The Cradle of Humankind: a class of its own

Posted on January 29, 2019 — Pakamani Nombila and Caitlyn O'Shaughnessy

Another academic year has started, but this doesn’t mean learners have to be confined to the classroom during term time. If your school is lucky enough to be located anywhere near the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng, the site offers the perfect opportunity for a school trip to expand its horizons.

 The Cradle is home to the largest assemblage of original hominin fossils.

The Cradle is home to the largest assemblage of original hominin fossils. (Image: maropengsa)

This Unesco World Heritage Site, about 50km north of Johannesburg, is a globally renowned palaeoanthropological area. Many important finds have been made here, establishing the Cradle of Humankind as the place where humankind originated and challenging visitors to reflect on what it truly means to be human.

There are two major destinations in the Cradle for school groups: the Maropeng Visitor Centre and the nearby Sterkfontein Caves. Here’s what teachers and learners can expect on their visit ...

Maropeng Visitor Centre

Self-guided and school tours are encouraged at award-winning Maropeng, the official visitor centre for the Cradle of Humankind, focus­ing on the devel­op­ment of humans and our ances­tors over the past few mil­lion years.

Learning about significant finds from the Cradle of Humankind.

Learning about significant finds from the Cradle of Humankind. (Image: maropengsa)

Its world-class exhibition takes students and teachers on a jour­ney through time to explore the origins and development of planet Earth, looking at the evolutionary phases that have shaped the world into what it is today.

The exciting, interactive tour includes a look at ancient fossils and stone tools of up to a million years old.

The Almost Human exhib­ition is the largest pub­lic dis­play of hominin fos­sils in the world and takes visitors on an interactive journey, where significant finds from the Cradle of Humankind are explained in detail, including the discovery and exca­va­tion of a new ancient human relative, Homo nale­di, in 2013.

An exten­sive dat­ing process has shown that the Homo naledi species was alive some­time between 335 000 and 236 000 years ago and may have lived alongside Homo sapiens, the first humans in Africa.

Maropeng, provincial subject coordinators and district facilitators have developed a curriculum-linked resource pack with educational activities and worksheets that teachers can use to help prepare learners for their trip to the Cradle of Humankind.

The Depart­ment of Basic Education has endorsed these study materials, which include follow-up assignments for learners once they have visited the Cradle.

Sterkfontein Caves

The fascinating Sterkfontein Caves in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind are world-famous for archaeological discoveries, including Mrs Ples, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull that was found in 1947. A more recent significant discovery was that of Little Foot – a 3.67-million-year-old, nearly complete Australopithecus skeleton.

School and other group tours at Sterk­fontein commence above ground with a museum display of cave formations, early life forms, rock art, mammals and hominin fossils, before taking visitors underground into the caves. A guide provides informative commentary as the group moves through the lit-up caverns, including passing an underground lake and areas where important discoveries were made.

Both learners and teachers should wear comfortable shoes and leave heavy bags behind – there are many stairs and narrow passage ways to negotiate.

Tours take place every half-hour, seven days a week, between 9am and 5pm.

For bookings and more information about school tour experiences at Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves, call +27 (0)14 577 9000 or email info@maropeng.co.za.

The Sterkfontein Caves are home to the longest-running fossil excavation in the world!

The Sterkfontein Caves are home to the longest-running fossil excavation in the world! (Image: maropengsa)