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Sterkgontein, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Sterkfontein Caves

    The greatest journey back in time our planet could possibly offer starts right outside Johannesburg. Navigate to the Sterkfontein, or what evolutionists say is your original home address. The area known as the Cradle of Humankind is the resting place of the oldest human ancestors ever discovered.

    Driving to the Sterkfontein takes you right through the heart of Africa’s savannah, 2 million years ago, this area was still a rich and flourishing jungle. You might admire an occasional flock of zebras, but the 47,000-hectare site prides itself on the UNESCO World Heritage status for what lies beyond the surface. Over time, the water dripping from above ground has dissolved the prone limestone into a network of fossil rich caves.

    Miners first discovered the caves in the late 19th century. They were digging for limestone, used to extract gold from the nearby Witwatersrand mines. Tourists would buy some of the fossils they found, but most got lost to the gold rush. Things changed with the 1948 discovery of Mrs Ples, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus Africanusm skeleton. Mrs Ples is not on show, but the cave where she and other fossils were found is.

    Wear comfortable shoes and enter the Sterkfontein with a tour guide. You’ll be taken to the heart of the cave with an impressive cave lake. The water is drinkable, but dangerous; a professional diver never returned from it in 1984. Similarly, the caves trapped Mrs Ples and most other fossils found. They were taken by surprise as they fell in the steep holes eroded by water.

    The connected caves are now the world’s longest running paleontological research site. Its most famous discovery is the near complete 3.3- to 4.1-million-year-old skeleton of a human ancestor. "Little Foot" got his curious name because four bones of his feet were first rediscovered in an old box of animal bones in 1994. Research led back deep into the Sterkfontein where the bones were excavated in 1980, and Little Foot’s remaining bones were found.

    Mrs Ples, Little Foot and many other fossils in the Sterkfontein form an impressive third of all hominid fossils found in the world. Their discovery confirms Darwin’s theory that Africa is the cradle of humankind. However, please be careful when you carve out an "I was here" message; you may stumble upon someone who was there long before you.