World Her­itage Sites are declared by the Unit­ed Nations Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic and Cul­tur­al Organ­i­sa­tion (Unesco) to recog­nise and pre­serve out­stand­ing places of cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al her­itage. World Her­itage Sites include places like the Great Bar­ri­er Reef in Aus­tralia, the Pyra­mids in Egypt, the Great Wall of Chi­na and the Taj Mahal in India.

The Cra­dle of Humankind was declared a World Her­itage Site in 1999 specif­i­cal­ly because of its con­tri­bu­tion to our knowl­edge about the birth of humankind.

World Her­itage Sites in South Africa:

  • Robben Island (1999)
  • Cape Flo­ral Region (2004)
  • Greater St Lucia Wet­land Park (1999)
  • Cra­dle of Humankind, includ­ing Sterk­fontein, Swartkrans, Krom­draai and envi­rons (1999); and Taung and Maka­pans Val­ley (2005)
  • uKhahlamba/​Drakensberg Park (2000)
  • Mapun­gub­we Cul­tur­al Land­scape (2003)
  • Vre­de­fort Dome (2005)
  • ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Land­scape (2017)
17480678978 238696D925 O
(Image: South African Tourism)

Robben Island

Robben Island (1999)

Robben Island served alter­nate­ly as a prison, a hos­pi­tal and a mil­i­tary base between the 17th and 20th cen­turies, and is now an island-museum.

Its max­i­mum-secu­ri­ty prison which used to house polit­i­cal pris­on­ers dur­ing the apartheid era such as Nel­son Man­dela, South Africa’s first demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent, today bears tes­ta­ment to the vic­to­ry of democ­ra­cy over apartheid and oppression.

2040292220 E1E7A58770 O
(Image: Mar­tin Heigan)

Cape Flo­ral Region

Cape Flo­ral Region (2004)

The Cape Flo­ral Region of South Africa con­tains the unique fyn­bos bio­me, and is one of the rich­est flo­ral areas in the world.

It com­pris­es eight pro­tect­ed areas cov­er­ing 553 000 hectares, which include 20% of Africa’s flora.

36655719045 038F57Abb5 K
(Image: west­ewoud)

iSi­man­gal­iso Nation­al Park, also known as St Lucia

iSi­man­gal­iso Wet­land Park (Greater St Lucia Wet­land Park) (1999)

This 234 566-hectare site includes key habi­tats for a vari­ety of species, from marine to wet­land and savan­nah. It con­tains a diver­si­ty of land­forms and ecosys­tems that are a result of a mix­ture of a con­tin­u­ous flu­vial (found in a riv­er), marine and aeo­lian (relat­ing to wind action) systems.

The site has more than 520 bird species, wide sub­ma­rine canyons, sandy beach­es, and is home to wet­lands, grass­lands and forests.

24274863888 D51Ed15775 K
(Image: Esther West­er­veld)

The beau­ti­ful Drak­ens­berg Moun­tains are the high­est in South­ern Africa

uKhahlamba/​Drakensberg Park (2000)

The uKhahlam­ba Drak­ens­berg Park con­tains the largest group of rock paint­ings by the San peo­ple found in South­ern Africa. The basaltic walls, sand­stone ram­parts, lush grass­lands and spot­less riv­er val­leys all con­tribute to this excep­tion­al­ly beau­ti­ful site, which was declared a World Her­itage Site for cul­tur­al as well as nat­ur­al importance.

The diverse habi­tats pro­tect endem­ic and inter­na­tion­al­ly threat­ened species, par­tic­u­lar­ly birds and plants.

20550509111 91036C6Db3 K
(Image: South African Tourism)

The land­scape of Mapun­gub­we – once home to an advanced ear­ly African nation – as it is today

Mapun­gub­we Cul­tur­al Land­scape (2003)

The Mapub­ung­we Cul­tur­al Land­scape reflects some of the cul­tur­al and social changes that took place in South­ern Africa between AD900 and AD1300. At its peak, Mapub­ung­we was the largest king­dom on the con­ti­nent, trad­ing with Ara­bia and India via East African ports.

Mapungubwe’s remains demon­strate the effects of cli­mate change and record the growth and decline of the king­dom. Mapungubwe’s most famous arte­fact is a gold­en rhi­no, which has become an icon­ic sym­bol of the once-wealthy African king­dom which lived here more than 1000 years ago.

Vredefort Dome

The land­scape of the Vre­de­fort Dome today

Vre­de­fort Dome (2005)

The Vre­de­fort Dome is the old­est, largest and most erod­ed astrob­leme (mete­orite impact struc­ture) on Earth, dat­ing back 2023-mil­lion years. Locat­ed about 120km (75mi) south-west of Johan­nes­burg and lying part­ly in the Free State and part­ly in the North West provinces, this is where the great­est ener­gy release event on Earth took place, leav­ing behind a crater with a radius of 190km (118mi).

Cra­dle of Humankind (1999 & 2005)

16345659286 Cf1F70C6B8 O

Typ­i­cal land­scape in the Cra­dle of Humankind

Much of what we know about our ori­gins has been learnt from fos­sils of our ances­tral species and their rel­a­tives, known as hominids.

The orig­i­nal Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site (exclud­ing Taung and the Maka­pans Val­ley) stretch­es over an area of about 470 km2 (290 mi2) that is dot­ted with about 300 caves. Inside these caves, palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered thou­sands of fos­sils of hominids and oth­er ani­mals, dat­ing back about 4-mil­lion years, to the birth of humankind. The most famous of these fos­sils are Mrs Ples”, a skull which is more than 2-mil­lion years old, and Lit­tle Foot”, a skele­ton which is between 4-mil­lion and 3-mil­lion years old.

Archae­o­log­i­cal finds at the Cra­dle of Humankind include 1.7-million-year-old stone tools, the old­est record­ed in South­ern Africa. At Swartkrans, near Sterk­fontein, a col­lec­tion of about 270 burnt bones tells us that our ances­tors could man­age fire more than 1-mil­lion years ago.

This ear­ly tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion helped these hominids to keep them­selves warm and to cook, thus expand­ing their diet. Today, through har­ness­ing the pow­er of fire, we can take our­selves from one side of the world to the oth­er and beyond…

Sterk­fontein is one of many palaeon­to­log­i­cal sites in the Cra­dle of Humankind – all togeth­er, there are 15 sites which make up the World Her­itage Site.

  1. Bolt’s Farm: 20 caves with ante­lope, baboon, sabre-toothed cats and rodents, some of which are between 5-mil­lion and 4-mil­lion years old.

  2. Swartkrans: Paran­thro­pus robus­tus, Homo ergaster, baboons, leop­ards, sabre-toothed cats, hye­nas and ante­lope. Evi­dence of the ear­li­est con­trolled use of fire in South­ern Africa, and some of the ear­li­est evi­dence of con­trolled use of fire any­where in the world.

  3. Sterk­fontein: One of the world’s rich­est hominid sites. Finds include Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus and an almost com­plete Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus skeleton.

  4. Minnaar’s Cave: Ani­mal fos­sils include a jack­al skull.

  5. Cooper’s Site: Notable for diverse fau­na includ­ing pigs, car­ni­vores, ante­lope and Paran­thro­pus robus­tus.

  6. Krom­draai: The first spec­i­men of Paran­thro­pus robus­tus was dis­cov­ered at this site by a school­boy, Gert Terblanche, in 1938. The site at which this fos­sil was dis­cov­ered (known as KB”) dates to at least 1.95-million years ago. KA” is a sep­a­rate site, asso­ci­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly with the activ­i­ties of sabre-tooth cats such as Dinofe­lis.

  7. Plover’s Lake: Abun­dant fau­na includ­ing baboon, ante­lope and an extinct form of zebra. Part of the site was prob­a­bly a leop­ard lair. Mid­dle Stone Age deposits with arte­facts have been exca­vat­ed recently.

  8. Won­der Caves: Spec­tac­u­lar cave for­ma­tions. Fos­sils include rodents, frogs, lizards and birds.

  9. Dri­molen: 92 hominid spec­i­mens have been dis­cov­ered here, includ­ing Paran­thro­pus robus­tus and ear­ly Homo.

  10. Mot­setse: Site with well-pre­served fau­na, includ­ing a sabre-tooth cat.

  11. Gladys­vale: Rich fos­sil site with clear stratig­ra­phy (lev­els). Two hominid teeth, much fau­na and plant remains up to 3-mil­lion years old.

  12. Haas­gat: Vari­ety of ear­ly monkeys.

  13. Gon­do­lin: Many fos­sils, includ­ing an enor­mous molar tooth of Paran­thro­pus robus­tus. About 90,000 fos­sil spec­i­mens have been dis­cov­ered here since 1979.

  14. Maka­pans Val­ley: Wealth of ani­mal and hominid fos­sils stretch­ing back more than 3-mil­lion years. The Maka­pans Val­ley was declared part of the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site in 2005, and is about 300 km (185 mi) from Sterk­fontein, near Mokopane in Limpopo Province.

  15. Taung: The Taung Skull Fos­sil Site is where the Taung Child, the type-spec­i­men of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus, was found in 1924. The site is in the North West Province, approx­i­mate­ly 300 km (185 mi) west of Johan­nes­burg. It was declared part of the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site in 2005, along with the Maka­pans Valley.

The Cra­dle of Humankind has links to oth­er World Her­itage Sites that also have impor­tant fos­sil remains relat­ing to hominid evo­lu­tion, includ­ing the San­gi­ran Ear­ly Man Site in Java, Indone­sia; Zhouk­oudi­an, People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na; the Low­er Val­ley of the Awash, Ethiopia; the Low­er Val­ley of the Omo, Ethiopia; and Oldu­vai Gorge and Lae­toli, Tanzania.

ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Land­scape (2017)

The ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Land­scape was named a World Her­itage Site last year, mak­ing it the newest addi­tion to South Africa’s list. The area is locat­ed on South Africa’s bor­der with Botswana and Namib­ia and includes part of the Kgala­ga­di Trans­fron­tier Park.

The large expanse of sand con­tains evi­dence of human occu­pa­tion from the Stone Age to the present and is asso­ci­at­ed with the cul­ture of the for­mer­ly nomadic ǂKhomani San peo­ple and the strate­gies that allowed them to adapt to harsh desert con­di­tions,” Unesco notes.

The ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Land­scape bears tes­ti­mo­ny to the way of life that pre­vailed in the region and shaped the site over thou­sands of years.”