The Sterkfontein Caves - about 50 km from Johannesburg - is the site of some of the most important discoveries concerning the evolution of man and have been declared a World Heritage Site.
If it's true that Africa is the cradle of all mankind - and most palaeontologists believe this to be so - then Sterkfontein Caves is surely one of the continent's sacred sites. Situated on the eastern side of the Krugersdorp-Hekpoort road (R 563), about 12 km north of Krugersdorp, the Sterkfontein caves have been described as the 'anthropological treasure-house of the world'.
Palaeontological significance aside, the caves are awe-inspiring, and a tour into their dark, chill, primeval depths leaves a lasting impression on visitors. Discovered by an Italian prospector Guglielmo Martinaglia, who was searching for gold and lime in 1896, this labyrinth of interconnected caverns was formed over millions of years by underground waters slowly dissolving the dolomitic rock. Now the water table has dropped and the spectacular eroded shapes of the dolomite can be seen as one walks through a vast chamber to an under ground lake which fills other extensive caves beneath its surface. Its tranquil, crystal-clear waters extend some distance into unexplored chambers.
Several interesting dripstone formations are to be seen; although, sadly, many of the cave's more spectacular stalactites and stalagmites were removed or damaged by early limestone-mining activities.
In one part of the cave, visited by tourists, is a portion of an ancient consolidated infill that collapsed about 2 million years ago from an older and higher cave. Above this infill is a long shaft which leads up to massive deposits which are currently being excavated by scientists. Other deposits being worked in one part of the underground cave system date back to 3 million years.
Part of the complex consists of six cathedral chambers, largest of which is the dripstone-decorated Hall of Elephants, 23 m (75 ft) high and 91 m (300 ft) long. Other chambers include Fairy Chamber, Bridal Arch, Lumbago Alley and the Graveyard.
Dr Robert Broom, of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, began excavations of the cave in 1936 and made several discoveries of bones and other fossils. His great find came in 1947 - the exceptionally well-preserved skull of a species of early man-ape which he called Plesianthropus transvaalensis, who lived about two million years ago. The skull was that of a female and became known as "Mrs Ples".
The species has subsequently been reclassified as Australopithecus africanus when the skull was positively recognized as belonging to the same species as the 'ape-child' skull discovered by Professor Raymond Dart at Taung in the northern Cape in 1924.
The caves form part of the Isaack Stegmann Nature Reserve and are owned by the University of the Witwatersrand. They are open to the public from February to December each year, six days a week. Tours are conducted every half-hour. Next to the caves is the Robert Broom site museum, housing exhibits of immensely ancient animal and bird life.
Contact & Bookings
Sterkfontein Caves is situated on the Sterkfontein Caves Road off the R563 approximately 10km from Maropeng.
The caves are open 7 days a week, tours are guided and run every half hour from 9am - 4pm. The tours are limited to 30 people. Closed on Christmas Day. Booking is essential
Tel : +27 (0) 14 577-9000