Friday afternoon’s stop on the South African endless bus/plane tour was in the area humbly named “The Cradle of Mankind.” Sterkfontein Caves in Gauteng’s fossilized remains are to paleontologists as Hollywood is to the paparazzi — a seemingly endless supply of somewhat human-looking beings to be examined from every angle.
The caves, are rich in hominid fossils (more than 700) because of a confluence of “lucky” circumstances. “People” and animals either recently or about to be dead were washed or fell into a series of deep holes. Then, limestone leaked into the holes, and fossilized the remains of the day for millennia, according to researcher Dominic Stratford who led our tour through the dark and dusty caves. He believes that the abundance of human and animal bones may come from the tendency of leopards to store their kills in trees that might have hung over the hole.
One of the most famous finds at Sterkfontein is Little Foot, a pre-human whose skeleton was nearly completely (97 percent) found.
Stratford regaled us with an interesting theory of how eating more meat may have helped us to walk erect. According to Stratford, hominids began switching from eating nuts and wild grasses to eating more protein, including other hominids who may have been killed by prey or by each other. This may have also been because of a gene mutation that caused smaller jaws. Stratford says chewing protein such as meat requires smaller jaw muscles that stretch to the base of the skull, so there’s more room for a larger brain. Larger brains helped with developing tools that moved us gradually out of the stone age. So take that granola-lovers, if it weren’t for munching on recently departed cousins, we might still be knuckledraggers!
Anthropology and paleontology were never presented in a way this interesting when I was in school.