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Approximately 50 metres under the earth, I scramble along a pitch black cave, up through a tunnel and into the light.

I now see the world as it was 2 million years ago.

As a lover of nature and all things living, I must admit that I haven’t spent much of my life considering my human ancestry. Now all of a sudden I’m fascinated about how it is that my species came to be.

This is the type of effect The Cradle of Humankind can have on a person.

Only 40 kilometres outside Johannesburg, it’s just plain silly that I had never visited this world heritage site before. Understanding the origin of my species is now just as necessary as catching up with the parents at Sunday lunch.

Contemplating my origins at the Maropeng Museum, Cradle of Humankind (Photo copyright Tim Jackson)

Quite poignantly, the day my adventure began was the same day that renowned paleoanthroplogist Phillip Tobias died. If you didn’t know of Professor Tobias himself, you would certainly have heard of the work he has done. Mainly because of the direct connection between his research and your very existence.

Among other endeavours, Tobias lead the excavation of Sterkfontein Caves (a main attraction at The Cradle), an area that eventually uncovered one of the most profound discoveries relating to early human evolution – the two-million-year-old fossil of  Australopithecus africanus, otherwise known as Mrs. Ples. For all intents and purposes, this is the ‘GREAT grand parent’ in our lineage to modern humans.

A statue of Phillip Tobias outside Sterkfontein Cave on the day he died (Photo Tim Jackson)

Although I did not have a chance to meet Professor Tobias before he died, I had the amazing opportunity to interview the man who carries his legacy forward at the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Lee Berger.

Professor Berger spoke with a twinkle in his eye about how, while walking in a valley near Sterkfontein one morning, his son Matthew pointed out to him a 1.977 million-year-old fossil that eventually came to be known as Australopithecus sediba. Sitting somewhere on the family tree in between our ‘grand and great grand parents’ – like an unknown uncle arriving for Christmas dinner – A. Sediba was a remarkable discovery, and continues to expand the early human fossil record as we speak.

Berger spoke with glee of the moment he first saw the fossil imbedded in a rock:

[quote]’This was an impossibility for various reasons … But one look and I knew exactly what I’d found. Everything went silent and the world around me turned to black and white. Matthew says I cursed, but actually can’t remember what I said.'[/quote]

I felt a similar upwelling of emotion when I first saw the skeleton in Lee Berger’s laboratory. Having the opportunity to soak up his excitement on the topic, learn a few unrevealed secrets about the fossil site, and view the skeleton for myself was something I’ll never forget.

[slickr-flickr tag = “sedibe” captions = “on” descriptions = “on”]

Later that day, I had the privilege of exploring The Cradle itself. Timothy Nash, a member of the family which owns the property on which A. sediba was found, explained to me how the entire area is a geological wonder. A labyrinth of ancient lime-stone caves that lie below the surface of the land. Through millions of years of erosion, these caves have filled up with sediment from above, and so fossilized whatever bone fragments happened to be washed into the cave with it.

As convenient as this sounds, finding a hominid fossil is incredibly rare. Berger spent 15 years excavating another cave on the property called Gladysvale, only to find a couple of hominid teeth – a good haul in the world of a paleoanthropologist.

So you can only imagine his excitement at finding the two relatively complete skeletons of A. Sediba at Malapa.

Paul Steyn (right) and Timothy Nash (left) exploring the famous Malapa site. Photo copyright Tim Jackson

Walking through the area, exploring sites like Malapa and Sterkfontein, I was filled with an intoxicating sense of time and place. I suppose the thrill comes from that innate desire to understand where we all came from and how – and the mystery around this.

Professor Lee Berger foresees at least twenty years of research and excavation still to be done at Malapa. And who knows what may still turn up in the Cradle. For me, that’s the most exciting thing – it’s still an open book.

Go there and read it for yourself.

For more information about the Cradle of Humankind. Click here.

For more info about where to stay, what to do and where to eat, click here.

Africa Geographic Travel

Paul Steyn spends his days submerged in the world of digital story telling. When coming up for air, he prefers it to be somewhere in the middle of the wilderness. He is obsessed with finding new and interesting waays to distribute content to all those who love and connect with Africa.