Only 45 minutes from the famous “goldfields” of South Africa around Johannesburg, nestling in a peaceful rural valley, lies the invaluable and ancient “Cradle of Humankind” – a place where our ancestors once roamed.
Some of these ancestors of modern humans faced extinction many millions of years ago. Others became part of a long evolutionary journey to the present day. Today their fossilised remains hold many clues to our beginnings, and perhaps even a key to our future.
The Cradle of Humankind, listed as a World Heritage Site in December 1999, is the world’s richest hominid site. Here tourists can explore the amazing finds that have led leading palaeo-anthropologists and archaeologists to suggest that humankind first appeared in this corner of Africa and from there spread out to populate the rest of the world.
Here one can meet the famous “Mrs Ples” and the amazing “Little Foot”, the 3.3-million-year-old skeleton that could be the missing link between hominids (human beings) and apes.
In 1936 the Sterkfontein Caves produced the first remains of adult australopithecine – the scientific name for a species of human ancestor that first appeared over 4 million years ago.
Later, in 1947 scientists found the almost complete skull of an adult female Australopithecus africanus. This was first called Plesianthropus transvaalensis, which inspired the nickname ‘Mrs Ples’.
‘Mrs Ples’ is estimated to be between 2.8 – 2.6 million years old and ranks high on the long list of australopithecine discoveries for which Sterkfontein is now famous.
The world’s longest sustained excavation ever carried out at an ancient hominid site was started in 1966 and continues today. Scientists have recovered more than 500 hominid specimens making Sterkfontein the richest site in the world for fossils of Australopithecus.
The World Heritage Committee decided in July 2005 to increase the size of the existing Cradle of Humankind site by adding on the Taung Skull Fossil Site in Northwest Province and the Makapans Valley in Limpopo Province.
The Taung Heritage site marks the spot where the lime encrusted skull of a child was unearthed. This discovery was to advance the knowledge of the presence of early humankind in Africa by some millions of years. The famous scientist Dr. Raymond Dart, who described the skull, named it Australopithecus africanus.
Makapan’s Valley (15 km north of Makopane) is another remarkable site. Nowhere else in the world exists such an extended and complete record of hominid occupation. There are bones of Australopithecus africanus 3,3 million years old, and of extinct animals. The Cave of Hearths is presumably the earliest evidence of man’s use of fire.