Maropeng tourist guides and visitors looking at fossils in the fossil display room at Maropeng

By Bianca Bothma

From a palaeontological perspective South Africa is one of the most exciting countries to work in, argued Professor Bruce Rubidge, director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, at the opening of a new fossil display at the Maropeng Visitor Centre recently.

The Treasures of our Past fossil display, opened on December 2, 2010, includes specimens from the Bernard Price Institute and the Institute for Human Evolution, both based at the University of Witwatersrand.

Display items include hominid fossils, the world’s oldest dinosaur eggs, as well as an almost complete skeleton of Tapinocaninus pamelae, considered the oldest land-living reptile and weighing close to one ton.

Rubidge elaborated why South Africa is a fascinating country for palaeontologists: “We’ve got rocks of all different ages in this country, from the oldest rocks in the world right until recent times, and they record the development of life on Earth right from the earliest evidence of life 3.5-billion years ago.”

As a result of discoveries made in the area – of evidence of human evolution dating back more than 3-million years – the Cradle of Humankind was named a World Heritage Site in 1999.

While South Africa is well-known for the discoveries of “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot”, the country has a rich fossil heritage that extends well beyond these particular specimens, and this needs to be shared with the public, says Lindsay Marshall, Maropeng curator: “Maropeng exists because of the fascinating research done and discoveries made over the years by the likes of the famous palaeoanthropologist Professor Phillip Tobias and palaeontologist Dr Robert Broom.”

On a recent research trip to South Africa, her third, in November this year, Chinese palaeonthropologist Dr Zhang Yue from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, explained how South Africa is an ideal place for palaeoanthropology field studies.

“South Africa has so many important fossils so there is a lot for me to study and learn here,” she said.

On November 24, Zhang presented a fascinating lecture at the Origins Centre on findings made at Zhoukoudian, an excavation site known as the Chinese birthplace of palaeoanthropology.

The Treasures of our Past fossil display will be on until the middle of January 2011. Visit Maropeng this holiday season and learn more about South Africa’s rich fossil heritage.