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THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND LONG LOST SITE

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THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND LONG LOST SITE

Lazarus Kgadi, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

In the Gauteng region of South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind-World Heritage Site lies a palaeontological site known as Minnaar’s Cave, or simply Minnaar. Five neighbouring palaeontological sites from Minnaar’s in the Cradle of Humankind, located 1 and 3 kilometers to the north-northeast and northeast, respectively, are Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Cooper’s Cave, and Bolt’s Farm Kromdraai. It is the Cradle of Humankind’s smallest site, covering an area of about 8,592 m2 (2.123 acres). The Blaauwbank River is nearby on the southern boundary. Age-wise, the site is Plio-Pleistocene, or roughly 2 million years of age.

Following its discovery in the 1930s, the site was lost and only found again in 2009. It is well-known for its well-preserved jackal skulls (see the photo below) from the Plio-Pleistocene period, which occurred at least 2 million years ago.

The area around Minnaar’s Cave was first used as a lime mine in the early 20th century. A lime burning kiln from this era is still there on the site. Palaeontologist Robert Broom first came upon Minnaar’s Cave while searching for hominid fossils in the (former) Transvaal region between 1936 and 1939, but Broom only gave a vague description of its location: “a cave about a mile away from Sterkfontein.” Broom discovered 148 specimens at Minnaar’s Cave, including a fossilized Thos antiquus (jackal) skull (see below) that has been assigned as the species’ type specimen, despite the fact that palaeontologists are unsure of the species’ precise origin. Researchers attempted to rediscover the site multiple times over the following decades, but they were unsuccessful due to unclear field data and description. Several sources claim that Minnaar’s Cave is near Sterkfontein to the north, west, and east. Hadeco, a different location, was thought to be Minnaar’s Cave, but this theory was rejected since Hadeco was too far from Sterkfontein.

In August 2009, a team led by Dr Dominique Gommey and Dr Frank Senegas from the CNRS (Sorbonne University/Museum national d’Histoire naturelle) and Mr Lazarus Kgasi, and Ms Stephany Potze (former DITSONG employee) from DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History investigated a site on private property because it fit descriptions of Minnaar given by Broom and later by researchers; it was situated just north of Sterkfontein and produced fossils that were similar to those listed in the 1930s. Analysis of breccia blocks taken there led to the finding of the long-forgotten Minnaar’s Cave.
The majority of the Minnaar specimens are housed at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.


Arial view of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Area.

 

Type of Thos antiquus (now Canis mesomelas) from Minnaar – TM 1582.

 


Skull of Canis mesomelas -TM 1583.

 


Original drawing of TM 1583 by R. Broom.

 


Human Origins and Past Environments Research Unit (HRU) team at Minnaar’s. L-R: Ms S Potze (former DITSONG employee), Dr F. Senegas from CNRS and Mr L. Kgasi from DNMNH.

 

Most of the historical specimens that were found in Minnaar’s Cave are still embedded in breccia blocks. The nine breccia blocks were collected from the site by the HRU team with the permission of the landowner and the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), and they were processed at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History using 6% acetic acid. The surface of the breccia blocks appeared to be particularly rich in microfauna, however, no recognizable pieces were found, and the assemblage only contained postcranial remains of small mammals. Up to now, the breccia has produced primates, carnivores, and bovids. The DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History is a repository to Minnaar’s fossils including sites like Bolt’s Farm cave system, fossils from Kromdraai, Cooper’s cave, Swartkrans, Sterkfontein, Gondolin, Haasgat, Luleche, Plover’s lake, and Taung.

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