Maropeng unearths ancient tools


7 September 2005

South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site has thrown new light on humanity’s ancient history, with one-million-year-old stone age tools recently unearthed during construction of the site’s visitor centre.

The finds were announced at a renaming ceremony for the centre on 1 September. Rising from the dust of the Magaliesberg in Gauteng, the half-built centre’s name has been changed from Mohale’s Gate – which honoured a chief who once ruled the area – to Maropeng, a Setswana word meaning “the place where we once lived”.

Two of the tools, well-preserved carved hand axes, were shown at the renaming ceremony. Their chipped edges, blunted by water erosion, are clearly discernible. Three boxes of tools were excavated from the site.

The artefacts were found along a bank in a layer of pebbles and stones some 50cm below the surface. The construction workers who discovered them have subsequently been trained to recognise such implements. An earlier impact assessment study predicted there was only a 2% chance of finding anything significant.

Present at the ceremony were Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa, Wits University vice-chancellor Professor Loyiso Nongxa and Mogale mayor Lentswe Mokgatle.

A living monument
“This is why the Cradle of Humankind is such a wonderful place,” said Nongxa, holding up one of the tools. “Wits is proud to be working at this site. It is a living monument to the past, to the present, and to the future.” The university manages all the excavation sites in the broader 47 000-acre Cradle of Humankind site.

Shilowa explained that the area was once a large lake. “It is hard to believe but this is where our ancestors once roamed,” he said. “The discovery . proves beyond reasonable doubt that even beyond the periods of the early formations of humankind, our ancestors were living in this place.

“If we want to make sense of where we are going as a nation, and what our future holds, we need to make sense of where we come from. We need to make sense of our heritage – hence the name Maropeng,” Shilowa said.

He stressed that the construction of the site was also about economic development, job creation and poverty alleviation – and, of course, tourism. The Cradle developments will create 1 800 temporary and 600 permanent jobs.

“The site is about human development – about issues of hunger, poverty, jobs and shelter,” he said. Since the cradle developments in the area, many hospitality sites have sprung up, creating jobs.

Shilowa acknowledged the contribution others had made to the development: Wits University, Standard Bank and its 100-hectare donation of land, Mogale City, and the private sector.

Exploring humanity’s history
Maropeng will consist of an interpretation centre, where visitors will explore, by means of zones, the history of the earth and humankind. It lies on the side of a koppie, where ancient rocky outcrops will mark the setting of a huge tear-shaped burial mound, referred to as a “tumulus”: a partly disguised grassy mound 20m high and 35m wide, currently under construction.

The site is visible from the road with seven tall concrete pillars, representing the seven daughters of Eve. After the visitor has parked, entrance to the site will be via an excavated marketplace containing stalls, a restaurant and a curio store. This is where the tools were found, and where further excavations will be made.

A walkway will lead to the entrance into the tumulus, an exploration area with a boat ride on an underground lake exploring the different forms of water. From there the visitor will take a walk down an underground spine, exploring through interactive displays the discovery of fire, bipedalism, extinction and DNA, among other things.

It is hoped that there’ll be real fossils, such as Little Foot and Lucy, on display in a high-security room.

Once through this area, the visitor will exit at the crest of the koppie and relax with a picnic basket, taking in the view of the Magaliesberg.

At this point there’ll be a children’s cave where the kids can set up their own dig. The cave is built with local stone in a jagged wall, representing shards of broken bone.

A 24-room boutique hotel and a hostel for schoolchildren are also being built on the site.

The complex will be officially opened in early December. Some 3 000 people are expected to visit the centre every day. The site will be managed by Maropeng a’Afrika Leisure. The development is a R347-million Blue IQ project.

“This development is not only part of our national pride, but to the world,” said Rob King, CEO of Maropeng a’Afrika. “It denotes the universal relevance of the Cradle of Humankind as the ancestral home to all, no matter what colour, culture or creed.”

Source: City of Johannesburg

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