The blackness swallowed us as we descended down into the earth. We carried lights, but the darkness encroached on us from all sides. The gentle scuffling of feet on the gravel, an occasional soft trickle of water in the abyss and our own breathing were the only sounds. This is the Sterkfontein Cave inside the Cradle of Humankind.
The Cradle of Humankind is a large complex of caves, valleys and rivers that have produced some of the oldest and most informative hominid (ape-man or human ancestral) fossils in the world. The Sterkfontein alone has produced more than third of all the hominid fossils ever discovered in the world. The Cradle of Humankind is anchored by the Sterkfontein Cave and the Maropeng Visitors Center.
Located just outside of Johannesburg, it made for an easy trip from the airport after landing during our big South Africa trip. I’m always interested in UNESCO World Heritage Sites and this one seemed like a great fit, especially with my background in biology. At least that’s how it seemed to me while doing my research.
Most visitors start their experience at the Maropeng Visitors Center. A conical, grass-roofed building, the Maropeng Visitors Center provides context for human evolution through a number of informative exhibits. The exhibit beings with an EPCOT-like boat ride, that shows the four elements. In the main exhibit halls, you can see information about the discoveries of the “Taung Child” skull in 1924 as well as the “Mrs. Ples” skeleton found in 1947. There are also numerous other hands-on exhibits that are designed to provide hands-on learning about evolution for children. The Maropeng is a hit with children and families!
From the Maropeng Visitors Center, guests strike out to the Sterkfontein Cave for a more authentic experience. Here we picked up our hair nets and hard hats before descending down several hundred steps into the darkness. This cave is where the remains of “Little Foot” were discovered – probably the most intact hominid or human ancestral skeleton ever found. It is still being excavated to this day. In other places in the cave, you can see where other archeological digs are taking place.
The Sterkfontein Cave and the entire Cradle of Humankind site are a window into what our human ancestors from the Pleistocene era were really like. As I said, I was biology student and I completely geeked out on this. However, even more insightful than the biological evolution is the cultural one. The Cradle of Humankind is where we have the first evidence of human ancestral domestication of fire over a million years ago. Like I said, I geek out on this.
So, what’s not to love about the Cradle of Humankind? The region of the Cradle of Humankind outside of Johannesburg is very beautiful, but there’s not a lot to see. This area is important to documenting human evolution (both biologically as well as culturally); however, most of that research takes place behind the scenes. Other than going inside the Sterkfontein Cave or the Maropeng Visitors Center, there’s not much happening for the casual visitor to observe.
Am I glad I visited the Cradle of Humankind? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Probably not.
More photos of the Cradle of Humankind: