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TThe Cradle of Humankind is one of 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Africa. Here the landscape is dotted with subterranean limestone caves that have turned up a rich fossil record for human evolutionary studies. These findings have led to the 'Out of Africa' theory, theorising that most human ancestors originated from one general spot… Africa.
The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site lies about 50km north-west of Johannesburg, an area of rolling grassland, rocky outcrops and river courses typical of this land before it was overtaken by urban sprawl.
It’s here where you get to see history in the flesh, or should we say bone. Tens of thousands of visitors from across the world come here to see first-hand the fossil record that lies in the network of limestone caves beneath the surface.
Explore the Sterkfontein Caves, Swartkrans and Kromdraai, among other fossil sites, and discover the story of what the world was like when our human ancestors were evolving some 2 to 3 million years ago.
At the Sterkfontein Caves alone, the remains of more than 500 Hominids (the Hominid family includes modern-day humans and their direct ancestors) have been uncovered. This not only led to the area being declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 but has also helped to prove the ‘Out of Africa’ theory, which is that humans and their ancestors evolved in Africa and then spread out to the rest of the world over time.
Fossils were first unearthed here in the 1890s when the caves were blasted open for lime needed for the extraction of gold discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886.
But it was only from the 1930s that serious scientific work started to take place.
One of the first major discoveries here was that of 'Mrs Ples', a pre-human skull dating back more than 2-million years (Australopithecus Africanus) that was unearthed by Professor Robert Broom and his assistant, John Robinson, in 1947.
The skull was originally classified as Plesianthropus Transvaalensis (hence the name) and was an adult version of the same species as the Taung Child – a fossil skull of a child about 3 years-old that was found at the Taung limeworks in what is now the North West province, and identified by Professor Raymond Dart in 1924.
Although smaller than us, Australopithecus Africanus is regarded as one of our early ancestors because it walked upright. In 1997 a complete hominid skeleton called 'Little Foot', also found in the Sterkfontein Caves, was introduced to the world and is still in the process of being described.
In 2005 two more areas of significance were added to this World Heritage Site, bringing the number of official fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind to 13. These were Makapan (in Limpopo) and Taung (in the North West province). Together all these areas are now known as the ‘fossil hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs’, recognised by UNESCO for their significance in human evolutionary studies.
If you are at all interested in discovering your ancient history as a human being then you'll find a small but good exhibition centre at the Sterkfontein Caves and a much larger, more interactive one at Maropeng.
Aside from a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng, the official visitor centre of the Cradle of Humankind, 'the Cradle' as it is locally known, is also a playground for the people of Gauteng, with a range of facilities and activities, including loads of accommodation choices, restaurants, coffee shops, conference centres, cycle tracks, horse trails and hot-air ballooning.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Maropeng Visitor Centre
Tel: +27 (0)14 577 9000
How to get here
It's off the R563, but it's best to download the map off the Maropeng website.
Best time to visit
Things to do
There are a host of outdoor facilities and activities in the Cradle of Humankind, including hot-air ballooning, horse trails and restaurants.
Tours of the Sterkfontein Caves are included in the ticket price and depart on the hour every hour. Maropeng is self-guided. Maropeng also often has special walking tours of the Cradle of Humankind that access sites not otherwise open to the public. Check the Maropeng website for tours that are coming up.
The Cradle of Humankind is also popular for outdoor activities such as hot-air ballooning.
What to pack
Comfortable walking shoes and sunscreen in summer.
Where to stay
The Maropeng Hotel is a great option.
What to eat
Both Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves have cafeterias that serve light meals. Maropeng also has a good restaurant, the Tumulus Restaurant, which has spectacular views over the Magaliesberg.
- Maropeng Visitor Centre
- The Cradle of Humankind
- UNESCO – World Heritage Sites
- Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve