‘Mrs Ples’ returns to Maropeng after eight years

  • December 09, 2013

For the first time since the visitor centre at Maropeng opened eight years ago, “Mrs Ples” will be coming home.

On 10 December, Maropeng will reveal its latest exhibition, “Mrs Ples” and Friends – a selection of hominid fossils from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

A reconstruction of the fossil Sts 5, better known as 'Mrs Ples'. Photo courtesy of Mary Harrsch

Other fossils that will be on display include TM 1517, the type specimen of Paranthropus robustus discovered at Kromdraai; COB 101, the only hominid fossil discovered at Coopers Cave; and SK 48, a young Paranthropus robustus cranium showing two leopard teeth puncture marks in it. “This is an interesting specimen as it indicates that our hominid ancestors were the hunted rather than the hunter,” says Tony Rubin, managing director of Maropeng.

About 40% of the world’s known hominid fossils have been unearthed in the Cradle of Humankind, earning it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1999.

“It is thanks to these fossil sites, in which the dolomitic conditions were just right for fossil preservation, that we have an understanding of humankind’s journey to humanity and the evolutionary trajectory that led us to where we are today,” says Rubin.

In 1947 “Mrs Ples” (or Sts 5, as the fossil is scientifically known) was discovered at the Sterkfontein Caves by Dr Robert Broom. The discovery of this fossil turned the science world’s attention to Southern Africa, and Africa as a whole, in terms of its rich palaeoanthropological history.

At the time of its discovery, the 2.15-million-year-old fossil became better known by its nickname, “Mrs Ples”, and was the most complete fossil cranium ever found.

This world-famous fossil site was originally explored by lime prospectors in the 1890s who, after coming across bits of preserved bone in chunks of mined limestone, brought the fossils to the attention of two scientists – Broom and Professor Raymond Dart.

It was only some 40 years later, in 1936, that the two began their excavations of Sterkfontein in earnest. That same year, following the discovery of the first adult australopithecine fossil, the site’s significance as a world heritage resource became apparent.

Around 50 years after the discovery of “Mrs Ples”, the area yielded yet another surprising find – a near-complete skeleton of a second species of Australopithecus, discovered by Ronald J Clarke. The skeleton was nicknamed “Little Foot”, since the first parts of the fossil found were the bones of a foot.

Excavations at Sterkfontein are ongoing. Fossil finds at the site now total about 500 hominids, making Sterkfontein one of the richest fossils resources in the world.

“A chance to see ‘Mrs Ples’, alongside the other very important hominid fossil remains, is a unique and special opportunity for us all. Maropeng is only a 45-minute drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, and a visit to the see the exhibition would be a great adventure to enjoy during the holiday season,” concludes Rubin.

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