DISCOVER Magazine #6

The man from Mammoth Beach

Published in category: Heritage & Culture
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“We probably won’t find any big fossils today,” Walter Langendoen explains, pointing out the footprints of fossil hunters weaving up and down the Maasvlakte beach in Holland, plus the occasional evidence of upturned driftwood. In the distance a couple intensely scours the sand at low tide. Yet, despite the increased competition, Mr Langendoen seems quite pleased by the turnout. After all, this growing phenomenon is largely the result of his infectious enthusiasm.

In 2012, after the opening of the new North Sea beach at Maasvlakte 2, Mr Langendoen’s childhood fascination for fossils was reawakened. While strolling over the sand, a darkenedfragment of ancient bone caught his attention. The chance discovery was one of the enormous number of North Sea fossils among the dredge spoil discharged over several years of civil engineering construction.

The fossil bug had bitten. At the time Mr Langendoen was the owner of a shop in a nearby village, so he took to the beach before and after work, spending hours a day foraging for fossils and returning with an ever greater collection of objects. But what exactly were these fragments of bone?

Advancing science

Curious to learn more, he approached the scientific community, including the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Among the fossils, paleontologists identified wooly mammoth molars, giant Irish elk antlers, squirrel jaws and sabre-tooth tiger bones from the last Ice Age.

“Fishermen still net the impressive big bones, complete jaws and skulls in the North Sea, but what they don’t find are the small fossils, which are actually often more important for scientists. For example, the fossilised hyena droppings, officially called coprolites, tell us a lot about the landmass that connected the UK with the Netherlands until less than 10,000 years ago.
Because of the hyena’s diet, the droppings are high in calcium and they fossilised. By analysing these droppings, scientists can not only better understand how the animals lived, but also how the plants grew and even how the climate changed.”

Sharing discoveries

Although he wasn’t the first fossil hunter at Maasvlakte, Mr Langendoen’s curiosity and passion for paleontology and archaeology have increasingly brought the world of fossils to the general public’s attention. His finds have featured on Dutch television and in newspapers, exhibitions in museums across the Netherlands and Belgium, schools and permanent displays at the FutureLand information centre and HistoryLand Hellevoetsluis.

“When I find something unusual, I put it on my Facebook page [maasvlakte.strandvondsten], which has almost a thousand followers, including experts from around the world. From the huge number of photos there, researchers can find specific fossils and then request them. I also organise excursions to take the public to the beach and show them how to find fossils. More than a thousand people have taken part so far. The more experience you have, the easier it is to quickly recognise what is a fossil and what is just a stone or driftwood. Sometimes just small black tips sticking above the sand can turn out to be the roots of a big mammoth molar under the sand. You can always find something new.”

The greatest find

One of his most important finds was a skull fragment from a Stone Age Homo sapiens, the first definitive proof that humans lived between the UK and the Netherlands 10,000 years ago.

“I think there’s a good chance that Neanderthals also lived there, around 50,000 years ago. That would be a great find. But really, the best finds are things that I can’t immediately identify. It could be a new animal or new archeological evidence. Sometimes it’s the very small fossils that I find on my hands and knees. Those are the ones I take with me and try to find out what they are. If they’re new to science, that’s very rewarding. I don’t see it as my own collection. These fossils and artifacts belong to science.”

Going on board dredgers would help me better understand the fossils’ route from seabed to beach.

Moving Fossils

Constructing Maasvlakte 2, a huge 2,000 hectare extension of the Port of Rotterdam, required an enormous amount of sand – approximately 365 million m³. Most of this sand came from dredging carefully selected areas of the North Sea seabed, including the deepwater ‘Eurogeul’ shipping route. By dredging up to a maximum depth of 20 metres, the PUMA construction venture avoided disturbing large sections, but they also reached deeper into the seabed’s history and brought its hidden Stone Age fossils to the surface – the wooly mammoth bones and other fossils found today on the new Maasvlakte Beach.

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