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Human Beginnings and Endings in the Makapans Valley, Limpopo

The breathtakingly beautiful Makapans Valley in the Limpopo Province of South Africa is one of the world’s most important paleontological sites. It is in fact not one but two valleys – the smaller Makapan Cave Valley (also called the Valley of the Mwaridzi stream), branching off the larger Makapansgat Valley – rather confusingly as Makansgat means Makapan’s Cave or ‘Hole’ to be more precise.

The geology of the Limpopo area is dominated by dolomite (limestone) hills that were once part of an ancient sea, and that have eroded over millions of years to form caves. For millions of years these caves were shelters – for pre modern humans, Australopithecus ‘ape-men’, in the earliest Stone Age periods  (around 3 million years ago) to later Stone Age people right through to Iron Age inhabitants.  But the limestone caves did more than provide shelter; the limestone preserved and eventually fossilised the bones of these inhabitants and the now long extinct animal species they hunted. They have also preserved the tools they used, and evidence of the discovery of fire – much of it unearthed through the course of quarrying for lime fertiliser. The three most extensive sites are the Limeworks, Makapans Cave and the Cave of Hearths – all situated with the Makapans Valley system north-east of Mokopane, and just 18kms south of Polokwane.

The Limeworks

The Limeworks is one of the largest caves, and has yielded the most fossil records since a collection of fossilised Australopithecus Africanus bones ‘blew out’ of the silted-up cave when first quarried in the 1920s. Despite these bones being over 3 million years old, the Limeworks is a less famous site than the Sterkfontein Caves in the nearby Cradle of Humankind due to the lack of a complete skeleton find.

Makapans Cave

The most ancient human history yet found is preserved and still being discovered in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, but unlike most other such regions, the stories the bones tell don’t stop in some distant past.  At Makapans Cave, bones have told the tragic story of a siege that saw thousands of members of a local Ndebele tribe die of starvation, besieged by Boer Trekker commandos for nearly a month in 1854. This cave is also called the Historic Cave as it relates to the Historic Period of human history.

The Cave of Hearths

The Cave of Hearths lies in the smaller Makapans valley, and is world-renowned for providing the world’s only ‘unbroken’ sequential evidence record spanning a 3 million year time period from the dawn of humanity through to the Iron Age.  It is also one of the sites (some have written that it is the foremost site) for evidence of when ‘man’ learned to make fire.

The Makapans Valley is a South African National Monument, and is currently under consideration by UNESCO for World Heritage Site status – not just for it heritage value, but for its lush bio-diversity and beauty.

There are many other caves in the Makapans Valley, which has provided us with one of, if not the, greatest paleontological records of human evolution, but  for ‘non-archeologists’, like many places in South Africa, the Makapans Valley has an almost palpable and breathable sense of the deeply, almost inconceivably, ancient. Perhaps there are ghosts with the bones…decide for yourself with a guided walking tour through the Makapans Valley.

For more info and to book: e-mail at the Arend Dieperink Museum, Mokopane, or call 015 491-9735.

Getting there: The Makapans (Makapansgat) Valley is situated 18km south of Polokwane on the N1.

More info on the quaint town of Polokwane More info on the Capricorn area