Return to the place of origins
Robert Inglis and Nonhlanhla Vilakazi visited the Cradle of Humankind, where secrets of our past continue to be unearthed
Marcus Garvey wrote, "A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots". We're not sure he was thinking 3 million years in the past, but it was with a strong desire to encounter our roots that we set off for the next site on our trip around the prehistory sites of South Africa.
If you haven't been to the Cradle of Humankind, a journey of discovery awaits you. F or most of us, the corridors of human ancestry feel a little like the caves we are about to enter: dark and a little frightening. You need a good guide.
And a good guide is just what you'll get when you visit the Maropeng Visitors' Centre or the Sterkfontein Caves. We had Maropeng Ramalepa to take us into a cave network that is one of the most productive sites in the world for hominid (related to humans) remains. To date, it has yielded more than 700 skeletons of a human ancestor called Australopithecus africanus, which inhabited these parts 2-3 million years ago.
Ramalepa leads us out of the sunlight and into the cool damp of the Sterkfontein Caves. His first name means "return to the place of origins" - and underground seems a good place to search for our roots.
The limestone in the caves has created the perfect environment for the preservation of human (and animal) remains for millions of years. Descending into the gloomy depths, one can see spots of light in the cave roof. These holes claimed their victims - one minute roaming in the sunlight looking for food and trying not to be eaten by sabre-tooth cats (of which fossils have also been found here), the next falling to the bottom of a cold, dark cave, where their bone matter was slowly replaced by limestone.
The Sterkfontein caves were made famous when Professor Robert Broom and John Robinson announced the discovery of "Mrs Ples" in 1947. Mrs Ples (initially thought to have been female) was an Australopithecus africanus, a species whose discovery in the Northern Cape Taung area made international headlines when it was announced by Professor Raymond Dart in 1925. He had realised the importance of the skull of a child found in a mine, at a time when scientists worldwide were seeking the "missing link" postulated by Charles Darwin - a creature with both human and primate features. Since then, a number of further specimens have been discovered, including the almost entire skeleton of "Little Foot".
The caves are an excellent experience, although a certain level of fitness is required.
The visit is definitely complemented by a trip to the Maropeng Visitors Centre a few kilometres away. On an interactive journey that takes visitors from the birth of our planet to the present day and beyond, one is encouraged to reflect on the millions of years of evolution that brought us to this point - and how close we've come to our own destruction.
The discovery in 2008 of Australopithecus sediba once again placed SA, and the Sterkfontein complex, in the spotlight. The latest find includes a family of four individuals, including a child. The type specimen, named Karabo in a national competition for children, dates to between 1.7 and 1.9 million years ago. She has characteristics of both A africanus and modern-day humans.
A team of researchers, technical experts and even computer modellers, led by Professor Lee Berger from the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits University, have come together to bring the latest technology and approaches to palaeontology to the site. By recording the find in minute detail and sharing the resulting databases on an open platform, they've enabled hundreds of scientists from around the world to simultaneously work "on" the skeletons at any given time - hugely increasing the potential for unearthing new information and theories about their development.
Karabo means "answer" in Setswana. The fossils were discovered by 9-year-old Matthew Berger, son of Professor Lee Berger. A child, found by a child and (now) named by a child, reminds us that the knowledge unearthed with these ancient bones gives us a deeper understanding of our roots - which our children now carry towards their futures.
- Nonhlanhla Vilakazi is a PhD palaeo-herpetologist at Wits University. Robert Inglis is a director of Jive Media, an independent science communication agency. The tour of palaeontological sites was sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology through SAASTA (www.saasta.ac.za).
- Read Vilakazi's blog at www.africanorigins.co.za.
If you go : How to get there :
Maropeng is situated on the D400, just off the R563 Hekpoort road. From Pretoria, head west on the N14, then turn right onto the R563 towards Hekpoort.
- For Sterkfontein, turn right at the signboard. It's about 1km to the entrance on right.
- For Maropeng, stay on the R563 heading towards Hekpoort. Turn left onto the D400. The entrance is 1.7km later, on the right.
- Sterkfontein: S: 26.017°; E: 27.729°.
- Maropeng: S: 25.979°; E: 27.665°.
- For more information, visit www.maropeng.co.za or phone 014 577 9000.