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The African Buffalo and in particular the Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is one of Africa’s most impressive mammals, with its heavy ox-like features, massive body and stout limbs. But there also exist evidence for an extinct lineage of larger, long-horned buffaloes that lived on the continent of Africa thousands of years ago during geological time periods known as the Pleistocene and the Holocene Epochs (which is a lo-o-ong time ago).
A Few Million Years In A Nutshell
The last 24 million years or so of earth history is called the Neogene Period, which is an episode when important topographic features of our modern world assumed the forms we are familiar with today. The Pleistocene is one of four units (known as epochs), of geological time within the Neogene that preceded the present, or Recent Epoch, known as the Holocene:
Epoch Duration (years ago)
Holocene 10 000 to Present
Pleistocene 1 800 000 to 10 000
A Bone To Pick
The oldest known discovery of long-horned buffalo remains to be scientifically recorded, occurred in the Free State. This happened in 1839, when Mr. Martin Smith pulled fossilized horn cores from alluvial sediments of the Modder River. The discovery of course proved that there is much more to the Free State than just mielies, vlaktes and oulike asters. Greatly appreciating the significance of the discovery, the naturalist Andrew Geddes Bain, persuaded (a probably befuddled) Mr Smith to inform the Geological Society of London about the find. The specimen was presented to the Society in that same year, through a letter communicated by none other than Charles Darwin, the gentleman who (as most of you probably know) went ape over the notion of natural selection and as a result would later become famous for his pivotal study on the theory of evolution. In any case, after ending up at the South African Museum in Cape Town, the fossil specimen was seen by an English palaeontologist named Seeley, who gave a brief description of the skull and described it in 1891 under the name Bubalus bainii, thus honoring the perceptive Mr. Bain.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Nowadays (to make a long story short) the extinct giant long-horned buffalo belongs to one species, Pelorovis antiquus, which includes Bubalus bainii, with the Cape Buffalo as its closest living relative. However, since palaeontologists can be quite mulish when personal opinions come into play, the ongoing debate about its systematic affiliation has resulted in different schools of thought regarding the hylogenetic history of the animal. In a bizarre twist of semantics, the generic name Pelorovis is derived from the ancient Greek word “peleron”, meaning monster and the Latin word “ovis” meaning sheep; hence providing us with a wonderfully entertaining image of monster sheep roaming the veld, terrorizing plant life and bullying hairy-back blokes in loincloths.
The living African Buffalo. Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) males can weigh up to 800 kg.
Size Does Count
Compared to a maximum of 1.4 m horn span in the Cape Buffalo, the horns of the long-horned buffalo were a striking sight, spanning up to 3 m or more, from tip to tip. A set of horns like that on your bakkie’s bullbar will probably make you look cool (if not important) and may even bring you closer to a more successful mating strategy (in the Northern Province, anyway).
The extinct Giant long-horned buffalo, Pelorovis antiquus. (Illustrated by E. Esterhuizen)
Besides being curved like a bow, the horn cores of the long-horned buffalo also differs from the living buffalo by being less dorso-ventrally compressed and lacking basal bosses (morphological variation in horn cores is important to palaeontologists since it is generally the bony core and not the horn sheath that is preserved post-depositionally). However, the overall morphology of the appendicular skeleton of the long-horned buffalo is very similar to that of the Cape Buffalo and the minor differences that do exist can be attributed to the larger size and the ecological niche of the giant buffalo. Of interest is the proportionately longer metapodials (the singular long bone between the wrist and the phalanges in the front limb and the ankle and toes in the hind limb) of the long-horned buffalo. The lengthening of the metapodials suggests that the long-horned buffalo were probably more cursorial (having limbs adapted for more effective running) than the living buffalo. It also appears likely that the long-horned buffalo was more at home in open settings. A combination of anatomical features such as the exceptionally long horns, relatively high crowned teeth (adapted for grazing to counter the abrasive effects of silica in grasses) and proportionately long metapodials, suggest a preference for relatively open, grassy environments.
Ex Africa Semper Aliquod Novi Afert
While the distribution of the living African buffalo seems to have been exclusively sub-Saharan, the long-horned buffalo occurred in southern, eastern and northern Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean coast. In South Africa the long-horned buffalo is known from various fossil sites ranging between 1 million and 10 000 years in age. In North Africa however, dated fossil remains and numerous rock art depictions indicate that the long-horned buffalo disappeared there much later, between 4 000 and 3 000 years ago. It also tells us that the ancient people of North Africa acted like paparazzi around the long-horned buffalo. Back in South Africa, the abrupt disappearance of the long-horned buffalo from the palaeontological record 10 000 years ago concur with a dramatic megafaunal extinction event at the end of the Pleistocene.
Now You See Me, Now You Don’t
Widespread extinctions in southern Africa of several Pleistocene bovids, (antelope and buffalo) including the long-horned buffalo coincided with large-scale climatic and environmental changes towards the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Some have argued that more efficient tools of Later Stone Age hunters may have been instrumental in the demise of these animals. However, it seems more likely that the relatively rapid environmental changes such as upward shifts in mean temperatures, alteration of weather patterns and transgression of sea levels led to marked changes in vegetation and rainfall patterns at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, which may have been important contributing factors in the disappearance of the long-horned buffalo along with other large mammals in southern Africa.
Suggested Reading Gautier, A. & Muzzolini, A. 1991. The life and times of the giant buffalo alias Bubalus / Homoioceras / Pelorovis antiquus in North Africa. Archaeozoologia 4(1): 39 – 92. Gentry, A. 1978. Bovidae. In: Maglio, V.J. & Cooke, H.B.S. eds. Evolution of African Mammals. 540 – 577. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Klein, R. G. 1980. Environmental and ecological implications of large mammals from Upper Pleistocene and Holocene sites in Southern Africa. Annals of the South African Museum 81(7): 223 – 283. Peters, J. et. al. 1994. Late Quaternary extinction of ungulates in Sub-Saharan Africa: a reductionist approach. Quaternary Research