By Camilla Bath


Erica Saunders and Peter Mhanaza follow Christine Steininger as she begins the tour of Cooper’s Cave

Camilla Bath explores Cooper’s Cave and the surrounding landscape’s prehistoric riches with palaeoanthropologist Christine Steininger, Maropeng Marketing Manager Erica Saunders and Assistant Food and Beverage Manager Peter Mhanaza.

The moment petite palaeoanthropologist Christine Steininger veers off the beaten track at the Sterkfontein Caves, heading straight into the shoulder-high veld, I realise I’m in for an experience. Her “bag of tricks” strapped tightly to her back, she strides into the wilderness, all the while rattling off the most astounding collection of facts about her favourite topics: human evolution and fossils.

Christine is fascinated by and passionate about hominids, the general term used by archaeologists and palaeontologists for humans and our direct ancestors, stretching back to about 7-million years ago.

At 09h00 on a blissful Saturday morning, we’re walking to Cooper’s Cave, a series of fossil-bearing, breccia-filled cavities situated almost exactly between the sites of Sterkfontein and Kromdraai, where hundreds of hominid fossils have been found over the years.

After enjoying tea and coffee at the Sterkfontein Caves Restaurant, we embark on a journey of about 1.2km that takes us through a cattle fence, around some anthills and over rolling grasslands. The walk is perfect for the younger generation (lets not preclude the older); there’s enough open space to slake any thirst for the outdoors, a myriad different nooks and crannies to explore and even the chance to sample one of our ancestors’ main sources of protein: a live termite!


Christine, with replica hominid skulls, discusses evolution with Erica and Peter

Armed with water and caps to fend off the heat of a summer’s day in the Cradle of Humankind, we wander the countryside, which Christine soon tells us was a vastly different place some 1.7-million years ago.

“The woodlands were on their way out… a drier period emerged and with it savanna vegetation started to dominate the landscape in the Cradle of Humankind.,” she explains.

It was a period of flux, with new animal species arriving on the scene and established species either adapting to a new environment or becoming extinct.

Christine’s wealth of knowledge about this remarkable landscape is evident. As we make our way towards our destination – which none of us can spot yet – she explains what palaeoanthropologists hunting for fossil-rich sites would look for.

“We look at the vegetation to find dolomitic caves,” Christine explains. “What we want are clusters of white stinkwood and olive trees – they show us the soil is calcium rich and we might find sinkholes, fissures and caves.”

Once they’ve identified a site, excavating scientists look for carnivore fossils. As meat eaters would have brought carcasses to the location, there’s more potential for finding diverse species or even the remnants of a hominid. The Cradle of Humankind boasts the world’s greatest concentration of hominid fossils, with more than 1000 discovered here. This is one of the main reasons the Cradle was declared as one of South Africa’s first three World Heritage Sites in 1999, along with Robben Island and iSimangaliso Wetland Park (previously known as St Lucia).


Christine inside Cooper’s Cave

Our trek takes us to a hillock that clearly fits the bill – and we settle in the cool shade of a massive tree, near a cluster of white stinkwoods and olive trees.

Christine starts unfolding what looks like a picnic blanket but, as she disgorges her backpack, I realise that we’re in for a feast of a different kind. I count no less than eight replica hominid skulls – charting the development of humans– being laid out in front of me.

What follows is a riveting talk about evolution that covers a range of topics, including dentition, diet, social structure and anatomy. Christine juggles skulls as she discusses the main skeletal differences between humans and chimps, and everything in between.

“Humans have a broader pelvis which helps supports and distribute our weight over our centre of gravity all the while providing efficient movement on two legs,” she says, adding that the development of larger brains, and babies with larger brains, didn’t happen until much later in human evolution (probably 1.8 million years ago). However, a modified human-like pelvis happened early in hominin evolution, at least 4 million years ago.

She also raises some of the interesting dilemmas that palaeoanthropologists face as they try to plot the evolutionary path we took, even letting us try our own inexperienced hands at deductive reasoning.

After the talk, it’s time for action: we head off to Cooper’s Cave itself. The dolomite we’re walking on was laid down some 2.6 billion years ago. Caves within the dolomitic landscape of the Cradle of Humankind were already forming 20 million years ago.

This natural grotto is only a few metres away, its entrance obscured by thick foliage. Christine laughs as she sends Peter Mhanaza, Maropeng’s assistant food and beverage manager, sliding down the path into the cave on his bottom.

“Go on, Peter!” she says, in her soft American accent. “Men should lead the way, that’s why we brought you!”

Peter’s colleague, Marketing Manager Erica Saunders, is quick to follow, and I watch as she and Christine pick their way through the underbrush as elegantly as possible. As they disappear into the cave, I realise it’s my turn. I try to shuffle in on my feet, knees bent tightly and arms flailing wildly. I am in no way successful (or elegant).


A warthog molar embedded in breccia

Eventually I sink into the muffled, damp oasis of calm that is Cooper’s Cave. The air down here is thicker somehow and tastes of the limestone-rich earth. Water drips slowly from infant stalactites, making a soft “plink, plink” sound as it hits the slowly forming stalagmites below. The noise mixes with the faint rustle of bat wings.

This cave isn’t particularly big or especially impressive, but its authenticity draws us in.

Dust motes twinkle in the dim light as Christine moves through the space, explaining how the cave was formed over a period of 2.6-billion years. She tells us she hasn’t found any fossils here yet, but is keen to investigate a corner near the entrance, which she believes might be hiding some age-old secrets.

We’re lured back to the giant tree with the promise of a lesson in stone-tool making. Cooper’s Cave is arguably the third-richest early stone tool site in the Cradle of Humankind area, after Sterkfontein. En route we’re told to select a piece of rock we can turn into an assault weapon and a hammer stone with which to bash it into shape. Christine then gives us a short demonstration, showing us how to strike the rock and at which angle. Soon the air is filled with the whack of stone on stone and the occasional whimpered “ow”, as we try (badly) to fashion our own tools.

After admitting defeat, we’re whisked off to the Cooper’s Cave deposits. Though the cave itself may not be fossil bearing, the area around it is a gold mine for palaeoanthropologists looking for the remnants of the human race’s ancestors.


Erica, using her tongue, tests to see if a protrusion she believed was a fossil, was actually a fossil

Hominid remains, including an upper incisor and crushed face, an upper third molar and several cranial and postcranial remains have been recovered from the excavation sites here. All have been assigned to Paranthropus robustus except the incisor, which belonged to an indeterminate species.

There’s a surprisingly diverse range of fauna at Cooper’s Cave. Two new species of mammals were unearthed here: an ancestor of the wild dog and a very small cat. Christine and her team, who have been excavating here since 1999, have found other creatures, including extinct short-necked giraffe, hunting hyena and sabre-toothed cats. She takes us into the trenches of her excavation site, leading us to the biggest warthog molar I’ve ever seen, embedded in the breccia.

As my eye darts around the walls, trying to spot that elusive hominid, Christine explains to Erica that fossils are easier to detect than you’d think: “Just lick it. Go on, who wants to lick that bone?”

Erica dutifully points out a protrusion she believes could be a fossil and puts tongue to rock to confirm her theory. When her tongue doesn’t stick to the protrusion, Christine points to another possible relic from the past. It proves to be far more porous to the touch – “proof” that it is, indeed, a fossil.

Christine explains that Cooper’s is a “live” dig: “We’re still excavating here … [but] it costs around R1-million a year to do that. There’s a need for financial support and the tours I’m going to lead will hopefully fund the dig. They’ll also be financing the research students here. … The potential of this site is staggering.”

After we root around in the fascinating mini-labyrinth of Cooper’s D, it’s back to the shade of our base camp tree for some much-needed nourishment. Included in the outing is a a light family-friendly picnic, with everything from sandwiches and snacks to soft drinks and ice-cold water.


Included in the tour of Cooper’s Cave is a light family-friendly picnic

The stroll back to our starting point is as fascinating as the trip out, with Christine sharing more of her expertise (and even a few personal stories). Then, suddenly, we emerge from the unkempt veld as quickly as we entered it.

As we step back onto Sterkfontein’s paved pathway, I watch Christine saunter away in mud-smeared pants and I’m reminded of something she said before we started on this adventure: “I want people to get dirty and have fun! I don’t even want them to know they’re learning.”

Maropeng is offering a limited number of people exclusive walks with Christine Steininger to Cooper’s Cave, which is not normally open to the public, at a cost of R350.00 per person. This will go towards keeping the dig working. Click here to book for the first walk, on April 10.

Click here to book for the second walk, on May 1.

Click here to book for the third walk, on June 5.