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Sterkfontein Caves

Cave-people socialising perhaps?  © Meraj Chhaya, License

Sterkfontein Caves

Sterkfontein Caves

Situated only an hour away from Johannesburg and Tshwane, the Sterkfontein Caves are the perfect way to spend a day out of the city with the family. Something that is not only fascinating but also educational at the same time. The caves are regarded as the world's richest hominid fossil site, with thousands of discoveries made there since excavation at the location began in the mid 1930's. Sterkfontein itself is a South African National Heritage Site and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. The area in which the caves are found was named the Cradle of Humankind. The archaeological sites of Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and the Wonder Cave are all in the same area.

A large part of this excavation has been carried out by the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) who own the Sterkfontein Caves and scientists from the university. These are the people responsible for major discoveries there, discoveries that have shed light on the mystery of who lived on Earth before modern humans. These discoveries include Mrs Ples, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull and Little Foot, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton more than three million years old. The Little Foot however remains partially buried in breccia, but it is being patiently exposed by Professor Ron Clarke, a paleoanthropologist from Wits.

Before visitors enter the caves, they are guided through a world-class scientific exhibition centre where they can discover the origins of humankind. Some of the displays in the centre include the different cave formations and geology, early life forms, mammals and hominid fossils such as Mrs Ples, the Taung Child and Little Foot. Visitors can also learn about palaeobotany, which is a branch of palaeontology that deals with the recovery and identification of plant remains from geological contexts, and their use for the biological reconstruction of past environments.

The caves are deep and consist of some narrow pathways. It is advisable that visitors wear comfortable shoes, and leave large handbags or luggage behind. People who suffer from claustrophobia, asthma or chest problems should consider leaving out the cave tour as there are lots of stairs and confined spaces. The tours run every half hour, seven days a week. Unfortunately the caves are not wheelchair-accessible. After each tour of the caves, visitors to Sterkfontein are given the opportunity to stroll along the wooden walkways with views of the Cradle of Humankind, and the excavation site where Wits scientists still work.

After an extensive face-lift in 2005, the Sterkfontein Caves site is now home to a top restaurant, where visitors can enjoy a toasted sandwich, hamburger or light snack, as well as conference facilities.

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