The Cradle Of Humankind
One of Africa’s great treasures is The Cradle of Humankin’ – home to our ancient ancestors and a place that links us to our origins.
The Cradle of Humankind is a 47 000ha site northwest of Johannesburg, which has yielded such a rich wealth of human ancestor fossils, it has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), indicating its significance to all people of the world.
The scientific evidence unearthed in this location strongly suggests this is where the ancestors of mankind first stood erect, going on to evolve into what we know as modern humans. The area, as the birthplace of modern man, was thus named the Cradle of Humankind. Large amounts of stone tools also found here, give clues as to how our ancestors mastered the tasks of hammering, crushing and cutting.
The Cradle’s fossil finds number over 1 000 and have been excavated from some 13 sites. Particularly famed are the limestone caverns of the Sterkfontein Caves, where two finds, affectionately dubbed ‘Mrs Ples’ and ‘Little Foot’ have vastly enriched our knowledge of our origins.
‘Mrs Ples’ is the most complete skull ever found of the species Australopithecus africanus, thought to be a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, or humans. Identified by scientist Robert Broome, the fossil is over 2 million years old. Despite some debate on its gender, the ‘Mrs’ seems to stick. ‘Little Foot’, found more recently by palaeontologist Ron Clarke, is now fully excavated and is a near-complete skeleton of a male, possibly belonging to a species named Australopithecus prometheus. The skeleton is estimated to be 3 to 4 million years old. Scientists believe he was smaller than most modern humans, with a smaller brain. He walked upright but had powerful hands and a slightly divergent big toe, making him adept at climbing. He slept in trees at night, out of the way of predators, such as sabre-toothed cats and hunting hyenas that were prevalent at the time. His death, they hypothesise, was caused by a fall into a covered cave some 10m deep.
More recently in 2010, Wits University’s Lee Berger discovered Australopithecus sediba at another Cradle site called Malapa. To great excitement, Berger displayed two skeletons – one of a young boy and the other a female adult – at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town; at Maropeng, the official visitor centre in the Cradle, and at Origins Centre on the campus of Wits University. Since then, he has identified a total of six individuals from Malapa, and the work of his team on various aspects of these finds has been hailed worldwide.
A tour deep into the bowels of the Sterkfontein Caves is thus a highlight of a visit to the Cradle. The tunnels are narrow in places and require some belly-crawling, but the experience is well worth any temporary discomfort. At the end of the tour, the visitor comes across bronze busts of Broome, and another famous South African who has done much to further palaeo-anthopology, Phillip Tobias. Ahead of the tour, there’s an introductory exhibition that provides intriguing information on cave formation and geology and the evolution of early life forms – both animal and human. Most of the other ‘digs’ in the Cradle are closed to the public, but tours led by specialist palaeontologists can be undertaken at Drimolen and Swartkrans. Maropeng staff can provide information on a programme of walking tours at Swartkrans.
Built in the form of a tumulus, Maropeng is reminiscent of a burial mound and all that waits to be discovered beneath it. It holds a high-tech exhibition, much loved by children, which begins with an underground boat ride back through time, tracing stages in the earth’s creation. It includes displays on the ‘big bang’ and the formation of the continents; our path to humanity and what makes us human, and the Earth’s sustainability. It looks at a multitude of subjects in easily digestible forms – evolution, DNA, diversity and extinction, the human brain, bipedalism, tool making, communication, alternative energy and the ecological footprint. The centre places much emphasis on education, and is a popular venue for school groups.
Those spending a day in the Cradle can buy a joint ticket for both the Maropeng exhibition and Sterkfontein. There are restaurants at both facilities, as well as the four-star, boutique-style Maropeng Hotel for those who’d like to spend more time imbibing the peaceful atmosphere of the location. The impressive scenery, set by a backdrop of the Magaliesberg and Witwaterberg ranges, matches the import of the Cradle itself. Contact +27 (0)14 577 9000 or visit www.maropeng.co.za.
In fact, there’s much to recommend the destination for a short stay, as the area contains multiple family-orientated attractions such as the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve with its fascinating Wonder Cave, art galleries and craft workshops. Activities such as hot-air ballooning, fly fishing, cycling and micro-lighting can be pursued here. Some fine dining is also on offer – the Roots restaurant at Forum Homini, a boutique hotel that takes its theme from its location in the birthplace of man, claims a top spot when it comes to country eating experiences.
In 2006 the area of the designated World Heritage Site was extended to include Taung in the North West Province, some 350km west of Sterkfontein. It was here that yet another renowned South African fossil, the Taung Child, was uncovered in 1924 at a limestone quarry. The fossil consisting of the skull of an infant, is not kept at Taung, but is held by Wits University. To commemorate the find, however, a plinth was erected at the Taung Heritage Site overlooking the old village that served the quarry. There are plans to construct a small exhibition here. The site is scenic, with streams of water falling from the limestone cliffs into some spectacularly blue pools, simply named Blue Pools, and is a popular spot for picnics.
Origins Centre, one of a new generation of South African museums, is located on the premises of the University of Witwatersrand. It too contains a section on human evolution with casts of significant fossil finds, found both in South Africa and the continent at large. The museum sets out to show how all that makes man modern – art, symbolism and technology – originated in Africa.
On the subject of art, the Origins Centre journey follows one of the world’s oldest continuous art forms, the tradition of rock painting and engraving. It delves into the history, culture and demise of the people who created it, in the main the ancient San. It takes roughly 90 minutes to go through the museum in full, best done with the aid of an audio tour with entertaining and informative commentary. There’s a book and gift shop on site, and a restaurant serving coffees and light meals. Contact +27 (0)11 717 4700 or visit www.origins.org.za.
OTHER PLACES TO SEE FOSSILS IN AFRICA
Other important palaeontological sites in Africa that hold UNESCO World Heritage status are found along the continent’s Great Rift Valley. Two of these are located in remote parts of Ethiopia, namely the Lower Valley of the Awash and the Lower Valley of the Omo. These are not yet developed to the point where visitors can visit with ease.
Further south in northern Tanzania is Olduvai Gorge in the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, known for the discoveries of Louis and Mary Leakey. In its layers of volcanic ash the ‘Laetoli footprints’ are evidence of our early ancestors walking upright. There is a small interpretation centre at the gorge explaining the process of evolution to visitors.
The National Museums of Kenya holds a vast collection of fossil specimens ranging in age from 28 million years to several thousand. Its flagship, the Nairobi National Museum, displays a good selection.
Image by: Darling Lama Productions