Ancient south african san rock art depicting cattle and people.

South Africa’s Prehistory: Cradle of Mankind and Human Evolution

“For the production of man, a different apprenticeship [from forests] was needed to sharpen the wits and quicken the higher manifestations of intellect – a more open veldt country where competition was keener between swiftness and stealth, and where adroitness of thinking played a preponderating role in the preservation of the species.”
— Raymond Dart


South Africa’s prehistory spans the entire known existence of the human race. The prehistory of South Africa encompasses the period before the country was intercepted by foreign traders and colonists. The country’s limestone, tufa, formations and caves have provided the ideal conditions for preserving ancient fossils and artefacts. The discovery of the first fossilised Australopithecus skull, the Taung Child, revolutionized the practice of palaeontology. The Taung Child shifted the focus of scientists and biologists from Eurasia to Africa, for the source of human origin. Furthermore, scientists and palaeontologists characterized Australopithecus as the first bipedal human ancestor and the ‘missing link’.

The Stone Age ushered in the Oldowan and Acheulian industries. During these periods, hunting systems and societal structures evolved rapidly, leading to the evolution of hominid species into modern humans. Stone tools developed in the Early Stone Age were less advanced and assisted hominids in scavenging for food. The Middle Stone Age displayed the mastery of fire by human ancestors and the development of advanced hunting systems. Lastly, the Late Stone Age shows evidence of human cognitive evolution and the establishment of rituals and societal structures. The limestone quarries and caves that have yielded fossils were collectively named The Cradle of Mankind.

Today, the Cradle of Mankind is a World Heritage Site that consists of a visitor centre, cave tours, and fossil exhibitions. The Cradle of Mankind is of great global importance for the study of human origin, genetics, and philosophy. 

Prehistoric South Africa

In order to investigate life in South Africa before colonization and European influence, we must delve into the history and evolution of modern humans and the development of advanced hunting systems. Limestone quarries in the North-West province of South Africa have unearthed a multitude of prehistoric fossils and artefacts. Tufa, a variety of limestone, forms inconsistently, leaving cavities and pores in the stone. In ancient times, hominids used these cavities as shelters from predators and natural elements. Therefore, masses of ancient bones and artefacts accumulated in the tufa formations over time. Tufa formations are covered in sandstone, therefore quarrymen leverage explosives to clear the area for mining. Mining activities in limestone quarries have revealed extinct fauna, baboon remains, primates, and early hominid fossils.

The Taung Child & Paleoanthropology

Initially, scientists and palaeontologists believed that the Cradle of Mankind was located in Asia. However, in 1924, quarrymen, employed by the North-West’s Northern Lime Company in Taung, South Africa, made a startling discovery. The mining activities of the quarry coaxed the fossilised skull of an early human ancestor to the surface. The palaeontologist and physical anthropologist, Raymond Dart, studied the specimen and named it ‘The Taung Child’.

The skull belonged to a three or four-year-old child that lived 2.3 million to 2.8 million years ago. Studies of the fossilized skull examined the brain size, dental characteristics, and placement of the foramen magnum. Specialists classified the skull as Australopithecus Africanus, the southern ape-man and the first bipedal human ancestor.

Dart’s discovery and analysis realigned the focus of human evolution from Eurasia to Africa. The discovery of the Taung Child, in many ways, was the birth of palaeontology as a discipline.

Who was Australopithecus africanus?

Australopithecus africanus prehistoric reconstruction paleontology painting oil painting paleoart
Image Source: Dribble








Australopithecus Africanus, the first human ancestor to walk upright, was indigenous to Africa. The early hominid sported a receded forehead without a heavy brow ridge. The foramen magnum is a hole in the cranium that allows the spinal cord to connect to the brain. In Australopithecus Africanus, the foramen magnum rested beneath the cranium, indicating bipedal locomotion and an upright stance.

Although fossils of Australopithecus Africanus have been discovered in dolomite caves, it is unlikely that the early hominids used caves as shelter. Anthropologists believe that Australopithecus Africanus slept in tropical forest galleries along river banks and consumed plants and meat (omnivores). The absence of tools and weapons indicates that Australopithecus Africanus gathered vegetation and meat for food. The diet of Australopithecus Africanus was similar to the diet of the chimpanzee; omnivorous, subject to availability, and requiring no tools or hunting weapons.

Stone-Age South Africa

painting of prehistoric cave men creating rock art in a cave
Image Source:

The Stone Age was a vast prehistoric period that began approximately 3.4 million years ago and ended between 4,000 BCE and 2,000 BCE. During the Stone Age, the early human ancestors (hominids) that roamed the plains of Southern Africa were Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Heidelbergensis. The Stone Age ushered in widespread stone tool production amongst hominids, carving out distinct periods of evolution and industry through archaeological remains.

Early Stone Age

early stone age tools made of flakes of stone
Image Source: Wikipedia

The Early Stone Age occurred during the Lower Paleolithic Period, between 2.6 million and 300,000 years ago. The Early Stone Age was characterized by two unique periods of industry, namely the Oldowan Industry and the Acheulian Industry. During the Oldowan industry, hominids manufactured simple tools out of stone and other organic materials, such as bone and wood. The development of these simple tools involved pummeling a core material (boulder) with another stone (hammer) to produce sharp flakes and rough cobble cores. Furthermore, scientists believe that early hominids used Oldowan tools for basic hunting activities like cutting meat and skinning animals.

The Acheulian industry, between 1.5 million and 300, 000 years ago, introduced more complex stone tools, such as handaxes, cleavers, and core tools. However, given the size and risk associated with hunting big game, hominids were unable to hunt for meat. Therefore, archaeologists have speculated that hominids acted as specialized scavengers. Homo Erectus, and other derived species, used these tools to butcher large animals, such as elephants, rhinos, and hippos. The protein-rich animal flesh supported the growth and evolution of the human brain.

Although anthropologists have discovered Acheulian artefacts in caves in South Africa, the majority of Acheulian artefacts are found outside caves. Therefore, specialists believe these findings indicate that early human ancestors had not discovered or mastered the use of fire.

Middle Stone Age

middle stone age tools consisting of arrow heads and harpoon pieces
Image Source: Siyabona Africa

The Middle Stone Age, beginning 300,000 years ago and ending 50,000 years ago, introduced complex hunting systems and tools. Sibudu Caves in KwaZulu Natal and Blombos Cave in the Cape hold many treasures and artefacts from the Middle Stone Age. Archaeological findings within caves have led to the belief that hominids mastered fire around 250,000 years ago. In turn, the discovery of fire prompted the development of a home base and central hearth within these caves.

By 100,000 years ago, human ancestors had fully evolved anatomically into modern humans. South African caves have yielded many complex weapons and artefacts, such as toolkits, compounded glues, ochre body paints, and decorated ostrich eggs. Therefore, these discoveries point to the development of abstract thought and advanced hunting techniques. Hunting toolkits contain prepared cores, parallel-sided blades, and triangular points used to fashion spears and harpoons. These accomplished weapons hunted large grazers such as wildebeest, hartebeest, and eland.

The development of complex politics, abstract thought, and kinship systems in human ancestors can be challenging to study directly. Therefore, archaeologists have made deductions based on fossil evidence and artefacts found inside caves. Compound tools, such as hafted harpoons and compound glues for hafting spear points, show complex thought and cognitive advancement. The discovery of red ochre, as body paint, and decorative adornment demonstrates the evolution of early cultural systems. Iziko Museum in Cape Town and Origins Centre in Johannesburg display artefacts and fossils from the Middle Stone Age.

Late Stone Age

San rock art site
Image Source: SABC

The Later Stone Age began 25,000 years ago and encapsulated the birth of advanced hunting methodology and cultural practice. The modern human ancestors of the San and Khoi people hunted small game with bows and poisoned arrows. Diagnostic toolkits contain small scrapers and segments created from fine-grained materials. Shell middens that dot the Cape coastline indicate the exploitation of marine resources by ancient human beings according to season.

The ancestors of the San people displayed human traits in the form of rock art and purposeful burials with ornaments. San rock art is heralded for its aesthetic appeal and symbolic complexity. David Lewis Williams unravelled the mysteries of San art through an extensive (13,000 page) text in English and San language, from the late 19th century. Therefore, anthropologists interpret San Art as deeply religious, expressing the beliefs and role of shamans in controlling rain and food resources. San Art depicts healing through the trance dance, along with sacred animals, such as eland, elephants, and rhino. Overall, South Africa has the world’s largest corpus of rock art, with the Drakensberg containing the finest.

The Cradle of Mankind and The World Heritage Site

The Cradle of Mankind extends over 47,000 hectares of privately-owned land northwest of Johannesburg. The sites have yielded some of the most pivotal artefacts and evidence of the origins of modern humans. Therefore, the tourist attraction holds great global value. The Cradle of Mankind includes the Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs. In December 1999, UNESCO declared the Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromsdraai, and Environs, a World Heritage Site. And in 2005, the significant sites of Makapan and Taung were added as serial sites to the Cradle of Mankind.

The Cradle of Mankind rests on dolomite, a water-soluble rock type. Therefore, the site presents the ideal conditions for the formation of caves and fossils. The Cradle of Mankind is home to over 200 known caves and thirteen productive fossil sites. Therefore, in these caves, archaeologists have discovered an array of stone tools and weapons used by human ancestors. Furthermore, scientists have found the remains of ancient creatures that co-existed in the area, such as short-necked giraffes, hyenas, and sabre-toothed cats.

World Heritage Site Tourism in South Africa

sterkfontein caves in south africa
Image Source: Outlook Traveller

The official visitor centre for the Cradle of Mankind World Heritage Site in Maropeng is an award-winning exhibition that highlights the development of human ancestors. This tourist attraction will take you on a journey through the evolutionary processes that formed the world and the human race. The exhibition features hominid fossils, stone tools and self-guided interactive tours.

The Sterkfontein Caves, located in Krugersdorp, is a world-famous tourist destination owned by the University of Witwatersrand. The Sterkfontein Caves contains the sites of the most notable anthropological discoveries, including the fossils of Mrs Ples and Little Foot. Recent excavations and renovations to the caves have included a stellar restaurant and conferencing facilities. Tours of the Sterkfontein Caves run all year round, except at Christmas and Easter.

These venues are child-friendly and the site also includes Wonder Cave, as well as the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve.

Conclusion: Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The Cradle of Mankind receives 224,000 visitors per year because delving into the past can be an exciting and rewarding experience. The Cradle of Mankind, as a World Heritage Site, poses several questions surrounding evolution, religion, philosophy, and biology. The stories of human origin and the source of life differ across cultures, scientific beliefs, and religious denominations. However, does the presence of fossil evidence and artefacts provide a clear narrative about who we are and where we come from? Fossil evidence presents the hypothesis that human beings are simply higher organisms moulded by the earth’s elements, selected by nature. However, how do hominid fossils and ancient artefacts impact our current and future world?

The Impact of South Africa’s Prehistory on Science & Philosophy

The hot, subtropical elements of South Africa have etched a fleeting record of our ancient ancestors. Since the discovery of the first Australopithecus skull, great strides have been made in the fields of genetics and biology, by creating a starting point for human ancestry. Furthermore, advances in genetics will allow the treatment of genetic disorders and chromosomal mutations through gene therapy. Advances in technology have provided palaeontologists with the ability to create three-dimensional models of ancient fossilized skulls and bones. Studying the anatomy of hominids can assist in understanding the anatomy of our bodies and the elements that prompted our evolution.   

Furthermore, ancient artefacts have revealed the societal systems and ritualistic beliefs of our ancestors. Understanding the way hominid species interact socially can provide insight into our societal systems and allow us to deepen our understanding of the meaning of life. The lifestyle of human ancestors was aligned with sustainable living and harmony with nature. Therefore, by uncovering how our ancestors utilized natural resources and natural replenishment, we could find ways to save our earth. The history of the human race and the origins of life on earth is brimming with pivotal lessons and tools on how we can make our world better. 



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