The great pyramids at Giza, EgyptElephants crossing the Zambezi river in Mana Pools National Park world heritage site, ZimbabweThe great mosque in the Old Towns of Djenne world heritage site, MaliBlack and white ruffed lemur, Rainforests of the Atsinanana world heritage site, Madagascar

Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (South Africa)

Map showing the location of the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (a UNESCO world heritage site)

Website Category: Human Origins  

Area: unknown  

Inscribed: 1999, extended 2006

Criteria: (iii) cultural tradition (vi) association with belief system

Location and Values:  The Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (dubbed the 'Cradle of Humankind') lies 45 km west of Johannesburg, one of Africa’s great cities.  It includes a number of caves and dig sites at 13 separate locations within an undulating landscape of low hills along a dolomitic limestone ridge.  The importance of the area was discovered accidentally, as a result of fossil finds during limestone quarrying.  Today the quarrying has ceased and the site is being excavated and explored more systematically for its scientific values.  The whole area (470 km2) is under private ownership, and most of the excavation sites are not accessible to the general public.  The world heritage site was extended in 2006 to include two more distant localities - the Taung Skull Fossil Site (which lies in Northwest Province about 350 km WSW of Sterkfontein), and the Makapan Valley (about 300 km to the north-east in Limpopo Province).

The world heritage property has provided an extraordinary wealth of fossils and other evidence tracing the evolution of humankind from our earliest hominid ancestors, over a period of 3.3 million years.  Notable finds include specimens of Paranthropus, Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus, as well as numerous stone and bone tools.  The site provides the first evidence of the domestication and use of fire, between 1.8 and 1.0 million years ago, a critical evolutionary landmark.  The most important fossil find is the Taung skull – a specimen of Australopithecus africanus discovered in a limestone quarry in 1924.   A special feature of the site is that its rich fossil beds have yielded numerous other mammal, insect and plant fossils, providing a complete picture of the environment in which humans – and other hominids – evolved.

Slideshow of the Fossil Hominid Sites:  The photographs in this comprehensive slideshow (92 photos) cover five of the principal localities around the UNESCO world heritage site - starting with the superb 'Cradle of Humankind' visitor complex at Maropeng (which lies just outside the world heritage site), and covering the Sterkfontein Caves and Wonder Cave (within the originally designated site), and the 'outlying extension' areas covering the Taung Skull Fossil Site and the Makapan Valley.  Further details of the photos in the slideshow are provided below.

Slideshow Description (continued from above):  The 'Cradle of Humankind' visitor complex at Maropeng resembles a great earth mound, commanding stunning views over the surrounding countryside.  It combines world-class interactive exhibits with a complex of shops, conference and office facilities set in a rural location.  The visitor is taken on a journey back in time, starting with a short boat ride through a primeval world of fire and water, experiencing the elemental origins of life.  The main exhibition hall has a bewildering array of interactive educational displays, including of course, life-size models of our human ancestors, based on the fossil finds around the site.  To the side of the main exhibition hall is a room of genuine (non-hominid) fossils from around the world heritage site, including remarkably complete skulls of animals such as the sabre-toothed cat that lived alongside our hominid ancestors.

Leaving the Maropeng Visitor Centre, the next few photos give an overview of the rolling countryside landscapes in this dolomitic limestone area, before showing details of the Sterkfontein Caves (which are owned by the University of the Witwatersrand).  Here there is another superb exhibit hall, shop and restuarant complex, and guided tours into the caves.  The slide show includes close-up photos of some of the exhibits on display, including the skull of the Taung Child (the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus), photos of 'Little Foot' (the most complete hominid skeleton known), a variety of other hominid skulls and stone tools.  The guided tour of the cave complex takes in a number of cave chambers and narrow crawl spaces, passes active underground exploration sites and provides an opportunity to see fossilised bones embedded in the natural 'cave breccia'.  Back in the open air the tour at Sterkfontein passes a bronze bust of the famous palaeoanthropologist Robert Broom and along a series of annotated walkways past excavation sites and lookout points providing an overview of the Cradle of Humankind landscape.

From Sterkfontein the slideshow moves to Wonder Cave, the biggest cave chamber in the region, and the most decorative.  Although no hominid remains have been discovered here a variety of other valuable fossils, such as the skeleton of a baboon (shown) have been uncovered here.  The next four photos provide a glimpse of the Taung Skull Fossil Site (350 km away) and then the Makapan Valley (300 km in the opposite direction).  At Makapan there is a modern monument to mark the opening of this extension to the world heritage site, and a guided walk to three cave entrances where there are explanatory interpretation boards.  Visits to Makapan have to be arranged in advance as this is not yet sufficiently popular to warrant development of a visitor centre, or self-guided access or full-time staffing.

Comments and Impressions:  This is by far the most accessible of Africa’s fossil hominid sites, close to the urban centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and a major international airport.  It is magnificently presented for public access and education, with state-of-the-art interpretation.  Although it is only one of several sites in Africa which deserve the accolade ‘Cradle of Humankind’, no other site provides such a rich visitor experience.



(based on display material at the Maropeng Visitor Complex)

The study of fossils and DNA suggests that our family tree begins with an ape species that lived between about 8-million and 7-million years ago.  This species is thought to have given rise to the contemporary African apes (Chimpanzees, Bonobo and Gorillas) as well as ourselves, our common ancestor. The earliest ancestral fossil found so far is Sahelanthropus tchadensis found in Chad in 2001 and dated at about 7-million years old.  Other notable early ancestors are the 6-million-year-old Orrorin tugenensis (dubbed the ‘Millenium Man’, from Kenya) and the 5.8-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus kaddaba, found in Ethiopia.

Branching out.  The hominid tree starts to take more shape about 4-million years ago with Australopithecus anamensis, a species discovered at Kenya’s Lake Turkana.  Next was Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between about 3.6-million and 3-million years ago, and which is best represented by the Ethiopian fossil ‘Lucy’. After this the family tree displays at least two branches.  One branch forms the Paranthropus genus and the other begins with Australopithecus africanus.  Some researchers recognise a third branch with Kenyanthropus platyops giving rise to Homo.

The two most common hominid ancestors found in the area of South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind are Paranthropus robustus and Australopithecus africanus.  Paranthropus (which means ‘parallel to human’) evolved specialised teeth jaws and jaw muscles to be able to grind hard foods such as roots, berries and seeds.  But by about 1-million years ago, Paranthropus was extinct. Meanwhile Australopithecus africanus had human-like teeth and hands but also had some ape-like features including a small brain, flattened nose and forward-projecting jaws.  Australopithecus africanus – of which Mrs Ples and the Taung child are examples – lived between about 3-million and 2-million years ago.

Making the Link.  A connection is usually drawn from Australopithecus to Homo, though there is still some uncertainty of this link.  Nevertheless, Homo probably evolved from something similar to Australopithecus africanus. The genus Homo, to which we all belong, is first recognised in the form of Homo habilis, a hominid with a notably larger brain than the preceding AustralopithecusHomo habilis, which is represented by fossils from about 2-million years ago, was considered to be the first known species to be able to make stone tools.

After Homo habilis there was Homo ergaster, regarded by some researchers as the early African form of Homo erectusHomo ergaster had an even bigger brain, was about as tall as modern humans, used more advanced tools, and could possibly control fire.

Spreading out.  Early Homo spread out of Africa about 2-million years ago.  Most palaeoanthropologists now believe that Homo erectus evolved in Asia about 1.6-million years ago, and used its relatively advanced intelligence to spread into Europe and to Africa where it lived until about 250,000 years ago.  Homo erectus probably gave rise to other evolutionary dead-ends in Europe and Asia including Homo heidelbergensis (which lived from 600,000 to 300,000 years ago) and its evolutionary successor Homo neanderhalensis (which lived from about 200,000 to 20,000 years ago).

Modern humans emerge. Meanwhile, back in Africa Homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago, probably as direct descendents of Homo ergaster.  These immediate ancestors looked like us and were fully ‘human’.  DNA analysis shows that modern humans spread out of Africa perhaps 60,000 to 40,000 years ago and replaced the last, now ‘dead branches’ of the family tree in Europe and Asia.  They could think and communicate symbolically, were self-aware, and created complex social and cultural ways of life.



Sterkfontein:  One of the world’s richest hominid sites.  Finds include Australopithecus africanus and an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton

Bolt’s Farm:  20 caves with antelope, baboon, sabre-toothed cats and rodents, some of which are between 5-million and 4-million years old

SwartkransParanthropus robustus, Homo ergaster, baboons, leopards, sabre-toothed cats, hyenas and antelope.  Evidence of the earliest controlled use of fire in southern Africa, and some of the earliest evidence of controlled use of fire anywhere in the world.

Minaars Cave:  Animal fossils include a jackal skull

Coopers site:  Notable for diverse fauna including pigs, carnivores, antelope and Paranthropus robustus

Kromdraai:  The first specimen of Paranthropus robustus was discovered at this site in 1938, in an area dated to at least 1.95-million years ago. 

Plovers Lake:  Abundant fauna including baboon, antelope and an extinct form of zebra.  Part of the site was probably a leopard lair.  Middle Stone Age deposits with artefacts have been excavated recently

Wonder cave:  No hominids but a diversity of other fauna including baboon

Drimolin: 92 hominid specimens have been discovered here, including Paranthropus robustus and early Homo.

Gladysvale:  Rich fossil site with clear stratigraphy (levels).  Two hominid teeth, much fauna and plant remains up to 3-million years old.

Haasgat:  Variety of early monkeys

Gondolin:  Many fossils, including an enormous molar tooth of Paranthropus robustus. About 90,000 fossil specimens have been discovered here since 1979.

Motsetse:  Site with well-preserved fauna, including a sabre-toothed cat

Makapans Valley:  Wealth of animal and hominid fossils stretching back more than 3-million years.  The Makapans Valley was declared part of the world heritage site in 2005 and is about 300 km from Sterkfontein, near Mokopane in Limpopo Province

Taung:  The Taung skull fossil site is where the ‘Taung Child’, the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus was found in 1924.  The site was added to the world heritage site in 2005 and is located about 350 km west-south-west of Sterkfontein in North West Province.

Google Earth View:  To view satellite imagery of this site on Google Earth, click here.  This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing other world heritage sites around Africa. You can learn an enormous amount from this kind of ‘bird’s eye view’, so take a few minutes to explore the surroundings by panning in and out, and looking to left and right at high resolution.  That way, you’ll get a strong sense of ‘context’, understanding how this place is situated within the wider contemporary landscape.

Photographic guide to human evolution and key hominin fossils discovered at sites across Africa (14-page downloadable pdf document)



Want to know more?

Download this 14-page guide to the key hominin fossils found across the continent, and the story of human origins and evolution.  The Guide is based on displays at the National Museum of Kenya (Nairobi) and includes a narrative on human evolution; photos of 19 key hominin fossils; artists impressions of four human ancestors; a map of hominin fossil locations; a diagrammatic representation of the human family tree; and 'interest boxes' on stone tools and methods of dating fossils. To download this free educational guide, click here.




Links to other places in the human origins category:  Awash Valley  I  Omo Valley  I  Ngorongoro 

Other Links:     Official UNESCO Site Details  I  SA WH Photo Library  I  National Heritage Council (SA)

The Taung Skull Fossil Site was added to the Fossil Hominid UNESCO world heritage site (South Africa) in 2005Deep underground in the Sterkfontein Caves, the richest hominid fossil locality in the UNESCO world heritage site (South Africa)'Little Foot' is the most complete skeleton of an early hominid to be found anywhere in the world, discovered at Sterkfontein caves (the most intensively studied locality within South Africa's Cradle of Humankind UNESCO world heritage site) in 1992The most complete skull of Australopithecus africanus ever found, nicknamed 'Mrs Ples' comes from Sterkfontein Caves in the 'Fossil Hominid Sites' UNESCO world heritage site (South Africa)



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