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Archaeology and Palaeontology, South Africa


South Africa is the birthplace of the human race. It’s a scary thought and a huge responsibility. It was here – on the Highveld near Johannesburg – where we first stood upright, experimented with our rather useful thumbs, played with fire, and cunningly bashed a few rocks together to make simple hand-axes, thus starting out on the slippery slope that led to the AK47, neutron bombs and chemical warfare. But – hey – it’s been a fun ride. We’ve also discovered music, art, French cuisine and Harry Potter. Well, whatever your feelings about it – we’re here. And how we got here is still largely a moot point, but it is fun to explore the few clues we’ve been left.

The first hint that South Africa would become a major player in the search for human origins was the discovery of a hominid skull at Taung in the North West Province in 1924. Fondly called the “Taung Child”, this individual was the first australopithecine to be discovered in the world. That was followed by some spectacular discoveries at Sterkfontein, which is now part of the Cradle of Humankind in 1947. Since then, fossils – mostly also australopithecines – have been turning up at an impressive rate.

When we took the big step into being actual humans is still a point of some debate – and we’re not really sure anyway what it is that actually makes us human. Anyhow – forget the philosophy. Humans have been living in southern and South Africa for hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s lots of interesting debris lying around marking some of the milestones of our development.

South Africa has the oldest example of artwork in the world. It’s hardly the Mona Lisa – it’s just a rock with deliberate ochre markings on it, but it’s over a hundred thousand years old, and that tells us that we’ve been concerned with the state of our world for a very long time. South Africa also has the oldest evidence of the intentional use of fire. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean our ancestors knew how to make fire – but they knew how to use it when they found it, and maybe they could keep it going so they didn’t have to rely on thunderstorms to light the dry summer grasses. There’s no material evidence for the first instance of love, for the first laughter and the first instance of deliberate lying, so some things will always remain a mystery.

And, really, despite all the evidence, it is still a mystery. It’s almost impossible not to have a sense of wonder when you look at rock art that is tens of thousands of years old, or when you pick up a hand-axe that was fashioned thousands of generations ago – perhaps by a direct ancestor. Although the Cradle of Humankind is a world heritage site and has received loads of press, it’s not the only site of interest.

The fascinating remains at the ancient city state of Mapungubwe in Limpopo Province show sophisticated metal working, the earliest known evidence of social stratification, and also evidence of trade with Arabia and Asia. Mapungubwe was occupied between 1050 and 1270 CE. Tulamela, in the Kruger National Park, dates from a similar era, and displays a similar building style.

Also in Limpopo Province, Makapansgat, or Makapans Cave, is a fascinating site with a fossils of hominids and animals going back three million years, as well as evidence of stone age and iron age occupation. In historical times, it was the site of a protracted battle between the Voortrekkers and the Ndebele, lead by Mokopane, after whom the cave is named.

The pretty Nelson’s Bay Cave on Robberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay, where there is an informative field museum, is intriguing as it was far inland when it was occupied but now commands a fabulous sea view. Makes you wonder what your house will be worth if global warming gives you a seafront position. But forget the future – back to the past. One of the most interesting and certainly prettiest, archaeological treasures is, of course, rock art, and there are hundreds of beautiful paintings and engravings all over the sub-continent. The Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal and the Cederberg near Cape Town are two of the richest rock art sites in South Africa. In the Cederberg, particularly, there are numerous shamanistic paintings showing distinct evidence of trance state and shape shifting. Although some of the paintings in the Drakensberg are very old, the more recent ones show the interaction of the San people with the Bantu and later the Voortrekkers. Near the inland town of Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo, enigmatic mermaid paintings have puzzled archaeologists for years. The fabulous rock engravings near the Northern Cape town of Kimberley are quite unique in South Africa. Firstly, because they are engravings as opposed to paintings, and secondly because they depict strange abstract shapes that are not recognisable representations of natural phenomena.

There is one other extensive rock engraving site, in northern Namibia, but these all depict animals, including seals, which is interesting as the site is far inland. There are many excellent rock art sites in Lesotho, and a few scattered in remote parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe.

But palaeontology isn’t only about people. South Africa has a fascinating fossil record going back to the dawn of life itself. The very earliest known life forms are preserved in fossil form near the Mpumalanga town of Barberton, but don’t go looking for them. They are microscopic, so they’re not exactly a tourist attraction, but they’re there.

The Sudwala Caves, also in Mpumalanga, have lots of stromatolites – fossilised bacterial colonies that date back 2.2 billion years! And – if you happen to be a scuba diver, you can visit some very well preserved stromatolite fossils in Wondergat – a huge sinkhole. More to the taste of today’s children, though, are dinosaur fossils, for which the Karoo area is well renowned. There aren’t many to be seen in situ, but the museum in Graaff-Reinet has a fabulous collection. There are also a few at Morija Museum in Lesotho, where you can hike up to some dinosaur footprints.

For a not-quite-so authentic but very fun experience, there is a dinosaur park near Sudwala Caves. It’s not Jurassic Park, but these lovely life-size replicas are fun to wander among. And, on the West Coast, near Cape Town, is a fabulous fossil park, where you can see current excavations as well as loads of fossils of extinct mammals, such as short-necked giraffes and a giant bear that once roamed the Cape.

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