Covering some 47,000 hectares, the Cradle of Humankind is the name given to the area in which a series of dolomitic caves has in the last fifty years or so produced nearly two-fifths of the world’s hominid fossil discoveries. Given its accessibility and the richness of the finds, it has now arguably overtaken Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge as Africa’s (and therefore the world’s) most important paleontological site.
The best-known of the Cradle of Humankind sites are the Sterkfontein Caves, believed to have been inhabited by pre-human primates who lived here up to 3.5 million years ago. They first came to European attention in 1896, when an Italian lime prospector, Gulgimo Martinaglia, stumbled upon them. Martinaglia was only interested in the bat droppings, and promptly stripped them out, thus destroying the caves’ dolomite formation. Archeologist Dr Robert Broom excavated the caves between 1936 and 1951; in 1947, he found the skull of a female hominid (nicknamed “Mrs Ples”) that was over 2.5 million years old. In 1995, another archeologist, Ronald Clarke, found “Little Foot”, the bones of a 3-million-year-old walking hominid, with big toes that functioned like our thumbs do today. In 1998 an Australopithecus skeleton discovered here was the oldest complete specimen known, reckoned to be 3.3 million years old.
Kromdraai Wonder Cave
The only other cave with open public access is the Kromdraai Wonder Cave, located on the edge of the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve to the northeast of Sterkfontein. Also mined for lime in the 1890s, this cave hasn’t revealed any paleontological finds, and the main focus of attention is the extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and rimstone pools to be found in a huge underground chamber. Once you’ve descended into the cave by a lift, carefully placed lighting and marked trails make the experience theatrical and unashamedly commercial.