The Wildebeest's guide to South Africa

Cradle of Humankind

Afrikaans name: Wieg van die Mensdom

Maropeng Visitor Centre

Maropeng an excellent place to visit

Photo © Steven Herbert

For anyone who is fascinated by history, South Africa is a country that has it in abundance. While you could spend hours travelling to the different museums in South Africa, there is one place you should definitely make a point of visiting. Known as the Cradle of Humankind, this location is home to numerous sites and caves where some of the most influential discoveries were made in palaeoanthropology. The Cradle of Humankind allows visitors to step back in time and learn about the origins of the world and how life came to be as we know it. The area known as the Cradle of Humankind spans over 47 000 hectares of privately owned land in Gauteng, and it consists of numerous caves, where such ground-breaking discoveries have been made. The main visitors centre is located about 50 kilometres from the north-west side of Johannesburg.

The Cradle of Humankind is a large area, but it is divided into smaller segments that you can visit. The main visitors centre is known as Maropeng which translated from Setswana means return to your origins. This building houses a few fossils of animals, dinosaurs, and early hominids. While Maropeng is aimed at teaching us about the past, the curators have gone to great lengths to embrace technology and make the displays as interactive as possible. When you begin your self-guided tour throughout the museum, you will be ushered to an automated ride that will help you understand the earth’s formation and timeline. Once that is over, you will be free to explore the rest of the museum at your own pace. The exhibits help you to understand why the discoveries made at the various fossil sites are so substantial to understanding our evolution. As you work your way through the building, you also get a glimpse of South Africa’s, and the world’s, more modern history as well as a few prompts to make you think about the direction we may be heading towards in the future. There is also an exhibit which allows visitors to see researchers working in person on some of the discoveries made at the sites that make up the Cradle of Humankind.

A cast of the skull known as Mrs. Ples

A cast of the skull known as Mrs Ples

Photo © Steven Herbert

There are over 200 caves that form part of the Cradle of Humankind, but the main one’s tourists tend to visit are the Wonder Caves and Sterkfontein. These two cave systems have been the source of many great discoveries. While these caves are part of Cradle of Humankind, they are not located in the same area as the Maropeng Visitors Centre so you will have to drive a bit further to go on a tour of either of these caves. While these tours are open to anyone, there is a certain level of difficulty required to adventure into the caves. These tours are not recommended for the elderly and anyone who is claustrophobic or disabled. There is another cave, called the Rising Star Cave, which is currently under excavation, so visitors are not allowed, but it is nice to know that there is still so much to be discovered in this area.

Rolling hills in the Cradle of Humankind

Rolling hills in the Cradle of Humankind

Photo © Steven Herbert

The Sterkfontein Caves are located about 40 kilometres outside of Johannesburg, in Muldersdrift. The area, along with the rest of the Cradle of Humankind were recognised as World Heritage Sites in 2000. Nearby to the Sterkfontein caves are Swartkrans and Kromdraai, which are both sites that contain numerous hominin fossils. The very first discoveries were made in the late 1890s, when limestone miners began mining the area. It was only in 1936 that serious efforts were made to excavate and study the area. The most substantial discovery made in the cave was the complete skull of either a female or young male Australopithecus Africanus, which is most commonly known by the name, Mrs Ples. This discovery was made in 1947. Another discovery that continued interest in the Sterkfontein Caves was the discovery of a second species of Australopithecus in 1997. This discovery of a nearly complete skeleton became known as Little Foot.

The Rising Star Caves have also yielded some major discoveries such as the remains of the Homo Naledi, which was a previously unknown species of hominin. The excavations in this cave system began in the 1960s, but only in 2013 to 2015 did researchers begin to realise that these were from a completely new species. The system of caves that make up this site are notorious for their difficulty in accessing them. One part of the cave has been nicknamed ‘Superman’s Crawl’ as it is only possible to navigate this vertical passageway, is to keep one arm above your head and the other close to your body. When more extensive excavations began in 2013, only six female paleoanthropologists were chosen to join the team to go down the caves. This was due to the fact that the cave they were interested in studying, only had an entrance of 18 centimetres wide. The women chosen were later given the collective name, The Underground Astronauts.

Model of an early hominid

Above and below - Exhibit of early hominids

Model of an early hominid

Photos © Steven Herbert

While the Cradle of Humankind is known as being the place where humankind began, many other fossils were discovered here too. Evidence that animals that are now extinct have been found here, such as giant buffaloes, short-necked giraffes, giant hyenas, and a few different species of sabre-toothed cats. Along with the remains of the hominids found here, the tools that they used were also unearthed. With these discoveries, we can get a better idea of how they used to survive. In more recent times, the Khoe-San people were also known to live on the land, and we can also examine the objects and rock art they left behind to determine what life was like for them.

If you do plan on making a trip to the Cradle of Humankind, there are a number of places for you to stay and explore. The Maropeng Visitors Centre does have an upmarket restaurant and you are also able to hike in the area surrounding the building. It is worthwhile for anyone who is interested in learning about the origins of the human species. Even if you are unable or choose not to go to the caves, it still is an enriching experience.


References and further reading

Atlas of National Parks and Reserves of South Africa - Author: Marielle Renssen - Year Published: 2006 - Page: 108

Country Life - Issue 228 - Author: - Year Published: 2015 - Page: 72

Family Fun - Author: Lisa McNamara - Year Published: 2015 - Page: 126

Getaway - Vol 28 No 08 - Author: - Year Published: 2016 - Page: 124

Of Hominins, Hunter-Gatherers and Heroes - Author: David Bristow - Year Published: 2019 - Page: 11

Of Hominins, Hunter-Gatherers and Heroes - Author: David Bristow - Year Published: 2019 - Page: 19


Maropeng Exhibition Guide

Wikipedia - Sterkfontein

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