Inside the Cradle of Humankind

The Rising Star Cave system is a series of cracks, chambers, and tunnels through a hill of dolomitic limestone, just like all the other hills in the area. Walk to the top of the hill and within your field of vision are the entrances to hundreds of known caves.

This is not the only one to yield hominid fossils.

Meet the Neighbors

Just across the road is Sterkfontein cave, where researchers have spent more than 70  years painstakingly chipping fossils out of the cement-like breccia that formed around them from water dripping through the limestone.

Looking out from a vantage point at Maropeng, the landscape of the Cradle of Humankind ripples out into the blue. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Looking out from a vantage point at Maropeng, the landscape of the Cradle of Humankind ripples out into the blue. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The best known of those was a nearly perfect skull found by Robert Broom and John Robinson in 1947 and named Plesianthropus transvaalensis. The press nicknamed it “Mrs. Ples” and she’s a local celebrity to this day (though whether she’s actually a she or a he continues to inspire debate, and her scientific identification has changed to Australopithecus africanus).

More recently, in 1994 the first parts of  a skeleton nicknamed “Little Foot” were identified in a museum collection by Ronald Clarke. By 1997 more pieces as well as their origin within in the caves had been located. Sixteen years later, the slow excavation from the breccia is still in progress.

A little further on is Swartkrans, another large site with remains from dozens of Paranthropus individuals as well as Homo erectus, and beyond that Malapa, where Lee Berger and his son Matthew discovered the first fossils of Australopithecus sediba. Also locked away in hard breccia, sediba has been revealed in part through excavation and part through CT-scanning.

Exactly why the fossils in Rising Star are encased in loose soil instead is one of the mysteries the team will be working on long after we pack up next week.

Field Trip

To get to know these sites and the wider area better, yesterday all the cavers and caver/scientists piled into a couple cars and headed out for a field trip. A walk through Sterkfontein cave ended with rub of the hands (for wisdom) or nose (for luck) of a bust of Broom holding the skull of an australopith.

An australopith skull, a bust of 20th-century anthropologist Robert Broom, and a member of the next generation of human evolution explorers, Lindsay Eaves of the Rising Star Expedition. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

After a frenzied period of picture taking and gift purchasing in the shop where the University of Witwatersrand sells resin casts of sediba and other hominid fossils, we downed some ice cream pops and headed down the road to “Maropeng.”

The central building of this visitors’ center and museum for the whole region of the Cradle of Humankind is a large tumulus, or earthen mound constructed to hold the remains of esteemed ancestors (or as one of us called it, “a hobbit mansion”). Inside are films, displays, and countless casts of hominid skulls and models of stocky little ape men.

Since much has been made of small size of most of the scientists themselves, this seems an appropriate time to point out that the first night I met the team, Alia Gurtov of the University of Wisconsin-Madison declared that she herself is the height of an adult male australopith. Being at the extreme top end of the range for chimpanzees myself, I understood her unusual sense of pride in this fact.

As we returned to camp, the full moon was slowly rising between streaks of clouds. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
As we returned to camp, the full moon was slowly rising between streaks of clouds. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

We were told the name “Maropeng” means “returning to your place of origin.” While these researchers didn’t really need any further inspiration to keep up what they’re doing, it was a good reminder of the spirit that is already driving them to put so much on the line in pursuit of knowledge of our ancient ancestors.

The next day of course, they uncovered even more of them.

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Human Journey


Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.