The Cradle of Humankind – what an intimidating, strong name, conveying imagery of the first humans, the first man, the first steps taken by Homo Sapiens. And ‘cradle’ – reminding us that humankind as a species was young once, and still is young in the grand scheme of things. If the name of this museum is meant to make you feel like a tiny, tiny, tiny speck of dust in the long timeline of evolution, then the museum lived up to expectations and really succeeded in drilling that feeling into you.
The Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site located not too far outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Situated in a region with many caves where fossils continue to be discovered constantly, the Cradle of Humankind is about as close to the birth of humanity as we can get. The caves actually contribute to around 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils, making it one of the richest fossil sites in the world.
In fact, just a few years ago, a new hominin species was discovered in the Starkfontein caves located at the Cradle site – Homo naledi (‘Naledi’ meaning ‘Star’ in the Sotho language, as the fossils were found in the Rising Star cave system). The fossils are placed between 335 and 236 thousand years old, so scientists actually believe that Homo naledi walked around the same time as Homo sapiens.
The story of the discovery of the Homo naledi fossils was a key part of the museum. The fossils were found in a cave that hadn’t been explored before because of the tiny entrance — you can see that I could just barely fit through the recreation of the hole! The fossils seem to have been disposed into the small hole after death, since there were no signs of animal attack or other causes of death, stumping scientists who believed that disposing of the dead was a habit only modern humans practiced. The fact that another species thought of their own mortality and ventured deep into caves makes us wonder what it is that makes us truly human and different from other hominid species.
Maropeng (Setswana word for “returning to the place of origin”) is the visitor’s centre for the entire area which houses the many miles of cave systems and the entire UNESCO World Heritage Site. Why our ‘place of origin’? Well, life emerged on planet Earth about 3.8 billion years ago, and fossils of the earliest known life forms have been discovered in South Africa. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and some of the oldest rock art from our ancestors has been found in South Africa as well, in the same general area as these fossils. Visiting the Cradle of Humankind is like returning to our place of origin in many ways.
The museum has something for everyone, even an interactive room for children to learn all about fossils, carbon dating, and early humans. Honestly, I was pretty grateful for those animated videos explaining some of the basic concepts…
One of my favorite touches in the museum was a giant poster hanging in the hallway asking I think every single question I may have ever wondered as a child, and still wonder: did the universe begin with a big bang? am I free? am I unique? are there parallel universes? can time be contained? who’s your daddy? did shaggy do it? does time travel exist? what is language? where are we going? who has walked here before me?
The museum touched upon this idea of what it means to be a human: the fact that we walk on two legs, how we communicate, how we live with others and how we’re creative and how we can control fire. The exhibit about modern humankind was prophetic and scary: we’re on the bring of another mass extinction, we’re overcrowding our cities and polluting our earth, we live in a world of mass inequality. How do we sustain this life, our life?
A general feeling I kept getting while walking through the museum and the scenery of the Cradle site is this sense of humanity. Maybe it was the constant motif around the museum of ‘what it means to be human’ or being so close to the fossils of something that lived three hundred thousand years ago, or maybe it was walking through the timeline of the history of homo sapiens, but I constantly felt amazed that after millions of years of evolution, we exist. We exist and we’re aware of our existence. I kept looking around at my surroundings, almost as intrigued by the walls and TV screens and other humans in the room as I was of the exhibits and fossils… after everything, this is what we chose to do, chose to make.
Maropeng museum exhibition guide: https://www.maropeng.co.za/content/page/exhibition-guide