terça-feira, junho 15, 2010

Following in heroes' footsteps

“The unhappy officer, the revered winner of Chaimite, the celebrated captor of Gungunhana, has just commited suicide” [translated from Portuguese: “O desditoso oficial, o chorado vencedor de Chaimite, o celebrado captor de Gungunhana, tinha acabado de se suicidar”] (Jornal O Século, 1902). It is a condemnation that the history of heroes is tragic: Joaquim Mouzinho de Almeida was an intrepid explorer of Mozambique that captured one of the most redoubtable tribal leaders that fought against Portuguese colonial forces. It will not be like Mouzinho de Almeida that we are going to Mozambique this year, but it is with the exact same spirit of mission and curiosity to understand something else about our own life by capturing a picture of what happened 250 million years ago.

I am Portuguese. My hero is not Livingstone that explored the region of the Great African Lakes; it is Serpa Pinto who honored the Lisbon Administration by going far East away from the Angolan Coast. Without him the Portuguese Overseas African Territory would be small, and, what is nowadays Angola would be only a thin strip of land along the coast. In my language we do not say Lake Malawi; Lake Niassa it is how it is called.

It is interesting that with such legacy the Portuguese people are irredeemably pessimistic and we do not value our national conquests. In the same way Mouzinho de Almeida has fallen into disgrace, what was once called the Portuguese Empire it is now reduced to a 10-million country in the Iberian Peninsula. That is not necessarily bad, it is just not inspiring. To know and value our History it is a good excuse to make good (great!) things as well.

The PaleoAngola project does not have behind the heroes that will write the pages of the History textbooks, but it certainly holds the dream of discovery, the passion of exploration, the fierceness of those who can envision beyond a cloudy sky. Initially a group of four people, that still form the hardcore of the group, acknowledged the great potential for Vertebrate Paleontology along the Angolan coast. They are Louis Jacobs and Mike Polcyn from SMU, Octávio Mateus from Museu da Lourinhã (Portugal) and Anne Schulp from Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht (The Netherlands). The omnipresent figure of Paleontology in Portugal, Miguel Telles Antunes, back in the 1960’s had done his PhD on vertebrate material collected from Cabinda (the northernmost Angolan Province) to Cunene (the southernmost river that limits the border with Namibia). Angola at that time was still part of the Portuguese Overseas Territory, whereas most African colonies were already independent. Antunes studies revealed, most importantly, new species of mosasaurs, a type of large marine lizards. However, for nearly half a century, nearly no new work was published. In fact, most of Antunes material was collected during the pioneering geological recognition campaigns in Angola. Thus, excepting in 1961 and 1962 Antunes trips to the coast of Angola, virtually no other vertebrate paleontologists had stepped that country’s soil.

In 2005 what was initially aimed to be a diplomatic trip, Louis Jacobs and Octávio Mateus, travelled to Luanda and decided to visit one of the outcrops just out of curiosity… They just found the first dinosaur from Angola, a new species of turtle and a complete skull of one of Antunes’ species. Not bad for a first try! Evidently giving this success there was subsequent trips in 2006 and 2007. In 2007 more than one ton of fossils were shipped.
Mike, Louis, Octávio, and Anne did not fought against any tenacious tribal leader as Mouzinho de Almeida, but with the same tenacity have just unearthed, pacifically, how life looked like more than 65 million years ago in the South Atlantic... when Africa west coast and South America east coast were much closer, when dinosaurs could not even guess how much a meteorite could harm. Would Caesar ever think that his troops could not hold the Roman Empire together? Would the King D. João V during the construction of the megalomaniac Convento de Mafra in Portugal could ever anticipate the country’s economical collapse? Life oscillates on Earth as did the Great Empires; mosasaurs and dinosaurs are now entombed.

The weight on my shoulders is heavy. The mission that has been appointed to me is to find, excavate and study the remains of marine creatures called plesiosaurs. Plesiosaurs resemble the mythological animal that patrols a lake in Scotland: the Loch Ness Monster.

The intentions of the Portuguese were hampered by the powerful British Empire. Once the Portuguese wished to link coast to coast in Africa (Mozambique to Angola), but those intents were readily frustrated given the British interests in the area. The “Pink Map”, how it was called, was then no more than a mirage. This year on my trip to Africa I will make the Pink Map come true, flying from Luanda to Maputo, linking them by the same paleontological endeavor. In 2009, Rui Castanhinha and I, two just-graduates from Portuguese universities have decided with our own pocket money and savings (and some support from Museu da Lourinhã) revisit a long-lost Mozambican fossil locality in the remote region of Niassa, right along Lake Malawi. After a lot of hand-shaking work and promises of a successful trip we got the administrative support from the Museu Nacional de Geologia de Moçambique and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. However, that was not enough, the money of our savings together was not even enough to rent a car for one day in Mozambique. On a desperate attempt we decided to call the Ministry of Transports who gave us a contact from an administrative agency from the Niassa Province who could probably support us logistically. We went to Niassa without any prospect that we could actually get to see the geological exposures… But, the Mozambican people demonstrated all their generosity when we came and our trip was a success. We found more than 10 localities with abundant fossil material to be salvaged and a nearly complete skeleton of a minute synapsid (mammal common ancestors). Niassa was shown to us in all its mystery and splendor. Our local guide, Luís Macuango, fought against the colonial Portuguese to conquer the independence and right for self-determination of Mozambique; and our driver, Ângelo Madrugas, has fought on the Mozambican Civil War that opposed the communist party Frelimo and the pro-colonialists Renamo when he was still a child. They formed two generations of warriors, after being themselves heroes, honored us with their help exploring the banks of the Lunho River in Niassa. Luís Macuango is the brother of the highly influential and witch Queen of Muchenga. One night after many frustrated days of slim findings I asked him to pray for us, he just said: “Amanhã vamos andar bem”, which means “Tomorrow we will walk good”. In the next day we hit the jackpot.

Pode tambem ver em Student Adventures.

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