The Cradle of Humankind
Earth as we know it is approximately 4.6 billion years old. Billions of years worth of history that even to this day, scientists are still trying to unravel. From the Jurassic era to Stone Age, to the earliest form of humankind, towards the present, experts have masterfully compiled pieces of history to ensure that critical information is preserved, shared, and explored throughout.
The Cradle of Humankind (Cradle of Humanity) is one of the most important sites for us humans. It is a paleoanthropological site found 50km northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, in the Gauteng province, approximately 90 mins drive. It is believed to be the place where humankind originated.
The location gained prominence by sheer coincidence of discoveries leading to what we know today as one of the eight World Heritage Sites found in South Africa. The site occupies 180 square miles and contains a complex variety of limestone caves with the Sterkfontein Caves being the most visited, and most popular among all caves within the site.
In 1924, an anatomist named Raymond Dart found a skull of a juvenile primate inside a box together with other fossil-bearing rocks sent to him by a quarry manager from Taung. Dart dedicated his research in providing more information about this discovery, describing the fossil and named it Australopithecus africanus (“southern ape of Africa”).
Unfortunately, few scientists took his claims seriously. It was not until 1936 when a Scottish doctor and paleontologist named Robert Broom, discovered the first fragments of an adult australopithecine in Sterkfontein, today’s most visited cave in the Cradle of Humankind.
The discovery of the “Taung Child” by Dart and “Mrs. Ples” by Broom further piqued interest within the scientific community leading to further discoveries of human fossils. Because of these discoveries, experts were led to believe that humankind was born at this location.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1999, “the cradle” which was originally composed of fifteen caves within the site, was initially listed and inducted as a part of the World Heritage list. Declared by UNESCO as “one of the most important in the world for understanding the evolution of the modern man from his ancestors”, the inclusion of the site in the list signifies the cradle’s cultural significance.
A vast number of hominid fossils, the oldest of which date back 3.5 million years ago, along with the earliest known human tools, have all been found at the site. All of these discoveries over the years have established South Africa as the cradle of humankind.
Two of the ten criteria met by the site to be declared as a Heritage Site were:
To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living, or which has disappeared.
To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.
The Cradle’s Caves, Topography, and Climate
Rain occurs mainly in the summer season together with occasional thunderstorms. Temperatures range from -12 degrees to 39 degrees Celsius with an average temperature of 16 degrees Celsius. Lightning strikes across the area are frequent, which may have been a factor of how the early human has developed control of fire.
The Sterkfontein Caves is the most famous tourist destination amongst the 15 caves found within the Cradle of Humankind. It contains the Australopithecus africanus and an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton.
Other fossil sites within the site are:
Bolt’s Farm – fossils of antelope, baboon, and rodents as old as 4 million years.
Swartkrans – evidence of the earliest controlled use of fire in the world, Paranthropus robustus, Homo ergaster fossils.
Minnaar’s Cave – animal fossils including one of the earliest discoveries of a Jackal skull.
Cooper’s Site – known for its diverse content of fauna including the Paranthropus robustus
Kromdraai – the first specimen of Paranthropus robustus was discovered in this site in 1938.
Plover’s Lake – Middle Stone Age deposits and fossils have been excavated recently inside this cave.
Wonder Caves – from the term itself, spectacular cave formations can be found here together with frog, lizard, and bird fossils.
Drimolen – this cave houses 92 hominid specimens.
Motsetse – this site includes a saber-toothed cat fossil.
Gladysvale – plant remains dating back 3 million years ago can be found here along with two hominid teeth.
Haasgat – a variety of early monkey fossils can be found in this cave.
Gondolin – since 1979, approximately 90,000 fossils have been discovered in this cave including a large molar tooth of a Paranthropus robustus.
Makapans Valley – this area was only included on the Cradle of Humankind in 2005 which houses a variety of animal and hominid fossils.
Taung – along with Makapans Valley, Taung was declared as part of the Cradle of Humankind in 2005. It is the site where the “Taung Child” was first discovered by Raymond Dart.
It is strongly advised for any people visiting the caves, or the Cradle of Humankind as a whole, to wear comfortable shoes (preferably trekking/hiking shoes). Visitors are also advised to leave handbags or any luggage behind due to the number of tight spots and pathways to be encountered during a visit. In addition, exploring these caves is not suggested for those with claustrophobia, asthma, or acute chest problems.