Of bones and breccia
Fossil-spotting might not be the most interactive form of entertainment around, but on the tour of the Cradle of Humankind our ancient ancestors come to life
It’s cold, rather grey and drizzling. At the tail end of one of Johannesburg’s wettest and coldest summers in living memory, it seems fitting to find myself clutching a winter jacket to my throat, standing in the rugged landscape of Gauteng’s only World Heritage Site, perched on the edge of a Swartkrans cave that is menacingly dark as it stretches back and below us, calling us in.
The scene has a primordial sense to it.
We’re about to find out where we all began. Where we stopped being apes and became hominids. Human in form, but not yet in function.
The morning had started at the other end of the evolutionary scale: tea and biscuits at the luxurious Grace hotel in Rosebank, where civilisation has reached its most sophisticated apogee. Backwards in time, we were to regress to cave- dwellers, 1,8-million years old.
Picked up by 4x4s, we headed out on the Human Origins Tour to the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site that covers over 47E000ha in the north-western corner of Gauteng and encompasses the world-famous fossil hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Gladysvale and Drimolen among others.
The tours - which can include travel by helicopter and a half-hour guided aerial tour of the fossil sites - are led by expert palaeoanthropological guides. Ours was Darryl de Ruiter, a Canadian completing his PhD at Wits University and specialising in forensic archaeology: the causes of death in ancient man.
To get out of the rain, we walk down into the mouth of the Swartkrans cave where we sit or squat, ape-like, to listen to De Ruiter’s discussion of the region. Behind him, silhouetted bizarrely against the grey light, a rocky outcrop juts forward to form the hunch-shouldered outline of a vast primate; like some surreal, rain-spattered silverback, eavesdropping on his own past.
It is only the fascinating explanations of a guide like De Ruiter - who answers our stupid questions amiably and accurately - that make our ancient ancestors come to life. For fossils, it must be said, are not the most interactive form of entertainment. What they do is lie there and, basically, get older.
But what we learn on this tour makes them vital and informative. Molecular evidence shows that humans have more in common with chimpanzees than chimpanzees have with gorillas. Assuming a standard rate of mutation - though this is itself a point of scientific controversy - the split between humans and chimps happened around five million years ago. A mere drop in the ancestral ocean.
In 1924, Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert, exposed largely due to miners blasting in the area. Despite the spinal chord entering the skull vertically - as in all humans and unlike primates - the scientific powers that were refused to believe that it was forerunner of humans. Because it was from Africa, and nothing scientifically valid ever came out of Africa, right? How wrong they were! While all eyes were turned towards Asia for proof of our evolutionary path, Gauteng’s caves were piling up the palaeoanthropological evidence that would eventually turn the world on its head.
At Hanging Remnant in cave number three at Swartkrans, burnt bones date back at least a million years. The colour and condition of the bones indicate that they were burnt to a temperature and for a duration that precludes any naturally burning fire. What we’re looking at is the first recorded, controlled use of fire in the world.
De Ruiter starts to get rather animated. One of the things that marks humans is the use of fire. What if this fire was controlled by hominids (our direct descendants)? Maybe our ancestors were controlling fire far earlier than we thought! And just maybe the hominids in question were Homo erectus, which first appeared on the scene about 1,8-million years ago - the same age as Hanging Remnant itself. Now if only he could prove that this fire in this cave was controlled by a hominid and that the hominid was Homo erectus ... it’s just a hunch, an intuition (which counts for nothing in science, he notes dolefully), but his enthusiasm is infectious. We tell him it’s a good hunch. Scientists have feelings, too.
Back into the 4x4, we head off to beautiful Plover’s Lake where Early, Middle and Late Stone Age artefacts have been found. The clouds have lifted and the landscape looks instantly more appealing and less menacing.
After refreshments, we follow De Ruiter to the entrance of a small cave, crawling deep below the surface to a small, breccia-rich recess at the back. Christine Read, owner of Plover’s Lake and tour organiser, points out the pale bones that punctuate the walls like confetti with childlike glee. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she cries. They are. And buried in among them is a small part of a skull: Dr Lee Berger thinks it’s part of the cranium of a small hominid; De Ruiter thinks it’s probably a baboon or small monkey. Which opinion will be proved scientifically sound, only time will tell. And this is a place that has time on its side.
Back in the 4x4 the tour heads for Prospero Bailey’s magnificent new restaurant and conference facility, Cornuccis in the Cradle. We have a splendid light lunch looking out over sweeping bushveld. There are, we’re told, leopard and rhino in these hills and, of course, fossils lying in wait, loitering with intent to prove a scientific hunch.
Back to our hotel drop-off point, I feel old suddenly. Five million years ago I was a chimpanzee. It’s a sobering thought and I reach for a banana to quell my feelings of disquiet. Then the Homo sapiens in me kicks in and I reach for my laptop ...