South Africa is world famous for a multitude of reasons: for being a favourite destination for tourists looking for a beautiful, cost effective holiday; for the overcoming of Apartheid in a relatively peaceful way; for our most famous citizen, Nelson Mandela; for the 2010 FIFA World Cup; and for our sites uncovering early human history.
Indeed, South Africa is a rich repository of information pertaining to humankind’s ancient ancestors, and the Cradle of Humankind is an especially dense area producing impressive findings.
Named a World Heritage Site in 1999 by UNESCO, the Cradle of Humankind is found about 50km northwest of Johannesburg, and covers an estimated area of about 47 000 ha. One of the reasons the site has proved a rich repository of archaeological finds owes to the complex of limestone caves that appealed to early progenitors of Homo sapiens.
In the Sterkfontein Caves (a limestone cave system within the complex), for example, a 2.3 million year old skull of a female Australopithecus Africanus was found. This well-known fossil, popularly named “Mrs Ples”, was found by local archaeologists Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson. This second finding of the remains of an Australopithecus Africanus in 1947 provided undeniable evidence of the existence of the species in Southern Africa, and added new insight into the discovery of the skull of an adolescent child found in Taung in 1924.
The so-called “Taung Child”, discovered by Dr Raymond Dart in the North West Province of SA, was ignored for decades by the international archaeological fraternity but ultimately prevailed as a highly significant piece in the puzzle of human history.
The skull and fossilised endocast of the skull were unearthed by white South Africans mining a rock quarry in the first quarter of the 20th century. The skull itself was initially given, by the company, to the son of one of its directors, who displayed the find above the family fireplace.
A female anatomy student visiting the house noted that the skull was probably from an extinct ape species, and asked permission from the family to have it examined by Dr Dart. Owing to the location of the brainstem, Dr Dart concluded that the skull must have belonged to a species that walked upright (a trait peculiar to humans), and published his findings in the journal, Nature.
Although ignored at first, the finding of Mrs Ples thrust Dr Dart’s findings into the spotlight, and today the Australopithecus Africanus species is seen as integral to the story of the evolution of humankind.
The Cradle of Humankind is therefore not an ill-chosen name for the area, and has to date produced more than a third of the world’s supply of fossils of early hominids. Some of the oldest finds in the area date back about 3.5 million years; these fossils have given researchers considerable evidence to work with, and the area remains a hotspot for continuing digs.
It should be noted, however, that the country as a whole has produced incredible finds, including the earliest evidence of the controlled use of fire, dating back about 1 million years!