02 February 2015 by Kate Turkington

The Cradle of Humankind: Does the past have a future?

It was more than 40 years ago that I first climbed down into the deep, dark, damp interior of the Sterkfontein Caves. The late legendary, charismatic palaeoanthropologist, Phillip Tobias, was my guide. No one then had fully excavated the fossil riches of that remarkable site, and today, four decades later, although world-famous discoveries have been unearthed, there are still more keys to our human past waiting to be revealed.

The Cradle of Humankind, where our early hominid ancestors once roamed. Image by Kate Turkington

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the Cradle of Humankind – rolling hills and plains about an hour north-west of Johannesburg – is made up of 15 important fossil sites of which the possibly 20-million-year-old Sterkfontein Caves are the most renowned.

Mrs Ples and Little Foot, two of the world’s most famous hominid fossils, were discovered here, along with more hominid fossils than anywhere else on earth. Hominids, the ancestors of modern humans, first emerged in Africa approximately seven million years ago. Mrs Ples is estimated to be about 2.15-million years old, and Little Foot about three million years old. 

An artist's impression of some of our early hominid ancestors.Image by Kate Turkington

An artist's impression of some of our early hominid ancestors.Image by Kate Turkington

Fast forward from my trip of 40 years ago. Now, helmeted and equipped with camera and cellphone (just think, cellphones weren’t even invented in the 1970s), along with a small group of travel bloggers (whoever heard of a blogger way back then?) and Lindiwe, our knowledgeable local guide, we descend steep steps into the cool interior of these ancient caves where the temperature is always a consistent 18°C.

We go deeper and deeper into the caves (not possible on my previous adventure) and discover rock formations; are shown fossils (how could anybody possibly work out that the tiny ridge in the rock is the bone of an ancient antelope?), stalactites and stalagmites; and crawl through narrow low gaps in the rock.

The road to our past at the Sterkfontein Caves

The road to our past at the Sterkfontein Caves

But this is still a work in progress and archaeologists and other scientists work here all the time. Algae grow on some of the limestone walls – the result of human breath and a potential threat to the site.

How many of our little hominid ancestors are buried here, or came to grief, when, like Little Foot, possibly pursued by a sabre tooth cat or a prehistoric hyena, he tumbled through a hole in the roof?

An underwater pool reveals an arthropod swimming happily about, and occasionally (but only near the caves’ entrance and exit) we see a bird or a bat flitting about. The subterranean atmosphere is almost cathedral-like and solemn. How many of our little hominid ancestors are buried here, or came to grief, when, like Little Foot, possibly pursued by a sabre-tooth cat or a prehistoric hyena, he tumbled through a hole in the roof?

How far do the caves extend, I ask Lindiwe? Nobody knows, is the answer.

On the way out (with a tear in my eye) I plant a kiss on the cold bronze head of Professor Tobias, who, along with Robert Broom and others, helped to reveal to the world our human history.

From Sterkfontein we make our way to the Cradle of Humankind’s multi-award-winning Visitor Centre, Maropeng, some 10km away.

Maropeng – the award-winning Visitor Centre at the Cradle of Humankind. Image by Kate Turkington

Maropeng – the award-winning Visitor Centre at the Cradle of Humankind. Image by Kate Turkington

From the front it’s an enormous grass-covered tumulus – only from the rear do you see its space-age other face.

Take a self-guided tour and chat to a dodo; discover how good your hand-eye coordination is; explore the elements on an underground boat through ice, fire, water and earth; eyeball original fossils; work out your place in the natural scheme of things; and become aware of the fragility of our continued existence on planet earth. Or take a tour with an award-winning guide at no extra cost.

Little Foot. Image by Kate Turkington

Little Foot. Image by Kate Turkington

I ask Zodwa, our friendly, knowledgeable guide, which question is the most frequently asked by visitors.

She thinks. 'Why are we all so different?' She thinks again. 'How does the Bible fit in with all this?' 'Are we alone in the universe?'

A party of tourists is making its fascinated way through the centre, as schoolchildren and students excitedly discuss the exhibits with their teacher and each other.

Most of the visitors – some from the other side of the world, others home-grown – are tweeting, instagramming and facebooking their thoughts and photographs. There’s a storm of social media going on.

Yes, I think, we’ve come a very long way in three million years, but will we be able to preserve and conserve our world? What do the next three million years hold?

A sign near the exit with words by Marshall McLuhan, communications guru of the 1960s, author and latter-day prophet, reads: 'There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.'

Looking back at our early selves ... Image by Kate Turkington

Looking back at our early selves ... Image by Kate Turkington

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