Maropeng, S. Africa

While trekking South Africa in 2023, I visited the fascinating museum of Maropeng near Sterkfontein Cave. Maropeng is on the “Cradle of Humankind Site” which is a 180-square-mile site northwest of Johannesburg, home to the oldest hominid fossils ever found.

A public domain map of the “Cradle of Humankind site”
Google maps image of the location of the “Cradle of Humankind” Site, relative to Johannesburg, Africa

The Maropeng visitor center is on R400 just off the R563 Hekpoort road.

A map of the Visitors Center at Maropeng in 2023, (image taken from an interpretive sign on-site)

Pictured above, the Maropeng Visitor Center contains a small museum that explores the history of the area. On display are several fossil examples of mankind’s earliest ancestors, as well as hands-on science exhibits, and a collection of photographs and artifacts.

Detailed map of the diggings of the “Cradle of Humankind” site in 2023, (image taken from an interpretive sign on-site).

The Sterkfontein Caves are also on this site, and they alone have provided a third of all early hominid fossils ever found. This system of limestone caves became famous with the 1947 discovery of the 2-million-year-old fossil skull dubbed “Mrs. Ples”. After this monumental find, work continued at the site for decades. Then in 1997 “Little Foot,” a hominid skeleton, (Australopithecus Prometheus), aged at about 3.5 million years, was discovered in the caves. In addition to these two “stars,” the caves have also produced over 500 other fossils.

Entrance to the Maropeng Visitor’s Center in South Africa 2023

Hominids from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site provide some of the earliest evidence and the deepest roots of human origins. From skull and skeleton found on-site to face and body, the exhibition explores and brings us face to face with these relatives of all of humankind through reconstructions by scientists and artists. The exhibition at Maropeng presents the opportunity to compare face to face the bust reconstructions of Australopithecus sediba and Home naledi by renowned palaeo artist John Gurche.

I’m standing near the complete skeleton of the Homo naledi at Maropeng

Pictured above, ‘Neo’ is the nearly complete skull and skeleton of a Homo naledi individual, discovered at Rising Star and announced in 2015. This species lived at the same time as early humans, around 335,000-236,000 years ago. Unlike other members of the genus “Homo”, this species had a small but complex brain and a slightly projecting face.

Three photos that demonstrate the reconstruction of the Homo naledi at Maropeng, South Africa 2023

Pictured above, these images of reconstructions of Homo naledi by Daynes and Gurche show that although the science on which both are based is the same, the way in which the artists interpret the science differ, (but both within the realm of possibility). The process in both instances starts with the hominid skulls as a base, and placing tissue markers before carefully molding clay to form muscles and ultimately skin and facial features.

A skull of a Paranthropus robustus at Maropeng, South Africa 2023

Pictured above, DNH 155 is a male Paranthropus robustus skull discovered at Drimolen in 2018, and lived between 2.04-1.95 million years ago. DNH 155 is one of the best-preserved skulls belonging to this species, which are easily recognized by their large flat faces, extremely large teeth, and a distinct bony ridge or “sagittal crest” on the top of their heads.

A reconstruction of the Paranthropus robustus skull at Maropeng, South Africa 2023.

Pictured above, the southern African species is known as Paranthropus robustus. Roughly the same size as Australopithecus, it had large jaws, teeth and powerful cheek muscles, all adaptations for grinding tough vegetation such as roots, hard seeds and berries.

A hypothetical reconstruction of a Paranthropus that lived in South and East Africa from 2.5 to 1 million years ago, {a full skeleton has never been found}.

Pictured above, many Paranthropus robustus fossils have been found in the Cradle of Humankind. This species was not a direct human ancestor but a distant cousin; a “broken branch” of our family tree.

A skull of the Australopithecus prometheus at Maropeng, South Africa 2023.

Pictured above, ‘Little Foot’ is the nickname given to the oldest australopith (3.67 million years old), discovered at Sterkfontein in 1994, belonging to the species Australopithecus prometheus. This is the most complete australopith skeleton ever discovered and the full skull is extraordinarily well preserved.

The clasped hand of ‘Little Foot’ has been studied in detail, and could shed light on hand shape and abilities in the oldest australopith species in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
A reconstruction of the Australopithecus prometheus skull at Maropeng, South Africa 2023.

Pictured above, Australopithecus prometheus populated the eastern and southern part of Africa between 4 to 2 million years ago.

A hypothetical reconstruction of a Australopithecus skeleton at Maropeng, South Africa 2023.

Pictured above, Australopithecus walked upright and had human-like teeth and hands, but also had ape-like features, including a small brain, flattened nose and forward-projecting jaws.

A skull of the Australopithecus africanus TM 1511 and named “Mrs Ples” at the Maropeng, South Africa 2023.

Pictured above, “Mrs. Ples”, an adult Australopithecus africanus and ancient ancestor of humankind, was discovered by palaeontologist Dr. Robert Broom and his assistant, John Robinson, at Sterkfontein in 1947, in an area that had been worked by lime miners. Mrs. Ples is more than 2 million years old and is the best example of an Australopithecus africanus skull ever found.

Remaining skeleton of an Australopithecus africanus at Maropeng, South Africa 2023

Pictured above, Mrs. Ples was probably the last of the species, Australopithecus africanus, that lived over 2 million years ago. Her brain was three times smaller than ours.

A reconstruction of what “Mrs. Ples” may have looked like

Pictured above, in 1947, Dr. Robert Broom and John Robinson were blasting breccia with dynamite at the Sterkfontein Caves, when they discovered the skull of Mrs. Ples. Broom suggested that the skull of Mrs. Ples represented a female, based on the small size of the sockets for the canine teeth. Mrs. Ples was clearly on the road to humanity. This hominid could walk upright, but had a small brain, similar is size to that of a modern chimpanzee.

A reconstruction of what “Mrs. Ples” may have looked like at Maropeng in South Africa 2023

Pictured above, many palaeo-anthropologists believe that one of the many species of Australopithecus may be the immediate ancestor of the genus “Homo” to which we, Homo sapiens, belong. Some however consider that “Homo” had an ancestor separate from Australopithecus (e.g. Kenyanthropus). At about 2.1 million years old, Mrs. Ples is one of the youngest known fossils representing Australopithecus africanus. Not long after that, Australopithecus africanus became extinct.

A skull remnant of a Homo habilis at Maropeng, South Africa 2023

Pictured above, the first Homo habilis fossil was discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the early 1960s. It consisted of 2 parietal (skull) bones and the lower jaw of a child. Other examples are the 1470 skull for East Lake Turkana in Kenya, and the OH65 maxilla (upper jaw) from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

A hypothetical reconstruction of a “Homo” skeleton.

The earliest species of the genus Homo named so far, Homo habilis (“Handy Man”), appeared about 2 million years ago in Africa. Homo habilis had smaller teeth and a larger brain than Australopithecus, and was probably the first hominid to make stone tools, including pebble choppers and sharp flakes of stone. Their faces were more slender and their teeth smaller than their contemporary in South Africa, (which mostly ate tough vegetation). It was probably the development and use of tools that would cause the Homo lineage from extinction, as it was able to adapt to changes in the Earth’s climate at the onset of the Pleistocene, which was marked by a cycle of ice ages beginning about 1.8 million years ago. All together, Homo habilis lived for more than half a million years.

A blurry photo of a skull for the Homo ergaster at Maropeng, South Africa 2023

Pictured above, the successor to Homo habilis in the fossil record is Homo ergaster, sometimes known as early Homo erectus from Africa, which lived between about 2-1.4 million years ago and had a brain capacity of about 2/3 rds of the size of that of modern humans. The first discovery of Homo ergaster was made by Tranvall Museum palaeo-anthropologists Dr. Robert Broom and Professor John Robinson at Swartkrans in the Cradle of Humankind in 1949, when they found a lower jaw SK 15 and a cranium SK847, which were only to be recognized as a “Homo” 20 years later by Professor Ron Clarke. Homo ergaster was about as tall as modern humans and always walked upright, but still had a few ape-like features, including a low forehead with prominent brow ridges, a slightly thickened jaw and no discernible chin.

Large cutting tool that had been found at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. This specific type is also known as an Acheulean hand-axe, and dates back to the earlier Acheulean period of the Stone Age, at least one million years ago.

Pictured above, palaeo-anthropologists believe Homo ergaster was the first human ancestor to have made Acheulean stone tools, such as hand-axes and cleavers. This was an improvement on the earlier Oldowan technology. Tools, combined with the ability to control fire, allowed Homo ergaster to leave Africa for colder, northern climates. The use of fire allowed for cooking, which expanded the range and quality of foods available to Homo ergaster. It also provided warmth, and a means to ward off predators. It is probable that the migrated north from Africa and entered into Europe and Asia. From there they evolved into, what is believed to be Homo erectus.

A blurry picture of a Homo erectus at the Maropeng, South Africa 2023

Pictured above, Homo erectus most prominent features were its low, angular braincase with massive brow ridges, and large brain, which comes close to modern human brain sizes. Most palaeo-anthropologists now believe that Homo erectus evolved in Asia about 1.6 million years ago, and used its relatively advanced mental capabilities to spread into Europe and back into Africa.

A comparison of skulls from Australopithecus Africanus to Homo erectus at Maropeng, South Africa 2023

In 1891, Eugene Dubons found a fossilized 700,000 year old Homo erectus skullcap at Trinil on the Solo River, Java, Indonesia, and named it Pithecanthropus erectus. Later dubbed “Java Man”, this is the type of specimen for Homo erectus. Since then, dozens of Homo erectus fossils have been recovered from Java.

A comparison of the left Homo sapien, the middle Australopithecus sediba, and the right Proconsul africanus lower jaws.

In the 1930s, about 40 Homo erectus fossils were excavated at Zhoukoudian, China. Originally classified as Sinanthropus pekinensis, and known more popularly as “Peking Man”. These fossils date from about 530,000-230,000 years ago, and are less robust than the previously mentioned Java specimens.

A comparison of several species of skulls & feet found at the Cradle of Mankind Site, South Africa 2023
A Proconsul africanus species in Maropeng

Pictured above, is an example of a Miocene ape. Proconsul africanus was one of the many Miocene apes, but not the one that gave rise to humans. Some researchers believe that there was a common ancestor between modern-day apes and humans. This has not yet been found. It is probable that modern apes and humans evolved from separate but closely related ancestral species rather than a common species. So, out of the late Miocene world, with the global climate beginning to cool, came the great apes, (the ancestors of gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and our own ancestors, the hominids).

Looking northwest into the “Cradle of Humankind Site” from Maropeng, South Africa 2023.

The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site was declared a Cultural World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Council (UNESCO). This site has yielded significant fossils of hominins dating back to more than 3.5 million years before present.

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