The Cradle of Humankind

Only 45 minutes from Johannesburg, nestling in the peaceful Sterkfontein rural valley, lies the Cradle of Humankind - a World Heritage Site - and is the world's richest hominid site.

The Sterkfontein Valley landscape comprises a band of important palaeo-anthropological sites including Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Coopers B, Wonder Cave, and various others. These sites have produced the remains of hominids (i.e. human and pre-human) from over 2 to 3,3 million years ago, the early stone-age, the middle stone age, the later stone age, the early and late iron age and up to the present day.

It is at the Sterkfontein site that the famous Mrs Ples (Plesianthropus transvaalenis) was discovered by Dr Robert Broom. He began excavations at the cave in 1936 and in 1947 discovered a well-preserved skull of a species of early man known as Plesianthropus transvaalensis, who lived there about two million years ago. The skull was that of a female, and became known as Mrs Ples.

This ancient cave system has over the years revealed a sequence of deposits with fossils dating from about 3.5 to 1.5 million years ago. In addition to almost 500 skull, jaw, teeth and skeletal fossils of these early hominids, there are many thousands of other animal fossils, over 300 fragments of fossils wood, and over 9,000 stone tools found.

Some of the youngest deposits in the cave also contain fossils and tools from the period just prior to the emergence of modern humans.

At a depth of 40 metres is a perfectly calm underground lake. Local African tribes regard it with awe, believing that the water has medicinal properties and can even cure blindness. Tribespeople hold ceremonies at the edge of the lake, during which water is carried away for treatment of the sick.

The underground lake with crystal clear water is the only one of its kind in the country.

Our Common Ancestors

The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site comprises a strip of thirteen dolomitic limestone caves containing the fossilised remains of plants, animals and, most importantly, hominids (members of the human family and our near relatives). These fossils are a superbly preserved record of the stages in the evolution of humankind within the past 3.5 million years.

The dolomite in which the caves formed started out as chemical and algal precipitates in a warm shallow sea about 2.5 billion years ago. After a huge lapse of time, about 20 million years ago, long after the disappearance of the sea, slightly acidic groundwater began to dissolve out of the dolomite to form underground caverns. Still later, the water table dropped, the subterranean caverns expanded and the ground surface eroded, leading the originally underground caverns to "hole through" to the surface. Through such shafts or avens, dust, soil, pollen grains, stones, bones and plants gained access to the caves.

Among other things, animals including hominids fell or were dropped by carnivores into the caves. The leaching of calcium carbonates from the dolomitic walls and roofs of the caves led to the formation of spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and other crystalline formations. The bone and plant remains became fossilised and, along with various stones and pebbles, became cemented in the cave filling which eventually formed a hard rock called breccia (Italian for "broken things").

At least seven of the thirteen cave sites have yielded hominid remains. In fact, together these cave sites have produced over 950 hominid fossil remains and to date they represent one of the world¹s richest concentrations of fossil hominid bearing sites. Four of the caves have so far yielded stone tools, and three of them have also produced bone tools.

The scientific value of this area lies in the fact that these sites provide us with a window into the past, to a time when our earliest ancestors were evolving and changing. Scientists have long accepted that all humans originated in Africa. Through the use of biochemical evidence they have argued that the split of the hominid lineage from that of the African great apes took place some 5 to 7 million years ago (although new evidence may push these dates back a few million years earlier). The study of hominid fossils from sites in Africa thus enables scientists to understand how these hominids have changed and diversified.

The Cradle of Humankind provides important information about Australopithecus, which is recognised as a distant relative of all humankind. Australopithecus was a bipedal, small-brained hominid that appeared in Africa about 4 million years ago. Over time, it diversified into different genera and species, including Homo sapiens, the species to which we all belong.

The Sterkfontein Caves have produced the most complete skeleton of a 3.3 million-year old hominid, as well as close to 700 specimens of a closely related species, Australopithecus africanus, which is between 2.8 and 2.6 million years old. Other hominid bearing sites, such as Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Drimolen, provide insight into one of the more robust species of hominid, Paranthropus robustus (also referred to as Australopithecus robustus), which existed in the area between 2 and 1 million years ago. These sites, as well as the upper layers of the Sterkfontein Formation, have produced fossils of an early species of the genus Homo and the first evidence of cultural behaviour in the form of stone tools, made by the hominids.

Various sites in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site also provide crucial information about the environment that these hominids inhabited. Through the study of fossilised wood and the remains of many animal species, scientists can tell how the vegetation of the area has changed over time, as well as the kinds of animals that would have co-existed with, been eaten by, as well as fed upon our early ancestors. The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is thus a scientific treasure house containing key information about the human family, as well as early human and cultural development, information that is of universal importance.

Information on this website is a summary of years of dedicated scientific exploration at the thirteen sites that comprise the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. This is just a beginning, as it is believed that more discoveries are yet to be made in the many unexplored and undiscovered fossil sites in the area.

People Who Live There

The land that comprises the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is mostly privately owned. Approximately 14 600 people live in the area and the population is demographically, socially and economically representative of South Africa.

The local population are supportive of the development of the World Heritage Site and see it as an opportunity to improve the quality of their lives through improved access to:

  • Jobs and business opportunities;
  • Improved housing and tenure security;
  • Health, education and recreational facilities;
  • Bulk services such as electricity, waste and sewerage disposal, telecommunications and public transport.

A Prime Tourist Destination

Nature-based tourism is the fastest growing segment of the international tourism market and there is an increasing demand for natural, cultural and historical tourism in a single experience. The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site fulfils all these needs.

The Site is easily accessible as it is only 45 minutes from two of South Africas largest cities, Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is also only an hour away from Johannesburg International Airport, the country’s largest port of entry for foreign visitors.

The Cradle of Humankind Site offers a unique natural, cultural and historical tourism experience. Some of the activities already available include:

  • Cave tours to learn about the evolution of humankind;
  • Game drives;
  • Mountain bike trails;
  • Overnight hiking-trails;
  • Craft rambles;
  • Adventure activities.

The Sterkfontein Caves

The Sterkfontein Caves are open to visitors from 09h00 - 16h00 every day except Mondays, including public holidays. Tours of the Caves are run on the hour, and each tour takes 45 minutes. Large groups should book in advance, but smaller groups of visitors are welcome at any time.

Tour costs are R20.00 per adult, and R10.00 per child.

Contact the Tour Operators at the Sterkfontein Caves on: 011 956 6342.

The Sterkfontein Orientation Centre

This Orientation Centre will house exhibitions focusing on the history of scientific investigation and hominid evolution, with specific reference to the palaeontological and archaeological heritage of the site. Facilities will include a virtual reality auditorium; permanent exhibition spaces; a cave and excavation site; and a lecture theatre for the thousands of schoolchildren who visit every year. These facilities will collectively be used to tell the story of the search for the

Article by: Cameron Mackintosh