A pilgrimage to humanity's heartland

December 9, 2005

The centrepiece of a £31m tourist attraction is the work of South African academics who helped reveal the first humans, writes Karen MacGregor

The bulldozers were still busy at Maropeng, a tourist attraction at the fossil-rich Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site west of Johannesburg, when the British Guild of Travel Writers gave the scheme the top award for "Best New Tourism Projects Worldwide".

The £31 million British-designed development, which opened this week, is indeed impressive. It is a state-of-the-art attraction offering entertainment, education, exhibition, conference and other facilities and can handle a million visitors a year.

But there is more to Maropeng than money-making. Its real value will be to tell visitors the 3 million-year-old story of the African origins and evolution of humankind as it has been unearthed over four decades of archeological excavations by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

The Cradle of Humankind - a 47,000-hectare expanse of hilly bushveld that is riddled with caves - is home to a 16,500-strong community. It also contains the Sterkfontein Caves, which have yielded the richest collection of hominid fossils on Earth.

South Africa is renowned for its research into hominid fossils, and its pre-eminent authority is Philip Tobias, who has been at the forefront of the field for the past four decades. Tobias, who is now 80 but is "still digging", is a geneticist who came late to palaeoanthropology. He has just added an autobiography of his first 40 years to the 1,140 publications that bear his name. Into the Past will be published in Britain in early 2006 and will be followed by a tome on the rest of his life.

"There is no doubt that the huge stockpile of fossils from Sterkfontein played a major part in the decision by Unesco to declare the area a World Heritage Site in 1999," Tobias says. The Cradle also encompasses nearly a dozen other fossil sites.

Unesco's recognition of the special importance of the Sterkfontein Caves, which are owned by Wits, inspired the Government of Gauteng province to foster a public-private partnership, including Wits, that has developed a world-class tourist destination.

Academics are pleased with the outcome. The attraction will give their work new public prominence and will provide them with a much needed funding boost.

For years, Wits has been trying to tell the Sterkfontein story through the media. The university is delighted that it will now reach the public in a far more direct and dramatic way, says Ron Clarke, the British director of excavations at Sterkfontein. "South Africa has a wealth of information about the past, about our early ancestors and about the environment in which they lived. And it is all on Johannesburg's doorstep."

During construction, a bulldozer unearthed ancient stone tools. And so Maropeng - which means "returning to the place of origin" in the local Setswana language - has become both a tourist attraction and a live excavation by Wits.

Maropeng will pay 7.5 per cent of door takings into a public benefit fund that will support development of the local community and research in the area. The money will boost a research project run by the anatomy department at Wits, which, despite a reputation that attracts postgraduates from around the world, was so underfunded that it could not replace three of ten fossil excavators who have died over the past few years.

It was Raymond Dart, the former head of the Wits anatomy department, who in 1925 identified the Taung child, Australopithecus africanus . The child's fossilised skull, found by miners blasting lime deposits, helped to link apes to humans in the evolutionary ladder.

Tobias, who also served as head of the anatomy department, began finding hominid and other fossils in the 1940s. In 1947, the anthropologist Robert Broom discovered Mrs Ples, an Australopithecus africanus dating back 2.5 million years. In the 1960s, Tobias became famous as the scientist who analysed the East African fossil discoveries of Louis and Mary Leakey, including Australopithecus boisei .

At Sterkfontein in 1966, Tobias revived excavations, which had ground to a halt. During four decades under his guidance, Wits has dug out 600 hominid specimens - more than a third of the world's hominid fossils - and led the world's longest continuous cave excavation.

In 1997, Clarke gave the world Little Foot, the almost complete skeleton of an Australopithecus ape-man that is 3.3 million years old and is believed to be one of the most significant hominid finds since the Taung child.

The foot bones of Little Foot were found in 1995 in a box, in which they had been stored since being excavated in the 1970s. After more painstaking searches, Clarke found more foot bones in another storage box two years later and most of the rest of the Little Foot skeleton embedded in cave rock the following year. Little Foot's value lies in the near completeness of his skeleton, the result of the ape-man plunging to his death in a cave beyond the reach of carnivores and becoming fossilised.

"For the first time, we know what kind of skull goes with which kind of limb bones. Also for the first time, we know the complete stature of Australopithecus," Clarke says.

Modern apes have long arms and hands relative to short legs, and modern humans have long legs relative to shorter arms and hands. Little Foot's arms and legs are the same length, and his hands are shorter than those of apes. It has been established that Little Foot walked upright but did not do as much walking as modern humans and still spent a lot of time in trees.

Clarke is busy making a silicone rubber mould of the skeleton, which will be used to construct exhibits for the Cradle and for museums across the world. "We will then take out the fossils in blocks of the cave breccia in which it is embedded, and clean them in preparation for proper microscopic analysis in the laboratory."

Today, still under the directorship of Tobias, three academics are researching at Sterkfontein - Clarke, who obtained degrees in antiquity conservation and anthropology in the UK and his PhD at Wits; his anthropologist wife, Kathy Kuman; and geologist Tim Partridge.

Three million years of human activity have unfolded at Sterkfontein, which contains 40 fossil sites, only 13 of them excavated. The Cradle also includes Bolt's Farm, where the remains of extinct sabre-tooth cats have been found; Swartkrans, site of man's earliest known controlled use of fire 1.3 million years ago; Haasgat, which contains fossils of 1.3 million-year-old forest-dwelling monkeys; and Gondolin, where 90,000 fossil specimens have been found since 1979.

The area was also once home to the San people (Bushmen), who, according to emerging genetic research, are likely to be humanity's common ancestors.

Tobias is watching developments in genetics with interest. "It is most exciting to me to see how genetics has come to play a major part in physical anthropology since the last quarter of the 20th century," he says.

"The field of hominid evolution has been revolutionised by the growing dependence on DNA studies in living primates and, almost miraculously, in some of the fossils themselves. My earliest studies of living peoples and fossil ancestors were deeply influenced by my love of genetics. It is as though the wheel has turned a full circle."

Back to the beginning

The once run-down Sterkfontein site has been revamped with the establishment of the Cradle of Humankind exhibition. It now has a 260-square-metre scientific exhibition, illustrated by international museums artist John Gurche. It also houses a shop and restaurant, and offers improved access to the caves. It can accommodate 150,000 visitors a year.

Maropeng, 9km away on donated land on the edge of the Cradle, is a much larger, more public-oriented site, Government-owned but run by a private consortium. It was officially opened this week by President Thabo Mbeki.

On entering the site, a sweeping drive takes you past seven giant columns symbolising the theoretical African "Eve" and her daughters and leads to a grassy construction at the heart of the attraction - a mostly underground building called the Tumulus that hints at an ancient burial mound on the approach side but is ultra-modern at the back to symbolise the journey of human evolution.

The site contains a sunken market, a 5,000-seat amphitheatre, a luxury hotel and dormitories for pupils. The three-and-a-half storey Tumulus holds a bar and restaurant, a conference centre, decks to view the Cradle landscape and a nine-zone attraction (including a boat ride through the Earth's four elements) that moves from the Earth's creation through human evolution and ends with an original fossil display.

The text for the exhibitions and attractions was compiled by a nit-picking storyline committee that consulted Wits academics including archaeologists and palaeontologists, geologists and environmentalists. "It was almost impossible to get all of them to agree," says Tara Turkington, a Wits journalism lecturer who wrote much of the text.

Ron Clarke, the British director of excavations at Sterkfontein (who worked with Louis and Mary Leakey in Kenya and Tanzania), says the role of Wits was to ensure the scientific accuracy of the Sterkfontein and Maropeng content.

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