One of Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences most exciting missions is the creation of and support for a vibrant palaeo tourism industry that will allow local and international visitors to experience South Africa’s unrivaled palaeontological and archaeological heritage. Pictured above is Ledumahadi Mafube, a 12-ton dinosaur recently discovered in 2018. Believed to have walked on all fours, it roamed the South African region of earth some 200 million years ago.
Because of the antiquity of its rock record preserving time slices of the development of life from its origins more than 3.5 billion years ago, through the origins of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, tortoises and mammals, to the origins of humans and human culture, South Africa is poised to showcase the history of life.
A fascinating journey across all nine provinces – from the Cradle of Human Culture to the Cradle of Humankind and beyond – will allow tourists to explore the places that make up the pieces of the puzzle of the origins of Earth, life and the evolution of modern humankind.
The uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal is host to one of the largest and most concentrated series of rock art paintings in Africa, representing the spiritual life of the San people who lived in the area for over 4 000 years. Buried in the sedimentary deposits of the Karoo Supergroup that were laid down between 260 and 190 million years ago are abundant fossilised remains of land-dwelling vertebrates, including early mammals, early turtles, and early dinosaurs.
The KwaZulu-Natal Museum is home to an Earth Science collection that features rocks minerals, meteorites as well as a vast palaeontology collection made up of plant and insect fossils from the Mooi River area.
The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape and the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site are well known for the sophisticated African kingdom that occupied the area over 1 000 years ago, and especially for the iron age, golden rhino found there. Exploring further back in time, it is home to over 400 archaeological sites and has revealed dinosaur footprints imprinted in mudstone, and dinosaur fossils dating back 200 million years. Other objects include fossils of flowering plants, whole-bodied insects and termite mounds.
Makapans Valley is part of the World Heritage Site of the Cradle of Humankind and situated in the Waterberg. It is regarded as one of the country’s most significant archaeological and paleontological sites due to the discovery of animal and hominid fossils dating back 3 million years.
The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre won the World Architectural Building of the Year Award in 2009 for its unique form created using raw, handmade earth brick tile vaults that were ‘woven’ together to create a series of cavernous interior spaces. The domed exteriors were covered with loose rubble stones cleared from the site before building, allowing the structures to blend into the remote veld landscape. The Centre holds the famous golden rhino and other artifacts that were removed from Mapungubwe in the 1930’s, returned at the behest of local communities.
The Taung Skull Fossil Site is a National Heritage Site and a Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. It is here that the 2.5 million-year-old Taung Child, Australopithecus africanus, was found in 1924, changing the course in our understanding of human evolution. The Taung Heritage Site features a monument to the discovery while an old mine tunnel has been opened for exploration. The skull is curated at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Around 40% of the world’s known Fossil Hominin Sites of South Africa have been unearthed at The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. One of its main attractions is the Sterkfontein caves, renowned internationally for the discovery of the fossils of Mrs Ples and Little Foot, the latter being an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than 3 million years. In 2013 the discovery of Homo naledi – alive sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago – in the Rising Star Cave System revealed the richest fossil hominin site in Africa. The Cradle also boasts several dozen fossil sites: Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Bolt’s Farm, Wonder Cave, Minnaar’s, Cooper’s B, Plover’s Lake, Drimolen, Gladysvale, Haasgat, Gondolin and Motsetse. The ‘Ape to Astronaut’ package offers a complete experience of 3.5 billion-year-old rocks to cutting-edge technology. The world-class Maropeng Visitor’s Centre at the Cradle focuses on the development of humans and our ancestors over the past few million years.
The Ditsong Natural History Museums is an amalgamation of eight national museums, seven in Tshwane and one in Johannesburg. The Ditsong National Museum of Natural History is the only institute in South Africa that offers the opportunity to view its collections that include original fossil material usually denied the public. The collections include hominid fossils from the Cradle of Humankind, including Mrs Ples, skeletons, skins, fossils and mounted specimens of invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and fish.
The extremely well-preserved Tswaing Meteorite crater – 1.4 km in diameter and 200 m deep – was formed some 220 000 years ago when a massive, blazing meteorite slammed into the earth’s crust. The name Tswaing means Place of Salt and refers to the saltwater lake that covers the crater floor. There’s a museum adjacent to the crater and a path leads from the museum along the crater rim, down to the central lake.
The Origins Centre at the University of Witwatersrand explores the African origins of humankind through a number of interactive exhibits that follow a path of hominin innovation that began over 2 million years ago. Significant is the extensive collection of rock art from the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), Early African Lithic tools from 2.6 million to 60 000 years ago and replicas of skulls showing our human evolution over the last 7 million years.
The famous fossil site of Langebaanweg in the West Coast Fossil Park is world-renowned for its exceptionally diverse and well-preserved fossil faunal remains that date to the terminal Miocene/early Pliocene, around 2.5 million years ago. During that time the region had a more subtropical climate, and fossil finds show a remarkable number of different fossil animal species including sabre-toothed cats, short-necked giraffes, African bears and hunting hyenas. The park offers a visitor’s centre and guided walking tours to a fossil dig that’s one of the few places where you can see fossils in the ground exactly as they were buried some five million years ago.
At Geelbek on the Langebaan lagoon, Eve’s Footprint, a set of fossilised footprints of an anatomically modern human, was found and dated to 117 000 years.
The 400-meter long Karoo National Park Fossil Trail allows visitors to walk among the fossilised remains of the fantastic extinct wildlife that thrived in the ancient Karoo during the Late Permian Period, some 255 million years ago. The Old Schuur Interpretive Centre in Beaufort West showcases the magnificent fossil and geological heritage of the Great Karoo.
Outside Fraserburg you’ll find the spectacular Gansfontein Palaeosurface, deposited initially some 250 million years ago during the Permian Age on a vast, flat alluvial plain surrounding an inland sea. Fossil finds include worm trails, an aquatic arthropod, traces of Dinosifalians and a single print of a Bradysaurus. A distinct trace fossil of a gastropod was found on the farm Riethuisies, and the same trace fossil was recently found in Antarctica, confirming the continental drift theory. Visitors can learn more with Fraserburg Fossil Tours and at the Fraserburg Museum.
Launched in April 2019, The Cradle of Human Culture features a total of 13 archaeological and palaeontological sites – five along the West Coast, seven on the southern Cape coast and one in Cape Town. Anchor sites are the Diepkloof Rock Shelter on the Cape West Coast, Blombos Cave near Stilbaai and Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay. These sites have produced the oldest evidence of modern human behaviour and activity, dating back to between 150 000 and 70 000 years ago. It is here where modern humankind has its roots and where archaeologists discovered our earliest use of symbolism, art and technology.
Currently, there are two routes, the “The Artist’s Journey” with finds of engraved ostrich eggshell and several rock art sites, and “The Coastal Journey” with evidence of humankind’s use of the ocean as a food source. Klasies River in the Eastern Cape and Border Cave and Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal continue the journey with exciting finds relating to palaeo-environmental conditions and the evolution of early humans.
Iziko Museums of South Africa manages 11 national museums, collection-specific libraries, a world-class Social History Archive and the most advanced digital Planetarium and Digital Dome on the African Continent. The South African Museum houses more than one and a half million specimens of scientific importance and its collections range from 700 million-year old fossils to stone tools made by people 120 000 years ago. Their palaeontology collections include Cretaceous/Palaeocene crater-lake fossils, Bear skull Pleistocene fossils, Karoo Palaeontology and Middle Devonian fossils.
The Fransie Pienaar Museum in Prince Albert has a remarkable collection of fossils from the Cape and Karoo supergroups, showcasing the fossils of the area collected through the efforts of a remarkable farmer from the district, Roy Oosthuizen. Displays show a diversity of marine fossils from the Devonian Period more than 400 million years ago, as well as ancient reptiles that lived in the Karoo during the Permian Period between 299 to 251 million years ago.
In 2019 the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for its diverse repository of information on surface conditions, meteorite impacts, volcanism, and evidence of the time when the first continents were starting to form on the primitive Earth. Referred to as the ‘Genesis of Life’, it is regarded as one of the oldest sites on Earth for its geology, including the best-preserved ancient rocks on Earth. The volcanic rocks are estimated to be between 3.2 and 3.6 billion years old and feature well-preserved meteor-impact fallback breccias created from the impact of meteorites that were formed just after the Great Bombardment (4.6 to 3.8 billion years ago). The mountains contain some of the oldest signs of life; a microfossil of bacteria discovered there is estimated to be 3.1 billion years old.
The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre is a rural palaeo-tourism venture situated in the heart of the Karoo, in the picturesque town of Nieu-Bethesda. It tells the story of life in South Africa 253 million years ago, during the Permian Period, when our mammal ancestors (therapsids) ruled the Earth. Guided tours in the river bed reveal fossil evidence, and at the centre, there are life-sized models of prehistoric animals that once roamed the Karoo. The Centre also has displays of some of the latest fossil finds like Homo naledi and Australopithecus sediba.
The Ganora Fossil Museum in Nieu Bethesda houses fossils that are on average 280 million years old, a time when reptiles roamed the Earth, before the age of the dinosaurs.
The earliest Devonian tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates) discovered outside of tropical and subtropical zones were recently discovered at Waterloo Farm near Grahamstown. The new species, named Tutusius umlambo and Umzantsia amazana, pre-date the next known earliest African tetrapod fossils by some 70 million years. Waterloo Farm has offered up a wide range of fish, plant and invertebrate fossils from 360 million years ago, including sub-Saharan Africa’s earliest woody trees, the oldest known land-living animal from the whole of Gondwana, the oldest fossil lamprey in the world and Africa’s oldest coelacanth from the world’s earliest known coelacanth nursery.
The Albany Museum in Grahamstown includes the Natural Sciences Museum that has one of the oldest palaeontology collections in South Africa. The collection includes Permian plant fossils and Devonian fishes, plants and invertebrates from the Eastern Cape, mammal-like reptiles from the Permian and Triassic beds of the Karoo, and plant and animal fossils of the Cretaceous age from the Algoa and associated Mesozoic basins. A popular palaeontology gallery documents the rich Eastern Cape fossil heritage.
Wonderwerk Cave National Heritage Site near Kuruman is managed as a satellite of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Evidence suggests various hominids used the cave for almost two million years, with the most frequent inhabitants being Homo erectus who lived roughly from 2 million to 140 000 years ago.
The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Sutherland is home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and is the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy in South Africa. The SAAO visitor’s centre has palaeontological displays including original fossils of Karoo reptiles such as the Anteosaurus, a large reptile that was a ferocious Karoo predator 280 million years ago. It’s also home to stromatolites (giant algal domes) that were formed billions of years ago by some of the earliest lifeforms on Earth.
The Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre outside of Kimberly is a community-based public rock art project and visitor centre surrounded by land owned by the !Xun and Khwe San. It was declared a Provincial Heritage Site and is managed by the Northern Cape Rock Art Trust in association with the McGregor Museum.
Florisbad is a fossil-bearing spring mound located 45 km northwest of Bloemfontein. It is famed for the discovery of an archaic modern human skull that has been dated to around 260 000 years old. Also of interest are mammalian remains dated to between 400 000 and 100 000 years old.
The Palaeontology Hall at the National Museum, Bloemfontein depicts the evolution of life on Earth, beginning at about 4 000 million years ago. Displays, which include the earliest bacteria, algal mats and the first multicellular organisms, hint at the earliest environmental conditions and suggestions on how life first began on Earth. The Museum also proudly displays a 250-million-year-old fossil hominid skull.
A new species of giant dinosaur that lived 200 million years ago was discovered near Clarens. The plant-eating Ledumahadi Mafube weighed 12 tonnes and was twice the size of a large African elephant.