Evolution World Tour: The Cradle of Humankind, South Africa
Three million years ago, an eagle soared above an enormous forest in South Africa and zeroed in on its target. Among a group of hominids searching for fruits, nuts and seeds, a 3-year-old child had strayed too far away from its mother. The eagle swooped down, grabbed the 25-pound toddler with its talons and flew off to its nest, perched above the opening to an underground cave. As the eagle dined on its meal, scraps fell into the cave below.
Similarly hair-raising tales—hominids being dragged into caves by leopards or accidentally falling into hidden holes—explain why South Africa’s limestone caves are the world’s greatest source of hominid fossils. About 900 have been recovered from more than a dozen sites scattered over 180 square miles of grassland within a few hours’ drive from Johannesburg. The area is known as the Cradle of Humankind. Scientists have identified at least four hominid species—in addition to our own, Homo sapiens—that lived in this region at various times over the past 3.5 million years.
“Fossils from South African caves have played a critically significant role in the development of our concepts of human evolution,” says C.K. “Bob” Brain, a curator emeritus at South Africa’s Transvaal Museum, who began studying the caves in the 1950s.
The first major discovery of a hominid from the Cradle came in 1924, when the anatomist Raymond Dart found an unusual, bumpy rock among rubble that had been sent to him from a quarry. After months of chipping away at it with one of his wife’s knitting needles, Dart liberated a skull and stared into the face of what appeared to be a young ape that looked surprisingly human. Now known as the Taung Child after the town where it was discovered, it was the first evidence of the species Australopithecus africanus. (More recently scientists have determined that two holes in the skull were made by an eagle’s talons.)
Prior to Dart’s discovery, scientists thought human ancestors emerged in Europe or Asia. The Taung and other fossils—more primitive than Eurasian hominids but still possessing human characteristics, such as the ability to walk upright—compelled early-hominid hunters to shift their search to Africa.