Cradle of Humandkind, 50 kilometers northwest of Jo’burg is a World Heritage Site and one of the earliest and richest archaeological sites, dating back about 4 million years. The most famous finds are the 2 million year old skull named Mrs. Ples and the 3 million year old skeleton named Little Foot.
On a gorgeous spring day it was still too early in the season for the semi-arid region of rolling hills and shrubby plants to be very green.
The drive out to the park, while not easy, can be done on your own in about 75-90 minutes with light traffic and assuming good directions. Don’t believe the guidebook, there are few signs until you are close to the park.
Maropeng Visitor Center
We first visited the Maropeng Visitor Center, a contemporary structure built into a mound of earth with the main exhibition halls all underground.
A walk down to the exhibits spirals you back through time. A time line on the wall and floor marks the world’s major events – first hominid, 4 million years ago… fourth mass extinction 200 million years ago…life begins 3.6 billion years ago. Finally you reach the beginning of our planet where you experience earth, air, water and fire by boarding a small round boat that slowly rotates through a tunnel first with dripping rain, then through the frozen ice age and finally the tunnel of fire. Sounding more like a corny ride at an amusement park than a museum? Wait, there’s more!
Descending from the boat a platform leads you into the big bang vortex, a large tube that spins around giving you the sensation that you are the one who is spinning and making you quite dizzy in the process. I’m not sure what this has to do with the big bang, but it’s a weird if not fun experience.
Finally you reach the main exhibit hall that focuses primarily on the evolutionary development of man.
Exhibits range from posters explaining various aspects of human development, such as speech or the ability to walk upright, to more tactile interactions such as phoning a dodo bird to find out what happened to his species. The exhibits also include the discoveries of Mrs. Ples and Little Foot found in the nearby Sterkfontein cave.
Although there are many caves in the area, the Sterkfontein cave is one of the few that can be visited, about fifteen minutes by car from the visitor center.
Guided tours lead through the cave that was once a limestone mine. Although dynamiting prior to 1996 has destroyed most of the cave’s more remarkable formations it remains significant from a historical perspective. You can see how Mrs. Ples and Little Foot might have fallen to their death through one of the many small openings in the cave’s ceiling.
There really isn’t much else to see, but the charming guide’s stories made an otherwise boring tour interesting. At the end of the visit don’t forget to rub the statue of Dr. Robert Broom who discovered Mrs. Ples – the nose for luck and the hand for wisdom.
September 16, 2011
For links to all the posts in this series see the South Africa page.