The Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves: An Archaeological Look

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Maropeng is the official visitors’ center for the Cradle of Humankind. It’s an award-winning, world-class exhibition, providing history lovers and scientists alike an extraordinary display of our ancestors’ development over several million years. The Sterkfontein Caves, where many of these discoveries were made, are understandably a very popular destination. Situated on the outskirts of the Gauteng province in Africa, you’ll find them about an hour from Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Renovated in 2005, the Sterkfontein Caves site now contains a restaurant and conference facilities. Visitors can easily access the caves via modern walkways. In addition, these walkways go by excavation sites where globally acclaimed fossils originated.

The University of the Witwatersrand and its scientists own the site, and earn the credit for said discoveries. These eminent scientists are responsible for the most famous moments in the caves, including the finding of Mrs. Ples and Little Foot. These are two remarkably preserved fossils that date to 3 million years ago.

This article contains all the details you need to know about the Sterkfontein Caves. If you’re interested becoming a speleologist or even an archaeologist, some of what we share here will surely excite you.

About Maropeng And Sterkfontein Caves

The Sterkfontein Caves are a collection of limestone caves on the West Rand in Gauteng, South Africa. They have been significantly important to paleoanthropologists learning about our history. They contain preserved remains or artifacts like animal and hominid fossils.

A map showing a rough location of Swartkrans Cave in South Africa.
Swartkrans is one of the richest fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, and typically closed to the public.

The archaeological sites of Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Sterkfontein are in the same area. The latter two are South African National Heritage Sites and World Heritage Sites.

Continually producing an enormous amount of information about our human origins, these sites are exciting for any scientist.

The Sterkfontein Caves in particular are home to numerous wild African species, including Belonogaster petiolata—a wasp with a significant nesting presence.

The site has yielded fossils of several early hominins over the last few decades, including Australopithecus, early Homo, and Paranthropus.

These caves began to form as early as 20-million years ago, and reach depths of about 60m, where there is likely more to discover.

Evolution In The Cradle Of Humanity

A skull of a Australopithecus africanus specimen, in a museum. This was one of the most incredible findings at Sterkfontein caves.
Australopithecus africanus

Sterkfontein yielded the first adult specimen of Australopithecus africanus in 1936. Today, it remains one of Africa’s most prolific sources for hominid fossils.

The early hominin Australopithecus afarensis, an important genus for understanding human evolution, lived in Southern Africa during the Plio-Pleistocene age between 3 million and 2 million years ago (mya).

Africa’s earliest hominids include Australopithecus afarensis in Ethiopia and Kenya millions of years ago. Scientists believe they had been able to walk upright on two legs—like humans do today—and climb trees using their feet for support.

At Sterkfontein, we’ve found thousands of stone tools: Oldowan cores, flakes, cleavers, and various other Acheulean artifacts. The oldest stone tools in all of Southern Africa, found at this site, are approximately 2 million years old.

Wood, a fragile material, is rarely preserved in the archaeological record. However, at Sterkfontein, the conditions allowed 300 wooden fragments to survive.

The fossilized wood found at Sterkfontein suggests that around 2.6 million years ago, this area combined a tropical forest and savanna habitat.

Sterkfontein – Exhibition Guide

Sterkfontein Caves includes a museum displaying cave formations, geology, early life forms, mammals, and hominid fossils.

At the start of this tour, you will learn of three famous fossil finds: Mrs. Ples (a 3.2-million-year-old hominid skeleton), the “Taung Child” (another ancient human ancestor), and Little Foot (an almost complete foot belonging to an early Australopithecus).

The cave tour takes place every half-hour, seven days a week. Guided tours last about an hour and are suitable for all ages. Comfortable shoes are highly recommended; the cave is not wheelchair friendly due to its size.

A display of the famous Australopithecus africanus at the Sterkfontein museum. This fossil was found at the Sterkfontein caves.

The Visitor’s Centre At Maropeng

The most recent discovery at Sterkfontein Caves is Homo naledi.

The Cradle of Humankind is a cave-strewn area around 50km northwest of Johannesburg. It earned its title due to the fact that many significant hominid discoveries were made here.

Fossils were first discovered at the site in 1999 and continue to be found today. The most recent groundbreaking discovery is to the right.

What fascinates scientists about this one is that it represents the first time in all of history that human beings encountered a non-human species that deliberately disposed of its dead.

The visitor’s center at Maropeng (the meaning of ‘returning to the place of our ancestors’) has been designed to resemble a burial mound.

The modern exhibition takes an interactive approach to the history of life as we know it—from the big bang to human evolution, fire discovery, and people spread.

Visitors begin their visit with a boat ride through the ages before entering the museum. Here, interactive and educational displays complement fossils and tools found in Cradle of Humankind. The newest exhibition at Maropeng, “Almost Human,” tells how scientists discovered Homo Naledi and its fossils in 2015.

A visit to the Sterkfontein Caves, a few minutes drives from the museum (where many famous fossils were discovered), is an excellent way to deepen your understanding of human origins.

Cave tours last about 45 minutes and are not recommended for the physically unfit. There are many steps, kneelers, and places where you must crawl.

An image showing the rocky interior and stalactices inside the Sterkfontein Caves.

A Tragic Death in the Sterkfontein Caves

Back in 1984, diver Peter Verhulsel and two companions ventured into the Sterkfontein caves. They attempted to explore the lake’s depth in Milner Hall, a chamber within Sterkfontein Caves.

According to the Virtual Scientific Journal, geologists have compared karst aquifers, the geological formation that gives rise to caves, to Swiss cheese. Wherever there are holes in the surface rock through which water can flow into an underground reservoir, those depressions fill with a body of freshwater.

Verhulsel, intrigued by a previously undiscovered chamber in the caves, ducked into a side passage. It remains unclear if he left behind or snapped the guideline as his teammates explored further. Either way, Peter remained lost until weeks later, when he had already succumbed to starvation.

The tragic death led officials to ban diving in the caves and to refuse requests for an accurate measurement of the lake’s depth.

In 2005, the caves reopened. In addition to restoring them to their natural state, management installed new walkways as well. Visitors can now explore these historic wonders without hindrance or danger of falling off an uneven path.

Nonetheless, the tragic story of Peter Verhulsel reminds us to take caving (and diving especially) extremely seriously. These remote locations quickly become a tomb sometimes from a single misstep.


The Sterkfontein Caves may not immediately come to your mind when you think of the best attractions in South Africa, but they should! Come and experience 35 million years of the earth’s history at this unique site, not far from mega-attractions like Lion Park and Sun City.

You’ll come away enlightened, entertained, and maybe even make a scientific discovery of your own.

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