Maropeng celebrates our natural heritage

  • July 04, 2013

Scientists in central China recently found the oldest known fossil primate, a 55-million-year-old creature which shows a crucial branch in our evolutionary tree and was hailed as a "close cousin of humans". It weighed about the same as a small bar of chocolate and was probably an insectivorous tree-dweller, much like a bush baby.

While you may not get a glimpse of Archicebus achilles at Maropeng, SA's World Heritage Site in the Cradle of Humankind, it is also a renowned fossil excavation site and supports any findings that tell us more about our heritage. "A major part of the exhibitions at Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves focuses on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which argues that organisms that are able to adapt to changes in their environment survive, while those that don't adapt become extinct," says marketing and communications manager Lindsay Marshall.

Lindsay Marshall, Maropeng marketing and communications manager, along with Mrs Ples, on display at the visitor centre

According to Dr Christopher Beard, curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, in the US, while this latest finding does not impact the scientific consensus that humans diverged from other apes in Africa, the discovery helps to establish Asia as the cradle of anthropoids, in the same sense that Africa is the cradle of humanity. The Cradle of Humankind is already home to the two-million-year-old fossil skeletons, Australopithecus sediba.

The near-complete skeletons of a juvenile hominid male and an adult female were discovered by Professor Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand and his team in 2008. The two skeletons are described in two papers published in April 2010, in the prestigious journal, Science, as a new species of early human ancestor called Australopithecus sediba (Australopithecus meaning "southern ape" and sediba meaning "natural spring", or "well", in South Africa's Sotho language).

Found in the Malapa Cave, some 15km north-north-east of Sterkfontein, it is suggested that Australopithecus sediba might be a candidate for the transitional species between the southern African ape-man, Australopithecus africanus (of which Taung Child and Mrs Ples are examples), and Homo habilis, or even a direct ancestor of Homo erectus (of which Turkana Boy, Java Man and Peking Man are examples).

If this piques your interest, Marshall says the visitor centre at Maropeng takes visitors on a journey of discovery of the origins of humankind concluding with an original fossil display. "It's fun, interactive and educational for the whole family."

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