South Africa: A Paleoanthropological Dream

Originally published on PassionPassport.com

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South Africa — a country in which stunning coastlines and the majestic Big Five attract travelers the world over. Visitors who are eager to witness some of the planet’s largest and most elusive animals, unbelievable sunsets, and diverse landscapes flock to this breathtaking country — and who can blame them? 

Between the promise of 360-degree views from atop Table Mountain, Cape Town’s vibrant atmosphere, and evenings spent camped upon the savannah and beneath the stars, it’s enough to lure even those most distant foreigners. But there is yet another appealing aspect of this place — one that many are likely unfamiliar with, but one that is equally magical. It’s the country’s paleoanthropological history.

Some may be asking, “Okay… well, what is paleoanthropology?” To put it simply, it’s a branch of anthropology that deals with fossil hominids and how they fit together to paint a picture of the evolution of humankind. Or, to put it not so simply, it’s an area of archaeology that seeks to understand the development of anatomically modern humans over the ages — a timeline that can be informed and assembled by painstakingly reconstructing the physicality and behaviors of our ancient ancestors through studies of kinship among human and non-human primates, fossilized remains and behaviors, and cultural artifacts. But no matter how you look at it, paleoanthropology requires that a multitude of pieces come together in order to paint a cohesive and reliable picture of our ancient past, and many of these pieces happen to be present in South Africa.

It’s quite possible that you haven’t heard much about the subject since your science teacher droned on (and on) about fossils in middle school, but I assure you, it’s much more interesting than that. 

If you’re planning a trip to South Africa any time soon, or would simply like to learn more about the country’s paleoanthropological significance, I’m hopeful that this much-abridged guide will pique your interest and inspire you to learn more about this field while you’re there. Most importantly, I hope it entices you to visit these sites on your own. So, without further ado, here are five of South Africa’s most notable paleoanthropological sites, and the discoveries that made them so.

THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND WORLD HERITAGE SITE

Just a hop, skip, and a jump from South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, is an area affectionately referred to as the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Designated in 1999, this UNESCO World Heritage site covers approximately 180 square miles (466 square kilometers) and is made up of an underground limestone cave system. The region has enjoyed renewed enthusiasm from tourists and scientists alike from the fanfare that followed the Rising Star Expedition, which was led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Dr. Lee Berger. The expedition was extensively (and publicly) documented and released its findings in real-time. To date, this was something that had never been done before in the scientific world — at least, not in regard to hominin remains. The outcome of this expedition resulted in the addition of a freshly unearthed member of our Homo family tree: Homo naledi.

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But Homo naledi is not the only remarkable discovery the region has ever seen.

STERKFONTEIN

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Like many South African cave sites, Sterkfontein was an active mine throughout much of the 20th century, drawing in workers with the promise of copious lime deposits. Dr. Robert Broom — a medical doctor, prolific “digger,” and paleoanthropologist — began visiting the area in 1924 after hearing rumors of fossil finds. Upon a follow-up visit to examine the veracity of the claims, Broom instantly understood the significance of the fossils before him and began collecting them from miners and digging for them on his own. Interestingly enough, several of Broom’s fossil finds wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the ongoing dynamite blasting carried out by local miners. He only learned of the fossils once the miners and quarry workers presented the fossils to him, or when stumbling upon them while working in the site. Though some fossilized remains were lost during the blasts and many more damaged in the process, the process also dredged up fossils so deeply entombed that we may not have found them otherwise. In short, this led to many more discoveries.

One such discovery was that of the first-ever adult specimen of Australopithecus africanus. What scientists were able to glean from this find was that although A. africanus had a small brain and several other ape-like characteristics, it had a fundamentally human shape. By this, they mean that its gait was bipedal (it walked on two legs), a significant evolutionary trait among our ancient hominin ancestors. This finding complemented an earlier discovery at the nearby Taung site, where a juvenile specimen of the species was discovered. Not surprisingly, this specimen earned the name Taung child as a result of the location it was unearthed from.

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Some time later, in 1947, Broom came upon a very unique-looking adult hominid skull, which he initially declared was a new genus entirely: Plesianthropus transvaalensis. In time, however, it was discovered that the skull, now referred to as Mrs. Ples, was in fact a member of Australopithecus africanus as well. She, or he (as scientists can’t be entirely certain of the specimen’s sex), is one of South Africa’s more famous finds.

Today, the site is still very active, as students and seasoned archaeologists frequently comb the earth in search of additional discoveries. Since work began there, the site has yielded an astounding 500-plus fossils.

SWARTKRANS

Swartkrans, a cave system belonging to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site, is also rich in hominin remains. Some of its oldest deposits range between an impressive 1.9- and 2.3-million years old. Stomping grounds to the aforementioned paleoanthropologist, Dr. Robert Broom, Swartkrans has yielded an impressive 100-plus specimens since digging (or, perhaps, more accurately, explosions) began. One such discovery, SK 48, was found in a pile of dynamite-blown debris near a cave mouth. Until recently, this specimen (Paranthropus robustus) was considered to be the most complete skull of hominid species, making it an especially significant paleoanthropological find for our evolutionary tree. At this same site, Broom and his colleague Dr. John Robinson also uncovered partial remains to a then-new species: Homo Ergaster. These discoveries, along with some of the earliest evidence of controlled fire use, bone-tool modification, and even cancer make this a fascinating location to visit for anyone traveling to South Africa.

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KROMDRAAI

Neighboring Swartkrans, Kromdraai is a limestone cave system located one and a half miles east of Sterkfontein.

Brought to the attention of Robert Broom in 1938, the site is best-known for its fossils of Paranthropus robustus, in particular, the discovery of hundreds of hominin teeth, which have been essential in the accurate-dating of remains and fauna at the site. While Kromdraai has fewer of the more “famous” finds made by Broom and other paleoanthropologists at Sterkfontein and Swarktrans, as is evidenced by the magnificence of the Homo naledi find, there is always the possibility of discovering something new and significant in the area. Excavations here, as with other Cradle of Humankind sites, are ongoing.

 Image by Zach Fackrell. Location: Lake Natron, Tanzania.

Image by Zach Fackrell. Location: Lake Natron, Tanzania.

Photos by Zach Fackrell. Location: Lake Natron, Tanzania

MUSEUMS

If you find that you’re pressed for time and unable to secure a trip to any of these sites, consider visiting a nearby museum, which is a great idea for anyone looking to wet their feet in this exciting field but have little-to-no time to do it. My top recommendations are the Origins Centre Museum in Johannesburg, Maropeng Cradle of Humankind Museumnear Sterkfontein caves outside of Johannesburg, and the South African Museum in Cape Town. Each of these museums will provide a thorough examination of paleoanthropological history and findings throughout South Africa, as well as a look at the evolution of humankind, flora and fauna, and animals across the continent. All in all, they’re a great way to bookend your trip to South Africa, as they will provide greater context for your trip there as a whole.

South Africa is not unlike the entirety of the African continent in that it is home to some of the most important discoveries of our time. In visiting the country, you expose yourself to the beauty and the variety of life that exists now, as well as the life that once thrived upon its grassland in ancient times. It provides a greater context, and the unique privilege of seeing some of these discoveries in person and getting up-close-and-personal with our most ancient ancestors. 

To visit South Africa is to deepen your understanding of yourself and what it means to be human. And sure, the Big Five are appealing, too.

Thumnail image by Zach Fackrell