Maropeng exhibition highlights

The exhibition is self guided and can take anything from one to seven hours, depending on your level of interest and time availability. It is highly interactive and enjoyable, and will engage visitors of all ages. Over weekends and public holidays guided tours are conducted regularly at no additional cost. Ask at the ticket office upon arrival when the next tour will commence. 

Some of the exhibition’s highlights include:

The beginning of the world

Our world was born in a ball of burning gas 4.6-billion years ago, in a universe that is about 14-billion years old. Over time it cooled, the early atmosphere formed, and the first land masses appeared. The first life forms, which were like the black algae you sometimes see in swimming pools today, emerged about 3.8-billion years ago.

The history of life on Earth has been rocked by five major extinctions. The last great extinction was 65-million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out, probably after a giant meteor slammed into the Earth off the coast of Mexico, and set off volcanic eruptions all over the world, changing the global climate. Today, some scientists say we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction – and its cause is us.

We know about species which have populated our Earth before us by studying fossils. Fossils are the remains of plants or animals which have been turned into stone over a long period of time in a process known as “mineralisation”.

Charles Darwin, an English naturalist, was one of the first people to express a theory of evolution – the idea that species change over time, as they adapt to changing environments.

The path to humanity

We humans are relatively recent arrivals on Earth. But our ancestors have been here for millions of years.

Our ancestors are called “hominids”. The oldest hominid discovered so far is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, from Chad, which is about 7-million years old. This fossil has been nicknamed “Toumai” in the local Goran language. There are also several very old species that have been discovered in Kenya and Ethiopia.

While the exact shape of the human family tree is something scientists are still debating, the one thing that they mostly agree on is that humankind was born here in Africa.

In the Cradle of Humankind, about 1,000 hominid fossils have been discovered, spanning several million years.

The oldest hominid fossils from the Cradle are more than 3-million years old and belong to the genus Australopithecus. There were many species or types of Australopithecus, which lived in Eastern and Southern Africa. “Mrs Ples”, the famous fossil of a skull of an Australopithecus africanus, was discovered at the Sterkfontein Caves by palaeontologists Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson in 1947. “Mrs Ples” is about 2.1-million years old. In 1997, palaeontologist Professor Ron Clarke and his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, discovered the full skeleton of an Australopithecus inside the Sterkfontein Caves, encased in breccia, a type of rock. This skeleton, called “Little Foot”, is still being excavated.

After Australopithecus came the genus Homo, to which we humans, Homo sapiens, belong. The earliest named Homo species is Homo habilis or “handy man”, which researchers believe made the first stone tools. Homo habilis emerged about 2-million years ago. After Homo habilis came, among others, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis and Homo Sapiens – us. These species lived in different parts of the world. Not all Homo species were direct ancestors of humans. The human family tree has many branches, several of which broke off as species became extinct.

Modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged only about 200,000 years ago. While older species of Homo, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, lived in Asia and Europe mostly, scientists believe that modern humans, like our most distant ancestors such as Toumai and the australopithecines, evolved here in Africa. The oldest fossil evidence for modern humans discovered so far comes from Ethiopia and South Africa.

What it means to be human

We have a set of characteristics that make us uniquely human. The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to modern humanity.

Bipedalism

About 7-million years ago, early hominids began to adapt to a climate that was cooling globally. Before this, Africa had been mostly covered in rainforest. But as the temperature cooled and dried, savannah replaced the forest. This meant tree-climbing apes had to become more adept at walking on land.

Our ancestors who ventured out into the savannah were rewarded with roots, shrubs and occasional animal carcasses, ensuring that those who walked on two legs were more likely to survive.

Bipedalism allowed hominids to free their arms, enabling them to make and use tools well, stretch for fruit in trees and use their hands to communicate. They could also see further over the savannah grass.

But even with these advantages, our ancestors probably spent time in trees as well, which we can tell by studying fossils of hands and feet, and how they were adapted to climbing.

Although there is a popular idea that our ancestors slouched and stooped forward, the study of fossil hips, spines and feet suggest they always walked fairly upright.

Development of the jaw and diet

Our ancestors’ diet changed over time. From eating mostly plants, they began to eat a mixture of meat and protein, along with plant matter. This helped their brains to develop, and in turn altered the shapes of their jaws. Over time, their jaws became less heavy or “robust” and more slender or “gracile”. The jaws of Australopithecus, for example, projected far more forward than ours, but as Homo developed, the jaw moved further back, under the growing braincase. Our teeth also became smaller as we developed the capacity to cut and grind food.

Development and growth of the brain

One of the defining characteristics of becoming human has been the growth and development of our brains. Australopithecus had an average cranial (brain) capacity of about 450cc, about the size of an orange. Today, our brains are on average more than three times as big as that, at around 1400cc.

But bigger brains don’t necessarily mean a species will survive. Neanderthals had brains on average between about 5% and 10% bigger than ours, and they became extinct about 20,000 years ago.

Stone tools

The oldest stone tools so far dated come from Ethiopia and are about 2.6-million years old. The first technology that our ancestors developed was the Oldowan Industry. These tools were primitive and were mostly just pebbles or broken pebbles.

Next, came the Acheulean Industry (pronounced “Eish-oo-lean”). Acheulean tools included large, rough hand-axes and cleavers, probably for chopping and mashing meat. Dozens of Acheulean tools, including hand-axes, have been found right here at Maropeng in an ongoing excavation.

The Acheulean was followed by the Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age, during which tools became much smaller and more refined and were developed for specific tasks, such as skinning an animal, or hafting onto a wooden handle to make a spear. The Later Stone Age in South Africa lasted right up till about 200,000 years ago, and the San people knew how to make these tools right into historical times.

Control and use of fire

The ability to harness and use fire was a major technological step in human development. Our ancestors probably learnt to capture fire from wildfires and keep it burning before they learned to make it.

At Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humanking, scientists have found a collection of about 300 bones which have been burnt at a consistent temperature, which is higher than the temperature of the average bushfire. These have been dated to more than 1-million years old. This is the oldest evidence for controlled use of fire in Southern Africa so far, though there is even slightly older evidence of it in East Africa.

So we can say South Africa’s first braai happened right here in the Cradle!

The ability to control and use fire helped our ancestors to warm themselves and to cook food, thus helping to expand their diets.

Development of language

Scientists don’t really know much about this, as our voice-boxes are made of soft tissue, and there is no fossil evidence of how they may have developed over time. Some scientists say we may have acquired the ability to speak at the time of Homo habilis, 2-million years ago, while others say it is only modern Homo sapiens that has been able to speak, within the past 200,000 years ago.

Our sophisticated ability to communicate across time and space sets us apart from other animals, and has helped us to populate the Earth and travel to its most inaccessible regions. It has allowed us to gather food better, to live in groups better, and to express ourselves better.

Living with others

Most primates, the family to which we belong, live in groups. Group living provides better defence – a group can be more vigilant and challenging to predators than individuals can on their own.

Groups can also be more efficient than individuals at discovering, gathering and defending sources of food; and at caring for young.

Peopling the world

Our ancestors left Africa in two waves, known as “Out of Africa I” and “Out of Africa II”.

Out of Africa 1

Most palaeoanthropologists believe that our ancestors first left Africa about 2-million years ago and moved into Asia and Europe. This theory is known as “Out of Africa I” and is strongly supported by fossil evidence.

They probably left Africa in a gradual expansion, following food in small groups, rather than in a “mass migration”.

Out of Africa II

“Out of Africa II” refers to the movement of modern humans out of Africa within the past 100,000 years.

They out-competed and replaced populations of other hominids outside Africa, such as the Neanderthals, with whom they could probably not interbreed. This theory is supported by fossil and genetic evidence.

Studies of DNA in modern human populations suggest that we all share common ancestors who lived in Africa some 200,000 years ago.

Creative explosion

Finally, we are creative beings. Our creativity is the ultimate expression of our humanity.

Sustainability

Two hundred thousand years ago, when Homo sapiens first emerged, there were probably at first only a few hundred of us. Now, in the 21st Century, the global population is fast approaching 10-billion people.

At first, we humans barely made an impact on the environment. But this has changed, as our technological abilities have progressed. Now our activities are causing serious implications for our planet, including the unusually fast extinction of species and global warming.

And we humans have developed very unequally. While the northern hemisphere is generally rich, the southern hemisphere is generally poor. Wealth is unevenly spread. A person who has HIV/AIDS in Africa is more likely to die quickly from the disease because they do not have access to drugs than a person in the USA, for example, where it has become a manageable disease. As our population grows, there is ever-more competition for precious resources for our sustainability as a species such as water and land.

While we can propel ourselves into space, millions of people starve to death each year, are illiterate and have no access to basic healthcare or clean water, for example.

Now that we can do anything, what will we do?

Visitor Information

Opening times

Maropeng 09h00 - 17h00 every day

Sterkfontein Caves 09h00 - 17h00 every day

Rates and specials

Maropeng

Adults: R120 | Children (4-14): R65
Children under 4: free
Pensioners: R65 (for both sites)
Students: R75
School groups: R65 per pupil

Sterkfontein Caves

Adults: R165 | Children (4-14): R97
Children under 4: free
Pensioners: R65 (for both sites)
Students: R100
School groups: R90 per pupil

Combination ticket

Adults: R190 | Children (4-14): R125

Pensioners: R65 

School groups: R120 per pupil

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Please note: No pets are allowed at Maropeng and Sterkfontein. Service dogs and guide dogs are the exception

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