In the valley of the whales, the fossils tell a story: one of evolution, of a species moving from land to sea over millennia. Egypt’s Wadi Al-Hitan, or Whale Valley, is among the most important archaeological sites in the world, containing invaluable fossil remains of the earliest suborder of whales, archaeoceti, at the stage in which they began to lose their hind limbs.
About 93 miles southwest of Cairo is a remote valley behind a mountain known as Garet Gohannam. Within this valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are hundreds of fossils of a now-extinct sub-order of whales that give us a glimpse at one of the biggest mysteries surrounding whale evolution.
These whales began their existence as land-based animals, and gradually evolved to become ocean-dwellers. Their fossils are lined up on the sand in between wind-sculpted rock formations in an eerie and dramatic landscape. There are a great number of them, and they’re highly preserved, so that even some stomach contents are intact.
The archaeoceti initially had five-fingered flippers on their forelimbs and hind-limbs with feet and toes, which disappeared over time. Most of the fossils at Wadi Al-Hitan were at the stage in which their hind limbs began to disappear. The whales had already begun to display the streamlined body shape associated with modern whales.
Very rarely visited by tourists because of its inaccessibility, Wadi Al-Hitan offers the unique opportunity to view ancient fossils in the environment from which they came. View more photos at UNESCO.
All images via Wikimedia Commons