Johannesburg is South Africa's largest and fastest-growing city and is built on a history of racial division that achieved its most dramatic form in the twentieth century policy of strict separation known as apartheid.
The Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site and is located about 50 km from Johannesburg. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, it is home to the largest concentration of human ancestral remains in the world.
Today, we were going to explore the Cradle of Humankind. A complex of 300 limestone caves, South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind is one of the most significant archaeological and anthropological sites in the world. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has produced an extensive human and animal fossil record, including a nearly complete hominin skull dating back more than 2 million years.
To help bring these discoveries into context a museum has been built at Maropeng close to where the most important discoveries were made. After all, just visiting an archaeological dig site would not be all that interesting – unless, of course, you were an archaeologist.
The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site lies about 50km northwest of Johannesburg, an area of rolling grassland, rocky outcrops and river courses typical of this land before it was overtaken by urban sprawl.
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.
MAROPENG VISITOR CENTER
We decided to start our visit at the Maropeng Visitor Centre.
It was a good decision for us to get here early as we got here ahead of the busloads of school children who visit here every day. We also managed to find a shady spot to park our car.
Not surprisingly the visitor centre was very quiet when we arrived.
We headed to the first exhibit called the ‘Pathway to Humanity’ which traces the origins of homo sapiens (our species) back through the ages, back beyond 200,000 years, when earlier species of the zoological family Hominidae as hominids were around. The exhibit, using archaeological find combined with modern technology construct what the early hominids would have looked like. This was fascinating stuff!
After visiting the ‘Pathway to Humanity’ we went onto the next exhibit which looks at the formation of continents and the evolution of life. This journey starts on a short boat ride that goes through a dark tunnel with lots of loud noises and lights – demonstrating the powerful forces that have shaped the planet. After this short ride, we passed through a rotating tunnel with lights that made me feel so disoriented I could hardly remain standing at the end of it. I feel just as weird when I go on simulator rides!
The end of the experience is a couple of very large exhibit halls, with an impressive array of interactive physical and multimedia displays, showing how the continents were formed through to the role that we all play in the continued development – and inevitably the survival of our species. It was heavily oriented towards the education of young people, which is important as they are the future!
We left the Maropeng Visitor Centre more educated about the significance of the archaeological finds in this area. Now we wanted to get more hands-on with the geology and archaeology that led to these discoveries – so we headed over to Sterkfontein Caves, which are a short drive from Maropeng.
At Sterkfontein, the exhibition showcases a reconstruction of a mined cave, cave formations and geology, early life forms, mammals, and hominid fossils. The exhibition also goes into some detail about important finds such as “Mrs Ples”, the “Taung Child” and “Little Foot”, as well as providing information about fossilisation, palaeobotany, and landscapes.
The real draw for us was the chance to visit one of the caves. We’d visited many caves, but this was to be a less sanitised tour, requiring us to wear helmets and headlamps. Our guide was a lovely lady who provided a lot of information about the archaeological discoveries and geology of the area but also added stories about the mining that took place in these caves. Limestone is porous, so these caves were wet inside, despite the lack of rain above, so it was slippery in places. While there was a route through the paths were across rough rock, although in some areas they had put down some rubber mats to help with traction.
Some of the passages we ended up going through were both narrow and low. This messed with Karen’s claustrophobia and was difficult for me, as I needed to bend almost double in places. In a couple of places, we both ended up on our bums and scootched through. The cave tour lasted about an hour and whilst it had been challenging in places, we loved it.
About the Cradle of Humankind
The significance of this place goes back in the discovery of about a third of all hominid fossils ever to be unearthed in the history of archaeology. The extensive research and fieldwork that has led to this revelation of early humans are striking and surreal at the same time. These discoveries date back to as early as 2.5 million years, and the timeline that follows after that is another reason why this place stands out in the collective significance of evolutionary research throughout the world.
Africa is the seat of natural evolution, and this particular place had suitable weather conditions to led to the preservation and formation of fossils. Research began in 1938, and there has been no looking back since. The Cradle of Humankind caves is now a major attraction for tourists since 2005 when it became available to regular visitors. Since then, the tourism industry around this place has flourished, and many new half-businesses have cropped up across the entirety of the place.
Planning your visit to the Cradle of Humankind
The area of Cradle of Humankind is located at a distance of just 50 kilometres from the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. It lies in the Gauteng province and is quite accessible by all modes of transport. Reaching Johannesburg by flight and train and then taking a car down to the site is what people ideally do. By road, the route follows N1 from Johannesburg. Take exit 80 at Roodepoort, and you will find yourself on the Hendrik Potgieter road towards the north. This road merges into N14 and leads up to the Cradle of Humankind.
Maropeng 09h00 – 16h00 (Open Monday – Sunday)
All visitors over the age of six: R100
Children under the age of six: Free
All visitors over the age of six: R100
Children under the age of six: Free
Best time to visit Magaliesburg
Magaliesburg has a semi-arid climate. It hardly rains here. The average annual temperature for Magaliesburg is 46° degrees and there are about 151 inches of rain in a year. The best time to visit is from January through June and August through December. In this period you have a warm temperature and little precipitation. The highest average temperature in Magaliesburg is 81°F in January and the lowest is 63°F in June.
Where to stay
SIMA CADE BUSH RETREAT
Sima Kade (Tree of Life) is nestled in a private valley in Magaliesburg, about 30km north of Johannesburg. Built using stone and wood from the valley the three separate, self-catering venues mimic the surrounding environment, flowing from forest to river-side to grass along stone pathways. Designed as sustainable off-grid retreats for total immersion in the natural environment, Sima Kade is truly at one with its surroundings. The venues are ideal for groups, ceremonies, outdoor enthusiasts, retreats and totally private, secluded stays.
This is the perfect base for exploring the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
FARM HOUSE 58
Farmhouse 58 is inspired by its history, converting an old dairy, farmhouse, and shed to create consciously aligned mixed-use and multi-dimensional spaces.
Rooms, lounges, coworking space, reading and writing rooms, Lapa, and shed restaurant (under development) pay tribute to the land while reimagining its role. Farmhouse 58 draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including Japanese Wabi-Sabi philosophies and ancient African towns anchored in nature at the Cradle of Creation.
Farmhouse 58 has six premium rooms facing north over the hills of the Cradle, seven deluxe rooms, either north facing onto a pomegranate orchard or with a private orchard, eight standard south-facing rooms under the Combretum and one interleading family room.