Monthly Archives: February 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Site #267: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa

Posted by on February 20, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Site #267: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa

UNESCO World Heritage Site #267: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa

From the World Heritage inscription:

The undulating landscape containing the fossil hominid sites of South Africa comprises dolomitic limestone ridges with rocky outcrops and valley grasslands, wooded along watercourses and in areas of natural springs. Most sites are in caves or are associated with rocky outcrops or water sources. The serial listing includes the Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs, and the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site. The Taung Skull, found in a limestone quarry at Dart Pinnacle amongst numerous archaeological and palaeontological sites south-west of the Sterkfontein Valley area, is a specimen of the species Australopithecus Africanus. Fossils found in the many archaeological caves of the Makapan Valley have enabled the identification of several specimens of early hominids, more particularly of Paranthropus, dating back between 4.5 million and 2.5 million years, as well as evidence of the domestication of fire 1.8 million to 1 million years ago. Collectively these sites have produced abundant scientific information on the evolution of modern humans over at least the past 3.5 million years. They constitute a vast reserve of scientific information, with enormous potential.

The sites contain within their deposits all of the key interrelated and interdependent elements in their palaeontological relationships. Alongside and predating the hominid period of occupation is a sequence of fossil mammals, micro-mammals and invertebrates which provide a window onto faunal evolution, palaeobiology and palaeoecology stretching back into the Pliocene. This record has come to play a crucial role in furthering our understanding of human evolution and the appearance of modern human behaviour .

The fossil evidence contained within these sites proves conclusively that the African continent is the undisputed Cradle of Humankind.

Before I even arrived, I knew I was in for trouble. Every other time I’ve visited a paleontology world heritage site, I’ve faced the same problem: there is nothing to photograph! What makes the site significant are the fossils which have been unearthed and put into museums. Usually my only options are the visitor center or the landscape surrounding it. As you can see, I went for one of the original skulls currently residing in the museum.

That being said, the Cradle of Civilization site in Gauteng Province was unlike any other world heritage site I have ever visited. It is what it would look like if Disney ran a world heritage site. The visitor center was more of a science museum. They actually had a boat ride and an artificial canal inside the building! It was easily the best, most elaborate visitor center I’ve seen in my years of traveling and visits to several hundred world heritage sites. It appears to have been designed to handle the many school trips for all the students in the greater Johannesburg area.

The site is actually a serial site with several locations scattered around an area the size of a large city. The Cradle of Civilization is the main site, but there are others which can be visited. In particular, the Sterkfontein Caves are only a few kilometers from the visitor center, but were closed due to flooding during my visit.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #266: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

Posted by on February 15, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Site #266: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

UNESCO World Heritage Site #266: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape demonstrates the rise and fall of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa between 900 and 1,300 AD. The core area covers nearly 30,000 ha and is supported by a suggested buffer zone of around 100,000 ha. Within the collectively known Zhizo sites are the remains of three capitals – Schroda; Leopard’s Kopje; and the final one located around Mapungubwe hill – and their satellite settlements and lands around the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers whose fertility supported a large population within the kingdom.

Mapungubwe’s position at the crossing of the north/south and east/west routes in southern Africa also enabled it to control trade, through the East African ports to India and China, and throughout southern Africa. From its hinterland it harvested gold and ivory – commodities in scarce supply elsewhere – and this brought it great wealth as displayed through imports such as Chinese porcelain and Persian glass beads.

This international trade also created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, and changes in architecture and settlement planning. Until its demise at the end of the 13th century AD, Mapungubwe was the most important inland settlement in the African subcontinent and the cultural landscape contains a wealth of information in archaeological sites that records its development. The evidence reveals how trade increased and developed in a pattern influenced by an elite class with a sacred leadership where the king was secluded from the commoners located in the surrounding settlements.

Mapungubwe’s demise was brought about by climatic change. During its final two millennia, periods of warmer and wetter conditions suitable for agriculture in the Limpopo/Shashe valley were interspersed with cooler and drier pulses. When rainfall decreased after 1300 AD, the land could no longer sustain a high population using traditional farming methods, and the inhabitants were obliged to disperse. Mapungubwe’s position as a power base shifted north to Great Zimbabwe and, later, Khami.

The remains of this famous kingdom, when viewed against the present day fauna and flora, and the geo-morphological formations of the Limpopo/Shashe confluence, create an impressive cultural landscape of universal significance.

Having visited hundreds of world heritage sites, the term ‘cultural landscape’ always throws up a red flag for me. It is a catch all term for places which don’t have obvious artifacts or ruins. Some make for an OK visit, others leave me scratching my head.

Mapungubwe is certainly important in terms of African history. There is a lot which happened there. There was one of the most significant kingdoms to have arisen in early Africa and many important artifacts have been found at the site.

As I suspected, you aren’t going to see ruins or the remains of ancient structures during your visit. The landscape is interesting in its own right, but the history of the site isn’t explicitly tangible on the ground.

To get a sense of the history of the place you need to stop in the museum/interpretative center to get the whole story. Many of the original artifacts where were found are on display, including the most famous piece, the gold rhino.

Getting to Mapungubwe is not easy. It is located at the extreme northern end of South Africa on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe. It is at least a 6 hour drive from Johannesburg with little in the way of towns and cities surrounding it. The closest town is Musina, which is a 45 minute drive away.

While there are camping options available in the park, I found that most of the major attractions could be seen self-driving within 2 hours. There are also guided tours available several times a day.

One thing of interest can be seen in the image above. In it, you can see three different countries: South Africa (foreground), Botswana (the island and left side of the river), and Zimbabwe (the right side of the river).