Did you know?
'Mrs Ples', the skull of the first adult Australopithecus africanus to be discovered, was also found at the Sterkfontein Caves, by Dr Robert Broom, in 1947. 'Mrs Ples' earned her nickname after Broom originally identified the species as a new one, Plesianthropus transvaalensis, though it was later identified as Australopithecus africanus.
A small Australopithecus (an early hominid, or human ancestor) dubbed Little Foot, probably fell into the Silberberg Grotto of the Sterkfontein Caves sometime between about 2-million and 3-million years ago. It would never escape while alive, but long after its death, it was destined to be world-famous.
After being trapped in the caves, the Little Foot skeleton was buried and it eventually fossilised.
By chance, in 1994, palaeoanthropologist Professor Ron Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), found and identified Australopithecus foot bones among a box of sundry fossils stored at the caves. This in itself was a major discovery in the world of palaeoanthropology, as any fossils of hominids that old are rarely discovered. Clarke published a paper on this find in 1995.
In 1997, Clarke found more Australopithecus foot bones and a broken shin bone in Wits' collections, and recognised at once that they came from Little Foot's other foot. He then guessed that, since fossils from both feet of the same individual were represented, the feet may have been blasted from the rock by lime miners working inside the Sterkfontein Caves in the late 1800s, and that the rest of the skeleton may still lie buried inside the caves.
Clarke then briefed his assistants, Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi, to search for the skeleton, which they indeed found in what was one of the most momentous palaeoanthropological finds in Africa. A complete hominid skeleton of this age was an exceptional discovery. It is even more complete, for example, than the famous 'Lucy' skeleton from East Africa, which is a similar age.
The late famous palaeoanthropologist Professor Phillip Tobias of the University of the Witwatersrand, said of Little Foot: 'Little Foot is the most remarkable skeleton. It is pretty much complete, from foot to head. It’s got 32 teeth in position; it’s marvellous.'
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Maropeng is the official visitors' centre of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Maropeng also runs the visitors' centre at Sterkfontein Caves, which is a few kilometres away from Maropeng.
Tel: +27 (0)14 577 9000
How to get here
The Sterkfontein Caves are located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. It's well sign-posted and easily accessible by car from the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Best time to visit
All year round as the activities are held indoors or underground in the caves.
Around the area
There are various activities within the Cradle of Humankind including balloon safaris, horse-riding trails, spas and nature reserves.
Tours to do
Tours underground are offered by the Sterkfontein Caves with a licensed guide as part of your ticket, and there is an exhibition centre at the caves. The Sterkfontein Caves site is open to the public from 9am to 5pm every day. Tours depart on the hour every hour, and the last tour departs at 16h00. It's also well worth visiting Maropeng, which is the official visitors' centre of the Cradle of Humankind, and is a few kilometres away.
It is best to hire a car from one of the main city centres to transport you around the Cradle of Humankind. Alternatively, join a tour group who will transport you from place to place.
What will it cost
Sterkfontein Caves: R140 for adults, R80 for children (four-14 years). Maropeng Visitor Centre: R135 for adults, R75 for children (four-14 years). A combination entrance ticket is available, which includes entry to Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves. R215 for adults; R130 for children (four-14 years). Please note: the combination ticket is only available until 1pm, in order for visitors to have enough time to see both exhibitions.
Length of stay
There's plenty to keep you occupied in the area so at least a weekend (or longer if you can).
What to pack
A pair of comfortable shoes.
Where to stay
There are numerous accommodation establishments in the area. The Maropeng Hotel is a good option, as is the Forum Homini hotel.
What to eat
There is a small restaurant at the Sterkfontein Caves. Grab a light snack before you go underground or have a meal after your emerge.
Invest in arts and crafts or books from the souvenir shop at the caves.