on the West Coast in van Riebeeck’s time, apart from the written record. No evidence of tusks was found on the scene, leading experts to believe that these were removed for transportation back to the Cape. Examination of dental evidence and bone morphology fix the elephant as an adolescent specimen, which would have had only smallish tusks. The remains of the skull, the majority of the body and the musket balls found, are today being studied at the Iziko-South African Museum in Cape Town.
What other surprises lie in wait under the Geelbek Dunes?
· Archeologist, Andrew Kandel from the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, University of Tübingen, Germany, based on his Team’s research and discoveries over the last 8 years in the Geelbek Dunes.
· The Geelbek History website.
· An article by the Treasurer of the West Coast SANParks Honorary Rangers, written after our first dune tour with Andrew on 04 February 2006.
· Notes taken from the second dune tour with Andrew on 10 June 2006 by WestCoaster, also an Honorary Ranger.
Almost everything comes from almost nothing.
Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881)
Philosopher and writer