Meet your ancestors at South Africa's Cradle of Humankind

more than a year ago
created 10 Sep 2015
Declared a World Heritage site in 1999, the Cradle of Humankind is a cave-strewn area around 50km north west of Johannesburg where some of the most significant hominid fossil discoveries in the world have been made. Until recently the biggest finds were the remains of two famous hominids, the so-called Mrs Ples (approximately 2 million years old) and Little Foot (currently believed to be around 3.6 million years old). Then one weekend in 2013 a pair of cave explorers stumbled across a collection of bones in a cavern deep inside the Rising Star cave, which turned out to be one of the greatest fossil finds ever made on the African continent.

A crack team of scientists and palaeontologists from universities across the world was assembled and the pain-staking process of safely extracting the fossils began. Every day for 21 days an all-female crew of so-called 'underground astronauts', chosen both for their scientific experience and their ability to traverse cave tunnels which in places are as narrow as 17.5cm, travelled into the cave system to uncover the 'fossil jackpot'. What awaited the team in the Rising Star cave was unprecedented - a collection of 15 partial skeletons belonging to a new hominid species which has been christened 'homo naledi'.

The extraordinary find was revealed to the world on September 10, 2015 and the implications for what we currently know about human evolution are amazing. Scientists have learned from the fossil remains that homo naledi looked fairly similar to us homo sapiens with similarly-sized hands and feet, although the homo naledi brain was probably only about the size of an orange.

What is even more extraordinary is where the remains were found - in a deep cavern which is difficult to access. Previous discoveries made in the area were in open caves and scientists surmised that the bodies of Mrs Ples and Little Foot came to rest there after falling through cave entrances on the surface. However, the Rising Star cave where homo naledi was found could not have been accessed by accident, which suggests that homo naledi deliberately used these caves to bury their dead, indicating that homo naledi was self-aware and capable of complex thought and ritual. As National Geographic explained in its special 27-page September feature Almost Human - 'this [face] changes the human story'.

To learn more about the evolutionary history of humans and about the life of our distant ancestors, visit these places located in and around Johannesburg:


Located in the middle of the scenic rolling grasslands of the Cradle of Humankind, the Maropeng visitor's centre building (Maropeng means 'returning to the place of our ancestors') is designed to resemble a burial mound. The large exhibition takes an interactive approach to the history of life as we know it from the big bang to the evolution of humankind, the discovery of fire and the spread of people across continents. A visit starts with a fun boat ride through the ages before you enter the museum proper where interactive and educational displays are complemented by examples of the kinds of fossils and tools which have been found in the Cradle of Humankind.


A perfect accompaniment to a visit to the museum at Maropeng is a guided tour of the Sterkfontein Caves (a five minute drive down the road), the cave system where the remains of Little Foot and Mrs Ples were found. Guided tours of the caves take around 45 minutes and are not recommended for the unfit as there are numerous steps and some places where you are required to kneel or crawl. Combination Maropeng Museum + Sterkfontein Caves tickets are available.


From artist Walter Oltmann's exceptional wire sculpture that greets you at the museum entrance to the design of each exhibit, this museum, based on the Wits University campus in Braamfontein, is a must-see. The museum explores and celebrates the history of modern humans, tracing the emergence of humanity along an 80 000-year path to its African source. The exhibits include an extensive collection of rock art and paleo-anthropological, archaeological and genetic materials including ancient tools, and artefacts of spiritual significance to early humans. There's also a fascinating focus on San culture and rituals. The museum can be viewed in 90 minutes or a few hours and guided tours are available. There's also a gift store worth a visit for its book selection, among other items, and a cafe.
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