The dis­cov­ery of fire was vital for humankind. Image cour­tesy Mustafa Khay­at

It’s safe to say that with­out the dis­cov­ery of fire, you would not be read­ing this. Learn­ing how to har­ness this ener­gy was immense­ly impor­tant for humankind – just stop for a minute and think where we might be with­out it.

It shaped our cul­ture completely.

Ear­ly civ­i­liza­tions used slash-and-burn” agri­cul­tur­al tech­niques to clear land and allow it to re-nour­ish itself. Agri­cul­ture and all it has pro­duced owes a lot to fire.

As humankind toiled in cold­er climes, fire pro­vid­ed life-giv­ing heat. Many pop­u­la­tions that lived in frigid cli­mates would not have sur­vived the harsh win­ters. It also led to the cre­ation of new indus­tri­al tech­niques like met­al­work­ing, which was a major fac­tor in human development.

But what’s real­ly incred­i­ble is that you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to walk among a world-renowned work­ing dig site that yield­ed the first evi­dence of man’s con­trolled use of fire, right here in our backyard.

Led by sci­en­tist Dr Mor­ris Sut­ton, you are able to explore Swartkrans, one of the rich­est fos­sil sites in the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site, and observe an active palaeon­to­log­i­cal dig where this fas­ci­nat­ing evi­dence was dis­cov­ered many years ago.


Dr Mor­ris Sut­ton takes vis­i­tors through the Swartkrans dig site

Swartkrans is a very his­toric site that has been worked on since the late 1940s, and has yield­ed a wealth of hominid fos­sils and infor­ma­tion, which helps us bet­ter under­stand hominid behav­iour,” explains Sutton.

Researchers dis­cov­ered deposits of burned bone between 1-mil­lion and 900 000 years old, togeth­er with stone and bone tools, which has lead to great spec­u­la­tion about our ances­tors’ abil­i­ty to braai. Most researchers believe that the tools and burned bones are the result of activ­i­ty from Homo ergaster.

We do not have Homo fos­sils from the burned bone area, but we think that’s because they were burn­ing them,” says Sut­ton. Paran­thro­pus robus­tus was still being preyed upon and entered the cave deposits via oth­er car­ni­vores. Ear­ly Homo had become a preda­tor and was no longer prey, thus Homo fos­sils are not found in the younger deposits of Swartkrans.”

Dr Bob Brain, who made the first dis­cov­ery of stone tools in the near­by Sterk­fontein area in 1956, first hypoth­e­sized that ear­ly hominid bones were food remains left by large preda­tors like leop­ard and hye­na. This meant ear­ly hominids were not hunters, but the hunted.

Fas­ci­nat­ing insights like these are just some of the things you’ll learn while explor­ing Swartkrans. The cost of the tour is R375 per per­son, which includes a light pic­nic lunch. The tour is strict­ly for adults only, and will go ahead if there is a min­i­mum of sev­en peo­ple booked.

Click here for book­ings.