By Mustafa J. Salem, Geology Department, University of Tripoli.
Tripoli, 5 April 2o13:
Background, objectives and achievements
In the early days of the 20th century, naturalists and . . .[restrict]archaeologists were able to move freely from between countries for research purposes. They could go to the field, collect samples and take them back to their home countries for further study. These valuable samples would then be deposited in the museums and university collections of those countries.
In many instances there were no laws prohibiting them from doing so or requiring them to return items on completion of research. Under this flexible system a tremendous amount of work was carried out in North Africa. Many samples relating to its natural and archeological heritage were thus taken to museums, university collections and scientific institutions to become part of their collections and are now seen around the world.
Today, the rules are different. Most countries require scientific specimens be kept within the country of origin and, if exported, are on temporary loan for a limited period and under tight restrictions. These restrictions have forced scientists to seek other ways to conduct their research in foreign countries without breaking the laws of such countries.
One way is a joint collaboration project where researchers from one country collaborate with scientists or academics in the country where the search is being done. These joint venture research projects when properly designed have benefits for both parties while providing complete protection of the country’s natural and archaeological heritage.
Franco-Libyan Project – “Mission Paléontologique Franco-Libyenne”
The MPFL programme (Mission Paléontologique Franco-Libyenne) is covered by a research agreement between the University of Poitiers in France and the Geology Department of the University of Tripoli. The project is entitled “In Libya, from the early Anthropoids to the first Hominids: Taxonomy, Phylogenetic Relationships and Palaeoenvironments”. The Agreement was signed in Tripoli in late 2004 by the President of the University of Tripoli and Professor Michel Brunet representing the University of Poitiers, and research has been ongoing since early 2005. Currently this MPFL project includes over 20 researchers and students (sedimentologists, field geologists and palaeontologists), mostly from France and Libya, but also from the United States, Germany and Thailand.
The International Field Work Team includes Libyan scientists from the Faculty of Science at the University of Tripoli who contribute their expertise in field geology and sedimentology as well as graduate students who are training in field geology and palaeontology.
Over the past nine years since the project began, several organizations, research firms and companies have backed it, either financially or with logistical support.
So far 11 field trips to the Libyan Desert have been completed, totaling more than 150 days in the desert and covering various parts of Libya.
Numerous fossil bones, teeth and jaws of aquatic and land vertebrates have been discovered, excavated, prepared, catalogued and deposited in the collections of the Geology Department of the University of Tripoli. They consist mostly of remains of crocodiles and semi-aquatic primitive proboscideans (elephants) such as Moeritherium, Numidotherium and the giant primitive elephant Barytherium grave. This exceptional fossil collection documents the early stages of evolution of proboscideans (of which elephants are the only surviving family).
In addition to the large fossils that were collected, systematic prospecting was conducted for small mammals (micro-mammals) such as rodents and early primates, which were not previously known from these deposits. Detailed examination and study of these fossils from some extraordinary new fossil sites in Libya has now shown that in the middle Eocene, 39-37 million years ago, there was a surprising diversity of anthropoids living in Africa, whereas few if any anthropoids are known from Africa before this time.
Palaeontologists suggest that it is more likely that several anthropoid species “colonised” Africa from another continent 39-37 million years ago – the middle of the Eocene epoch. Since diversification would have occurred over extreme lengths of time and would likely leave fossil evidence, the new fossils, combined with previous sampling in North Africa, has led the project’s experts to surmise an Asian origin for anthropoids.
These positive results have encouraged the project team to extend their work to include younger (Oligocene) and older (early Eocene) deposits.
In January 2013, the team concluded a two-week expedition to Oligocene deposits in the area near Zallah. Deposits that represent old coastline and tropical forests were found to contain interesting faunas that include crocodiles, turtles and various land creatures. Among these creatures is the oldest African carnivore yet discovered, an early relative of today’s lions, jackals and hyenas. More importantly the team has discovered evidence of anthropoids – the first to be discovered from the Oligocene epoch in Libya.
While the team is analyzing the results of last January’s expedition, it is planning further expeditions to confirm the existence of anthropoids during Oligocene and to seek more information about the anthropoids at Eocene times in a variety of sites in central and southern Libya. Meanwhile plans for further expeditions to search for the first evidence of hominid fossils in Libya are also under consideration.
New scientists are being trained; two PhD students have recently graduated and a third will graduate within the next few months. More candidates are being sought for postgraduate study in geology and palaeontology with interesting projects awaiting them.