The self-proclaimed, Cradle of Humankind, is an ultra-rich paleoanthropological site in South Africa. South Africa is a remarkable and incredibly diverse country that is very much worth a visit. There is so much more to South Africa than safaris (although they are some of the best in the world as well).

If one would like to visit important sites of Neanderthals then head over to Europe where they lived. Some of the most important Neanderthal sites in Europe are in Gibraltar and in Germany. Another cave that has transformed our understanding of human evolutionary history is the Denisova cave in Russia where DNA from a pinky bone revealed a whole new species of human.

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South Africa's Cradle of Humankind

Many countries in Africa pride themselves in being the cradle of mankind but there is no set place in Africa where Homo Sapiens (or parent lineages) emerged. Africa is a very vast continent!

The Cradle of Humankind has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999 and is home to many limestone caves.

  • Designed: World Heritage Site (Listed As "Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa")
  • Location: Around 50 Kilometers or 31 Miles Northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa

Here the Sterkfontein Caves were the site here the 2.3 million-year-old fossil Australopithecus Africanus was discovered 1947 in by Robert Broom and John T. Robinson. Prior to 2010, Sterkfontein produced around a third of all early hominid fossils.

Nearby is another important site, the Rising Star Cave system. This contains the now-famous Dinaledi Chamber where fifteen fossil skeletons of another extinct species of hominin have been found. Provisionally this species has been named Homo Naledi.

The Rising Star cave system is one of the most significant sites. It is located 2.2 kilometers west of Sterkfontein Cave.

The Dinaledi Chamber in the Rising Star cave system is thought to contain over 1,500 fossils of Homo Naledi - the most extensive discovery of any hominid species in Africa.

  • Little Foot: The An Almost Complete Australopithecus Skeleton Around 3 Million Years Old

The Science of Our Past

One issue with calling the site the "Cradle of Humankind" is that archaic species of hominids like these are not necessarily part of the direct lineage that gave rise to Homo Sapiens today. They may be part of independent sister lineages that eventually died out.

This part of science is a very fast-moving field and a single discovery can have a significant influence on our understanding of the past.

Homo Naledi:  A Species of archaic humans which was discovered in 2013. The fossils date from the Middle Pleistocene 335,000–236,000 years ago. Its classification with other Homo species remains unclear.

Australopithecus africanus: An extinct species of australopithecine that lived some 3.67 to 2 million years ago in the Middle Pliocene to Early Pleistocene of South Africa. One fossil called the Taung child appears to have been killed by a bird of prey.

Related: The Highlights That Cape Town, South Africa Is Known For, As Seen In These Tourist Pics

Maropeng Visitor Centre

Today there is a very impressive visitor center at the site called the Maropeng Visitor Centre. It is an award-winning, world-class exhibition, and focuses on the development of hominids and humans over the last few million years.

At the visitor center, one can take a journey through time. Go all the way back to the formation of the planet and then move forward along with the forces of evolution to see the world as we know it today.

There is a wealth of fossils on display that shed light on just who humankind was born. See some of the earliest technology like stone tools that are up to a million years old.

  • Tour: Self-Guided

Note: All Tickets Must Be Booked Online, Tickets are Not Sold On-Site

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  • Days Open: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
  • Hours: 9.00 am to 4.30 pm
  • Rates: 100 South African Rand $6.50) (Aged Six and Over; Under Six Are Free)

Related: Is Cape Town Safe For Tourists And Other South Africa Destination Questions, Answered

Sterkfontein Caves Tour

One can also tour the Sterkfontein Caves. They are around an hour's drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria and are a popular visitor destination for those interested in the evolutionary history of humanity.

The tourist infrastructure at the Sterkfontein Caves was extensively rebuilt in 2005. Now the site is home to a top restaurant as well as conferencing facility. There is easy access to the caves with modern walkways and a boardwalk that goes past the excavation site where the fossils were discovered.

The tours start above ground before heading into the cave and run every day of the week.

If one is planning to visit, keep in mind that these cave tours are very popular so plan ahead and call them on 014 577 9000, on the day of your visit, to find out what tour availability is like.

  • University of Witwatersrand: Owns The Sterkfontein Caves
  • Hours: 9.00 am to 4.00 pm
  • Rates: 100 South African Rand $6.50) (Aged Six and Over; Under Six Are Free)

Next: Know Before You Go: What To Know Before Visiting South Africa