BRICS leaders get a taste of Cradle of Humankind

Thursday, July 26, 2018

BRICS leaders on Thursday explored the rich history of the Cradle of Humankind, which boasts some of the most world-renowned discoveries of humankind’s hominin ancestors.

The Cradle of Humankind, which is one of eight World Heritage Sites in the country, offers a world-class exhibition centre focusing on the development of humans and their ancestors over the past few million years.

It's the world's richest hominin site, home to around 40% of the world's human ancestor fossils. Situated in the West Rand of Gauteng and about 63 kilometres from the Sandton Convention Centre where the 10th BRICS Summit is being held, BRICS leaders got an inside look of the centre via livestream. The distance between the summit venue and the Cradle of Mankind posed a logistical challenge, which meant that the world leaders could not go to the site in person. They instead got to experience the centre remotely via livestream technology.

President Cyril Ramaphosa told his counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and China before the live crossing that the site symbolizes the unity of the people of the world.

“It also profiles our continent of Africa as the birthplace of the human species, and indeed more than 200 million years ago, our continents were all joined in the single continent, Laurasia. We have differences in language, culture and beliefs but we are one species bound together by a single ancient history.”

The livestream from the Cradle of Humankind was led by Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor, who told the Heads of State that the World Heritage Site is widely recognised as the place from which all of humankind originates.

She said it is a place that allows humans to reflect on who they are, where they come from and where they are going to.

“Our countries all have sites that connect our ancient history. Twelve years prior to the listing of this, the important Peking Man site was listed in the People’s Republic of China. Earlier this year, research was published of the discovery of stone tools, dating back to 385 000 years ago in India.

“In Russia, the Denisova hominin discovery is of immense paleontological importance. Brazil and South Africa share very important ancient reptile fossil species, elucidating the distant ancestry of mammals, which demonstrates that our continents were once linked in the ancient continent Gondwana.”

Exclusive view of fossils

Pandor went on to give the BRICS leaders an exclusive view of three types of specimen hominin fossils that were on display. These were Homo Naledi, “Little Foot” (Australopithecus prometheus) and “Karabo” (Australopithecus sediba). 

It was the first time that “Little Foot” was on public display, after having been recovered from the rock in which it has lain buried for the past 3.67 million years at Sterkfontein.

The BRICS leaders were first taken through the origins of Homo Naledi, one of the fascinating discoveries in human origins.

Consisting of more than 1 550 numbered fossil elements, the discovery is the single largest fossil hominid find yet made in Africa.

Homo Naledi fossil material was recovered in two expeditions, conducted in November 2013 and March 2014, dubbed the Rising Star Expeditions.

According to scientists, Homo Naledi is a bit smaller and a lot older than humans, with curved fingers and a small skull, but in some ways, the species is also strikingly similar to humankind.   

Homo Naledi’s teeth are described as similar to those of the earliest known members of the human genus, such as Homo habilis, as are most features of the skull.

Research shows the average Homo Naledi was 1.5 metres tall and weighed about 45kg with a brain the size of an orange and a slender body.

The leaders were then taken through see Little Foot, who was discovered by Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The fossil was given the nickname of Little Foot based on Clarke’s initial discovery of four small foot bones.

It is by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor older than 1.5 million years ever found. It is also the oldest fossil hominid in southern Africa, dating back 3.67 million years.

Clarke told SAnews at the Cradle of Humankind that it had taken him and his team 20 years since the discovery to excavate, clean and prepare the fossil.

Even though Little Foot had a divergent big toe, which enabled it to climb trees, Clarke said researchers are certain that this early Australopithecus walked upright on the ground for much of the time.

But more information is yet to emerge about Little Foot as Clarke, together with a team of international experts, is currently conducting a full set of scientific studies on it.

"The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in high impact, peer-reviewed international journals in the near future," he said, noting that this is expected to add a wealth of knowledge about human’s early ancestral relatives.

The last fossil they viewed was that of an adolescent boy nicknamed Karabo.

Karabo, who was discovered by Professor Lee Berger, is a 195-million-year-old partial hominid skeleton, who would have been between nine and 13-years-old when he died.

One human race

Pandor told SAnews after the tour that it was important for the leaders to see the origins of humankind.

"Part of the objectives of the BRICS countries is peace globally and unity of humanity. We thought it is important that we share and open up access to the Cradle of Humankind to leaders who are concerned about humanity."

Pandor hoped that the visit would also help to promote opportunities that are offered by tourism to this important historic site.

“We hope that this visual tour introduced the five leaders to what we believe conceptualises this notion of human beings as one. We all originate from the same ancestry, hence we should all be working towards uniting humanity."

After the visual tour, the five BRICS leaders were invited to make hand imprints and share a message of commitment to safeguarding the future of humanity -- from their countries to the world.

The handprints will be displayed alongside those of the later former President Nelson Mandela, which is housed at the centre. -