Sterkfontein cave

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Sterkfontein Caves(26 00' 56"S, 27 44' 03"E), near Krugersdorp, South Africa, is one of the most important fossil sites for understanding human origins in Africa. Since its discovery in 1936 more than 600 hominin remains and many thousands of fossil animals have been discovered.

Discovery of fossils

Sterkfontein was an active lime mine through the early parts of the twentieth century but was only discovered by palaeontologists as a potential source of important fossils when two of Raymond Dart’s anatomy students – GW Schepers and H le Riche – alerted first Dart and then Robert Broom to the abundant fossils being recovered during lime mining activities [1]. Broom made his first trip to Sterkfontein in August of 1936 and within just a few days was rewarded with the first australopithecine fossil which was delivered to him by a Mr. GW Barlow, the mine manager[1]. Numerous fossils followed including the now famous Mrs. Ples skull discovered in later work at the site. Broom felt the original fossils differed significantly from the Taung child – which was the holotype for the species Australopithecus africanus – and he therefore named a new genus and speciesPlesianthropus transvaalensis[1][2]. From that point onwards Sterkfontein became a significant source of early hominin fossils and animal fossils and later tools were discovered. Subsequent research has shown that most of the fossil hominins from Sterkfontein actually belong to the same species as the Taung child – A. africanus[1].

Excavation history

Important fossils

  • Sts 5 – Mrs. Ples skull
  • Sts 14 – a partial skeleton of a female A. africanus
  • Stw 53 - A possible Homo habilis skull (although there is considerable debate about its taxonomy.
  • Stw 431 – a partial skeleton of a male A. africanus which was the basis for the “long arms and short legs” hypothesis.
  • Stw 505 – a male A. africanus skull with the largest cranial capacity yet found for the species (approx. 520cc)
  • Stw 573 -Little Foot – possibly the most complete early hominin fossil yet discovered.

Other facts

  • Plesianthropus transvaalensis means “Near Man of the Transvaal”[2] (the Transvaal is the old name for the region encompassing Pretoria and Johannesburg)
  • Mrs. Ples was originally assigned to the species Plesianthropus africanus. [1][2]
  • Broom and Robinson used dynamite in their search for fossils in the hard breccia and this practice lasted (although less frequently) until the mid 1990’s at Sterkfontein. [1][2]
  • More hominin fossils have come from Sterkfontein than any other single locality in Africa. [1]
  • Mrs. Ples might actually be Mr. Ples[3].
  • Sterkfontein is the longest running single excavation for fossils in the World.
  • Broom was banned from working at Sterkfontein by the National Monuments Council for his use of dynamite. [1]
  • There are possibly two other species of early hominin found at Sterkfontein - H. habilis and Paranthropus robustus.
  • In 1999 Sterkfontein was included in the "Cradle of Humankind" UNESCO World Heritage site[4].


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Hilton-Barber. B and Berger, L.R (2003). . Struik. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Broom, R. and Schepers, G.W.H. (1946). . Ann. Transv. Mus.. 
  3. NFI (2002). The skeleton of Mrs. Ples. Retrieved on 2007-08-12.
  4. UNESCO (2003). World Heritage convention programme. Retrieved on 2007-08-12.