• October 02, 2012

Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia praecox) – Author: D. Johnson

CRADLE OF HUMANKIND WORLD HERITAGE SITE: The site lies mainly in the Gauteng Province with a small extension into the neighbouring North West Province.

Fact Sheet: This area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 2 December 1999.  Although most of the fossil sites are on privately owned land, any finds belong to the world and the area is strictly controlled and protected.
Anthropologists and pre-historians throughout the world agree that:

• This is one of the most important scientific areas connected to the history of human evolution in South Africa and in the world.

 • A handful of the world's great cities trace their heritage to early human settlements many years ago. Joburg's earliest residents were in the neighbourhood of 3 million years ago on the 47 000 ha area, situated off the R563 in the Isaac Edwin Stegman Nature Reserve, a mere 20 minutes (40 km) northwest of Joburg and 12 km from Krugersdorp.

• In 2005, 2 other highly significant sites, Makapan and Taung were listed as serial sites together with the COH WHS. Together these form the Fossil Hominid sites of South Africa. The site is of outstanding universal value, because it contains a complex of Palaeo-anthropological sites, which have yielded some of the most valuable evidence in the world of the origins of modern humans, hence the name “Cradle of Humankind”. The sites have provided us with a window into the past, to a time when our earliest ancestors were evolving and changing. Scientists have long accepted that all humans had their origins in Africa.

• Embedded in the rocks found in numerous dolomitic caves in the area are the fossilized remains of hominids, their cultural remains, fossils of animals and pollen as well as fossilised wood giving a virtually complete picture of the hominids and their surroundings, dating back over 4-million years

Located outside at the entrance of Maropeng
– Author: D. Johnson

• The Sterkfontein Caves have become famous for its palaeontological and archaeological treasures, including “Mrs. Ples”, the 2-million year old hominid skull discovered in 1947. This was the first complete Australopithecus skull to be discovered.

• The internationally famous fossil sites of Swartkrans and Drimolen are 3 of the richest fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind, containing more than 500 hominid fossils, as well as thousands of animal fossils and 300 fragments of fossil wood. Many of the world’s hominid fossils have been uncovered here and over 9 000 stone tools have been excavated in the 13 explored sites. There are more than 250 sites known in the area.

Little Foot’ as seen in a display cabinet in Maropeng – Author:  – D. Johnson

The area contains archaeological sites dating to the Early, Middle and LaterStone Age and the Early and Late Iron Ages, showing the evidence of both natural and cultural evolution. The area is also home to some of the important battle sites of the South African War, previously known as the boer War. The area also has significant ecological value containing many plant communities, some of which are rare, with associated diverse animal communities.

• 3-million years of human activity have taken place in and around these caves, including man's earliest-known mastery of fire

• The Stegmann family donated the land that the Sterkfontein Caves is on to the University of Witwatersrand. A section of the caves are open to the public, and there is a  platform from which the public can view the excavation site 

• The dolomite, from which the caves formed, started out as deposits in a warm shallow salty sea about 2.3-billion years ago

• Millions of years later after the sea had receded; slightly acidic groundwater began to dissolve out calcium carbonate from the dolomite to form underground caverns. Over time the water table dropped and the underground caverns were exposed to the air. The percolation of acidic water through the dolomite also dissolved calcium carbonates out of the rock into the caverns, which formed stalactites, stalagmites and other crystalline structures. Continued erosion on the earth's surface and dissolution of the dolomite eventually resulted in shafts or caverns forming between the surface of the earth and the caverns below. Bones, stones and plants washed down these shafts into the caves; and animals and hominids fell into the caves, became trapped and died. The bone and plant remains became fossilized and along with various stones and pebbles became cemented in a hard mixture called breccias.
The split of the hominid lineage from that of the African apes took place around 6-7 million years ago. The study of hominid fossils from sites in Africa enables scientists to understand how these hominids have changed and diversified.

Developments around the area include the following:

• The government set aside a budget of R189-m for investment in roads and build infrastructure to appropriately develop the area and to leverage private sector investment in tourism development. It has been developed into a key tourism destination in Gauteng.

• In October 2006 the Gauteng Provincial Government entered into a contract valued a R163-m with Maropeng a’ Africa Leisure (Pty) Ltd for the construction, design and operation of world-class exhibitions and recreational facilities showcasing the site.

This public-private partnership (PPP) was the first of its kind, which included a concession agreement that required Maropeng a’ Africa Leisure (Pty) Ltd to pay an annual concession fee, for which government would invest in community benefit projects and in research.

The University of the Witwatersrand is a key partner in this PPP as the owners of the Sterkfontein Caves and owns the intellectual property related to the fossil discoveries made by its scientists in the Cradle.

This project took 1½ years to complete with the implementation of 2 visitors' sites, one at Sterkfontein and another at Maropeng, 8 km apart.

This development – called Maropeng – opened its doors to the public in December 2005. It also included substantially upgraded facilities at Sterkfontein Caves.

The experience at Sterkfontein focuses on the scientific aspect of the site, while Maropeng is more of a hands-on, educational experience.

The developments at Maropeng were made possible by the generous donation of land by Standard Bank to the local government.

A new site called Malapa has been discovered recently by Prof. Lee Berger and his 11 year old son Andrew;.  Together with his international team, Prof Berger discovered two hominid skeletons.  One of them is represented by an adolescent boy (nicknamed Karabo which means “answer”).  A skeleton of an adult female has also been discovered.  These 2 individuals are almost 2-million years old. 

The cranium of the juvenile skeleton of Australopithecus Sediba
named ‘Karabo’ – Author: Brett Eloff, courtesy of the Wits University

The naming of the hominid was put out as a South African schools project with over 16000 entries.

The fossils, a juvenile male and an adult female, were deposited within a single debris flow and occur together in a near articulated state in the remains of a deeply eroded cave system. The sedimentary and geological context indicates that the timing of their death was closely related and occurred shortly before the debris flow carried them to their place of burial.

The species has long arms, like an ape, short powerful hands, a very advanced pelvis (hip bone) and long legs capable of striding and possibly running like a human. It is likely that they could have climbed. It is estimated that they were both about 1.27 m, although the child would certainly have grown taller. The female probably weighed about 33 kg and the child about 27 kg at the time of his death. The brain size of the juvenile was between 420-450 cc, which is small (when compared to the human brain of about 1200-1600 cc) but the shape of the brain seems to be more advanced than that of Australopithecines.

Through a combination of faunal, U-Pb and palaeomagnetic dating techniques, the age of the rocks encasing the fossils has been determined at 1.95-1.78 Ma. Cosmogenic dating was used to interpret the landscape formation and to determine the depth of the cave at the time.

The skeletons were found amongst the articulated skeletons of a sabre-toothed cat, antelope, mice and rabbits. They are preserved in a hard, concrete like substance known as calcified clastic sediment that formed at the bottom of what appears to be a shallow underground lake or pool that was possibly about 30-50 m underground about 1,9-million years ago.

Fossil preparators have worked arduously over the last year and a half to extract the bones from the rock. About 60 leading scientists from around the world and tens of students have had the opportunity to work on these precious fossils. The most sophisticated scanning technology has been used to unveil the secrets of the past.

The fossils are owned by the people of South Africa, and curated by the University of the Witwatersrand, Joburg. The adult female it was displayed to the public at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind from 11 June – 11 July 2010 while the juvenile skeleton was on display at the Wits Origins Centre during this period.
Visit  for a comprehensive overview of the discovery.

About the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg: it is one of the leading higher education institutions in Africa, and is one of only two institutions in Africa that features in two separate international rankings. It has a long history of research excellence in the palaeo-sciences and is the curator of a number of priceless fossils.

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