Jump to navigation Jump to search

Sterkfontein, Cradle of Humankind
Map showing the location of Sterkfontein, Cradle of Humankind
Map showing the location of Sterkfontein, Cradle of Humankind
Location in Gauteng
Location Gauteng,  South Africa
Coordinates 26°00′57″S 27°44′05″E / 26.0157°S 27.7346°E / -26.0157; 27.7346Coordinates: 26°00′57″S 27°44′05″E / 26.0157°S 27.7346°E / -26.0157; 27.7346
Established Declared a World Heritage Site in 2000
Governing body Cradle of Humankind
Archaeologists in a structure above the entrance to Sterkfontein

Sterkfontein (Afrikaans for Strong Spring) is a set of limestone caves of special interest to paleo-anthropologists located in Gauteng province, about 40 km (23 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa in the Muldersdrift area close to the town of Krugersdorp. The archaeological sites of Swartkrans and Kromdraai are in the same area. Sterkfontein is a South African National Heritage Site and was also declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. The area in which it is situated is known as the Cradle of Humankind.[1][2] The Sterkfontein Caves are also home to numerous wild African species including Belonogaster petiolata, a wasp species of which there is a large nesting presence.[3]

Numerous early hominin remains have been found at the site over the last few decades. These have been attributed to Australopithecus, early Homo and Paranthropus.

History of investigations[edit]

Modern excavation of the caves began in the late 1890s by limestone miners who noticed the fossils and brought them to the attention of scientists.

In 1936, students of Professor Raymond Dart and Dr. Robert Broom from the University of the Witwatersrand began concerted excavations. The caves yielded the first adult Australopithecine, substantially strengthening Dart's claim that the skull known as the Taung child (an Australopithecus africanus) was a human ancestor. There was a pause in excavation during World War II, but after the war Dr. Robert Broom continued excavations. In 1947, he found a nearly complete skull of an adult female (STS 5) A. africanus (or possibly that of an adolescent male). Broom initially named the skull Plesianthropus transvaalensis (near-man from Transvaal), but it became better known by its nickname, Mrs. Ples. Mrs. Ples is now defined as a member of A. africanus.

In 1997, a nearly complete skeleton of a second species of Australopithecus (StW 573) was found in the caves by Ronald J. Clarke; extraction of the remains from the surrounding breccia is ongoing. The skeleton was named Little Foot, since the first parts found (in 1995, in storage) were the bones of a foot. Excavations continue to this day, and finds now total some 500 hominids, making Sterkfontein one of the richest sites in the world for early hominids. The Palaeo-Anthropology Scientific Trust (PAST),[4] a non-profit trust fund established in 1993, sponsors over 90% of the research undertaken at Sterkfontein and was instrumental in its nomination as a World Heritage Site.

Dating of the deposits[edit]

The Member 4 deposits containing the Australopithecus africanus fossils have been dated to between 2.6 and 2.0 Ma, with the Sts5 "Mrs. Ples" fossil estimated to date to between 2.05–2.01 Ma based on a combination of uranium-lead dating and palaeomagnetic analysis and electron spin resonance dating[5][6][7][8] The StW 573 partial skeleton (Little Foot) was recovered from a separate infill at the site within the confines of the Silberberg Grotto. It is estimated to be around 2.6–2.2 Ma based on a combination of uranium-lead dating and palaeomagnetic analysis[5] and belongs to a second species of australopith, Australopithecus prometheus. In contrast, surface exposure dating of sediments indicate that skeleton StW 573 has an age of approximately 4 million years.[9] While the flowstone dated in the uranium-lead dating has been shown to have formed later than the fossil, an age estimate of ~3 Ma suggested by the same authors[10] has little firm basis.[11] The palaeomagnetic analysis [5] remains the most credible age estimate based on the current data as it included work on both sediments and speleothem.

A slightly younger deposit (StW 53 infill) dated to between 1.8 to 1.5 Mya has revealed the remains of a specimen of early Homo (StW 53). StW 53 has been described as similar to Homo habilis or as a novel new species Homo gautengensis.[12] No stone tools were associated with the fossil, but StW 53 has evidence for stone tool cut-marks.[13] Member 5 contains Oldowan and Acheulian stone tools as well as specimens of early Homo and Paranthropus and is dated to between 1.6 and 1.1 Mya.[5]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "9/2/233/0004 – Sterkfontein Caves, Zwartkrans, Krugersdorp District". South African Heritage Resources Agency. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  2. ^ "Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs". UNESCO. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  3. ^ Keeping, Malcolm G (1997). "Social Behavior and Brood Decline in Reproductive-phase Colonies OfBelonogaster Petiolata(Degeer) (Hymenoptera: Vespidae)". Journal of Insect Behavior. 10 (2): 265–78. doi:10.1007/bf02765559. 
  4. ^ "Palaeo-Anthropology Scientific Trust". Retrieved 1 February 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d Herries, A.I.R., Shaw, J. 2011. Palaeomagnetic analysis of the Sterkfontein palaeocave deposits; age implications for the hominin fossils and stone tool industries. J. Human Evolution 60, 523–539.
  6. ^ Pickering and Kramers, 2010. J. Human Evolution
  7. ^ Herries, A.I.R., Hopley, P., Adams, J., Curnoe, D., Maslin, M. 2010. Geochronology and palaeoenvironments of the South African early hominin bearing sites. Am. J. Phys. Anthrop. 143, 640–646.
  8. ^ Herries, A.I.R., Pickering, R., Adams, J.W., Curnoe, D., Warr, G., Latham, A.G., Shaw, J. 2013. A multi-disciplinary perspective on the age of Australopithecus in southern Africa. In: Reed, K.E., Fleagle, J.G., Leakey, R. (Eds.) Paleobiology of Australopithecus: Contributions from the Fourth Stony Brook Human Evolution Symposium and Workshop, Diversity in Australopithecus: Tracking the First Bipeds. Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology series. 21–40
  9. ^ PARTRIDGE T. C., GRANGER D. E., CAFFEE M. W., CLARKE R. J. – 2003. – Lower Pliocene Hominid Remains from Sterkfontein. Science 25 April 2003, Vol. 300 no. 5619, 607–612
  10. ^ BRUXELLES L., CLARKE R. J., MAIRE R., ORTEGA R., et STRATFORD D. – 2014. – Stratigraphic analysis of the Sterkfontein StW 573 Australopithecus skeleton and implications for its age. Journal of Human Evolution.
  11. ^ "'Little Foot' Fossil Could Be Human Ancestor". 14 March 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2018. 
  12. ^ Curnoe 2010
  13. ^ Pickering, Clarke & Heaton 2004


Curnoe, D. (2010). "A review of early Homo in southern Africa focusing on cranial, mandibular and dental remains, with the description of a new species (Homo gautengensis sp. nov.)". HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. 61 (3): 151–177. doi:10.1016/j.jchb.2010.04.002. PMID 20466364. 
Herries, A.I.R.; Hopley, P.J.; Adams, J.W.; Curnoe, D.; Maslin, M.A. (December 2010). "Letter to the editor: Geochronology and palaeoenvironments of Southern African hominin-bearing localities—A reply to Wrangham et al., 2009. "Shallow-water habitats as sources of fallback foods for hominins"". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 143 (4): 640–646. doi:10.1002/ajpa.21389. PMID 20872806. 
Pickering, T.R.; Clarke, R.J.; Heaton, J.L. (2004). "The Context of Stw 573, an early hominid skull and skeleton from Sterkfontein M2: taphonomy and palaeoenvironment". J. Hum. Evol. 46 (3): 277–295. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2003.12.001. 
Pickering, R.; Kramers, J.D. (2010). "Re-appraisal of the stratigraphy and determination of new U-Pb dates for the Sterkfontein hominin site, South Africa". Journal of Human Evolution. 59 (1): 70–86. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.03.014. PMID 20605190. 

External links[edit]