Zimbabwe: Africa’s oldest dinosaur might have been… American

By Damien Glez
Posted on Tuesday, 6 September 2022 09:27

Cartoon by Glez

Scientists have just announced the discovery of the skeleton of the oldest dinosaur in Africa, in the Zimbabwean district of Mbire. The remains seem to confirm the theory of continental drift.

It is about a metre high, weighs 30kg, has a long tail and a rather small head. The animal, whose skeleton has just been discovered in Zimbabwe by an international team of palaeontologists, could be mistaken for an ordinary lizard.

However, even though it is smaller than the giant long-necked dinosaurs that were to be its descendants, Mbiresaurus raathi is indeed a creature that dates back to that distant era when the very first mammals appeared. It ran on two legs, about 230 million years ago.

Although the skeleton – almost complete, which is rare – was found during expeditions in 2017 and 2019, the team of researchers from Zimbabwe, Zambia and the US only published their results in the prestigious scientific journal Nature on 31 August.

Belonging to the sauropodomorph species, the “Rhodesian” dinosaur is presented as the oldest known dinosaur fossil on the continent. The animal was probably an omnivore that fed on plants, small animals and insects.

Connected continents

Its name, ‘Mbiresaurus raathi’, is a double tribute to the Mbire district of northeastern Zimbabwe – where the skeleton was found – and to palaeontologist Michael Raath, the first researcher to report fossils from that part of the world. The discovered specimen has joined others at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Yale University scientist Christopher Griffin unearthed the first bone from this skeleton, a femur. He began digging in Zimbabwe based on the theory that all the present continents once formed a single landmass called Pangea. He calculated that ancient Zimbabwe was likely to have been positioned at the same latitude as modern South America at that time. Furthermore, dinosaur remains from the same period and with the same characteristics as Mbiresaurus raathi were found in Brazil and Argentina.

Human migration would have been much simpler during the supercontinent era, when Africa, South America and Europe were joined. But today’s man, had he been present, would certainly have invented a wall…

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