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"Archeo-Tour" guided by scientists on rare parts of the "Cradle of Humankind"

On Sunday 27th of November, starting from 8:00 am, the Alliance française and the French Institute in South Africa will propose another “archeo-tour” around Sterkfontein, in the world famous “Cradle of Humankind” - full practical details here. Three scientists (MM. Gomery and Thackeray and Ms. Val) will guide the tour on sites rarely open to the public. Through their intimate knowledge of the place, they will give a special insight into what has happened there some millions years ago and explain the scientific advancements allowed by the founding on these places. Intofrench has met Aurore Val, researcher at Wits University, to know what she feels about one of the most fascinating archaeological site in the world.

Bearing such exotic names as Femur Dump, Bolt's Farm, Waypoint 160, or Swartkrans, the sites that the tour will visit could be mistaken for bare fields – if it was not for the special security measures that protect them. Without proper knowledge, a flint looks like any stone and it would be impossible to guess where the bones of ancient wild cat have been found. All too important is thus the presence of scientists who have worked on these sites and will help the public to understand what has really been at stake there – well, nothing less than the future of humankind... Passionate about the place, Aurore Val explains why the “archeo-tour” should not be missed.

What are the specific points of interest of the sites visited during the "archeo-tours"? (ie: Bolt's Farm, Waypoint 160, Femur Dump and Swartkrans)

Both sites of Bolt’s Farm and Swartkrans belong to the incredibly rich region of the Cradle of Humankind (UNESCO World Heritage Site), which is the place in the world, together with East Africa, with the highest concentration of early hominid and associated fauna fossils. The site of Bolt’s Farm contains 23 identified fossiliferous locations. Waypoint 160 is an important one, because it is the oldest site not only in Bolt’s Farm, but within the all Cradle of Humankind area. The fossils were dated at 4.5 to 4 million years ago. It provides a good picture of what the fauna was around at that time. Way Point 160 is also very interesting because it contains a lot of microfaunal remains (mostly rodents) which provide very accurate information about the paleoenvironment and paleoclimate in the Cradle around 4 to 4.5 Ma. The site of Femur Dump (also called Pit 23), is another location within the Bolt’s Farm site complex. It is very interesting because it has yielded some of the most abundant and complete large carnivore remains, especially large cats, from both extinct and extant species. In particular, the fairly well-preserved bones of the false saber-tooth cat Dinofelis barlowi were recovered, including a complete skull and the remains of another male, a female and a juvenile. The study of these remains offers a better understanding of the anatomy and the behaviour of these extinct species. The site of Swartkrans is one of the best known sites within the Cradle of the Humankind. It was discovered in 1948 and intensively excavated in the following decades. It has yielded numerous remains of different early hominid species: Paranthropus robustus, which is a contemporaneous species of Australopithecus but got extinct without leaving apparently any descendants, and early Homo. Together with these hominid remains were found an abundant fauna, as well as some stone and bone tools. One of the major interests of Swartkrans is the presence of the oldest evidence of fire-control and fire-use by the early hominid ever, dated at 1 million year ago.

Why are these sites most often closed to the public? Is the conservation of these sites in danger?

In general, I don’t think that these sites suffer from any conservation danger or problem. The limited access to the public is mainly a matter of available staff, competent people to present the sites and financial issues. The site of Sterkfontein is the only site within the Cradle of Humankind, which is constantly open to the public. It is also located at the same place as a museum, which makes it of better interest for the public. Other sites are accessible if one makes a booking and private visits are organized, as it is the case for Cooper’s D (private group visits organized by Christine Steininger, from the Institute of Human evolution at Wits, and in charge of the excavations of the site). Other sites, such as Bolt’s Farm are still under excavations and it can be one of the reasons why the access to the public is limited. Some of the sites of the Cradle are located in private properties and the access is therefore not systematical for the public. There also are more than three dozen of fossil-bearing sites in the Cradle. Having all of them completely accessible and open to the public requires a huge logistic and a big investment of money. Moreover, the visit of these sites only presents an interest if there is a specialist giving explanations about the site. Most of the sites in the Cradle have been intensively excavated and there are barely anything left to be seen. The concentration of fossils, information and explanations in the two museums (at Sterkfontein in one hand and at the Maropeng Centre on the other hand) enables the public to get a really good overview of the richness of the different sites and their impact in terms of understanding human evolution, without having to actually go to all the different localities.

How are these sites important for the scientific knowledge of the human evolution? What will our readers learn from this tour?

The three sites which are going to be shown to the public, together with the explanations provided by specialists (Dominique Gommery, from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and in charge of the excavations at Bolt’s Farm, and Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, previously director of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, and specialist of early hominid fossils) will provide interesting facts and information on both human evolution in general and in South Africa and about the scientific fields of research involved (paleoanthropology, paleontology, paleoecology, taphonomy…). These three sites are very important in terms of understanding the past environment and landscape in which our ancestors have evolved, with which other animal species they were sharing the landscape, the interaction between the hominids and the other species, especially the large carnivores. It will provide information about hominid behavior (dealing with the environment, and the resources). Besides, this “behind the scene” visit will a very good opportunity offered to the public to see sites still under excavations (the two locations at Bolt’s Farm), and will therefore be explained how excavation in the context of South African old cave contexts are conducted, and what are the scientific methods used. We hope that at the end of the tour, the public will have learned more about the part of our evolution history which took place in the Cradle of Humankind, as well as how the scientist get their information and the way they work.

Text & Interview by Hadrien Diez

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