In the province of Gauteng, straddling the neighbouring North West Province, lies one of the world's richest depositories of hominid fossils, a treasure trove of clues about our early ancestors. Trapped in a case of dolomite hundreds of years old, these fossils have yielded so much data that the area has been dubbed the Cradle of Humankind, and UNESCO has proclaimed it a World Heritage Site.
A fascinating cast of characters has emerged from the Cradle, all pre-dating modern humans. There's the grand old dame, Mrs Ples - the skull of a 2 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus, and the 3 million-year-old Little Foot, a near-complete skeleton still under excavation. In 2005 the site was extended to include the Taung Skull Fossil Site in North West Province, thereby bringing the Taung Child, a skull thought to have belonged to a 3-year-old, into the family.
More recently, new Australopithecus sediba fossils have been unearthed and put on display: a 2 million-year-old partial female skeleton and the fossils of a young boy. The first time that 2 hominid fossils have been found together, this discovery has caused great excitement amongst international scientists.
An award-winning aspect of the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa is the very informative Maropeng Visitor Centre, built in the shape of a tumulus or burial mound, symbolic of the secrets of our ancestry buried deep underground. Its exhibits are structured as a journey of discovery from past to future and include innovations such as an underground boat ride and interactive displays that are particularly suited to children.
In addition to the visitor centre, there are 15 major fossil sites in South Africa's Cradle of Humankind, of which the Sterkfontein Caves are the best-known. They can be toured in a fascinating journey which includes a descent some 60 m underground. The Wonder Caves, 8 km away, are also open to the public.
In suggesting a common ancestry for all humanity in this Cradle of Humankind, South Africa links all nations and suggests that an African heritage can be claimed by all.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Maropeng, Maropeng Hotel and Sterkfontein Caves:
Tel: +27 (0) 14 577-9000
Tel: +27 (0) 11 957-0106 / +27 (0) 82 800-5305
How to get here
Maropeng is a 45-minute drive from both Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is situated on the R400, just off the R563 Hekpoort road.
Best time to visit
All year round. Open daily from 09h00 - 17h00.
Around the area
Head for the Magaliesberg: magically scenic with adventure activities, country shopping, health spas, arts and crafts centres, history and cultural interests.
Tours to do
The combination Maropeng/Sterkfontein tour offers comprehensive insight. Visit the Wonder Cave as well.
On foot at Maropeng. If a visit to one of the excavation sites is made, a short road trip will be required by car.
What will it cost
Adults: approx R95
Children (4-14 years): approx R55
Children under 4: Free
Pensioners: approx R65
Combination ticket (Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves):
Adults: approx R150
Children (4-14 years): approx R90
Children under 4: Free
This ticket is only available until 13h00, so visitors have enough time for both exhibitions.
Length of stay
A half-day for Maropeng; a full day for Maropeng and an excavation site.
What to pack
If your excursion includes the Sterkfontein or Wonder Caves, take walking shoes and a hat.
Where to stay
There are 175 places to stay and 113 restaurants in and around the area. On-site you'll find the Maropeng Hotel.
South Africa's annual Heritage Day on September 24 is celebrated with a festival at Maropeng. A new theme is chosen each year.