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Rock Art and Little Foot – South Africa’s Extraordinary Prehistory

Meet your earliest ancestors and see the world's first paintings

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Maropeng Visitors Centre, Cradle of Humankind (c) Mary Alexander/Media Club South Africa

Maropeng Visitors Centre, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa

Mary Alexander/Media Club South Africa

Reach back 3 million years into history and some of man's earliest ancestors, the Australopithecines, lived in caves in the Gauteng hills. 10,000 years ago, San bushmen began to decorate the cliffs and overhangs of the Drakensberg, painting the eland that were their prey and their gods into the living rock. 1,000 years ago, gold workers on the Limpopo created gleaming jewellery and votive offerings. South Africa's history is complex, rich and almost unbelievably long. These five sites include some of the most important prehistoric treasure troves in the world.

Cradle of Humankind
Maropeng means "returning to the place of origin" in Setswana. This humble range of hills truly deserves the name. People have lived here for at least 3 million years. Some of man's earliest ancestors have been discovered in these cave systems. The fragmentary bones of 'Little Foot', the 'Taung Baby' and 'Mrs Ples' amongst thousands of others have helped to shape our understanding of the early hominids.
There are 15 major fossil sites within the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site. By far the most famous - and the only ones regularly open to the public - are the Sterkfontein Caves. Nearby the Maropeng Visitors' Centre is a magnificent building based on a burial tumulus. The tour starts with an underground river, finishes with the original fossils and between takes you on a dizzying journey through human evolution. There is also an excellent hotel, a couple of restaurants and cafés and the opportunity of various adventure sports in the area.

Maropeng, off the N14, 1hrs drive west of Johannesburg
Tel: +27 (0) 14 577 9000
Open daily 09.00-17.00; last tours 16.00

Origins Centre
'We are who we are because of who we were.' So reads the slogan of the Origins Centre at Wits University, Johannesburg, opened in 2006 by President Thabo Mbeki. A compelling museum dedicated entirely to the earliest origins of humankind, it links the priceless collections of two independent research facilities into rock art and fossils. Cutting edge technology has been used to impressive effect to reach deep into prehistory to tell the story of man's evolutionary path and his first artistic endeavours. You can see some of man's earliest images, watch the San trance dance, the oldest known dance still performed today and even have your blood tested for your genetic DNA make-up. After all, go back far enough and we all, eventually originated in Africa. There are free audio guides in six languages, a shop and café.

University of the Witwatersrand, cnr Yale Road and Enoch Sontonga Avenue, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Tel: +27 11 717 4700
Open daily 09.00-17.00

Drakensberg

There are only 23 places in the world that have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status both on account of their natural beauty and their cultural significance. One of them is the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a 230,000 hectare (888 square mile) national park in the fabulous Drakensberg Mountains of Kwazulu-Natal. Here, there are at least 20,000 rock paintings at 500 cave and overhang sites. The oldest are thought to date back at least 3,000 years, the youngest featuring British soldiers in scarlet tunics around a century. The single biggest site, Sebaayeni Cave, contains 1 146 individual paintings. There are interpretive centres at Didima and Kamberg. From here, you can also do a three-hour guided walk to the Game Pass Shelter, considered to be 'Rosetta Stone' of San Rock Art - the key stone which helped academics to understand the spiritual symbolism of the eland paintings.

Follow signs from Rosetta, off the N3 between Mooi River and Nottingham Road

Tel: +27 33 267 7251
Open Oct-Mar 05.00-19.00, Apr-Sept 06.00-18.00

Mapungubwe
Rediscovered in 1933, it was 2003 before Mapungubwe, on the Limpopo River on South Africa's northern border, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even so, few people have ever heard of it. The Mapungubwe culture left behind relatively sparse architectural remains but a host of small finds, from ironwork and beads to gold, including a magnificent small gold rhino. Finds from the site, including the gold, are in the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria.

The first iron workers arrived in about 500 AD, but the settlement really began to grow in about 900AD. By the 13th century, this was a powerful kingdom, trading as far afield as China, India and Egypt. However Great Zimbabwe to the north proved too powerful and the kingdom crumbled and was forgotten. Mapungubwe Hill itself and the nearby K2 archaeological site are both now within a national park which is soon to become part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), a transfrontier park taking in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
There is relatively little to see at the main site but it has the added benefit of wonderful scenery and wildlife. This is also a breeding centre for rare breeds including black rhino and wild dogs. Four wheel drive is advisable.

National Park, 70 kms (40 miles from Mussina), Limpopo Province
Open daily 06.00-18.30 Sept-Mar, 06.30-18.00 Apr-Aug
Tel: Interpretation Centre: +27 015 534 7925, Reception: +27 015 534 7923/24

Mapungubwe Museum, Old Arts Building, University of Pretoria
Open Mon-Fri 10.00-16.00 or by appointment
Tel: +27 12 420 3146

Wildebeest Kuil
There are more than 400 rock engravings are spread over a small sacred hill at Wildebeest Kuil just outside Kimberley. Chipped out of the hard rock, using a pointed stone, they are thought to have been made by the /Xam people, the ancestors of the San, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. They are believed to have religious significance, possibly as trance drawings. After an introductory film, an 800 m walkway weaves up through the engravings, and there are sign boards and guides on hand to answer questions. There's also a good arts and crafts workshop with work by the !Xun and Khwe community.

Kimberley, Northern Cape
Tel: +27 82 222 4777
Open Mon-Fri 09.00-16:00, Sat-Sun 10.00-16.00

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