Ricardo in Africa

Ricardo is a graduate student in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College. In summer 2011, he traveled with researchers to Mozambique in southeastern Africa to collect vertebrate fossils. A recipient of the prestigious Fulbright fellowship, Ricardo also conducted research during summer 2010 in Angola and Mozambique.

The philosophy of adventure

It was with great disappointment that I read the first paragraph of Darwin’s report on the voyage of the Beagle:

“After having been twice driven back by heavy south-western gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under captain King in 1826 to 1830 – to survey the shores of Chile, Peru and some islands in the Pacific – and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the World.”

My disappointment gets bigger when I read further on … a mere compilation of factual descriptions of places and species collected, and random notes of the natural history of the places the Beagle cruised. What was I expecting, then? Ideas and fears anticipating a long trip? Thoughts about von Humboldt and other South American sailors and explorers? Literary descriptions of luxurious forests and rare colorful birds using unusual adjectives? No, Darwin was concise, dry and objective. It is simply impossible to understand what Darwin was feeling before and during his trip. He played the role of an observer determined to register, otherwise unnoticed, details about Nature.

The unexpected beginning of Darwin’s journal gave me a great deal to think about. Darwin’s role and expectations were not to write a romance. Instead, he had a MISSION. The mission of accompanying Captain Fitz Roy to South America and report on its Natural History. Simple. This spirit of mission serves a greater goal than his own existence, perhaps, his own commiseration.

The idea of individual is diluted when ahead of us there is the entire coast of South America to cartograph. There is no time and energy for self-contemplation, for ambiguous feelings, for metaphysical considerations of the Faust paradox of life, for Cartesian dualities between thought and existence, and all that nauseating bogus…

Mission is an action that transcends individuality; goes beyond people and events and politics. A mission serves a common goal in which the individual is crucial in its development, but he cannot grasp its repercussions. It is true that Einstein derived the equations of Relativity Theory, but he did not anticipate that that knowledge is the physics base allowing laser surgeries to our myopic eyes? Just like the ACTION of Einstein ended up serving a grand common goal beyond his own frivolous and – most certainly – idiosyncratic, condition as a human; also Darwin’s factual and dry observations about the South American flora and fauna served the common grand goal beyond his fears and thoughts before embarking in the Beagle. More people benefit of observations of South American flora, than understanding Darwin’s feelings on the windy night before embarking.

And all of a sudden, the car breaks down … we are at the southernmost tip of Mozambique near Zululand, and to go back to the closest town, we have to go over several kilometers of bad road and cross the Maputo River by boat. The old 300,000-km Nissan pickup can still wobble some miles, but the car driver insists it is not going to make it. When you are out adventuring, you just wish to be safe at home … someone said.

We inspect the car up and down, we see the engine, and we inquisitively look at each other searching for answers. All we realize is what is already known: the unusual proclivity of the car is the indication something is not right. The majesty of the African skies quickly gives rise to the dark night, helplessly illuminated by the jeep lights… and we keep going… we keep going to the next adventure, but convinced it is just a means to something else!

Read about our research here.

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Following in heroes’ footsteps

Ricardo1.png “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 Seculo, 1902)

It is deplorable that the history of heroes is tragic: Joaquim Mouzinho de Almeida was an intrepid explorer of Mozambique who 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.

Ricardo2.png I am Portuguese. My hero is not Livingstone, who 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; we say Lake Niassa.

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 is now reduced to a country of 10 million in the Iberian Peninsula. That is not necessarily bad; it is just not inspiring. To know and value our history is a good excuse to make good (great!) things as well.

The PaleoAngola project does not have behind it the heroes who 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, who still form the core of the group, recognized the great potential for Vertebrate Paleontology along the Angolan coast. They are Louis Jacobs and Mike Polcyn from SMU, Octavio Mateus from Museu da Lourinha (Portugal) and Anne Schulp from Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht (The Netherlands).

The omnipresent figure of paleontology in Portugal, Miguel Telles Antunes, back in the 1960s 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, except for Antunes’ trips to the coast of Angola in 1961 and 1962, virtually no other vertebrate paleontologists had stepped on that country’s soil.

In 2005, on a diplomatic trip, Louis and Octavio travelled to Luanda and decided to visit one of the outcrops just out of curiosity … They 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! Given this success, there were subsequent trips in 2006 and 2007. In 2007 more than one ton of fossils was shipped.

Mike, Louis, Octavio and Anne did not fight against any tenacious tribal leader as Mouzinho de Almeida did, but with the same tenacity they peacefully unearthed how life looked like more than 65 million years ago in the South Atlantic, when Africa’s west coast and South America’s east coast were much closer, when dinosaurs could not even guess how much harm a meteorite could do. Would Caesar ever think that his troops could not hold the Roman Empire together? Would the King D. Joao V during the construction of the megalomaniac Convento de Mafra in Portugal ever anticipate the country’s economic 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 intentions were readily frustrated, given the British interests in the area. The “Pink Map,” as 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 C. and I, two new graduates from Portuguese universities, decided with our own pocket money and savings (and some support from Museu da Lourinha) to 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 Mozambique and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. However, that was not enough – our savings together were 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 (mammals’ common ancestors).

Ricardo3.png Niassa was shown to us in all its mystery and splendor. Our local guide, Luis M., fought against the colonial Portuguese to win the independence and right for self-determination of Mozambique; and our driver, Angelo M., has fought in 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 and heroes, honoring us with their help exploring the banks of the Lunho River in Niassa.

Luis M. is the brother of the highly influential witch Queen of Muchenga. One night after many frustrated days of slim findings, I asked him to pray for us. He said: “Amanha vamos andar bem,” which means “Tomorrow we will walk good.” The next day, we hit the jackpot.

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