Swartkrans gets heritage plaque

Musa Mkalipi

Dr Bob Brain alongside his wife Laura and Dumisani Sibayi from Sahra.

Dr Bob Brain has made many discoveries at Swartkrans.
(Images: Sahra)

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Discovered back in 1948, Swartkrans Cave gave the world the first sample of Homo erectus as well as the largest Paranthropus robustus, or near man – and it is still giving. In return, South Africa has given it national heritage site status, with a plaque unveiled on April 12.

Swartkrans is a lower Palaeolithic cave, just 1.5 kilometres northwest of the famed Sterkfontein Caves, in the Cradle of Humankind. Discovered in 1948 by Robert Broom and excavated by Charles Kimberlin Brain, or Bob Brain as he is better known, Swartkrans has played a major role in the discovery of our prehistoric origins.

A fossil-rich site, it lies in the Blaaubank River valley, and is owned by the University of the Witwatersrand. Swartkrans is also the first site in Africa where the remains of Homo ergaster was found. Fossils found at Swartkrans are about one- to 1.8-million years old, and to date 200 hominin species have been found at the cave.

These findings have helped to paint a clearer picture of how our ancestors lived. Stone and bone tools used by early homo as well as fossilised coal have been found, giving the basic idea of how early man made fire. Lindsay Marshall, Swartkrans’ marketing manager, said the site was critically important in the overall understanding of our past, from the first evidence of controlled use of fire to the first evidence of co-existence of two hominid species.

The cave is one of the world’s most important paleoanthropological sites. Early research by palaeontologist Broom and John Robinson, his assistant, in the years 1948 and 1949, and 1951 to 1953, made an invaluable contribution to the understanding of human evolution.

Marshall added: “The site plays an important part in the story told both by the Maropeng and Sterkfontein exhibitions. We are also in a privileged position to offer exclusive walking tours to the site with paleoanthropologist Dr Morris Sutton who is currently excavating there.”

Representatives from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra), the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and paleoanthropologist Brain, who has worked at Swartkrans for over half a century, attended the unveiling of the plaque.

Sahra confirmed that it has not received much feedback from the public, but said the small group of scientists and stakeholders present at the unveiling ceremony were thrilled with the installation of the plaque.

The organisation said it is a national pride to be the custodian of such rare sites, as they provide clear evidence of South Africa as the origin of humankind. It mentioned that these sites are a valuable educational tool to teach everyone about where they came from.

The Cradle was declared a world heritage site in 1999. It lies mainly in Gauteng province, and partly in North West province. The Cradle includes a dozen dolomitic limestone caves which contain fossils of ancient animals, plants and, most importantly, humans.

World heritage sites

Each with unique qualities, there are eight world heritage sites in South Africa, where the history of the country can be explored. Four of the sites are categorised as natural, three as cultural sites and one that is cultural and natural.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, originally called Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park, was South Africa’s first natural world heritage site, declared on 1 December 1999. It is a beautiful natural reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, about 275 kilometres north of Durban. It is South Africa’s third largest park and extends from Mapelane (Cape St Lucia) in the south, to Kozi Bay in the north.

Robben Island, where many political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela – were incarcerated by the apartheid government, is another world heritage site declared in 1999. Situated 12 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, it is a renowned tourist destination for local and international visitors. It is a reminder of South Africa’s bitter past.

The nation’s world heritage sites are as diverse as its people. One of the most outstanding is uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park. It spans parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, and is both a natural and cultural site. It covers a mountainous area of 243 000 hectares. uKhahlamba means “barrier of spears”.

The Drakensberg contains the largest number of rock paintings in Africa. Its caves and rock shelters contain paintings made by the San people, dating back about 4 000 years. There are also 290 species of bird, 48 species of mammal as well as a variety of plants in the park. Places of interest include Champagne Valley in the central berg, Didima Valley, Royal Natal National Park, Amphitheatre Valley and Middledale Pass Valley in the northern berg.

For beautiful natural scenery and extraordinary plant life, the Cape Floral Region in the Western Cape is the place to visit. The Cape Floral Region takes up 1% of Africa’s land area and yet contains 20% of its plant species. It is one of the world’s richest plant zones, with 9 000 types of fynbos. There are only six floral kingdoms in the world, of which fynbos is the smallest and the only one found entirely within a single country. Fynbos is Dutch for “fine-leaved plants” or Afrikaans for “fine bush”. The area was declared a world heritage site in 2004.

There are eight protected areas in the region, namely Baviaanskloof, Swartberg Complex, Table Mountain, Cederberg Wilderness, Boland Mountain Complex, De Hoop Nature Reserve and Bosmanbos Nature Reserve.

Other world heritage sites in South African are Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Richtersveld Community Conservancy and Vredefort Dome, the most recently declared. World heritage sites are designated as such by Unesco.