The Cradle of Humankind
About an hours' drive from us is the home of my long lost sister, Mrs Ples. Well, not my real sister. Mrs Ples lived in what is called today The Cradle of Humankind, a world heritage site. About 2,5 million years ago she and her family made their home on the African Highveld. She was small, weighed about 38 kg and stood 1,3 m tall. Her fingers were delicate and her arms remarkably strong for such a diminutive woman.
Mrs Ples is but one of the many remarkable fossil discoveries made in the Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle earned its prestigious name after a serendipitous crossing of geology, old-time mining, and intellectual power. It is home to 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils making it the richest hominid site in the world.
The dolomite hills are about 3 billion years old; more than half the age of the Earth itself. The bedrock was a once a sea floor and contains the fossils of blue-green algae, some of the earliest life on the planet. Later, dinosaurs ruled the land. Then, a few millennia on, hominids arrived. Spanning 110 square kilometers, the Cradle is known internationally for its pleasant weather and easy accessibility, but most for the 12 major fossil sites.
One of the fossil sites is Sterkfontein, the world's longest-running archaeological excavation with diggings since 1966 and continuing today. It has produced a third of all early hominid fossils; crucial links in the evolutionary chain to modern humans. Charles Darwin speculated that humans evolved in Africa about 200 000 years ago and later spread to other parts of the world. What caused the “Out of Africa” exodus of humans around 60 000 years ago, remains a mystery. Some say that as weather patterns changed and African forests became flatter savanna, our ancestors went searching for food and shelter in other places, gradually trekking north to Europe and elsewhere. Others say it was an outcome of humans’ increasing social intelligence and quest for areas more hospitable to larger tribes.
Mrs Ples was a perfectly preserved skull and along with other discoveries it strengthened Darwin's view that our roots are in Africa. She was found in 1947 by Robert Broom who controversially didn't spare dynamite to get at his fossils. Ronald Clarke made another headline-making find in 1997. He discovered Little Foot, also dating back about 2,5 million years and named because its body parts were smaller than other adult finds. The fossil is one of the most complete hominid discoveries ever. Clarke said at the time: “Little Foot is the most remarkable skeleton. It is pretty much complete, from foot to head. It’s marvelous”.
I can see Little Foot and Mrs Ples once as neighbors, swapping news on where the latest herd of gazelle can be found, or why Little Foot junior missed his hunting lessons today….
Only last year in 2015 another remarkable discovery from the Cradle was announced: Homo Naledi a new species of hominid. An international group of cave divers were recruited to slip down the narrow chimney of the cave to find Naledi. She was detected among a group of the same species - more than 1500 fossil specimens representing at least 15 individuals. Opinions are that she formed part of an ancient burial place. Only we, Homo Sapiens, and possibly other archaic humans such as the Neanderthals, are known to have treated their dead in a ritualized manner.
Recently we took some of our friends from overseas to visit the Cradle of Humankind. There, between tourists from all over the globe, we were met by the tour guide with the words: “Welcome home everyone”.
Never had these three words sounded so profound.