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.
Mrs Ples and friends
Mrs Ples and friends
Embedded in the dolomitic rock within a dozen caves in the area now called the Cradle of Humankind are the fossilized remains of hominids that lived in South Africa up to 3.5 million years ago. Samples of fossilized pollen, plant material and animal bones also found in the caves indicate that the area was once a tropical rainforest inhabited by giant monkeys, long-legged hunting hyenas and sabre-toothed cats.
Quite when hominids arrived on the scene isn’t certain, but scientists now believe that the human lineage split from apes in Africa around five to six million years ago. The oldest identified group of hominids is Australopithecus, a bipedal, small-brained form of man. The first Australopithecus discovery in South Africa was in 1924, when Professor Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child in what is now North West Province. In 1936, australopithecine fossils were first found in the Sterkfontein Caves, and in 1947 Dr Robert Broom excavated a nearly complete skull which he first called Plesianthropus transvaalensis (“near-man” of the Transvaal), later confirmed as a 2.6-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus. Identified as a female, she was nicknamed “Mrs Ples“, and for many years she was the closest thing the world had to what is dubbed “the missing link“.
A number of even older fossils have since been discovered at Sterkfontein and nearby caves, along with evidence of several other genera and species, including Australopithecus robustus, dating from between one and two million years ago, and Homo ergaster, possibly the immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens, who used stone tools and fire.