Paleoanthropology in South Africa

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Early years of investigations

South Africa provided the earliest African fossil evidence relating to hominin evolution. The first was the recovery of the Taung child skull in 1924 [1] [2]. Shortly thereafter Robert Broom recovered adult specimens of early African hominins at Sterkfontein in 1936, which would lead to the recovery of numerous hominin specimens from this site. In 1938, Broom’s discovery at Kromdraai of a hominin too robust and with too specialized a dentition to be the same as the Sterkfontein ape-men led Broom to consider that he had found a bipedal ape that was not on the main line of human evolution [3]. This led to a new concept that all bipedal apes were not directly ancestral to humankind and that at least one branching had occurred in the hominin line: one leading to Homo sapiens Homo sapiens, while the other led to the more robust form which eventually became extinct.

Immediately following World War II two other South African sites, Makapansgat in what was then the Northern Province and Swartkrans near Sterkfontein, were found to be hominin bearing[4]. By the late fifties, East African finds began to add support to the South African hominin fossil record[5]. The discoveries first at Olduvai Gorge and then Laetoli in Tanzania, Koobi For a in Kenya, Omo and Hadar in Ethiopia as well as other sites, shifted both scientific and public opinion away from the collections and sites in South Africa[4].

Recent work

Early hominin research

Despite working in a hostile political environment since 1948 until the transition to a democratic government in 1994 [4], and being under an academic boycott for much of the latter part of this period, several significant research endeavours were undertaken in South Africa, primarily by three principal groups of scientists and technicians[5]. At the then Transvaal Museum, now incorporated within the Northern Flagship Institute, was a team led by J.T. Robinson and then later C.K. Brain. Its focus was on both the curation and study of the large collections of hominins from the Transvaal Museum which had been collected by Broom from Sterkfontein, Kromdraai and Swartkrans[4]. In addition, Brain pioneered research into cave formation processes and studies of taphonomy [5]. Elizabeth Vrba continued this work through the 1970’s and early 1980’s with analyses of faunal remains and excavations at Kromdraai and Gondolin. By the late 1980’s the work at the Transvaal Museum was being enhanced upon by Francis Thackeray and Virginia Watson who undertook excavations at Plovers lake and then at Kromdraai in the early 1990’s in conjunction with Lee Berger and members of the Palaeo-Anthropology Research Unit (PARU) at the University of the Witwatersrand [5]. Another research thrust occurring in South Africa post WWII was that of Raymond Dart, Alun Hughes and James Kitching, Dart being situated by the 1960’s at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand, with their main focus on analysing the results of work carried out at the site of Makapansgat[4] [5]. A major thrust in the same period was the University of the Witwatersrand’s Palaeo-Anthropology Research Unit (PARU) and its predecessors form 1966 to 1996 under the direction of Phillip Tobias. PARU’s main focus of research was initially the field activities at Sterkfontein, but even in its early period the unit was also involved at other sites as well as being involved extensively in laboratory activities related to research into human origins[5]. During most of this time field operations were conducted by a team under the direction of the late Alun Hughes, then briefly during his terminal illness by Lee Berger in 1990-1991 and finally a role Ron Clarke assumed in 1992[5]. Early in the 1980s, PARU also began to extend activities to the Buxton Limeworks near Taung, work which was continued into the early 1990’s by Jeff McKee of the then Department of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand. In the early 1990’s McKee also re-instigated excavations at the site of Makapansgat and nearby Buffalo Cave [4]. In early 1991 PARU became involved in excavations at the site of Gladysvale under the direction of Lee Berger working collaboratively with Andre Keyser then of the Geological Survey of South Africa. Gladysvale would prove to be the first “new” early hominin site in southern Africa discovered since 1948. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Andre Keyser had also conducted survey and sampling of several sites in the area including Haasgat[6]. In 1993, the exploratory efforts of Keyser, then at the Geological survey but later of PARU resulted in the discovery of hominin remains at the site of Drimolen [5].

Post Apartheid work

After 1996 significant re-organization took place in South African paleoanthropological sciences. Following the retirement of Phillip Tobias, PARU was closed by the University and its activities were subsumed under a new research entity named the Palaeoanthropology Research Group (PARG) under the direction of Lee Berger[4]. Under PARG research activities extended beyond Sterkfontein, Drimolen and Gladysvale and the collaborative work at Kromdraai to include new work at Swartkrans and other lesser known sites including Coopers, Motsetse, Bolts farm, Schurverberg and Plovers Lake[5]. Significant international collaborations were formed relating to fieldwork, including collaborative work with the University of Zurich at Gladysvale, French teams at Drimolen, Duke University at Coopers and Plovers Lake and the University of Arkansas at Swartkrans, Plovers Lake and in regional GIS surveys [7]. In 2000 two new units were formed by the University to handle the increase in work. The Sterkfontein Research Unit (SRU) was formed to undertake specialized work at Sterkfontein under the direction of Phillip Tobias and the Palaeoanthropology Unit for Research and Exploration (PURE) was formed under the direction of Lee Berger in the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology, in order to continue the research activities at the other sites[4]. Kevin Kuykendall of the Department of Anatomical Sciences took over from McKee excavations at Makapansgat and Buffalo Cave in conjunction with a number of American and British colleagues and later, initially in conjunction with members of PARG and Washington University, seasonal fieldwork work at Gondolin. Kuykendall later formed a program known as the Makapansgat Area Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthropology Research Project (MAPP) [5]. Restructuring of the Museum systems of South Africa resulted in a name change of the Transvaal Museum to the Northern Flagship Institute. The field work endeavours of Francis Thackeray in collaboration with PARG/PURE and Harvard University continued at Kromdraai and later at Coopers and Swartkrans. In the late 1990’s work was begun by Thackeray and French colleagues at a site in the Bolts farm area[5]. Most recently the University of the Witwatersrand has attempted to amalgamate the disparate groups at the University under a single entity which in 2004 has the working name of the Institute for Human Evolution (IHE) [5]. At present, the extended research efforts of the period between 1997 and 2007 resulted in the discovery of hominin and archaeological remains at all sites in the Cradle of Humankind area with the exception of the more limited excavations at Bolts farm, Haasgat and Motsetse[5].

Research into later hominins


  1. P.V. Tobias (1984). Dart, Taung and the 'Missing Link'. Institute for the Study of Man in Africa. 
  2. R. Dart (1925). Australopithecus africanus, the man-ape of South Africa. Nature. 
  3. R. Broom (1950). finding the Missing Link. Watts, London. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 B. Hilton-Barber and L.R. Berger (2002). Field guide to the Cradle of Humankind. Struik. 
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 L.R. Berger (2005). Working and Guiding in the Cradle of Humankind. Prime Origins. 
  6. Berger et al. (1992a). Gladysvale - first early hominid site discovered in S. Africa since 1948. Am. J. Phys. Anthrop.. 
  7. R. S. Lacruz, J. S. Brink, P. J. Hancox, A. R. Skinner, A. Herries, P. Schmid and L. R. Berger (2002). Gladysvale PALAEONTOLOGY AND GEOLOGICAL CONTEXT OF A MIDDLE PLEISTOCENE FAUNAL ASSEMBLAGE FROM THE GLADYSVALE CAVE, SOUTH AFRICA.. Palaeont. Afr..