Maverick Life

OUR LAND BEFORE TIME

Greater Cradle Nature Reserve — a surprising origin safari to the roots of humankind

Greater Cradle Nature Reserve — a surprising origin safari to the roots of humankind
Researchers were able to discover fossils of our early ancestors because of a strip of limestone caves which covers the Cradle of Humankind Site. One of the ways of identifying caves or sinkholes is to look for the occurrence of lime-loving trees which mark the top of an underground cavity into which their roots grow. (Photograph by Helen McDonald)

A trip to the Greater Cradle Nature Reserve in the Cradle of Humankind reveals the precariousness of our ancestral past and reminds us that herein lies our future. 

Thirty minutes from Pretoria and Johannesburg is a living, breathing natural history museum of our origin story as a planet and as a species.

We meet our guide, Paul Zille, on the veranda of the eco-friendly Cradle Boutique Hotel for coffee, enthralled by the spectacular vista of sweeping savannah and dolomite grasslands.

Paul drives my two teenage sons, my partner and me on a refreshing rough-and-tumble meandering trip on the back of an open-top game-drive vehicle through parts of the 9,000ha privately owned Greater Cradle Nature Reserve.

Located in the heart of the Unesco Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, the reserve offers paleontological tours to two major live fossil exploration sites, as well as game drives and bush walks.

Wildebeest

WIldebeest ready to rumble in the Cradle (Photograph by Helen McDonald)

En route to our first stop, we encounter a nursery herd of inquisitive impala, warthogs, vervet monkeys and blesbok.

I am amazed at these calm, serendipitous sightings in these wild bushveld and savannah biomes so close to the high-rise, heaving human mess of Joburg on the distant horizon.

Warthogs

Warthogs feast in the grasslands of the Cradle (Photograph by Helen McDonald)

Paul stops at a viewpoint that allows us to take in the rocky landscape where the gold-laden reefs birthed the mining metropolis of Joburg in the late 1800s, attracting fortune-seekers and chancers from across the globe and forever changing the course of South African history.

With the Joburg skyline in front of us and the Magaliesberg to the right of us, Paul narrates the story of our planetary evolution from swirling stardust orbiting the violent, hot young sun — how this dust and gas melded into clumps of rock by the forces of drag and then, after being bombarded by meteors and water-bearing asteroids, Earth grew into its final size through a massive collision with a Mars-sized object.

Origin stour guide Paul Zille

Origins guide Paul Zille points to the highest peak where the earth’s crust first emerged from the ocean that covered our planet (Picture by Helen McDonald)

This was about 4.5 billion years ago, and the “moon-forming” impact was so violent that it vaporised some of the rock and metal from both the early Earth and the meteorite, forming a disc around the Earth that eventually became our moon.

This piece of rock at the highest point on the tour, Paul points out to us, is located in the middle of the Kaapvaal Craton, which, approximately three billion years ago, was the first portion of the Earth’s crust to emerge from the sea that then covered the globe.

Breccia, Greater Cradle Nature Reserve

Breccia, a concrete-like casing that preserves fossils for posterity. (Photo: Helen McDonald)

Long before the Himalayas, our ancient land emerged to host the first forms of life about 3.7 billion years ago, when early microbes evolved into an organism called cyanobacteria, which used water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce food.

Yes, the first photosynthesis — the process in plants to which we owe every one of our oxygen-inhaling lives. An oxygen-rich atmosphere created over billions of years that we humans, in just a few centuries, are rapidly polluting with our fossil fuels.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fossil fuel lobby digs in its heels at COP28

While we were being enraptured by Paul’s narrative of the very beginning of Earth and the moon, and how the delicate balance of the Goldilocks Zone led to the perfect conditions for life to flourish, my 13-year-old son interrupted us with an excited shriek.

“Look, a giraffe!”

Giraffes are the tallest mammals on Earth. (Photo: Helen McDonald)

I couldn’t see what he saw ambling towards us from such a distance and paid no heed, but there it was — a beautiful, languid specimen taking a morning stroll past a cluster of five curious bipedal primates.

The giraffe led to a debate about evolution and why the giraffe developed its long neck to distinguish itself from the rest of its antelope family. The ability to forage for food in high treetops was one theory. Another theory by a researcher in the 1990s, I later discovered, is a “necks for sex” hypothesis — that male giraffes developed necks to bash each other in competition for females.

The giraffe led to more hilarious “what if” evolutionary theories from my sons. What if we evolved octopus tentacles instead of two arms and hands? What if we still had tails like our monkey cousins? What if we grew wings instead of arms? How long do mutations take?

This segue into evolution chitchat carried on during our drive past the ancient cabbage-like kiepersol trees, a Zulu village built for a series — Shaka Ilembe — about the founder of the Zulu nation, Shaka, and finally to Gladysvale Cave, a live dig site whose features reveal the story of why the Cradle came to be such a rich source of evidence for our human origins.

Greater Cradle Nature Reserve, Gladysvale Cave

Gladysvale Cave, a live dig site. (Photo: Helen McDonald)

Paul explains the intricate chemical process that underpins the preservation and fossilisation of bones, yielding exact replicas of the bones of animals that serve as windows into our origin story.

Holding a perfect replica of one of two skulls of Australopithecus sediba (1.97 million years old), found at the Malapa dig site in 2008, Paul introduces us to palaeontological pioneers such as Raymond Dart, Robert Broom and, more recently, Lee Berger.

It was Dart who, in 1924, made the groundbreaking discovery of the Taung skull, a find that challenged the prevailing notions of human origins and sparked a fierce debate within the scientific community, who at the time were quite frankly so racist they could not fathom that every human can trace their ancestry back to Africa.

Despite facing ridicule and scepticism from his peers, Dart remained steadfast in his belief that humankind was born in Africa — a theory that would later be vindicated by the discovery of numerous hominid fossils across the continent. Scottish doctor and fossil hunter Robert Broom continued Dart’s legacy, making significant finds at Sterkfontein that further cemented Africa’s place as the cradle of humankind.

After treating us to a ham roll and fruit picnic, Paul took us on a wild drive through a stream to reach the Malapa site — where one of the most groundbreaking palaeontological discoveries of the 21st century was made by Professor Lee Berger.

It was at this spot surrounded by bushveld vegetation and dolomite rock that, in 2008, Berger’s nine-year-old son Matthew found a clavicle, or collarbone, belonging to an early human ancestor. This fortuitous find would later be identified as part of a partial skeleton of a juvenile hominid, estimated to be about nine to 13 years of age.

Berger returned to excavate the site, this time with more than a dozen colleagues in tow, uncovering a treasure trove of fossils that would shed new light on our evolutionary past. More than 200 elements have been recovered to date, making it one of the most complete assemblages of early human ancestors ever found.

Greater Cradle Nature Reserve

What looks deceptively like a bright splash of colour in the bushveld is an invasive South American invader pompom weed which poses a great risk to the conservation of South African grasslands (Photo: Helen McDonald)

These fossils, initially described in two papers in the journal Science by Berger and his colleagues, were identified as a new species of early human ancestor called Australopithecus sediba. Named after the Sotho word for “natural spring or well,” sediba represents a turning point in our understanding of human evolution.

Dating back to about 1.98 million years ago, Australopithecus sediba is believed to be a transitional species between the southern African ape-man Australopithecus africanus and either Homo habilis or even a direct ancestor of Homo erectus.

With its long arms, short powerful hands, advanced pelvis and long legs capable of striding and running like a human, Australopithecus sediba gives us a clue to how we evolved into becoming human.

Standing under the canopy of this archaeological site in the heart of the Cradle, I am struck by the serendipitous soup of science — the absolute convolution of chemistry, adaptation, water, oxygen, stardust, gas and soil — that resulted in our evolution into this bipedal, thinking, feeling, moving, creating species of Homo sapiens that we have become.

On our journey back to the Cradle Boutique Hotel where our origin safari started, we pass a beautiful herd of sable, silently watching a raucous baboon troop cavorting about. Baboons emerged two million years ago and must have taunted our Australopithecus sediba ancestors just as they taunt us now.

We get a glimpse of artist renditions of the many protohuman species who preceded us and the story of the great palaeontological discoveries in the Cradle of Humankind at the Malapa Museum, adjacent to the Cradle Boutique Hotel, built in partnership with the Lee R Berger Foundation for Exploration, The Cradle Foundation and National Geographic.

I cannot believe I have not explored this wondrous place of our origins in the 24 years I have lived in Gauteng until now.

Greater Cradle Nature Reserve

Sable antelope. (Photo: Helen McDonald)

It was here in Africa that the first significant milestone in our technological evolution, the use of stones as tools, began at least 2.6 million years ago.

And it was here in the Cradle of Humankind that our ancestors first learnt to use and control fire, at least one million years ago. This discovery of fire chased away predators, led to the sophistication of cooked food and became a social fulcrum, a warm gathering space for connection and, ultimately, storytelling.

Greater Cradle Nature Reserve

This was the largest and most complete hominid fossil discovery in Africa – until that of Homo Naledi nearby in 2013. (Photo: Helen McDonald)

We Homo sapiens evolved in Africa only about 200,000 years ago. From these humble beginnings, our species spread out across the globe and became our own worst enemies, warring against one another, stealing from one another, forming tribes and nation states, colonising, enslaving, exploiting and harming in the name of civilisation, religion and development.

We are one travelling, speaking, increasingly technologically advanced race in whose hands and minds lies the key to our survival or extinction as the last surviving line of Homo apex predators.

I’d recommend a trip to understand the precariousness of our ancestral past, for every member of our quarrelling race to realise what we have to lose if we don’t start working together as a species to secure a viable future. Fortunately, we have evolved to think rationally, love, create, communicate and care. A step into our past will remind us that herein lies our future. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35. The Cradle Human Origins Tour is operated by Paul Zille, owner of OriginSafaris, which specialises in Archaeology Safaris — tours to SA’s most important archaeological sites located within pristine wildlife and wilderness areas. Email [email protected] or visit www.originsafaris.africa for details of destinations and itineraries. 

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