Much to be Discovered: Cradle of Humankind Pre-History

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Sterkfontein excavations. (Image: Mike Peel)

To a non-paleoanthropologist, the names Sterkfontein and Kromdraai may not mean much…but, that’s about to change. These are two limestone cave systems that make up the World Heritage Site known as the Cradle of Humankind. This South African site is the richest place for hominin fossils in the world.

The sheer number of hominin fossils found at Sterkfontein and Kromdraai make it an interesting place; the caves have yielded fossils such as Paranthropus, the Australopithecus Mrs. Ples, Little Foot, and more. But what about the history of these places? These caves have some crazy longevity in the history of science! I could fill textbooks with this history, but instead today I’m just going to give a short history of when these caves were first noticed by scientists.

History books usually begin the story of Sterkfontein in the 1930s, when Robert Broom began discovering fossils there. However,  while reading some of Broom’s work, I recently came across an interesting passage that discussed the pre-history of the sites, the history before Broom! Both Sterkfontein and Kromdraai were recognized as possibly containing interesting fossils back into the 19th century, it turns out!

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Broom contemplating Mrs. Ples at Sterkfontein. Image: Wikicommons.

Kromdraai History

In his 1946 monograph called The South African fossil ape-man, the Australopithecinae,  Broom explores this pre-history of the caves. He notes that the first scientific reference to the Kromdraai caves occurred at a meeting of the South African Geological Society on April 8th 1895. At this meeting, a man named Mr. D. Draper noted he “had a short time ago visited the Kromdraai Caves…and he had found them most interesting from a geological point of view. There was much to be discovered there.”

As Broom noted, truer words have never been spoken. 38 years passed before someone else became interested in the caves. The next scientist to note the scientific value of Kromdraai was in 1935.

Sterkfontein History

Broom also discusses the history of Sterkfontein. He mentions that in 1935, a little guide book that denoted places of interest around Johannesburg beckoned “Come to Sterkfontein and find the missing link!” Broom called this “a strangely prophetic remark,” as Broom did eventually discover some “missing links” there, such as Mrs. Ples!

Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (South Africa)

Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (Image UNESCO)

Recent History

Since Broom’s days, fossil discoveries from these caves have continued to accumulate at a rapid rate. Recent discoveries include Little Foot, the most complete Australopithecine fossil skeleton known to date, which has been carefully being removed from its rock matrix for 17 years (a true labor of love)! And discoveries are being unearthed at these places as I write this! For example, two new fossils from Milner Hall in Sterkfontein were just announced in February 2016! The long histories Sterkfontein and Kromdraai are far from over.

BONUS fun facts:

  • Sterkfontein means “strong spring” in the local language, Afrikaans.
  • Kromdraai means “crooked turn” in Afrikaans, named after a bend in the nearby meandering Crocodile river.

How about you guys, have you been to the Cradle of Humankind? What kind of impression did it leave on you? Do you think paleoanthropologists will continue finding great fossils there for decades to come?

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