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A vital piece of prehistory in the middle of nowhere

Our planet never ceases to amaze us. There are places so special that they make any human being feel humbled and insignificant, and one of them is in Faiyum. It’s name: Wadi al-Hitan.

 

Nicholas Valdes

 

From a political-administrative perspective, El-Faiyum is one Egypt’s 27 governorates, located in the north of the country.

This area boasts the only oasis that wasn’t created by water flowing from the ground, but rather from a long canal naturally formed by flooding from the river Nile. This canal dates from Biblical times and is called the Bahr Youseff, or Joseph’s canal. It extends from the Nile to the great lake at Birket Qarun.

But even more impressive is the protected zone of Wadi al-Hitan (Whale Valley), declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

In this remote area, almost 60km into the Western Desert (itself in the Sahara) we find the best-preserved fossilised skeletons of extinct whales in the world.

During the Palaeogene period of the geologic time scale, there was the Eocene period; an era which began some 56 million years ago and ended around 34 million years ago.

In this period, which lasted around 22 million years, a considerable part of what is today known as Egypt was under the sea, forming part of the ocean.

According to experts, at that time the area of Wadi al-Hitan was very rich in food and was therefore, for hundreds of thousands of years, a favourable environment for some of the period’s largest and most common cetaceans, such as the basilosaurus and the dorudon.

However, during the Eocene era there were some of the fastest and most extreme instances of global warming ever recorded in geological history, known as the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum.

This was an episode of rapid and intense warming of up to seven degrees centigrade, which lasted less than a hundred thousand years. The thermal maximum caused mass extinction, and consequently what was once an ocean was transformed into the imposing desert we know today, leaving thousands of marine creatures buried for millions of years.

And so today in Whale Valley —deep within the confines of the Sahara— there is a collection of, to date, 379 fossils of basilosaurus, dorudons, crustaceans, and other marine species, both animal and vegetable, as well as petrified mangroves from the same era. And all in the open, beneath the scorching desert sun.

And as if that were not enough, it is not only the best preserved collection from this geological period, but also the largest, as palaeontologists from various regions around the world continue their excavation works in the vast area (with a radius of tens of kilometres) and continue finding fossils in an excellent state of conservation.

These paleontological remains represent one of the main records of the history of the evolution of the species: the transformation experienced by whales from being land animals to aquatic creatures.

The Valley is the most important site in the world to demonstrate such an evolutionary process.

Wadi al-Hitan precisely portrays the life forms of these mammals during their evolution. The number, concentration and quality of the fossils are unmatched. The remains show the prehistoric cetaceans losing their rear limbs and adopting the hydrodynamic bodies of modern whales.

At the same time, they present primitive aspects of bone structure; whilst other fossilised materials found in the area allow the environment and ecological conditions of the Eocene era to be reconstructed.

In short, Wadi al-Hitan is a unique treasure, a vital piece of prehistory in the middle of nowhere, an ocean in the middle of the desert. (PL)

(Translated by Rebecca Ndhlovu – Email: rebeccandhlovu@hotmail.co.uk) – Photos: Pixabay

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