Discovery of the cavesThe first of the limestone caves had been discovered in 1849 and by the turn of the century, they were a popular tourist attraction. The bed of limestone underlying the red glowing soil, the Terra Rossa, of the famous Coonawarra vineyards, had been eroded by ground water into a series of magnificent caves.
As Dr Wells crawled into the cave space, his heart rate increased as he surveyed the mass of boines lying there. He described it as being like a modern day Carter opening up Tutankhamen’s tomb. He knew instinctively that he had found his life’s work.
Since that day in1969, fossils of almost 100 species have been found, dating back 300,000 years with one third of them now extinct, one third living in other Australian areas and the final third still to be found locally. Some of the extinct creatures have been painstakingly recreated by model makers from the research carried out in the caves. Many of the fossils found are of megafauna; giant kangaroos (procoptodon goliah) almost nine feet tall; a constricting snake (wonambi naracoortensis) up to six metres long; the largest marsupial to ever live (diprotodon australis) weighing two tonnes and a six metres long goanna (megalania prisca). Other creatures have no modern day equivalents; a marsupial lion (thylacoleo carniflex) and a hippopotamus like creature, (zygomaturus trilobus) which shoveled up clumps of grasses with its front incisors.
In the Wonambi Fossil centre, opened in 1998, visitors can view the reconstructions of these strange creatures and learn something of their lifestyle. The model-makers have taken great care to accurately depict their appearance as well as setting them in surroundings replicating conditions 200,000 years ago.
On-going research suggests that even earlier fossil finds may be made, building up a picture of a land undergoing massive climatic changes and the effects it would have on the creatures alive at that time. Details, too, of the flora in existence then have been discovered, giving clues to the diet of the animals.
Today, other fossil sites have been found in other parts of South Australia as well as in north-west Queensland, where another Australian Heritage Site has been set up.
Further research by Professor Wells’ department at Flinders University, Adelaide, into Aboriginal Dreamtime stories has found links between the creatures depicted therein and the fossil creatures at Naracoorte. Descriptions of encounters with megafauna in the tales have been corroborated by the dating of the fossils found there and elsewhere in Australia.
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