The Cradle of Humankind boasts a rich fossil history thanks to the rare preservation conditions of the area's dolomitic limestone ridges. Although our hominin ancestors roamed throughout the African continent, the preservation of their remains in the Cradle of Humankind is particularly striking. The fossil sites here have produced more hominin fossils than any other sites in the world. There are 15 fossil sites in the core area.
This famous fossil site was originally explored by lime prospectors in the 1890s but its significance in terms of fossil finds was not immediately understood. However, once evidence of hominin fossils began to surface, the Sterkfontein Caves became an exciting and rewarding area of excavation. Over the past 100 years they have yielded the popular finds known as Mrs Ples and Little Foot, hundreds of hominin and animal remains, as well as stone tools.
The caves at Kromdraai have produced multiple hominin specimens, such as those found by a schoolboy in 1938 (the first evidence found of Australopithecus robustus*). It has also been a rich source of ancient animal fossils. For example, Kromdraai has provided data on several species of sabre-toothed cats (Dinofelis, Homotherium and Megantereon).
*Originally this species was named Australopithecus robustus, but it was subsequently decided that these hominins were sufficiently similar to Australopithecus spp. so a separate genus was not justified. In modern terms, the Australopithecus-type species are referred to as “robust Australopithecines” while those considered closer to the human ancestry line are called “gracile Australopithecines”. All Australopithecines mentioned on this website are referred to by this convention without explanation of whether they are robust or gracile.
To date, more than 200 hominin specimens, mostly attributable to Australopithecus robustus and Homo ergaster, have been discovered at Swartkrans. In addition, numerous animal remains and stone and bone tools have been recovered from the site. Swartkrans is the second richest site for early stone tools (1.7-million to 1.1-million years old) and the richest site for bone tools associated with early Pleistocene hominins. It's also known for its evidence of the controlled use of fire roughly 1-million years ago.
Cooper’s Cave is something of a living museum, with hundreds of fossils visible, even to the casual observer. The site is not known for an abundance of hominin fossils, but rather for its extensive record of carnivores and other fauna between 2-million and 1-million years ago.
No recent excavations have been carried out at this site. There is, however, a possibility that hominin remains of the early Pleistocene age may be found if excavations are resumed. Several small carnivore fossils have been recovered from the site by intermittent scientific visitors. The site is particularly famous for the well-preserved fossil cranium of a jackal.
Small bones of rodents, frogs, lizards and birds have been discovered in the talus cone (cave infill) at the back of the cave. This relatively young talus cone (a few thousand years old) helps us understand how the older caves in the area were filled in. Although the lower reaches of the cave were severely damaged by mining activities in the late 1800s, it contains dripstone formations as beautiful as those in the Cango Caves near Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape. It also has a resident bat population.
Plover’s Lake is famous for abundant faunal remains that have been dated at around 1-million years old. These remains include baboon crania, antelope and an extinct zebra. Carnivores, notably leopards, were probably the main agents of accumulation of the faunal remains. The site itself may have been a leopard lair.
The Drimolen site has to date yielded 82 hominin specimens of Australopithecus robustus and early Homo. The site dates to between 2-million and 1.5-million years ago. The kind of animal fossils found, including hyena, ancient baboons and a variety of extinct antelope, suggest that the climate then was similar to that of today.
Gladysvale preserves one of the most extensive time sequences of any cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, with sediments dating from over 3-million years to around 250 000 years ago. In addition to two hominin teeth, the site has yielded 38 000 animal fossils, including the skull of a giant hyena and a newly described species of hunting dog dated to around 900 000 years ago. The fossilised seeds of a palm tree (Phoenix reclinata) were found within the stomach of this animal, aiding the understanding of climatic oscillations in the region.
Of the many thousands of fossils recovered from Motsetse, none are hominin. Many fine fossils of other animals have, however, been discovered, including well-preserved Dinofelis remains.
While hominin fossils have not been found at Haasgat yet, discoveries at this site include forest-dwelling monkeys, which indicate that the deposits may be around 1.3-million years old.
The fossils from this site suggest an age of between 1.9-million and 1.5-million years. Two molar teeth are among the hominin fossils found, one being attributed to early Homo, while the other is a very large tooth of the species Australopithecus robustus.
The Malapa site is where the remains of hundreds of Australopithecus sediba fossil fragments were discovered in the early 2000s. The site continues to produce hominin fossils as well the remains of brown hyenas, antelopes, sabre-toothed cats, wild dogs and horses.
This site is roughly 300km from the Sterkfontein Caves, but is classified as part of the Cradle of Humankind (as is Taung). The site, which is in Limpopo province, has produced animal and hominin fossils as old as 3-million years.
Home to the Taung Child fossil, this site was included in the Cradle of Humankind despite being 300km from the Sterkfontein Caves. It's located in the North West province.