The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site is an easy drive of about an hour from Johannesburg or Pretoria. Maropeng means “returning to the place of origin” in Setswana, the main indigenous language in this area of South Africa.
Our human ancestors have lived in this area for more than 3-million years.
This 47 000 hectare site has unearthed the best evidence of the complex journey which our species has taken to make us what we are today. It is a place of pilgrimage for all humankind. It is not only a place of ongoing scientific discovery into our origins, but also a place of contemplation – a place that allows us to reflect on who we are, where we come from and where we are going to.
Some 40 percent of all the world's human ancestor fossils have been discovered here.
Here you’ll find the Sterkfontein Caves, Swartkrans and Kromdraai, among other fossil sites, all places that tell the story of what the world was like when our human ancestors were evolving some two to three 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, lending credence to the ‘Out of Africa’ theory, which is that humans and their ancestors evolved in Africa first.
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 was that of 'Mrs Ples', a pre-human skull dating back more than 2-million years (Australopithecus africanus) unearthed by Professor Robert Broom and his assistant, John Robinson, in 1947 at the Sterkfontein Caves.
The skull was originally classified as Plesianthropus transvaalensis (hence the name) and was an adult version of the same species as the Taung Child, the tiny fossilised skull of a child about three years old that had been 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 Humanking 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.
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.
How to get there-