Cradle of Humankind

The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs

The Sterkfontein Valley landscape is in both western Gauteng and the North West Province and is also called the Cradle of Humankind because it includes remains of hominids from about 2 to 3.3 million years ago. There is also proof of early stone-age, middle stone-age, later stone-age, early and late iron-age and modern people. Thousands of fossils that show human evolution over the past 3.5 million years have been found since 1936. These fossils are important because they show how these human ancestors lived, what they ate and what animals and plants existed with them.

Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site in 1999. It includes archaeological sites at Sterkfontein, Kromdraai, Swartkrans cave, Coopers B, Wonder Cave, Drimolen, Gladysvale, Gondolin, Plover's Lake, Haasgat, Bolt's Farm and Minnaar's caves. The Sterkfontein caves are the best known because Professor Raymond Dart found the skull of an adult Australopithecus africanus there in 1947. There are about 25 more sites in the area that can be excavated.

The Sterkfontein Caves

The caves are about 10km from Krugersdorp on the Isaac Edwin Stegmann Reserve and part of it is open to the public. The Stegmann family donated the caves to the University of the Witwatersrand.

The first sophisticated people, to explore the caves were lime prospectors in the 1890's. They noticed bone fossils but they didn't report it and in 1936 some students under Professors Raymond Dart and Robert Bloom rediscovered the fossils. They were very excited and when their teachers also visited the caves the real study of the fossils began. They found many hominids, but World War II stopped the work until 1946. Professors Broom and Dart and John Robinson returned to Sterkfontein and in 1947 they found Mrs Ples.

The longest archaeological dig in the area started in 1966 and is still continuing. Professor Philip Tobias (1966 to present), Doctor Ron Clarke (1966 to present) and Mr Alun Hughes (1966 to 1991) have found about 500 more hominids and about 9 000 stone tools they used.

Other sites

The entrance to the Swartkrans cave.

The first strong and healthy fossils of an ape-man man were found at Kromdraai in 1938 and Coopers B also held a part of the face of an ape-man. Drimolen is the newest of all the sites and 30 examples of ape-men have been found there. The Wonder cave is being excavated at the moment and we are waiting for reports on the finds there.Gladysvale has produced hominids, fauna or animal and plant remains that are 3 million years old and at Bolt's Farm archaeologists found microfauna that is older than 4.5 million years. Plover's Lake has a large amount of animal remains that are about 1 million years old. At Haasgat there are fossils of monkeys that lived in the forest nearby about 2.8 million years ago. 90 000 fossils have been found at Gondolin since 1979. Proof of the earliest use of fire, about 1.3 million years ago, has been found at the Swartkrans cave and Minnaar's caves have been schosen as a possible site for hominid fossils.

The skeleton of bear-dog found at Gladysvale.

The Sterkfonten landscape was chosen as a world heritage site because it shows how man and nature have existed and changed over millions of years. It is a source of heritage for the whole world and has very large and scientifically important sites that tell us about the earliest ancestors of the human race.


References:
• Clarke, J. (2010, April 11). Fossil find brings our roots clsoer. The Sunday Independent - Sunday Dispatches , 13
• Forrest, D. (2010, April 9 - 15). The next link in the chain. Mail and Guardian, 18 - 19
• Govender, P. (2010, April 11). Baby hominid found at Cradle. Sunday Times, 8

Last updated : 26-Jan-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011