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What is the Cradle of Humankind?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The Cradle of Humankind is a collection of various sites in South Africa which contain fossils of hominids, dating back millions of years. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1999. In 2005 the site was expanded and a visitor center was opened.

The Cradle of Humankind is a bit less than 200 square miles (500 sq. km) overall, and is 30 miles (50km) north of Johannesburg in South Africa. The site has an incredible density of hominid remains, and has been the site for some of the most exciting fossil discoveries since the 1940s.

While it is likely that in fact early hominids ranged over a much larger area in South Africa, it is in the Cradle of Humankind that their remains are ideally fossilized, and so it is through this site that we know about them. The area is often touted as the place where we became truly human, where we learned to make tools and to stand upright, and where more than a million years ago we domesticated fire.

It is the limestone caves that dot the Cradle of Humankind that make it so ideal for preserving our fossil history. There are more than thirty of these caves spread around the region, but a few are of particular importance. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is named after what are arguably the most important three: Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Kromdraai.

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Sterkfontein was originally discovered in the late-19th century, by miners. The miners found some fossils, and showed them to others, who eventually made them known to groups of interested scientists. In the 1930s the site began to be excavated, and within a couple of years it had provided science with the first fully-matured Australopithecine. Since this first discovery, more than 500 hominids have been found at the Sterkfontein site within the Cradle of Humankind, making it the most productive site of its kind in the world.

Swartkrans is a nearby site in the Cradle of Humankind, and is owned by the University of the Witwatersrand. Swartkrans has yielded a number of interesting fossils, including those of Homo habilis, and the Homo erectus variety of Telanthropus capensis. Swartkrans also provided much of the inspiration for the work of Bob Brain, who showed that these early men were actually hunted extensively by large cats.

At Kromdraai is found the Wonder Cave. Although this site is not known for its fossils, as most of the caves within the Cradle of Humankind are, it has the distinction of being the third-largest chamber in the world. The Wonder Cave is more than 11 acres, or almost 500,000 square feet (46,000 sq. meters). The Wonder Cave at Kromdraii also contains a number of impressive formations of stalagmites and stalactites, some reaching heights of more than 50 feet (15m).

Although Sterkfontein and Swartkrans are by far the most important fossil sites within the Cradle of Humankind, others have also yielded important discoveries. Some of these include Motsetsi, Plovers Lake, Haasgat, Minaars Cave, Drimolen, and Cooper’s Cave. The site is one of the premiere destinations on earth to visit for those with a desire to gaze as far back in humankind’s history as is possible, and in recent years the government has been building more of a tourist infrastructure to support these visitors. Guided tours, comfortable lodgings, and visitors’ centers can all now be found within the site.

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