Exploring The Cradle of Humankind in South Africa

by | May 20, 2024 | Africa

Skull of Australopithecus africanus at the cradle of humankind in South Africa

Cranium of an Australopithecus africanus, Stw 505 by MaropengSA under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence


Imagine stepping into a time machine, not through a sci-fi portal, but by visiting a tangible place on Earth where every rock and every fossil whispers secrets from millions of years ago. Welcome to the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, a unique corner of the globe that holds the keys to our past.

Just a short drive from Johannesburg, this UNESCO World Heritage site is an expedition back to the very roots of what it means to be human.

But why does this place matter? And why should you, a modern traveler with a penchant for unique stories and unforgettable landscapes, care about ancient bones and stone tools? The Cradle of Humankind in South Africa isn’t just about retracing our steps into the past; it’s about understanding our place in the world today. 

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or simply someone in search of a deeper travel experience, the Cradle of Humankind offers that spark of curiosity to possibly, just maybe, change the way you view the world.

So, lace up your most comfortable walking shoes, grab your sense of adventure, and join me in exploring the Cradle of Humankind together. It’s time to unearth the story of where we all originated and, in doing so, perhaps learn a little more about ourselves.

The History of the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa

First Findings and Their Significance

Our story begins in the early 20th century, when miners, digging for limestone, stumbled upon something far more precious than the minerals they sought. They found fossils, not just any fossils, but those of early humans. These discoveries would challenge our understanding of human evolution.

The first major find, a skull lovingly dubbed the “Taung Child,” was unearthed in 1924 by Raymond Dart, who identified it as an early human ancestor. This discovery was monumental, suggesting that Africa, specifically this part of South Africa, was the cradle of humankind, the very birthplace of our species.

Fossil Richness: Discoveries Made Over the Years

But the Taung Child was just the beginning. The Cradle of Humankind has proven to be an archaeological treasure trove, with over 1,000 hominid fossils discovered in its caves, making it the world’s richest hominid site.

Each cave, each dig site in the area has its own story, its own collection of ancient bones that piece together the puzzle of our past. From Mrs. Ples, a 2.3 million-year-old Australopithecus skull, to Little Foot, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton that took researchers nearly 15 years to excavate, the Cradle has revealed a fossil record spanning over 4 million years.

How These Discoveries Have Altered Our Understanding of Human Evolution

The impact of these discoveries on our understanding of human evolution cannot be overstated. Each fossil, each fragmentary piece of bone has added to our knowledge of how early humans lived, how they evolved, and how they interacted with their environment.

The Cradle of Humankind has helped to firmly establish Africa as the birthplace of humanity, shifting the focus of paleoanthropological research to this continent.

The site has also been pivotal in understanding the diversity and complexity of early human species, showing us that our evolutionary path was not a straight line but a branching tree, filled with different species, some of whom were our direct ancestors, while others represent branches of our family tree that have since gone extinct.

The Cradle of Humankind doesn’t just belong to South Africa; it belongs to the world. It’s a reminder of our common heritage, of the shared journey that all of humanity is on. It challenges us to think about what it means to be human and how we relate to each other and the world around us. The fossils found here have not just rewritten textbooks; they’ve changed the way we see ourselves.

Where is The Cradle of Humankind Located in South Africa?

Nestled in the heart of Gauteng Province, the Cradle of Humankind is one of South Africa’s most remarkable sites, both for its archaeological significance and its stunning natural beauty. This UNESCO World Heritage site spans an area of about 47,000 hectares, primarily situated northwest of Johannesburg. A crucial landmark within this expansive area is the Sterkfontein Caves, renowned for their rich fossil finds.

Map with Location

Getting There: Tips for Travelers

Reaching the Cradle of Humankind from South Africa’s major urban centers is straightforward, making it an accessible trip for those eager to explore the roots of humanity.

  • From Johannesburg: The site is less than an hour’s drive away, roughly 50 kilometers northwest of the city. Travelers can take the N1 freeway towards Roodepoort, then switch to the R563 to head straight into the heart of the Cradle.
  • From Pretoria: Located about 70 kilometers south of Pretoria, the journey typically takes around an hour and a half. Visitors can follow the N14 freeway towards Krugersdorp, then take the exit onto the R563, which leads directly to the site.

A Gateway to Our Past

Why It’s Important

The Cradle of Humankind links our past to the present, showing the journey of human evolution. It’s important worldwide, giving a clear picture of how our ancestors developed and evolved. This site provides valuable information about early human life, shaping our understanding of human history and behavior.

The Cradle of Humankind also reminds us that we all share the same beginnings. It brings people together, emphasizing our common history.

Learning about our origins helps us understand our role in the world and how we connect with it. The site supports worldwide scientific work and encourages us to value and protect our shared history for the future.

Key Discoveries

Among the myriad of fossils and artifacts uncovered at the Cradle of Humankind, several stand out for their impact on our understanding of human evolution:

  • The Taung Child: This 2.8 million-year-old skull of a young Australopithecus africanus was the first clue that our ancestors originated in Africa, challenging previous beliefs about human evolution’s geographical origins.
  • Mrs. Ples: The most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus found in 1947, estimated to be around 2.3 million years old, providing invaluable insight into the facial structure and brain size of early hominids.
  • Little Foot: An almost complete Australopithecus skeleton discovered in the 1990s, dated to be over 3 million years old. Its discovery offered unprecedented detail on the anatomy and lifestyle of our early ancestors, suggesting they were capable of bipedal locomotion yet still adapted to life in the trees.

These discoveries, among others, have been instrumental in piecing together the puzzle of human evolution. They not only shed light on the physical traits and habitats of our ancestors but also on their cognitive and social development.

Each fossil represents a chapter in the long, complex story of human evolution, making the Cradle of Humankind a key to unlocking the mysteries of our past.

Entrance to Maropeng

Entrance to Maropeng by flowcomm under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence

The Cradle and South African Society

Educational Role

The Cradle of Humankind is like a classroom without walls, where both South Africans and visitors from around the world can learn about the very beginnings of humanity. This site offers a unique learning experience, bringing textbook history and science to life through interactive exhibits, cave explorations, and guided tours.

It’s a place where students, families, and curious minds can dive into the past and see firsthand the evidence of where we all come from. The Cradle helps everyone understand the long, fascinating journey of human development, making it an essential educational tool not just for South Africa but for the global community.

Cultural Significance

For South Africans, the Cradle of Humankind is a source of national pride and a key part of the country’s rich cultural tapestry. It plays a significant role in shaping the national identity, reminding citizens of their shared heritage with all of humanity.

The site is a symbol of unity and diversity, reflecting the varied backgrounds and histories that come together in the story of human evolution. It encourages South Africans to appreciate their place in the world’s history and promotes a sense of belonging and connection to the broader human story.

In celebrating the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa celebrates its contribution to our understanding of human history, highlighting its importance on the world stage.

Cradle of Humankind aerial view

Aerial View Maropeng by South African Tourism Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence

Visiting the Cradle of Humankind

How much does it cost to visit the Cradle of Humankind?

  • General admission: R125
  • Pensioners: R100

Opening Times & What to Expect

  • Museum: Daily from 09h00 – 16h00 (every day including weekends and public holidays)
  • Sterkfontein Caves are currently closed until further notice.

Here’s a taste of what awaits:

  • Museum Tours: The visitor center and museum offer interactive exhibits that tell the story of human evolution, making complex scientific concepts accessible and engaging for all ages. 
    The tour includes:
    • Museum guided tour
    • Underground boat ride
    • Vortex tunnel
  • Cave Explorations: Guided tours of the Sterkfontein Caves, where many of the fossils were discovered, provide a hands-on experience of archaeological exploration.
    Important note: Sterkfontein Caves are currently closed until further notice.
  • Other Activities: Beyond the museum and caves, the site often hosts temporary exhibits, workshops, and talks that delve deeper into specific topics of human history and science.

Best Time to Visit

To make the most of your visit:

  • Avoiding Crowds: Early mornings or weekdays tend to be quieter, allowing for a more personal experience with the exhibits and tours.
  • Weather Considerations: The site is open year-round, but spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) offer mild weather, making outdoor activities more enjoyable.
  • Special Events: Keep an eye on the Cradle of Humankind’s official website for special events or temporary exhibits that might coincide with your visit.


The Cradle of Humankind in South Africa is a journey back to our very beginnings, a place where the story of every human being on Earth intersects. Its fossils and artifacts provide a unique glimpse into our collective past, making it a must-visit for anyone eager to understand the roots of humanity.

This site not only offers a chance to explore the dawn of human history through interactive exhibits and cave tours but also serves as a reminder of our shared heritage. 

I encourage you to explore the Cradle of Humankind, to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, and to experience the awe of discovering where we all come from. It’s an adventure that promises to enrich your understanding of human history and perhaps, in the process, reveal more about who you are today.


Written by Stefanie

I'm Stefanie, your adventurer-in-chief at She Roams Free, and solo travel enthusiast. The world has been my playground since I first hopped on a plane from my home in the Netherlands to South Africa by myself, way back in 2002. Solo travel has been my preferred way to see the world ever since, with South Africa, Namibia and Botswana being my favorite destinations. It has been a baptism by bushveld, a crash course in self-reliance, and a love affair with the unknown. My goal is to inspire other solo female travelers through my stories, and provide tips to explore the world safely and experience the same freedom!

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