Hunting for Fossils in the Cradle of Humankind

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Joburg Weekend Getaways, Johannesburg, Johannesburg Day Trips, Parks/Nature Reserves, Tours | 9 comments

I recently learned a bonkers statistic: Around 40% of all of the hominid fossils ever discovered were unearthed in the Cradle of Humankind. In other words, close to half of all the known fossils from our human ancestors — in the entire world — came out of the ground right here in Gauteng Province. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, less than an hour from Joburg, is more than a bunch of bucolic green hills — it’s one of the most important archeological regions on earth.

Hills in the Cradle of Humankind
The Cradle of Humankind: Pretty, serene, and stuffed with fossils.

I’ve been to the Cradle of Humankind many times, mostly to go to the Maropeng museum and the Sterkfontein Cave/museum (which, sadly, is indefinitely closed). But I hadn’t been to the Cradle since before the pandemic, and there are several significant archeological sites there that I had never visited. So when I was invited a few weeks ago to take a half-day “Human Origins Tour” in the Greater Cradle Nature Reserve with expert guide Howard Geach, I was excited to check it out.

In the Cradle reserve on the Human Origins tour
In the Cradle Reserve with our Human Origins Tour group. Thorsten (sketching), came along, as did Thorsten’s father, Wolfgang, who absolutely loved the tour.
Thorsten's sketch of the Cradle of Humankind
My favorite of Thorsten’s Cradle landscape sketches. (See @TheThinking_Hand on Instagram for more of Thorsten’s work.)

Howard, who spent many years working in the mining/geological fields before joining the tourism industry, has encyclopedic knowledge of the geological and paleontological (is that a word?) history of the Cradle. I won’t even try to recount everything we learned on the tour but here is a quick recap.

A Morning in the Cradle of Humankind

Howard and his brother Peter fetched us in Joburg at 8:00 a.m. and drove us to the Cradle Boutique Hotel, where the tour began.

Peter at the Cradle Boutique Hotel
Peter heading into the Cradle Boutique Hotel. I have never stayed or eaten at this hotel but it looks really nice and has a great view of the surrounding grasslands.
View from the hotel restaurant
View from the hotel restaurant.

Hugh and Monica, the other tour guests, eventually arrived and we headed into the bush in an open safari vehicle.

We got out at various points and Howard explained the history (going back a couple of billion years) and geology of the area, which resulted in the discovery of so many fossils. In the most simplistic terms: The type of rocks and environmental conditions that existed here millions of years ago were perfect for preserving bones, and that is why there are still so many fossils lying around.

Howard Geach
Howard explains fossils.
Very old rocks
Some very old rocks.

Even without the paleontology, it’s wonderful to pop out of Joburg for the morning and ride around the bush — spotting giraffes and blesbok — taking in the country air from an open Land Cruiser.

Grasses of the highveld
These hills look very primordial.
A curious giraffe
A curious giraffe.
Rare plant in the Cradle
I can’t remember the name of the sprouty-looking plant on the left (UPDATE: It’s a xerophyta arendorfi, commonly known as Baboon’s tail), but it is super rare and this is the only place on earth where it grows. We were lucky to catch it flowering.

The tour has two main events: 1) A visit to the Gladysvale Cave, where hundreds of thousands of bones (mostly from ancient antelope) have been found — including two teeth from a couple-of-million-year-old hominid called Australopithecus africanus — since rock-star paleontologist Lee Berger began excavations there in the early 1990s.

Gladysvale Cave
Hanging around outside the Gladysvale Cave.
Spectacular rock formations inside Gladysvale Cave
Spectacular rock formations inside the cave. The cave is filled with breccia, a type of rock that is perfect for preserving fossils.
Exiting Gladysvale Cave
Exiting the cave.

2) A visit to the Malapa fossil site, where Berger (with the help of his 9-year-old son Matthew, as the story goes) discovered a new human ancestor, Australopithecus sediba, in 2008. Australopithecus sediba is believed to be about 1.98 million years old.

Howard shows us a replica of an Australopithecus sediba skull.

Malapa is particularly fun and interesting to visit because of the spider-shaped viewing platform, designed by architect Krynauw Nel, that crouches above the site. Gazing at a pile of rocks and dirt, which is what most archeological excavations look like, is not very exciting for a non-archeologist like myself. But gazing at a pile of rocks and dirt from inside a crazy, arachnid-shaped viewing structure is pretty darn cool.

Malapa viewing platform
The crazy viewing platform.
Malapa viewing platform
This frame shows some of the (very important) rocks and dirt beneath the platform. The platform was specifically designed to allow people to visit the site without disturbing the ongoing excavations.
Thorsten sketching the Malapa viewing platform
Thorsten sketching the platform.
Malapa viewing platform sketch
Viewing platform sketch.
Malapa viewing platform sketch
The architects among you will appreciate this sketch. In Thorsten’s words (stolen from his Instagram): “The connection of the legs to the main structure had to be adjustable so that the exact position of each footing could be confirmed by the archeologists.”

After Malapa, we headed back to the Cradle Hotel to check out the Malapa Museum. The museum has several nice exhibits about the history of the area and the ongoing excavations on the Cradle Reserve, and has a window into an actual lab where techs are working on fossils.

Sediba replica in the Malapa Museum
A sediba replica in the Malapa Museum. The paleontology lab is in the background.

We were back home by early afternoon. Thanks to Howard and Peter for a great morning out in the Cradle.

Skull sketches.

This fascinating part of the Cradle of Humankind can only be visited on a guided tour. Tours cost R1985 per person (about $100) for a minimum of two guests or R1500 (about $80) for four or more guests. The tour includes a snack. To book a Human Origins tour with Howard and Peter, email info@aah-afrika.co.za or call Liz at +27-76-438-5353.

Outside the Malapa Site on the Human Origins tour

Our Human Origins Tour of the Cradle of Humankind was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.

9 Comments

  1. dizzylexa

    Fascinating, this is just down the road from my brothers farm. My nieces often go on a hunt for fossils or remnants of tools or spear heads. It is very pleasant out there, love my visits to the farm which I haven’t done too often lately.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It is a very pleasant and relaxing landscape!

      Reply
  2. Peter

    It was a wonderful day out in the peaceful cradle of humankind, hunting bones and stones with cool folk.

    Reply
  3. Lani

    As a former student of archaeology, with a concentration and love for human evolution, this was wonderful to see. In other words, this is totally my jam. Funnily, my brother still sends me articles on the latest news from the archaeological community!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Glad you enjoyed! It’s definitely an archeologist’s paradise around here.

      Reply
  4. Meeaa

    Do you know why the caves are closed indefinitely?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      No, I’m not clear on the reason.

      Reply

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