STERKFONTEIN VALLEY

  • October 01, 2012

Landscape of the Sterkfontein Valley – Author: D. Johnson

STERKFONTEIN VALLEY: consists of around 40 different fossil sites, 13 of which have been excavated. This is ongoing and can be visited.

Beginnings: the rocks contain cylindrical shapes - evidence of early life called stromatolite, dating back 3.8 billion years.
These organisms breathed in carbon dioxide and breathed out oxygen, thus increasing the earth's oxygen levels and leading to the evolution of other forms of life.

Some 2.5 billion years ago, the area was an inland shallow sea. Over time the water evaporated and the mud formed dolomite rock, in which the stromatolite is visible.  Landscape of the Sterkfontein Valley – Author: D. Johnson

Around 2 billion years ago a large meteorite, 10 km in diameter, fell in Vredefort (100 km south of Sterkfontein), leaving a massive crater now known as the Vredefort Dome. The entire area for hundreds of kilometres around, were covered in debris, which helped preserve the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand, preventing them from being eroded - and also helped preserve the stromatolite rocks.

Some 3.5 million years ago, openings to the caves started appearing. They may have been occupied by sabre-toothed cats and other predators, which would explain why the remains of large herbivores like wildebeest, extinct zebra and buffalo have been found in the caves.

The Second World War unfortunately interrupted Broom's activities at Sterkfontein, but he resumed work with John Robinson in 1946. In 1947 he found the almost complete skull of an adult female Australopithecus Africanus, Broom initially named the skull Plesianthropus transvaalensis ("near-man" of the Transvaal), which inspired the nickname 'Mrs. Ples'.

Findings in  Sterkfontein Cave: the Australopithecus africanus is represented by an almost  complete famous ape-man skull called Mrs. Ples (now believed to be “Mr” or “Master”  Ples), dating back 2.1 million years, and found by Dr. Robert Broom and John Robinson in 1947. The skull of Mrs. Ples is curated by the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria.  Replicas can be seen at Sterkfontein and at Maropeng.

“Little Foot”, part of a complete skeleton was discovered by Prof Ron Clarke, Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi in 1997, in the Silberberg Grotto at Sterkfontein.  “Little Foot” is one of the most significant hominid finds since Raymond Dart's discovery of the skull of the Taung child, a juvenile Australopithecus africanus, discovered in 1924 near a town called Taung in the far north of the North West Province.

In December 1998, Sterkfontein made world headlines when Prof Ron Clarke announced the almost complete hominid skeleton in the cave, dating back about 3 million years. A complete skull and the arms, feet and leg bones have been uncovered so far; the rest of the bones are still being painstakingly dug from the rock.

In the mid-1950s Dr. C K Brain discovered the first stone tools at Sterkfontein.

In September 2005, Stone Age tools were found on the site of Maropeng.  They had been used by early man (Homo ergaster) about 600 000 years ago. It is estimated that human-like species with a big brow would have used the sharp-edged hand axes and cleavers to butcher the animals he hunted. The tools including an impressive 20 cm-long hand axe, show the ingenuity and craftsmanship of these early toolmakers. These discoveries were made by University of Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Prof. Ron Clarke and archaeologist Kathleen Kuman. The sites where the implements were found have been set aside for further excavations.

Some Fossil Facts:

Homo sapiens: existed 200 000 years ago to present.  Evidence suggests modern humans originated in Africa 200 000-100 000 years ago. They were found in Europe, Asia and Australia within the past 40,000 years.

Homo neanderthalenis: existed 100 000-250 000 years ago: not found in Africa, but co-existed with modern humans for about 50 000 years in parts of Europe and the Near East.

Homo ergaster: existed about 1.6-1.7 million years ago: the first hand-axe makers and more human looking with prominent noses.

Homo habilis: existed 1.8-2 million years ago: known as ‘handy man’ they were some of the first toolmakers and the first to move out of Africa.

Australopithecus africanus: existed 2-3 million years ago: had small brain and teeth.

Australopithecus afarensis: existed about 3-3.6 million years ago: about 1-1.5 m tall, with brains similar in size that those of a chimpanzee.

Australopithecus anamnesis: existed about 4 million years ago: walked on 2 legs and had an ape-like jaw

Orrorin tugenensis: about 6 million years old, bipedal (walked upright on two legs).

Sahelanthropus tchadensis: existed about 7 million years ago.
(Source: Kathy Kuman: Out of Africa’s Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer).

Adventure & Sports

Extreme Sports: abseil in through the roof of the cavern and experience a tour by torchlight

Crafts & Cultural Attractions

Cradle of Humankind Interpretation Centre: completed in September 2005, ready to showcase one of the country's most extraordinary World Heritage Sites.

Greensleeves, Hekpoort Rd: a themed restaurant that takes one back in time to the middle ages. It is decorated with suits of armour, swords and flags and the waiters, referred to as barons and baronesses, treat the guest like royalty.

Routes & Tours: the Palaeo-Anthropology Scientific Trust offers tours conducted by University of the Witwatersrand post-graduate palaeontology students. And one can design ones’ own tour to suit your interests.

Museums

Maropeng: situated some 8 km beyond the Sterkfontein Cave is the hub of the Cradle site, the anchor of the whole site, the cultural and corporate event site for the area. On the approach to the site, 7 impressive 20 m tall concrete monoliths are visible, providing "a timelessness and futuristic element in one”.

Looking up the hill, visitors can notice ancient rocky outcrops, setting the scene for a huge burial mound, referred to as a "tumulus", a partly disguised grassy mound 20 m in height and 35 m in diameter, in a teardrop shape.

Entrance to Maropeng Museum – Author: M. Pitman

The name means ‘returning to the place of origin’ in Setswana, the indigenous language of the area. Maropeng is situated on a Standard Bank-donated 100 ha site and includes 2500 m² space of exhibitions exploring the past, the present and future of humankind.

The Maropeng Visitor Centre is the prime site of the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This centre boasts conference facilities, an open-air amphitheatre, viewing decks, an underground lake, restaurants and banqueting facilities, a craft market, tourist information point, exhibition facilities, a 4-star hotel with 24 rooms, learners accommodation and more.

Within the facility, information about significant findings is on display. The mound that houses the museum covers a state-of-the-art facility that takes visitors back in time to the creation of Earth.

A walk through an interactive exhibition area outlines the story of evolution, with a display of original fossils. The centre was opened on 2 December 2005. Travel back in time in just 80 minutes to enjoy a journey of discovery.

Facilities include:

Maropeng Visitors Centre from the back –
Author: M. Pitman

An educational journey of discovery: a 5 m underground exhibition. Visitors will take a three-minute boat ride on an underground lake to experience the primal elements of air, earth, fire and water;

Educational resource park: where curriculum linked educational resource packs are provided to learners to create an educational and fun element to the facilities offered;

Learners accommodation: in 4 dormitories with sleeping facilities for 30 per dormitory;

Kiddies lunch box menu: these can be rebooked when a booking is made to visit the site;

Open Mon-Sun: 09:00-17:00.  

Nature & Conservation

Bolt's Farm: consists of a series of lime quarries some 2½ km southwest of Sterkfontein Caves. Fauna discovered from this site include fossil antelope, elephant, pig, sabre-toothed cat and rodents. The remains of 3 sabre-tooth cats studied were excavated from an ancient pit. These Dlnofelis individuals were found together with the remains of baboons.

The fossils indicate a range of different dates. Certain fossil rodents, dating to about 4½ million years, make these the oldest deposits in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Other species have been dated to between 3.4-2.9 million years old. The area is being explored by scientists from the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, the Institute for Human Evolution (University of the Witwatersrand) and the CNRS (Paris).

Coopers B: situated about 1¼ km from Sterkfontein Caves. It became the 3rd South African cave deposit to yield a hominid fossil when Mr. J Staz found a molar tooth in 1938. Apart from a significant sample of faunal remains excavated by Dr Brain, the site has yielded part of the face of a Paranthropus (Australopithecus) robustus and some isolated teeth. Fieldwork at Coopers has been conducted by paleobiologist Dr Christine Steininger and others from the Institute for Human Evolution (University of the Witwatersrand).

Drimolen: the site is located to the west of the Wonder Cave in the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve. It is one of the most recent fossil hominid sites to be discovered and is already the 3rd richest hominid site in Southern Africa after Sterkfontein and Swartkrans and the 2nd richest site in for Paranthropus robustus. On the 26 April 2000, the most complete female, a robust skull “Eurydice” and a complete male jaw “Orpheus” made world headlines. This site has unearthed 79 hominid fossils, a wealth of faunal remains and some fossil Homo infants. The fieldwork at Drimolen has been conducted by Andre Keyser and Colin Menter after initial work that included Jose Braga and Dominique Gommery of France.

Gladysvale: located 14 km northeast of Sterkfontein in the John Nash Nature Reserve and includes 3 underground caves and a considerable volume of breccias. It was mined for phosphate found in bat guano in the early part of the century. The first finds of fossil animals were made in 1936 by Dr. Robert Broom. The University of California African Expedition made further discoveries in 1948. New investigations were started in 1988 by Prof Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. Gladysvale preserves one of the most extensive time sequences of any cave in the Cradle of Humankind Site, with sediments dating from over 3.0 million years to around 250 years ago. Apart from a few hominid specimens, including 2 ape-man teeth, the site has yielded the skeleton of a wolf, the skull of a giant hyena and some plant remains. Gladysvale contains a deep, many layered cave deposit.

Gondolin: located 3.2 km southwest of Broederstroom village where 90 000 fossil specimens have been found since 1979. Unlike all the above-mentioned sites, which are located in the Gauteng Province, Gondolin falls within the North West Province. Recently 2 teeth of a very robust Paranthropus (Australopithecus) robustus were discovered. The identified fossils from this site suggest an age of about 1.2-1.3 million years.

Haasgat: situated about 5 km from the Hartbeeshoek-Broederstroom road. Early lime mining removed a basal flowstone from the cave, causing part of the roof to collapse. The collapsed blocks of breccias have yielded a significant faunal sample, although the bone concentration is not particularly high. No hominids have been found thus far. Discoveries in this site include early forest-dwelling monkeys, which indicate that the deposits may be around 1.3 million years old.

Living Jewels, Plot 111, Oaktree, District Krugersdorp, on the R563 (around the corner from the Sterkfontein caves): home of the SA Carnivorous Plant Society – learn more about carnivorous plants.

Minnaars: this site is located about 1.1 km to the northwest of the Kromdraai store on a steep hillside overlooking the Bloubankspruit. No recent excavations have been carried out; however there is a possibility that hominid remains may be found if excavations are resumed. 

Plover's Lake Cave: located northeast of the Caves.  Excavations have been explored some 50 m down, but beyond that point are a labyrinth of unexplored passages and several entrances. The ancient cave roof has disintegrated as a result of erosion leaving exposed calcified sediments rich with fossils. The site has yielded abundant faunal remains including antelope, extinct zebra and a leopard lair.  Excavations were undertaken at the site by teams led by Prof. Francis Thackeray and Prof. Lee Berger.

Caves: opened in the late 1890s by lime prospectors who dynamited the Sterkfontein Caves searching for limestone, which they converted into lime, needed for the processing of gold and the manufacture of cement. They displaced the sediment and revealed entrances to the caves. Right from the start the caves proved rich in hominids. The early explorers noted the presence of fossilized bone, but it was only in 1936, after students of Prof. Raymond Dart interested Dr. Robert Broom in visiting the caves, that systematic work on the fossils began and produced the first adult australopithecine, which substantially strengthened Raymond Dart's claim that the Taung child (Australopithecus africanus) was a human ancestor. The fossils found here were instrumental in proving that Africa was the Cradle of Humankind. This became the world's longest sustained excavation ever carried out at an ancient hominid site and continues today. Various anthropologists have contributed to the recovery of a further 500 hominid specimens making Sterkfontein the world's richest hominid site. The site is also renowned for studies carried out on fossilized fauna, wood and stone tools which were made Sterkfontein, used and discarded by hominids in the past.

Facilities include:

Orientation Centre: opened in March 2005 includes a hominid exhibition, a cave tour and walkways; events and conferencing; family restaurant, night tours and science talks on request, school tours (booking required); souvenir shop.

Open daily: 09:00-16:00 (last admission); closed on Christmas Day; Tues-Sat: 08:30 - last tour begins at 16:00; Sun: 09:00 - last tour begins at 16:00.

The Swartkrans Cave site where a group of people from the Archaeological Society are given a talk by Morris Sutton,
PhD Student, University of the Witwatersrand – Author: D. Johnson

Swartkrans: located about 1½ km northwest of the Sterkfontein Caves, this is the 2nd richest fossil hominid site in Southern Africa and it has yielded the largest sample of Australopithecus Robustus. The first scientific excavations at Swartkrans were carried out towards the end of 1948. Unfortunately this attracted the attention of lime miners who began blasting at the site towards the end of 1949. Mining continued until 1951. The Transvaal Museum took over the research at the site, which culminated in a comprehensive programme of excavation between 1965 and 1986.

To date, more than 200 hominid specimens, mostly attributable to Paranthropus (Australopithecus) robustus, numerous animal remains, stone and bone tools have been recovered from this site. Amongst some of its notable finds is the first evidence for the co-existence of Homo ergaster and Paranthropus robustus living at the same time. Swartkrans is also the site in Africa thought to be associated with the use of controlled fire around 1.3 million years ago, as recognized by Dr. Bob Brain.  Deposits at Swartkrans date between 1.8 and 1 million years. Hominid and faunal specimens from Swartkrans are currently housed at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History.

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