The Cradle of Humankind

Fossils remains of our ancestors

Arguably, this place was the beginning of humankind.  UNESCO World Heritage Site

Outside of Johannesburg lies a series of limestone caves in a savanna plane called the Cradle of Humankind.  For the last 100 years archaeologists have been digging and discovering bones of human ancestors in the caves.  In one cave in particular has yielded one third of ALL early humanoid fossils.  Modern Humans (Homo Sapiens) have been walking the earth for nearly 250,000 years.  However, we were not the only member of the homo family:  Homo Neanderthalensis, H. Heidelbergeneisis, H Erectus, H. Antecessor, H. Ergaster, H. Habilis, H. Rudolfensis. Austrolpiticus is considered the direct relative to Homo and cohabited the Earth for nearly 1 million years as the Homo Genus.  In the cradle they discovered the first evidence of the uses of tools and fire, two of the criteria that make humans unique.

Human family tree: Credit: evolutionevidence.org

Australopithecus lived in Eastern and Southern Africa between 4.2 million and 2 million years ago.  Lucy and Mrs Ples are arguable East and South Africa’s most famous Australopithecus fossil finds.  However, they are not the oldest hominid fossils.  Hominid fossils dating up to about 7-million years ago have been found in East and North Africa.

The job of many museums was to inform.  To this end, the museum laid out a dizzying array of facts about hominid discoveries, the history of earth, mass extinctions, evolution, and what sets homo sapiens apart from other animals and other species within the homo genus.  Kylie and Alyssa were excited to be in the museum.  The hurried from exhibit to exhibit and actively read and asked questions.

Kylie listens to information about the dodo bird – an early poster species for extinction
Alyssa walks under the fossil remains of our ancestors.

“Most paleoanthropolgists now believe that the first hominids spread out of Africa into Asia and Europe about 2 million years ago.  The theory known as “Out of Africa I” and is strongly supported by fossil data….Over the last 1 million years, episodic ice ages influenced the distribution and abundance of many animal and plant species, and had an impact on hominids, who in their first dispersal out of Africa occupied parts of Europe and Asia only….

…”Out of Africa II” refers to the movement of modern humans out of Africa within the past 100,000 years….in time there emerged humans of our own species, Homo Sapiens, which spread to inhabit the entire earth.  There is not general agreement on how this happened….” -Museum Placard

“Human populations appear to be different in terms of color, body size, limb proportion, hair texture, and other physical attributes.  Beneath the surface, we are all virtually identical.  There is no genetic boundary for race.  WE ARE ALL ONE SPECIES”

Aside from interactive exhibits there was also a boat ride through time which was a little corny, but surprisingly fun.

Things in the museum that made us wonder

The museum accomplished something else that was wonderful.  It inspired people to think and wonder.  It started with a great list of questions.  From there, mixed in with the facts and figures about humanity, other facts provoked inquiry about the status quo.

What follows are a series of quotes and facts that stood out in the museum.

“If we don’t act now, the terrible irony is that our great grandchildren will only know of ancient forests through pictures in books printed on the paper that contributed to their extinction” -Graham Lester George

The Gaia Principle: First described by James Lovelock in 1979, the Gaia Principle  describes the Earth as a single, living organism, with all its biological, geological, chemical, and hydrological processes acting in convert to regulate the planet and ensure its survival through an exquisite array of feedback loops.

Are humans the byproduct of a global cataclysmic event?  If so what will happen to humans after climate change permanently alters the planet?

“The Himalayas, a massive 8 km (5mi) high, 2,500km(1500 mi)long mountain chain, formed within the past 30-million years, after the Indian sub-continent slammed into Asia, due to the process of continental drift.  This cataclysmic event resulted in a a number of environmental responses.  For instance, it brought about monsoons in Asia, when had a knock-on effect in parts of Africa by drying out air currents and decreasing rainfall.  This and other global continental drifts caused the world, and East Africa in particular to become cooler and drier.  Expanding savannas began replacing forest in East Africa, and African animals, including the early primates that were our ancestors, had to adapt to their new habitat”

Our ability to make tools had developed to such an extent that we are now more able than ever to try to shape our environment to suit ourselves.  But we are sometimes foolish “masters” of our wold, increasing, rather than decreasing, environmental risks. Disasters, including diseases and climate change, can be exacerbated by our actions or lack of them.

We are a diverse species, bound by nine common characteristics that make us human:

  • Bipedalism or our ability to walk upright
  • Our jaws and diet
  • A complex brain
  • An advanced ability to make tools
  • The ability to make and control fire
  • The ability to use complete language to communicate
  • Our preference for living with others
  • A history of peopling the world
  • An exceptional capacity for creativity

“Pet food consumed in Europe and the United States annually: $17billion”

“Estimated cost of eliminating hunger and malnutrition worldwide each year: $19billion”

An acre of cereal produces five times more protein than an acre devoted to meat production; legumes (beans, peas, lentils) can produce 10 times more protein and leafy vegetables 15 times more.  In the US, 157 million metric tons of cereal, legumes and vegetable protein suitable for human use is fed to livestock to produce 28 million metric tones of animal protein for annum human consumption.

“Over 800 million people know what it feels like to go to bed hungry.”

“Recycling just one aluminum can saves enough electricity to power a laptop for four hours.”

“The greatest single challenge facing our globalized world is to combat and eradicate its disparities”-Nelson Mandela

“The privilege of a higher education, especially outside Africa, broadened my original horizon and encouraged me to focus on the environment, women, and development in order to improve the quality of life of people in my country in particular and in the African region in general” – Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth.  We are all crew” -Marshall Mclewan

“Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” -WB Yeasts

It was a great day in the visitor center.  (We even went on the boat ride twice).  We did not go to the surrounding cave areas as we had seen a lot of cave in our trip and we didn’t have transportation around; however we loved our visit and we learned so much.

How to get there

This place was an hour drive from Jo’berg.  It was remote.  We Ubered there and Ubered back.  If we had our own car we might have explored some of the caves sites that were 10km away.

Early Civilization Timeline

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