At first glance, it may seem there is not much there. The Cradle of Humankind, a remote spot 30 miles north-west of Johannesburg, has only plains, trees, a few animals and a visitor centre. But over 200,000 years ago, a species of hominin similar to homo sapiens called this place home. It’s one of the world’s most important sites for paleoanthropologists, and from Thursday 25 May it is also the place for visitors to see fossilised remains only recently brought to light at an exhibition called Almost Human, as well as a permanent display on human evolution.
The remains were uncovered in November 2013 during a three-week expedition, called Rising Star after the local cave system. The chamber where the remains were found is 30 metres below ground, and access is via gaps so small that team members had to extend one arm in front of their bodies, superman-style, to get through. For this reason, the six-strong group was composed of small, slim women, who earned the nickname the underground astronauts.
If they had slipped while climbing down the rocks, they could have dropped 20 metres to their deaths. The expedition was so dangerous that a medical team was on hand, with doctors trained to go underground to treat any broken bones. The results were 1,550 bones unearthed, from 15 individuals, more than all previous Africa expeditions combined. They are the ritually buried remains of an extinct species scientists hadn’t known existed: Homo naledi, shorter than homo sapiens and with a smaller skull, who lived about 236,000 years ago.
Getting their hands on this kind of collection is a dream for paleoanthropologists. Fossilised hominid skeletons are extremely rare, and most scientists go their entire lives without uncovering a single bone. And now these finds are on display not only for scientists but for the wider public.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Professor Lee Berger, who led the initiative. “Our last exhibition [of the first Homo naledi remains, in late 2015] drew 3,000 visitors a day, with people waiting in line for up to four hours.”
The visitor centre, called Maropeng – meaning “return to the place of origin” in the local Setswana language – also houses a permanent exhibition taking visitors on a journey through human evolution. It uses the standard museum tools: replicas, interactive displays and photographs, but no actual fossils. During this special exhibition – which will run for at least a month – partial skeletons of a child and an adult male, and an almost intact skull, will be on display.
As well as seeing the exhibition, visitors can tour other caves, go on guided hikes, stay at the on-site boutique Maropeng Hotel (doubles from £53 B&B) and eat at a restaurant with views of the Witwatersberg and Magaliesberg mountains – pausing perhaps to raise a glass to Homo naledi.
• maropeng.co.za, open daily 9am-5pm, adult R120 (£7), 4-14 years £3.80