Bergerkibiimalapa 1

Job Kibii with Lee Berg­er at the Mala­pa Cave site

It’s proved to be a trea­sure trove of fos­sils has Mala­pa Cave, one of the young­sters at the Cra­dle of Humankind.

Only three years ago, Pro­fes­sor Lee Berg­er of the Insti­tute for Human Evo­lu­tion and the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits), School of Geo­sciences was inge­nious­ly using Google Earth to sur­vey the Cra­dle for undis­cov­ered cave sites. By look­ing at clumps of lime­stone-lov­ing trees, he was able to pin­point 500 undis­cov­ered cave sites.

Mala­pa (mean­ing home­stead in Sesotho) was one of them, and one that imme­di­ate­ly proved to be a remark­ably fer­tile hunt­ing ground.

The fos­sils have not stopped com­ing. Mak­ing world head­lines was the dis­cov­ery at Mala­pa of two of Africa’s most com­plete hominid skele­tons of the new species of human ances­tor known as Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba. Since then sci­en­tists at Mala­pa have con­tin­ued to unearth addi­tion­al hominid fos­sils, and fos­sils of more than 25 ani­mal species that include brown hye­na, ante­lope, sabre-toothed cat, wild dog and horse.

The Mala­pa Cave sys­tem, now exposed after mil­lions of years of ero­sion, was once many metres under­ground. There is evi­dence that some of these ani­mals fell down ver­ti­cal shafts,” says Dr Job Kibii, a researcher at the Insti­tute for Human Evo­lu­tion and a co-per­mit hold­er and direc­tor of exca­va­tions at the small but now world-famous Mala­pa site, about 15km north-east of the Sterk­fontein Caves.

At the Mala­pa site, the con­cealed open­ings of ver­ti­cal shafts would have been death traps, and cer­tain­ly this sce­nario is the most like­ly for most of the fau­na recov­ered from the cave, and prob­a­bly the sed­i­ba hominids. The remains found at Mala­pa were not scav­enged, and this part­ly explains the com­plete­ness and rich­ness of fos­sils at the site.

There is evi­dence that yel­low­wood trees grew in the Mala­pa area two mil­lion years ago, which indi­cates that it was once wet­ter and far more forested.”

Kibii clear­ly recalls the dis­cov­ery of the Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba skele­tons, and his account is much like a thriller. Three days before the first find I asked Pro­fes­sor Berg­er if he would be my aca­d­e­m­ic post­doc­tor­al host, and he had asked me if I’d be inter­est­ed in exca­vat­ing a new cave site at the Cra­dle. We both accept­ed each other’s request, and on Fri­day August 15 [2008] we decid­ed to vis­it Malapa.”

Editjob Kibii And Peter Schmid Repairing Sieves At Malapa

Dr Peter Schmid of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Zurich and Job Kibii repair sieves at the Mala­pa Cave site

Kibii describes arriv­ing on site at 10am with Berg­er, Berger’s son Matthew and their dog Tau. I was sur­prised at Mala­pa,” he says. It was a small hole in the ground with trees in the mid­dle. There were a num­ber of loose brec­cia blocks scat­tered on the sur­face that min­ers had blast­ed, prob­a­bly in the late 19th or ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Some of the brec­cia blocks had vis­i­ble bones on the sur­face and Lee sug­gest­ed we gath­er them.

At about 10.45am Tau wan­dered off into the long grass and Matthew fol­lowed, leav­ing Lee and me on the edge of the pit, strate­gis­ing the way for­ward to exca­vate the site.

Sud­den­ly Matthew called out, Dad I found a fos­sil!’ Lee said it was prob­a­bly anoth­er ante­lope and went to check. I walked into the pit to get a bet­ter feel of it and heard Lee exclaim, Son of a gun!’ He called out to me to come and have a look.”

Kibii says that embed­ded in the brec­cia block Matthew had found was a clear­ly vis­i­ble well-pre­served hominid clav­i­cle (col­lar­bone) on one side, and a canine on the oppo­site. We were over the moon,” he says. We had found rare hominid spec­i­mens on our first day at Mala­pa, and they were in pris­tine con­di­tion. These would lat­er turn out to be spec­i­mens of the juve­nile male now known as Karabo.”

On Sep­tem­ber 4 Berg­er and Kibii returned to the site with col­leagues from the Bernard Price Insti­tute and the Insti­tute for Human Evo­lu­tion. How­ev­er, after hours of flip­ping almost every loose brec­cia block, he says the enthu­si­asm had some­what fad­ed. No addi­tion­al hominid fos­sil was found.

But the sun was ris­ing high­er, and the shad­ows of trees over the site were chang­ing,” says Kibii. Lee was stand­ing at the edge of the pit, look­ing into it, and saw the head of a hominid humerus (upper arm bone) pro­trud­ing from the wall. He went in to have a clos­er look and, as he leaned against the wall, two hominid teeth fell into his hand.”

On Sep­tem­ber 10 the brec­cia block con­tain­ing the humerus was detached and tak­en to Wits Uni­ver­si­ty, where it revealed the com­plete upper arm and near-com­plete hand of the adult female.

Kibii still returns to Mala­pa. I go every now and then,” he says. After our dis­cov­er­ies in 2008 I was tasked with over­see­ing and direct­ing exca­va­tion at the site. Dur­ing this time, numer­ous oth­er hominid and fau­na spec­i­mens were recovered.”

Aside from unearthing the Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba spec­i­mens, oth­er high­lights for Kibii at Mala­pa were his Feb­ru­ary 27, 2009 dis­cov­ery of the only horse spec­i­mens, which set the upper lim­it date of Mala­pa for fau­na at 2.36-million years. Oth­ers are Jan­u­ary 17, 2010, when some of the Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba female lum­bar ver­te­brae were dis­cov­ered, and Jan­u­ary 27 that year when the sed­i­ba adult female pelvic ili­um was found.

I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on the hand and pelvis of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba, and analysing oth­er fau­na from the Mala­pa site, as well as direct­ing exca­va­tion,” says Kibii. I nev­er fail to be excit­ed when vis­it­ing this site. Every time we recov­er more fos­sils we are adding to the data­base of what we know about evolution.” 

Maropeng is host­ing a series of exclu­sive tours around the new fos­sil dis­play, More secrets of sed­i­ba revealed. The tour costs R350. It begins at 16h00 and includes a deli­cious din­ner at the Maropeng Bou­tique Hotel.

• Sep­tem­ber 10: Tour led by Dr Bern­hard Zipfel, cura­tor of col­lec­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Witwatersrand
• Sep­tem­ber 17: Tour led by Chris­tine Steininger, per­mit hold­er for the Cooper’s Cave fos­sil sites
• Sep­tem­ber 24: Tour led by Dr Job Kibii, co-per­mit hold­er for the Mala­pa fos­sil site