Although Sterk­fontein is best known for the hun­dreds of fos­sils of ear­ly hominids dis­cov­ered here, it has also yield­ed thou­sands of ani­mal bones rep­re­sent­ing a great vari­ety of species, which tell us about the envi­ron­ment and cli­mat­ic change.

The ani­mals of past ages at Sterk­fontein includ­ed the now-extinct Dinofe­lis and Megan­tere­on sabre-tooth cats; the long-legged hye­na, Chasma­por­thetes; Para­pa­pio, Papio and Cer­co­p­ithe­coides mon­keys; a heavy, cow-like ani­mal called a maka­pa­nia; a tiny, three-toed horse, Hip­par­i­on lybicum; a giant hyrax or dassie”; and a huge chal­i­cothere, a knuck­le-walk­ing ani­mal relat­ed to a horse.

Sabre Tooth Cat

A mod­el of a sabre-tooth cat is part of the Sterk­fontein exhibit

Palaeon­tol­o­gists have dif­fer­ent meth­ods of dat­ing avail­able to them, depend­ing on the envi­ron­ment in which the fos­sils are found. At the Sterk­fontein Caves, one way of deter­min­ing the age of the fos­sils is by using radio-iso­tope dat­ing of the cave deposits. Some iso­topes found in these deposits are unsta­ble and decay over time to form daugh­ter” iso­topes at a known rate. By check­ing the amount of decay of an iso­tope, geo­physi­cists can work back­wards and deter­mine how old the deposit is – and thus the age of the fossil.

Once a few species have been clas­si­fied and placed in a time­frame, experts can start to exam­ine trends in evolution.

For instance, from fos­silised remains of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus and Homo at Sterk­fontein and oth­er sites in East and South­ern Africa, we can see how ear­ly hominids, hav­ing devel­oped bipedal­ism (the abil­i­ty to walk per­ma­nent­ly on two feet), adapt­ed to life beyond their orig­i­nal for­est envi­ron­ment. The study of teeth and facial mus­cu­la­ture, togeth­er with iso­tope analy­sis of bone, pro­vides infor­ma­tion on the diet of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus and Paran­thro­pus hominids.

From ani­mal and plant fos­sils, we can also deter­mine ancient envi­ron­ments and cli­mat­ic con­di­tions. Traces of cer­tain plants and small mam­mals are among the key indi­ca­tors of climate.

Pliocene to Pleistocene

The envi­ron­ment in the Cra­dle of Humankind was once far lush­er and more trop­i­cal than it is today. Just under 2-mil­lion years ago, this land­scape began to change, open­ing up into the grass­land it is today.

Little Foot In The Sterkfontein Cave 580 435 S

Lit­tle Foot’, Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus prometheus is one of the most famous fos­sils found at Sterkfontein 

We know of these ani­mals from fos­sils of their bones pre­served in the Cra­dle of Humankind.

The study of what hap­pens to organ­isms after they die, are buried and fos­silised is known as taphon­o­my. Analy­sis of the con­di­tion of bones, includ­ing signs of break­age and tooth marks, reveals infor­ma­tion on how the bones end­ed up in the caves.

There were four main ways in which the bones of the ani­mals which even­tu­al­ly became fos­silised came to be in the caves: through the activ­i­ties of por­cu­pines, hye­nas and big cats, or through falling in.

Palaeon­tol­o­gists look for clues on the bones to uncov­er their mys­ter­ies. Por­cu­pines gnaw bones into sharp points, for exam­ple, leav­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic chis­el marks around the edges. Hye­nas have jaws strong enough to crunch bones, break­ing them through the mid­dle, so palaeon­tol­o­gists look for tell-tale chips and flakes from the impact of their teeth on a bone. Occa­sion­al­ly, hye­nas will also leave tooth­marks on a bone.

Large cats such as leop­ards, on the oth­er hand, don’t have teeth pow­er­ful enough to crunch bones, and will leave ragged tooth­marks at the end of bones.

One of the most excep­tion­al finds at Sterk­fontein, made by Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Ron Clarke and his team, was the fos­silised skele­ton of the aus­tralo­p­ithecine Lit­tle Foot”, which had prob­a­bly fall­en down a shaft alive between 4-mil­lion and 3-mil­lion years ago, nev­er to return to the surface.

Study­ing fossils

Palaeon­tol­o­gists exam­ine the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a fos­sil to deter­mine what ani­mal or plant it belonged to and its place in the evo­lu­tion­ary framework.

Mrs Ples

Mrs Ples was found at Sterkfontein

Three-mil­lion years ago, in a geo­log­i­cal epoch known as the Pliocene, envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions at Sterk­fontein were warmer and wet­ter than today, and the land­scape was a mosa­ic of for­est, wood­land and grass­land. From fos­sils, we know the veg­e­ta­tion includ­ed liana vines of the kind now found only in trop­i­cal forests in Cen­tral and West Africa. Fos­sils of large, for­est-dwelling mon­keys are also rel­a­tive­ly com­mon in the old­er Mem­ber 2 (about 4.2-million to 3.3-million years old) and Mem­ber 3 (about 3.3-million to 2.5-million years old) at Sterk­fontein, and are evi­dence of this lush­er environment.

Fos­sils of brows­ing antelopes such as Hip­po­tra­gus (sim­i­lar to a mod­ern-day sable ante­lope) indi­cate con­tin­u­ing wood­land con­di­tions in Mem­ber 4 (about 2.5-million to 2.1-million years old), and after that a marked shift towards open grass­land is doc­u­ment­ed by the fos­sils of savan­nah species such as zebras, ostrich­es and spring hares, as well as many thou­sands of fos­sils of graz­ing antelopes, includ­ing wilde­beest and har­te­beest, that occur in Mem­ber 5 (about 1.9-million to 1.5-million years old).

The study of car­bon iso­topes reflect­ing diet, and hence envi­ron­ment, con­firms this sce­nario. The data sug­gest that there was a fair­ly wood­ed envi­ron­ment until about 2-mil­lion years ago, fol­lowed by a marked shift to open envi­ron­ments around 1.8-million years ago, cor­re­spond­ing with the onset of the Pleistocene.

Many human evo­lu­tion­ary changes occurred dur­ing the Pleis­tocene, an epoch char­ac­terised by changes in cli­mate, swing­ing between glacial con­di­tions (cold­er, dri­er, with low­er sea-lev­els) and rel­a­tive­ly brief inter­glacial episodes (warmer, wet­ter, high­er sea-levels).

Fos­sils in Sterkfontein

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Mil­lions of years ago, the Cra­dle of Humankind’s land­scape was lush and tropical

Fos­sils are the remains or traces of ancient plants and ani­mals, pre­served in rocks such as cement­ed cave deposits called brec­cia. Fos­sils are formed when min­er­als, includ­ing cal­ci­um car­bon­ate, enve­lope or replace bones and oth­er organ­ic mat­ter, hard­en­ing or encas­ing them with­in rock that remains unchanged for mil­lions of years. The geol­o­gy of the caves at Sterk­fontein has pro­vid­ed an ide­al envi­ron­ment for the for­ma­tion and preser­va­tion of fossils.

Some areas of the Cra­dle of Humankind are so rich in fos­sils that they have become time cap­sules” that pro­vide us with unique relics of spe­cif­ic time peri­ods, and so glimpses into the world in which human­i­ty was born.

A wide cross-sec­tion of ani­mal and plant fos­sils span­ning mil­lions of years is pre­served at Sterkfontein.

The fos­sils at Sterk­fontein were formed when skele­tal remains were cov­ered by soil washed into the caves. Cal­ci­um car­bon­ate dis­solved in water drip­ping into the caves suf­fused through the bones and oth­er organ­ic mate­r­i­al, bind­ing them in a matrix of rock and fin­er sed­i­ment called breccia.

At Sterk­fontein, there are six Mem­bers (sed­i­men­ta­ry units or lay­ers) of rock con­tain­ing fos­sils dat­ing to between about 4.2-million years and 100,000 years old, giv­ing us an extra­or­di­nary his­to­ry of fau­na and hominid devel­op­ment. Peo­ple who study fos­sils – palaeon­tol­o­gists and palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists – delve sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly through these rich deposits in search of new infor­ma­tion about the past.

The peo­ple who study the past

Palaeon­tol­o­gists: Study ani­mal and plant fos­sils

Palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists: Study pre­his­toric cul­ture and the anato­my of hominids (human ances­tors) and the envi­ron­ment in which they lived

Archae­ol­o­gists: Study mate­r­i­al cul­tur­al remains of ancient peo­ples, such as stone tools

Geol­o­gists and geo­physi­cists: Study the Earth and rocks and are involved in dat­ing fossils

Professor Lee R  Berger Paleoanthropologist Rising Star Site With Excavation Team 7

Mil­lions of years ago, the Cra­dle of Humankind’s land­scape was lush and tropical

Extinct ani­mals

Extinct Para­pa­pio monkey

Two species (Para­pa­pio broo­mi and Para­pa­pio jone­si) of this extinct genus of large mon­key have been found Sterk­fontein, dat­ing to between about 3.5-million and 2-mil­lion years ago. Para­pa­pios are asso­ci­at­ed with for­est envi­ron­ments and thrived when the local envi­ron­ment was warmer and wet­ter than today.

They lived at the same time and in the same areas as ear­ly baboons of the genus Papio. Oth­er Para­pa­pio species have been found at Taung and Maka­pans­gat, as well as in Ango­la and East Africa.

Extinct colobus mon­key (Cer­co­p­ithe­coides)

There are about 30 species of mod­ern-day colobus mon­keys, which live in for­est and wood­land in trop­i­cal Africa and in south­ern and east­ern Asia. They have spe­cialised teeth and com­plex stom­achs for chew­ing and digest­ing leaves. The biggest colobus is the large-nosed pro­boscis mon­key, which weighs over 20 kg (44 lb), and lives in Bor­neo. In the dis­tant past there were many oth­er species of colobus mon­keys, includ­ing the genus Cer­co­p­ithe­coides, which occurred in Europe and South Africa.

800Px Colobus Angolensis

The mod­ern-day Ango­la colobus monkey

Cer­co­p­ithe­coides mon­keys were about twice as large as today’s vervet mon­keys. Their fos­sils have been found in the Cra­dle of Humankind, at Sterk­fontein, Bolts Farm, Krom­draai, Swartkrans, Haas­gat and Maka­pans Val­ley, cov­er­ing the peri­od from the late Pliocene to the mid­dle Pleis­tocene, from about 3-mil­lion years ago until 1.5-million years ago. Cer­co­p­ithe­coides also occurred in East Africa. Like mod­ern colobus mon­keys and mon­keys of oth­er species, Cer­co­p­ithe­coides prob­a­bly lived in fam­i­ly groups. Because of their large size, they pos­si­bly spent time on the ground as well as in trees.

Extinct maka­pa­nia

Makapania

Artist’s impres­sion of a maka­pa­nia

This extinct ox-like ani­mal, which lived between 3-mil­lion and 2-mil­lion years ago, is relat­ed to the present-day musk ox of the Arc­tic and the takin of the wood­lands of the Himalayan foothills. All of these belong to a group known as the Ovibovini.

The Maka­pa­nia broo­mi type-spec­i­men was found at Maka­pans­gat, anoth­er part of the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site, about 300 km (185 mi) from Sterk­fontein, near Mokopane in Limpopo Province. Maka­pa­nia fos­sils have also been dis­cov­ered at Sterk­fontein, Swartkrans, Gladys­vale and Mot­setse in the Cra­dle of Humankind.

Extinct hunt­ing hye­na (Chasma­por­thetes)

These were sim­i­lar to a mod­ern spot­ted hye­na in size, but had longer legs which pos­si­bly made them bet­ter hunters. They lived in the Cra­dle of Humankind between about 3-mil­lion and 1-mil­lion years ago dur­ing the time of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus and Paran­thro­pus, and Homo, and are known to have exist­ed in East Africa and Eura­sia more than 4-mil­lion years ago. They spread into Amer­i­ca before 3.5-million years ago.

Extinct chal­i­cothere

These strange, knuck­le-walk­ing crea­tures had horse-like heads and steeply slop­ing backs. Giants at more than two metres (65”) tall, chal­i­cotheres ate only soft veg­e­ta­tion such as new shoots. The huge claws on their front feet may have been for pulling down veg­e­ta­tion as they fed, sim­i­lar to the way goril­las or pan­das do today.

Chal­i­cotheres lived between 45-mil­lion and about 1.8-million years ago. Their clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives are hors­es, tapirs and rhi­nos. Cal­i­cothere teeth and limb bones have been found in the Maka­pans Val­ley, and a toe bone has been found at Sterkfontein.


Calicothere

Artist’s impres­sion of a chalicothere

Extinct sabre-tooth cat (Dinofe­lis)

Sabre-toothed cats are so-called because they have long, blade-like, upper canine teeth. While impres­sive, Dinofe­lis’ upper canines were not as long as those of Megan­tere­on and Homoth­eri­um saber-tooth cats, which lived at the same time in the Cra­dle of Humankind.

Dinofe­lis was about the size of a jaguar and had rel­a­tive­ly short, but pow­er­ful front legs. These big cats are asso­ci­at­ed with a forest­ed envi­ron­ment and had become extinct by about 1-mil­lion years ago.