Makapansgat is a paleontological site of international significance northeast of Mokopane in the Limpopo province. Once a marshy wetland with an enormous diversity of plant life, human-like primates hunted huge herds of antelope, fended off sabre-tooth cats, and lived in the limestone caves of the Makapan Valley.

Did you know?

An aloe garden of over 200 species and 4 000 specimens is on display outside the Arend Dieperink Museum.

Makapansgat, a series of dolomitic limestone caves, is home to one of the greatest paleontological records of human evolution in the world thanks to the remarkable quantity of ancient mammal remains and fossil evidence of an early human-like primate ancestor excavated here.

In the 1920s, limestone prospectors exposed thousands of fossils during their excavations at the caves in the Makapans Valley. Some of these found their way to anthropologist Professor Raymond Dart.

Dart had hypothesised that humans had descended from apes, following his discovery of the controversial Taung skull in 1924.

Dart's claim of an extinct hominid closely related to humans was vindicated in 1947, when colleague Dr Robert Broom discovered Mrs Ples, the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus specimen ever found, at the Sterkfontein caves.

That same year, palaeontologist James Kitching unearthed more Australopithecus africanus fossils from the Cave of Hearths at Makapansgat.

From 1925 to 1947, Dart systematically investigated the fossils at Makapansgat. He identified and described several new Australopithecus africanus specimens from the lime-kilns at the site.

Visitors wishing to visit Makapansgat should first tour the associated exhibition in the Arend Dieperink Museum in nearby Mokopane, where archaeological and palaeontological material, as well as historical artefacts discovered at the caves are on display.

From there you can drive to Makapan Valley and take a guided tour of three caves, starting at the Limeworks where the hominid fossils were discovered.

Next, the Cave of Hearths reveals evidence of the earliest controlled use of fire in Africa, and traces human occupation in the area from the early Stone Age to the Iron Age.

Finally, in the Historic Cave, or Makapansgat, you learn of the tragic outcome of lingering hostilities between the Voortrekkers and local Ndebele tribes.

In 1854, a tragic standoff between the Boer forces and the Kekana Ndebele chiefdom played out in the valley. Retaliating over several attacks on Voortrekkers, Boer forces laid siege to the caves, where Ndebele King Mokopane and his followers had sought refuge following the killings of the Voortrekkers. The siege lasted nearly a month and thousands, mostly women and children, died of starvation in the cave.

Legends regarding Chief Mokopane abound. Some say he escaped, lashed to the belly of a cow, others claim he fled under the cover of darkness, and that his spirit still wanders the valley of Makapan…

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Arend Dieperink Museum
97 Thabo Mbeki Drive, Mokopane
Tel: +27 (0)15 491 9735

Makapan Valley Heritage Site
Cell: +27 (0)78 483 1473

James Kitching Gallery Museum
Bernard Price Institute of Palaeontology, University of the Witwatersrand
Tel: +27 (0)11 717 6682

How to get here

Mokopane is about 215km north of Pretoria. The caves are east of the town, about a 10-minute drive.

Best time to visit

The Arend Dieperink Museum in Mokopane is open Monday to Friday, 8am to 4.30pm. The Makapan Valley heritage site, where the caves are situated, is open Monday to Sunday, 8am to 4.30pm.

Around the area

Mokopane is midway between Mookgophong (Naboomspruit), which has excellent golf courses, and the capital Polokwane. Around Mokopane, visit the Percy Fyfe, Ntabeni and Doorndraai Nature Reserves.

Tours to do

In Johannesburg, at the University of the Witwatersrand, visit the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research’s James Kitching Gallery Museum to view a selection of fossils from the Makapans Valley caves.

What will it cost

Entrance to the Arend Dieperink Museum is R3 per adult and R1 per child under 12. Entrance to the Makapan Valley heritage site is R25 per adult and R15 per child under 12.

What to pack

Sturdy, closed shoes are necessary on the cave tour, as the walking surface is loose and uneven. Mokopane is hot all year round so don't forget to bring a hat, sunscreen and drinking water.

Where to stay

Check the Limpopo Tourism website for accommodation options in Mokopane.

What to eat

Phone ahead to enquire about freshly baked bread and mampoer (moonshine) made at the Arend Dieperink Museum. There are picnic facilities at the Makapans Valley heritage site. Visitors must bring all their own food and beverages.

What's happening

The Limpopo Tourism website will have listings of events taking place throughout the year in the province.

Best buys

Do try the mampoer, a locally brewed ‘moonshine’ along with freshly baked bread – available on request at the Arend Dieperink Museum.