Did you know?
There is debate amongst palaeoanthropologists about whether 'Mrs Ples' was in fact a female, or a young male.
The skull nicknamed 'Mrs Ples', found at the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg, was first revealed to the world in April 1947 by Dr Robert Broom of the Transvaal Museum of Natural History (now the Ditsong Museum in Pretoria). At about 2-million years old, she became an instant celebrity and remains so today.
The idea that South Africa was the birthplace of humankind began to take hold when Professor Raymond Dart, of the University of the Witwatersrand, was given a tiny skull fossil found in the Taung Limeworks on 24 November 1924. It was the fossilised skull of a two- or three-year old hominid (early human ancestor) child. He named it – and the species – Australopithecus africanus, meaning ‘southern ape of Africa', but it is more commonly known as the Taung Child.
While much of the scientific community in Europe and further afield was at first extremely scaeptical, Dart had the support of Dr Robert Broom, the most famous South African palaeontologist. The eccentric Broom set about vindicating Dart.
After enquiries about the limestone mines and caves called the Sterkfontein Caves in the vicinity of Pretoria and Johannesburg, he visited Sterkfontein in August 1936 and within a week found fragmentary fossil evidence of Australopithecus here.
But it was not until April 1947 that he would find an almost perfect adult skull of an Australopithecus africanus – a discovery nicknamed 'Mrs Ples' that would rank alongside Dart's earlier find.
While the Mrs Ples skull was small, about the size of a chimpanzee's, it was obvious the creature stood upright. 'Mrs Ples' earned her nickname from the media after Broom originally identified the species as a new one, Plesianthropus transvaalensis, though it was later identified as Australopithecus africanus.
The discovery of the skull at the Sterkfontein Caves provided valuable evidence for the origins of human evolution in Africa. It is housed in the Transvaal Museum of Natural History in Pretoria.
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
(Although Mrs Ples is housed in the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria, the skull is not on display for the public. Tours of Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng are recommended.)
How to get here
The Sterkfontein Caves are located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. The site can be tricky to find, so download directions off the Maropeng website.
Best time to visit
Any time of year.
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
Spend a morning at the Sterkfontein Caves and the afternoon at Maropeng.
What to pack
A camera and comfortable walking 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 pleasant small restaurant at the Sterkfontein Caves, where you can enjoy a light meal or snack. There are several restaurants at Maropeng, including the Tumulus Restaurant, which boasts spectacular views of the Cradle of Humankind.
There is a small curio shop at the Sterkfontein Caves where you can find good literature on the Cradle of Humankind, human evolution and other topics, and there is a bigger curio shop at Maropeng.