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Fossil Hominid Sites

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The Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa comprise three groups of limestone caves where early hominid fossils have been found that contribute to the understanding of the evolution of humankind.

The findings include two different hominid species: Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus. The first was a predecessor of the homo sapiens, the second shared its time on earth with early humans. Among the inscribed locations is the Taung Skull site, where in 1924 the first example of the Australopithecus africanus was discovered.

The oldest fossils date to 3.5 million years ago. The oldest stone tools have been discovered here too, and the oldest evidence of controlled use of fire. Hundreds of specimens of hominids and early humans have been found, these high numbers contribute to the value of these sites.

Map

Visit October 2016

My two-week journey around eastern South Africa is going to be one of obscure sites. This is partly inevitable, due to remoteness or lack of tourism features of WHS like Mapungubwe and Vredefort Dome. But my first site of this trip is an obscure one by choice: for ticking off the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa, there is the easy option of the Sterkfontein Caves (close to Johannesburg). From what I gathered it’s a bit of a zoo, so I opted for one of the other inscribed sets of fossil hominid caves. Fortunately there’s one about half way on the road north between Johannesburg and Mapungubwe: the Makapan Valley.

The Makapan Valley was added as an extension to the Sterkfontein area in 2005. It is said to enrich the original nomination, with its long unbroken record of occupation (spanning almost the entire 3.5 million years) and the recovery of fossil fauna alongside. The location (notably the Cave of Hearths) was deemed “as good” in its own right as the Ethiopian Valleys of the Omo and the Awash. The hominid fossils found here are of the Australopithecus africanus and Homo heidelbergensis species.

Gaining entrance to the site proved not to be easy, especially while organizing it from abroad. I learned that the area can currently only be visited on appointment. The e-mail adresses that I found online turned out to be invalid however. So I decided to just show up at the associated Arend Dieperink Museum in nearby Mokopane. The museum is a charming ramshackle private collection with bits and pieces of local history. There’s one exhibition room devoted to findings from the Makapan Valley. It may not look much from the outside, but I was delighted to come eye-to-eye with several skull fragments of specimens of the Australopithecus africanus. They really had much smaller heads than modern humans.

Upon leaving the museum, I asked the lady in charge how to go about a visit to the Makapan’s Caves. “You can go there now – it’s always open”, she replied. So no appointment then? I was a bit sceptical, but decided to drive there anyway. The caves lie north of Mokopane, at a signposted turnoff from the ‘old’ road to Polokwane. The last couple of kilometers to the site itself are on an unpaved road. It was just doable with my standard rental car. I had no idea where I would end up, but after passing a hamlet called Makapan Valley I found myself right in front of a gate of National Park proportions. A female guardian came up and after telling that I’d like to see the caves, she directed me inside and said that a guide would be available for me there.

I arrived at what is now ‘the office’ of Makapan Valley World Heritage Site. The guide on duty asked “Have you paid for the tour already?”. Apparently one has to pay at an office on the outskirts of Mokopane (at the Mokopane Center across the street from the Park Hotel?) – which of course I didn’t know about. But he took pity on me, and got into the car with me to the caves that lie still much further into the countryside.

Three caves are open to visitors. The first one has limestone deposits, that’s where the hominid fossils were found. When we arrived at its gate though, it turned out that my guide had forgotten to bring the right keys. Not wanting to drive all the way back on the bad road, we just went on to the other two caves which lie next to each other. These particular caves were used for mining, and railway tracks are still visible. First we saw the Cave of Hearths, renowned for the first hominid-controlled fire and many stone age findings. The top layer of the cave has almost collapsed. And along the same trail lies the ‘Historic’ Cave – the site of a siege between the local Kekana Chief Makapan, who with his clan members sought refuge in these caves, and the advancing Voortrekkers in 1854.

A “world-class” Visitor Centre with auditorium was planned for Makapansgat in 2005, paid for by lottery money. It never materialized. Of course the stories and findings are much more exciting than the actual caves. A remarkable object found here is the Makapansgat Pebble: a 3 million years old pebble shaped like a human face. It’s a ‘manuport’, probably the oldest ever found: a natural object removed from its original setting by humans (or hominids), who did not alter it but took it back to the cave because they may have recognized its symbolic or aesthetic value.

Community Reviews


Elbi Dippenaar - August 2010

I have been there, I don't live too far, and I must say, even though they show you fakes, in this country you cannot afford to let the real ones just be there.... but i must say it is as close as you can get to the real thing and all the extra first hand information about history that you can experience in a very futuristic way definitely makes it worth your while..


Driefen Deeders - December 2008

I landed in Johannesburg hoping to see Ms ples and the escavation of little foot. little did i know that i had paid a fortune to see some plastic figures as i didnt even get to see a glimpse of the actual authentic fossils-although the caves and scenery was brilliant


Winnie Mokokwe

The place is very impressive.However the new develoments have included an OFFENSIVE(!)statue of Homo heidlebergensis.People cant even bear to look at it.Can something please be done about it


André Dique

It is possible to visit the Sterkfontein caves but you have to find your own way to get there. They do tours of the caves for a nominal fee (tips are optional) but don't expect to see many fossils. The archeolocial digs were all closed off.

The caves are impressive and it is a good day out, considering the many unique private restaurants in the area. That way you could drive around the Highveld countryside enjoying some time away from the city bustle of Johannesburg.


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Site Info

Full name: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa

Site History

  • 2013 - Name change

    From "The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs" - to "Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa"
  •  
  • 2005 - Extended

    To include Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site ( former TWHS Makapan Valley (2003))
  •  
  • 1999 - Inscribed

    Reasons for inscription
  •  

Locations

The site has 3 locations.

  • 'Makapan Valley Mokopane (Potgietersrus), Limpopo, South Africa
  • 'Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs Krugersdorp, Gauteng, South Africa
  • 'Taung Skull Fossil Site Taung, North West, South Africa

Connections

The site has 12 connections.

Ecology

  • Dripstone Taung Skull Fossil Site (nom file)
  • Fossils Fossils found in the many archaeological caves of the Makapan Valley have enabled the identification of several specimens of early hominids. .... Alongside and predating the hominid period of occupation is a sequence of fossil mammals, micro-mammals and invertebrates which provide a window onto faunal evolution, palaeobiology and palaeoecology stretching back into the Pliocene. (OUV)

History

  • Early Hominid Remains 2.3-million year-old fossil Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed "Mrs. Ples")
  • Iron Age Makapan Valley - findings at Cave of the Hearths
  • Neolithic age Numerous sites spanning the Earlier Stone Age to Later Stone Age (nom file)

Individual People

  • Leakey Family Specimens were collected from the breccias at Kromdaai and sent to London for examination, but the bones were not extracted from them for over sixty years, when they were “rediscovered” by L S B Leakey. (AB ev)

Timeline

  • Pliocene Sterkfontein geologically revealed the earliest record of hominid in southern Africa (close to 3.5 million years ago), Australopithecus africanus who lived between 2-3 million years ago in the Pliocene

WHS on Other Lists

World Heritage Process

  • Name changes From "The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs" - to "Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa" (2013)