Palaeobotanical studies from tropical Africa: relevance to the evolution of forest, woodland and savannah biomes

Bonnie F. Jacobs

Abstract

Fossil plants provide data on climate, community composition and structure, all of which are relevant to the definition and recognition of biomes. Macrofossils reflect local vegetation, whereas pollen assemblages sample a larger area. The earliest solid evidence for angiosperm tropical rainforest in Africa is based primarily on Late Eocene to Late Oligocene (ca. 39–26 Myr ago) pollen assemblages from Cameroon, which are rich in forest families. Plant macrofossil assemblages from elsewhere in interior Africa for this time interval are rare, but new work at Chilga in the northwestern Ethiopian Highlands documents forest communities at 28 Myr ago. Initial results indicate botanical affinities with lowland West African forest. The earliest known woodland community in tropical Africa is dated at 46 Myr ago in northern Tanzania, as documented by leaves and fruits from lake deposits. The community around the lake was dominated by caesalpinioid legumes, but included Acacia, for which this, to my knowledge, is the earliest record. This community is structurally similar to modern miombo, although it is different at the generic level. The grass–dominated savannah biome began to expand in the Middle Miocene (16 Myr ago), and became widespread in the Late Miocene (ca. 8 Myr ago), as documented by pollen and carbon isotopes from both West and East Africa.