Standing in a sea of swaying golden grass and scanning the gentle horizon of the land comprising the Cradle of Humankind, you might be surprised to learn of the trove that lies beneath its surface.
To the untrained eye, the rolling grasslands – broken only by the occasional thicket of bush and trees – might seem suitable for farming or perhaps mountain biking, but the seemingly innocuous terrain gives no indication of the true treasure beneath its surface. Head to one of those thickets, however, and if you’re lucky, the cool cave openings that host their roots will reveal fossil-dense creases and caverns.
The 47 000-hectare swathe of land spanning part of Gauteng and a small section of the North West province has been demarcated as a World Heritage Site because the thousands of fossils discovered here are providing vital clues to human evolution.
It’s as if the gods took a snapshot of humanity and its evolution, turned it into a jigsaw puzzle and flung the pieces willy-nilly, leaving a trail for archeologists and palaeoanthropologists to piece together. The world-famous Mrs Ples was found here, as was Little Foot and, most recently, Australopithecus sediba (believed to be the first species of hominin capable of making stone tools).
The area has more than 13 major fossil sites, which offer clues to our ancestor’s behaviour from what they ate to the tools they made. There is also evidence of the development of modern humanity from hunter-gatherer to Iron Age trader. But even more fascinating are the older (pre-human) bones that the area has chosen to reveal.
The home of Mrs Ples
The world-famous Sterkfontein Caves are probably the most important archaeological site in the Cradle of Humankind and have been dug and excavated intermittently for three decades, yielding about 35 per cent of the world’s early hominin fossils.
It’s here that our ancient ancestor, Mrs Ples, was discovered. When the 2,5-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus was discovered in 1947, it was hailed as proving the missing link that humanity’s roots were African, not European or Asian, as had been assumed.
An earlier discovery of another Australopithecus africanus, the Taung Child, near Kimberley, had been met with international criticism. Many scientists believed you couldn’t place such importance on a single, juvenile specimen, but the discovery of the adult Mrs Ples proved that the Africanus was an intermediate genus between humans and apes.
In attempting to understand our evolution it’s important to remember that science is dynamic and theories change constantly as new evidence comes to light across the international scientific community. It’s also important to realise that evolution isn’t a linear process and that there were many branches of pre-human species, which went extinct as they couldn’t adapt to changes in climate and vegetation.
What is broadly accepted, however, is that all modern humans stem from a single group of Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa about 2 000 generations ago and spread throughout the world. The reason the hominin fossils found at the Cradle of Humankind are so important is that they provide evidence that humanity originated in Africa.
The fossils that have been discovered in Southern and East Africa provide proof that various Australopithecus species lived in Africa from about four million years ago until about two million years ago. Scientists are still trying to figure out the relationships between the various species and each new australopithecine discovery adds to their fossil record, but the puzzle is a work in progress and the full picture still remains fragmented and limited.
For the newcomer, your best bet to understanding all this lies at the Maropeng Visitor Centre, which was built specifically to educate the public about the importance of the Cradle. Meaning ‘returning to the place of origin’ in Setswana, Maropeng is housed in a giant tumulus that rises from the earth like a grass-encrusted mothership. Beneath its stoic surface lies a bleeping, buzzing, whirling exhibition extravaganza that focuses on the development of our planet and how this gave rise to our ancestors and, eventually, us.
Blast to the past
Although the exhibition is particularly well geared for kids, who visit in their droves on school tours during the week, it’s a whole bundle of entertainment for fun-loving adults too.
Starting with a boat trip that begins in the present and floats back in time through the phases of the planet’s development, from an icy cavern with wind and ‘snow’, through the watery beginnings of the planet and formation of Earth’s crust, with its shifting tectonic plates. It has all the feel of a 1990s ghost ride and you’ll find yourself waiting furtively for some ghoul to leap from a hidden crevice. Instead, you’ll be delivered safely to the next portion of the museum, which seeks to simulate a fiery, swirling black hole that led to the Big Bang and the formation of the Earth some 14 billion years ago. It’s a nausea-inducing few metres which will unsettle even the most firm footed, but from there on things become slightly more sedate.
The main portion of the exhibition comprises interactive displays that are all the more memorable and educational because of their dynamic nature. You can pick up a phone and listen to a quagga or a dodo tell you about their extinction or play DNA roulette, among many others. Tucked away at the end of the exhibition space is a fossil display that’s updated periodically. Although it’s a lot less in your face than the rest of the exhibition, it offers a fascinating insight to ongoing research in South Africa and it’s well worth spending some time reading the literature and looking at the artefacts.
How long you spend depends on how involved you get, but it’s safe to say you’ll need two to three hours at the very least to get through the exhibition.
Another highly recommended means of coming to grips with who’s who in our early evolution is to book a spot on a Bone Detectives tour at the Sterkfontein Caves. Wits University’s Brendon Billings gives an impassioned and in-depth explanation into fossils and the important clues they provide to our past.
The tour starts with an interactive talk in which participants are encouraged to study various hominin bones that offer insight into the hominin skeleton and are asked to comment on and identify fossil species. Some of the information is quite detailed, but Brendon is patient with questions and keen to impart his knowledge, which is what makes Bone Detectives suitable even for children.
This is followed by a tour through the Sterkfontein Caves, with its magnificent underground lake. While every effort has been made to provide stairs and supports to make the climb through the cave easier, there are some tight spots and it’s not recommended for the infirm or anyone suffering from claustrophobia. After the walk guests are treated to delicious spread of picnic food. (Costs R350 a person.)
Another fun option, and one more suited to younger children, is the Cooper’s Cave tour. This tour is a bit more hands on, in that budding palaeontologists of all ages are invited to explore an active excavation site and locate hundreds of fossils. Palaeobiologist Dr Christine Steininger, who currently leads excavation at the dig, takes the tour and brings with her a vast personal experience of Cooper’s.
The tour includes a basic explanation of the history and geology of the area as well as an opportunity to examine hominin casts and learn about human evolution in an open-air setting.
Then it’s time to explore the 1,5-million-year-old Cooper’s Cave before visiting recently excavated deposits, which are so fossil dense it’s impossible not to experience the thrill of discovery as you spot one after another. Among the vast number of fossils which have been found here are those of the extinct hominin Panthropus robustus, sabretooth cats, hyenas and a previously unidentified species of large dog.
This tour is also followed by a picnic feast under a tree near the excavation site. It’s wonderful to enjoy your meal while contemplating the landscape that has played host to humanity from its very start. (Costs R350 a person.)
Just the beginning
It’s incredible to think that our lineage began here. It was on our very own continent that humanity developed into an intelligent, sophisticated being — we evolved to walk on two feet and our brains grew larger relative to other primates as we adapted to the changing environment. Modern technology began in Africa with the manufacture and use of stone tools.
If you were ever in doubt that Mama Africa is indeed the mother of all continents, pay a visit to Maropeng, the key to understanding who’s who in the zoo.
Did you know?
The following are edited extracts taken from The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind by Brett Hilton-Barber and Dr Lee Berger. The book is available at shops at the Maropeng Visitor Centre as well as at the Sterkfontein Caves for R220. It’s a fascinating handbook that provides layman-friendly information on everything you need to know about the Cradle.
The Cradle of Humankind is an easy drive of about an hour from Johannesburg or Pretoria. Maropeng Visitor Centre is on the R400, just off the R563 Hekpoort road.
Entry to the Sterkfontein Caves is R130 for adults, R75 for children (four to 14 years) and R85 for pensioners/students.
Entry to Maropeng costs R125 for adults, R75 for children and R85 for pensioners/students. A combination entrance ticket is available, which includes entry to Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves: R190 for adults, R110 for children. Please note, the combination ticket is available only until 13h00 to ensure that visitors have enough time to see both exhibitions. These costs exclude any additional tours or activities.
The Market Place Restaurant at the entrance to the Maropeng Visitor Centre offers light and snack-type meals in a fastfood setting. It’s open from 09h00 to 17h00 daily.
The more formal Tumulus Restaurant has fabulous views of the Witwaterberg and Magaliesberg mountains. It offers light meals during the week and a well-stocked carvery (with a choice of two roasts, salads and desserts) on Sundays. The band Acoustic Moods provides gentle entertainment on Sundays.
The restaurant at Sterkfontein Caves offers a range of light meals and is open from 09h00 to 17h00.
The tours mentioned in this article are just some of the activities at Maropeng. Others include stargazing evenings and walking tours to Swartkrans excavation site. Tours take place intermittently. To find out what’s currently on the go and to make a booking, visit the Maropeng Visitor Centre website.
The stargazing evenings are hosted by Maropeng’s resident astronomer, Vincent Nettmann, who offers a talk illustrated with awesome images from the Hubble Space telescope. He delves into the role of astronomy in the development of the human mind and what we have learnt about our night skies so far. The evenings include welcome drinks and a three-course meal at the Maropeng Boutique Hotel. After the talk guests are given the opportunity to observe the moon and stars through largeaperture telescopes.
The Swartkrans walking tour, meanwhile, allows small groups access to another one of the Cradle’s important sites. Scientist Morris Sutton, who is currently excavating at the site, leads the tour. One of the reasons the site is so significant is because it provides the earliest evidence of the controlled use of fire, dating back a million years. This tour is also followed by a scrumptious picnic. The stargazing evenings cost R295 a person and the walking tours, including Bone Detectives and Cooper’s Cave, are R350 a person.
For a family-friendly option, try the self-catering cottages at Brookwood Estate and Trout Farm. The two farm-style units overlook five dams and are a fisherman’s delight, with an abundance of rainbow trout, bass, carp and bream. The property also fringes on the Blaaubank River, which is excellent for yellow fish. The cottages each sleep four in two rooms and have large living areas with open fireplaces for chilly nights. The en suite bathroom features a spa bath.
There are four sites for camping. Rates are R290 a person a night sharing (minimum twonight stay over weekends) and R200 a person a night from Monday to Thursday. Camping is R120 an adult on the first night and R70 a person every night thereafter. Kids under 12 are half price. Tel 011-957-0126, cell 082-856-2448, email email@example.com, www.brookwoodtroutfarm.co.za.
The Maropeng Boutique Hotel has 24 double rooms overlooking long, swaying grasses and the Witwaterberg and Magaliesberg mountains. It’s a peaceful four-star venue just a five-minute walk from the visitor centre, with a large lounging deck and plunge pool where you can sip cocktails before a delicious threecourse dinner. Breakfast is served buffet style with a vast choice of food. DB&B is R1 298 a person a night sharing, but keep an eye on the website for specials.
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Tags: Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus sediba, Bone Detectives tour, Brookwood Estate and Trout Farm, Cooper’s Cave tour, Cradle of Humankind, Little Foot, Magaliesberg, Market Place Restaurant, Maropeng, Maropeng Boutique Hotel, Maropeng Visitor Centre, Mrs Ples, Sterkfontein Caves, Swartkrans excavation site, The Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind, Tumulus Restaurant, Witwaterberg