Take the Ultimate Pilgrimage: the Cradle of Humankind

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Travelers regularly like to use travel as a means of tracing their roots. But normally this means tracing back a few generations, or perhaps a couple centuries. But what if you want to go back farther...as far as you can go? Our South African guide Brenda joins us today to talk about the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site and home to humanity’s earliest ancestors.

Have you ever wondered what the first humans were like or how they coped with life, what they ate, how they discovered fire and how they managed in a world without technology? Join me on an adventure, discovering our ancient ancestors and the progress of the human race.

The Cradle of Humankind is one of eight World Heritage Sites in South Africa, and the only one in Gauteng. It is widely recognised as the place from which all of humankind originated. Within the Cradle of Humankind are the Sterkfontein Caves (Afrikaans for “strong spring”). Here you can explore the ancient formations of rocks, limestone, dolomite, stalagtites and stalgmites. The limestone caves are located about 40km northwest of Johannesburg. Other caves such as Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Wondercaves are in the same area.

Within the Sterkfontein Caves, scientists have discovered many hominid and other animal fossils, dating back more than 4-million years, to the birth of humanity. The most important and most famous of these fossils are “Mrs Ples”, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull, and “Little Foot”, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton that is more than 3-million years old. These fossils tell us much about the precursors of modern humans, Homo sapiens.

Archaeological finds within the Cradle of Humankind also include 2-million-year-old stone tools. The oldest recorded, at nearby Swartkrans, is a collection of 270 burnt bones that reveals how our ancestors learned to master fire more than one million years ago – a significant development and an early technological innovation. The ability to do this has taken us from the basic skills needed to keep ourselves warm and to cook our food, to our current ability to create and burn rocket fuel to reach space and beyond.

The 47,000-hectare site has unearthed the best evidence of the complex journey which our species has taken to make us what we are; it is a place of pilgrimage for all humankind. It is more than a place for ongoing scientific discovery into our origins, but also a place of contemplation – a place that allows us to reflect on who we are, where we come from and where we are going to.

More than 500 hominin fossils, thousands of animal fossils, over 300 fragments of fossil wood, and over 9000 stone tools have been discovered in caves in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, and more are being found all the time.

With current research methods into fossils, scientists are able to tell whether a creature walked upright or on all fours. This is done by scanning skulls that have a middle and inner ear. This information gives details on balance and hearing. In addition, with the latest technology, samples of teeth can provide details of what was eaten.
Sterkfontein is identified as having the oldest stone tools in Southern Africa. These are known as Oldowan artefacts and are estimated to be between 2-million and 1.7-million years old.

There are more than 200 caves in the Cradle of Humankind. Of these, 13 have been excavated, namely: Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Bolt’s Farm, Wonder Cave, Minnaar's, Cooper's , Plover's Lake, Drimolen, Gladysvale, Haasgat, Gondolin and Motsetse.

The scientific exhibition centre showcases a reconstruction of a mined cave – versus a pristine cave – cave formations and geology, early life forms, mammals and hominid fossils, among other topics. It describes in detail important finds such as “Mrs Ples”, the “Taung Child” and “Little Foot”, as well as providing information about fossilisation, palaeobotany and landscapes.

Life on our planet first emerged about 3.8-billion years ago. As the fossils at Sterkfontein show, the human journey began millions of years ago in South Africa. We are one diverse species across the globe, with our common roots in Africa.

Thank you Brenda, for explaining the significance of this one-of-a kind part of the world. Any travelers considering a pilgrimage to the “Crade of Humankind” in South Africa can reach Brenda via her guide profile.
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