The Maropeng Visitors Centre in the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein Caves is an incredible tourist destination packed with fascinating, world-class interactive exhibits that reveal secrets of our past. The Cradle of Humankind was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its weighty contribution to our understanding of humanity. There are 15 major fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind with Sterkfontein Caves being the most famous attraction to visit.
Sterkfontein Caves is the home of Mrs Ples and Little Foot; fossils of the earliest human ancestors known to man. In addition, there are thousands of fossils of hominids, plants and animals. More hominid fossils are found in the Cradle of Humankind than anywhere else in the world.
Do you need more reasons to visit this outstanding heritage site in South Africa?
THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND
The Cradle of Humankind encompasses the farms of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai which are located in a region that lies between two major cities in South Africa; Johannesburg and Pretoria. The region is internationally-renowned for being one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominid fossils and presents evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5 million years.
The protected heritage site spans an area of 47 000 hectares, lying on a bed of dolomite deposited around 2.5-billion years ago. Similar fossils have been found at other sites in south and east Africa but the Cradle of Humankind has produced more than 950 hominid fossil specimens.
The discovery of the Sterkfontein Caves is linked to the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand Basin in the 1880s. Hundreds of thousands of prospectors converged on the northern territory of South Africa in an unprecedented gold rush.
Lime was a sought-after resource needed for the chemical extraction of gold. This in turn sparked a second rush on lime mining. Lime was discovered in an area with interesting underground cave formations, now known as the Sterkfontein Caves. Miners were attracted to the area when extensive deposits of calcium carbonate were found in the form of stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone. This carbonate compound is made up of calcium, carbon and oxygen. When it is burnt, lime is a valuable by-product.
An Italian miner, Guglielmo Martinaglia, revealed the extent of the Sterkfontein Caves in 1896 while blasting. He was only interested in what the caves could offer to make his fortune but the cavernous infrastructure soon gained the attention of members of the South African Geological Society. The geologists lobbied for the Sterkfontein Caves to be protected in the 1980s and they tried to persuade the miners to protect the main cave. However, mining continued unabated in the area as the gold rush gained momentum.
The Sterkfontein Caves came under further threat in the 1920s when the site became popular among souvenir collectors who searched for and took away valuable fossil finds. It was only in the late 19th century that the palaeontological potential of the Sterkfontein Caves and neighbouring caves were recognised after the discovery of an australopithecine skull.
In November 1945, the Sterkfontein Caves and surrounding areas were declared a National Monument. When the historical area was declared a World Heritage Site the area was named The Cradle of Humankind. The Maropeng Visitors Centre was constructed more recently and is now a major South African tourist destination.
THE MAROPENG VISITOR CENTRE
Opening times: 9am to 5pm every day
The Maropeng Visitor Centre is located in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind and showcases the development of humans over millions of years with exceptional exhibits that transport visitors back in time. The most impressive is an underground boat ride that takes you on a tour of 2 500 square metres of exhibits.
This incredible tourist attraction presents fossils of exceptional archaeological value, providing insight into how humankind evolved, stone tools that were used up to a million years ago and plant and animal life of that time. The tour is self-guided and highly interactive which makes it a perfect family destination.
The main exhibition is housed in a state-of-the-art facility called Tumulus building. The pathway to the entrance passes an archaeological excavation of a Stone Age site where geologists found early stone tools belonging to the Acheulean period. These tools belonged to the early hunter-gatherer tribes that used the local rocks to make their tools. Some of these tools have been dated back to between 1.0 and 0.5 million years; an era before the appearance of modern Homo sapiens.
One of the delights of visiting the Maropeng Visitors Centre is its impressive architecture design. Concrete columns dominate the entrance of the grass-covered building and are engraved with words that represent the major themes of the exhibition; Imagine, Explore, Contemplate and Discover.
The interior design inside the Tumulus building uses elements that represent earth, fire, water and air. They symbolise the formation of earth and its natural evolution.
The grassed amphitheatre can accommodate up to 10 000 people and is designed to look like a giant burial mound. In contrast to the entrance, the design of the building at the exit point is a futuristic masterpiece of silver, grey and glass. A learning centre and a five-star hotel are located close to the centre.
Interactive, self-guided tour
The tour starts with a boat ride that takes you from above ground - which represents the present - to back in time to an underground lake that represents a time in ancient history when the world was submerged in water. The beginning of time is represented as a dramatic ‘black hole’; symbolising the scientific theory of the Big Bang that happened 14-billion years ago.
The original fossil display is found at the end of the underground tour. The whole self-guided tour takes anything from one to seven hours depending on how much time you have. It is highly interactive and keeps even the youngest in the family enthralled.
Before or after a tour, visitors have the choice of a few restaurants that cater for a variety of culinary tastes. A visit to one of the restaurants comes hand in hand with a panoramic view over the Cradle of Humankind.
Award-winning architectural design
The Cradle of Humankind is a R347-million development project and the first partnership between a private construction group and the South African government. The caves themselves are owned by the University of Witwatersrand.
Maropeng has won a number of major awards for its outstanding architectural design, including the British Guild of Travel Writers’ award for the best new tourism project worldwide. The construction group was named the Best Civil Engineering and Building Contractors and Best Public-Private Partnership at a world event.
The visitors’ centre is divided into zones that mark the historical developments of the earth and humankind. The Tumulus Building incorporates ancient history with the present and future in its design; where the front of the building resembles a giant burial mound and the rear side of the building is a modern, state-of-the-art structure. The design symbolises a journey through time.
Visitors are kept enthralled on a boat ride to an underground lake; plunging through waterfalls and past icebergs, travelling into the eye of a storm, passing erupting volcanoes and dipping into the depths of the earth before they arrive at the beginning of time.
Zones and themes at Maropeng Visitors Centre
The Birth of the Cradle exhibit: explains how the caves were formed, the emergence of life on earth and the concept of evolution as a science.
The Path to Humanity exhibit: explores human evolution with models of five hominid types on display; the Homo florensiensis, Homo habilis and Homo heidelbergensis species and the Australopithecus and Paranthropus genera.
What it Means to be Human exhibit: showcases how humanity has changed over the course of evolution, how we came to be and the characteristics we all share.
The Science Zone exhibit: explains how we have arrived at the conclusions made to explain evolution as a science.
Sustainability exhibit: examines how we have modified our environment to suit us and the danger we face of actively contributing to our own destruction.
Original fossils display: made available by various institutions and changes periodically.
Children’s caves: a place for kids to play and “excavate” for fossils while parents can relax and enjoy a snack at the picnic site. The cave is built with local stone embedded in a jagged wall, representing shards of broken bone.
Maropeng conference facility: there are three venues in the Tumulus building with a combined seating capacity of up to 500 delegates. There is also a 5 000-seater outdoor amphitheatre and a 150m2 temporary exhibition space within the Tumulus. Some 3 000 people are expected to visit the centre every day.
THE STERKFONTEIN CAVES
Opening times: 9am to 5pm every day
This magnificent natural wonder is located in the Cradle of Humankind and comprises a set of limestone caves that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. Over the past few decades, early hominin remains have been found in or close to the Sterkfontein Caves which have been linked to our early ancestors; the Australopithecus, early Homo and Paranthropus.
Sterkfontein means “strong spring” in Afrikaans. The archaeological site is situated in the same vicinity as the farms of Swartkrans (meaning Black Cliff in Afrikaans) and Kromdraai (meaning Crooked Turn in Afrikaans). Caves on the neighbouring farms have yielded valuable archaeological finds but Sterkfontein Caves is by far the most impressive.
The discovery of the Sterkfontein Caves
In the late 1890s, limestone miners came upon a selection of interesting fossils during their excavations and reported them to scientific authorities. However, it was only in 1936 that the science world really started paying attention to these finds when students of Professor Raymond Dart and Dr Robert Broom from the University of Witwatersrand found what is today one of the most significant discoveries in archaeological history; the first adult Australopithecine.
This discovery substantiated Professor Dart’s claim that a skull found earlier - known as the Taung child (an Australopithecus africanus) - was a human ancestor. After a pause in excavating during World War II, Dr Broom recommenced efforts to uncover more fossils at the site and was rewarded in 1947 with the discovery of a complete skull of an adult female. Broom named the skull Plesianthropus transvaalensis (near-man from Transvaal). It later took on the nickname of Mrs Ples.
Mrs Ples is defined as a member of A. africanus. Her skull is estimated to date between 2.05 and 2.01 Ma based on a combination of uranium-lead dating, palaeomagnetic analysis and electron spin resonance dating.
The archaeological world erupted again when a near-complete skeleton of a second species of Australopithecus was found in 1997 in the Sterkfontein Caves by Ronald J Clarke. The skeleton was named Little Foot, as it could be conclusively linked to bones of a small foot found in 1995.
Excavations at the Sterkfontein Caves are ongoing and to date fossils of some 500 hominids have been found, making it one of the richest sites in the world for early hominids. The oldest fossils found in the Cradle of Humankind are more than 3-million years old and many more may be found as excavations continue in the region.
Fascinating facts about the Sterkfontein Caves
The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site has become a major international tourism destination with close to 400 tourism attractions, including 91 graded establishments.
Around 2.5-billion years ago, the area now known as the Cradle of Humankind was a shallow inland sea.
In addition to 500 hominin fossils, geologists have uncovered thousands of animal fossils, over 300 fragments of fossil wood and over 9 000 stone tools. Some of these stone tools are the oldest found in southern Africa. They are known as Oldowan artefacts and are estimated to be between 1.7 to 2 million years old.
There are more than 200 caves in the Cradle of Humankind. To date, only 13 caves have been excavated. The caves are the public property of the University of Witwatersrand whose scientists have exclusive access to excavate.
Excavations have unearthed world-famous fossil discoveries such as Mrs Ples (1947), Little Foot (1997), Australopithecus sediba (2013) and Homo naledi (2013). Formal excavations of the caves began during the 1890s.
An estimated 40% of the entire world's human ancestor fossils have been found in the Cradle in the Humankind.
Wonder Cave has an enormous chamber with 15-metre-high stalactite formations.
One of the fossil sites, Bolt's Farm, has revealed the remains of three sabre-toothed cats in a pit where the animals were trapped.
Fossils of early forest-dwelling monkeys that lived 1.3-million years ago have been unearthed at Haasgat.