Taung Heritage Site: 17 June 2012

The early hominid fossil site of Taung is one of the ‘Big Five’ Plio-Pleistocene sites in South Africa, and is historically the first australopithecine site to be recognized. The discovery and recognition of the Taung skull fossil is a fascinating story, and is detailed in Raymond Dart’s Adventures with the Missing Link (Dart and Craig, 1959). In December 1924, a crate of breccias blocks (rocks containing fossils) from the lime mine at Taung was delivered to Raymond Dart at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. In it, he discovered a small skull of a juvenile hominin, which became nicknamed “the Taung child”. The fossil preserved much of the facial skeleton, mandible, and endocast (an impression of the brain on the inner surface of the skull). Dart quickly published a report on his find in February 1925 and proposed that it represented a new hominin species, Australopithecus africanus – or ”the Southern ape from Africa” (see photo of the Taung skull). More recent research has determined that the fossil is more than 2 million years old.

In his report, Dart stated “the specimen is of importance because it exhibits an extinct race of apes intermediate between living anthropoids [apes] and man [emphasis original]” (1925, p. 125). At the time, many scientists would not accept that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor and the skull’s significance was largely ignored for several decades. But it was this challenge to Dart’s interpretation of the Taung fossil that led other researchers such as Robert Broom to explore other South African lime mines for further fossil traces of human ancestry.

One of the original published (1925) photos of the Taung Skull in lateral view, showing the facial skeleton to the right, and the brain endocast to the left.

We visited the Taung limeworks near the town of Buxton in the North West province. The site, which was designated a National Heritage Site in 2002 (see plaque photo), is quite large and was an active mine during the 1920s. It was later systematically excavated by paleoanthropologists from the University of California in the 1940s, and from the University of Witswatersrand between 1988 and 1992. Both the mining and excavations resulted in extensive dumps that surround the area of the site from which the skull is thought to derive. However, the exact location at which the skull was found can only be approximately reconstructed from mine records and historical documents – after all, it was only recognized after it arrived in Johannesburg in a wooden crate!

The Taung site is both a National, and World Heritage Site. This plaque provides the essential information about the site, and the Taung Skull fossil.

The Dart and Hrdlička pinnacles, and the monument marking the possible location of the Taung Skull.

How the Taung juvenile died, and became deposited in the fossil record is not certain. One hypothesis is based on taphonomic evidence from the fossil and associated specimens in the deposit, including possible raptor claw marks on the skull. This model suggests that a large bird of prey snatched the child from the air, and the skull was subsequently left below the raptor roost (e.g., Berger and McGraw, 2007). Cases demonstrating this hunting technique by large raptors are documented for other primate species.

Another hypothesis is palaeoenvironmental in nature and is based on deposits of tufa present at the site. Tufa is a calcium-carbonate rock produced when organic matter settles in still or slow-moving water with algal blooms, and builds up into massive deposits over time. Animals may be incorporated into such deposits if they die in or near the water source – thus, it may be that the Taung child died of natural or unknown causes, fell into the stagnant water, settled, and fossilized (McKee, 1993). If the exact location of the deposit from which the Taung fossil was derived were known, these different hypotheses could be tested more rigorously, and a firmer conclusion might be possible.

The Taung site is where the modern field of palaeoanthropology began, because it produced the first early hominid fossils from Africa, a discovery which eventually transformed the field, and our view of our own evolutionary history. For us, it is also significant that the site was located at an old lime mine – and this is one of the reasons that we are currently in the field, attempting to locate other such lime mines in new areas. Who knows what future discoveries these sites might reveal?


Berger, LR and McGraw, WS. 2007. Further evidence for eagle predation of, and feeding damage on, the Taung child. South African Journal of Science 103:496-498.

Dart, RA. 1925. Australopithecus africanus: the man-ape of South Africa. Nature 115:195-199.

Dart, RA and Craig, D. 1959. Adventures with the Missing Link. New York: Harper & Brothers.

McKee, JK. 1993. Formation and geomorphology of caves in calcareous tufas and implications for the study of the Taung fossil deposits. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 48(2):307-322.

-KL Lewton and KL Kuykendall

Boesmansgat, Mt. Carmel Farm, south of Kuruman: 12 June 2012

As we saw in the Gondolin region, a sinkhole is formed when the roof collapses on an underground solution cavity (or cave) in the dolomites. Sometimes these are very large, and may extend deep enough to fill with water, as at Boesmansgat south of Kuruman. This sinkhole does not hold any known fossil deposits, but it is an  excellent (and impressive!) example of the geographic and geologic features of the palaeocaves for which we are searching. It is thought that the water filling Boesmansgat is connected underground to another large water-filled sinkhole about 60km to the north – the Kuruman Eye – which supplies all the water for the local population.

View from the surface of Boesmansgat (roughly translates to “Bushman’s cave”)

Stagnant water fills the underground chambers of Boesmansgat

At least one diver has died trying to reach the bottom of the Boesmansgat sinkhole, which is 274 meters below the surface (some 337 meters when corrected for altitude) leading to the claim that this is the deepest and largest natural sinkhole in the world.

Our interest in Boesmansgat was to learn more about the occurrence of sinkholes on the farms in the area. With local farmers as our guides, we were able to visit several smaller sinkoles to inspect them for fossil deposits and ancient cave formations. We did find some small speleothem (calcite cave formations) occurrences, and one sinkhole led to a large underground chamber.

Surface of the sinkhole

Kristi photographs the sinkhole

Without proper equipment and safety gear, we could not fully explore the underground caverns on this trip, but in the main chamber at a depth of 10-15m we did find some rock breccia, speleothem formations, and recent micro-mammal bone — as well as one deceased tortoise that fell in to this ”animal deathtrap” and was lodged between the rocks! We could not see how deep the chambers extend underground, but there are at least two deeper tunnels that we will explore when we return on a later trip.

We have now learned that several more farms in this region also have sinkholes, so we will pursue those contacts and plan to return for a more extensive survey – in addition to lime mines, we are now also looking for sinkholes!

-KL Kuykendall

Wonderwerk Cave: 10 June 2012

Wonderwerk Cave is located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, near Kuruman in the Kalahari Desert. The cave is a National Heritage Site and is open to the public for tours. Wonderwerk Cave has been studied extensively by archaeologists since the 1940s and has yielded quite a bit of material including Early, Middle, and Late Stone Age tools, decorative objects like beads, cave art, and possible evidence of the earliest controlled use of fire. The history of hominin use of the cave spans ~1 million years, with the cave art being relatively recent (~1000-10,000 years) and evidence of use of fire ~1 Ma.

The cave art depicts elephants, giraffes, ostriches, secretary birds, and various bovids. There is even a ‘chongololo’ (millipede)!

The cave has a long, low ceiling and extends back into the hill about 140 meters.

Excavations are still ongoing, and the majority of the cave is marked by an excavation grid:

View of the Kalahari from the hill above the cave:

-KL Lewton

Kuruman: 10 June 2012

Though located in the middle of the Kalahari on the Ghaap Plateau, Kuruman is a thriving mining community in the Northern Cape Province, and was an important missionary post in the early 1800’s. The Scottish missionary Robert Moffat lived here from 1820-1870, and printed the first bible in Africa. Today the mines in the region produce manganese, iron ore, tiger’s eye, and asbestos, and signs of the importance of the mining industry are everywhere.

Wow! we want one of THOSE for next year’s field season!

We drove an approximately 275-km route via Kuruman – Danielskuil – Postmasburg – Kathu and back to Kuruman intending to locate some of the historic lime mines in our database. Frustratingly, we encountered fenced-off fields, locked farm gates and roads-to-nowhere.

The road to nowhere…

Geologically, the hills in this area are predominated by banded iron formations (or BIFs) which is the source of the iron ore in the region – and we saw many iron mines on our drive – but almost no dolomite, and no lime mines at all! The BIF overlays the carbonate platform (our dolomites!), and we did encounter massive slabs of bedrock dolomite along some of the dirt roads in lower-lying areas.

BIFs in the distance; dolomite in the valley floor

We also visited Wonderwerk Cave, which is an archaeological site occupying a massive solution cave in the dolomites – so all hope is not lost. Our next step is to visit the municipal lands office in Kuruman for contact information about the farms on which the historic lime mines are located.

-KL Kuykendall

Sinkholes: 7 June 2012

We’ve surveyed several caves in the hills near Gondolin. Most of these caves are visible from the surface as sinkholes, which are created when the roof of an underground chamber collapses. The walls of sinkholes can contain any number of geological formations including speleothem (flowstone and dripstone), breccia, sedimentary infill, and the rocks that comprise the regional geology, which in this area are dolomites.

Because caves are formed by erosional processes of underground water movement, vegetation is usually abundant at cave openings. Sometimes it’s so heavily vegetative that it’s difficult to see the sinkhole:

Andy and Kristi collect data at edge of sinkhole

But if you crawl in a bit (mandatory disclaimer: don’t do this at home) you can see the opening and the surrounding rock:

We also found a breccia dump outside this cave. Breccia is a conglomerate rock consisting of cave infill that forms when material–bones, rocks, and vegetation–falls into the cave. In South African fossil sites, the presence of fossils (hominin and other) in breccias is normally attributed to the action of carnivores (eg, leopards) that drag carcasses into trees to devour them without scavengers hanging around. Alternately, some animals might just fall into the sinkhole and subsequently die. The presence of this breccia dump outside the cave indicates that it was a historical lime mine. In the breccia we did find several small fossils, including this beaut:

My thumb for scale.

All in all, a successful day!

-KL Lewton

Project introduction

Since the 1920s, palaeoanthropological fieldwork in South Africa has focused on a handful of fossil-bearing cave sites mostly located in what is now known as the Cradle of Humankind. Our objective is to survey and inventory over 200 other historic mines located in the Malmani Dolomite system throughout the northern region of South Africa. We are using GPS and GIS systems to record the location of these sites and the presence or absence of fossiliferous sediments and other palaeontologically interesting features. Our ultimate goal is to discover new hominin fossil sites to further our understanding of Plio-Pleistocene human evolution.

Our first site visit of this field season was to Gondolin, a 1.7-1.8 Ma palaeocave located in the Northwest Province of South Africa that has previously yielded Paranthropus teeth and various fossilized fauna, including bovids (antelope), equids (horses), and one lagomorph (rabbit) (Adams et al., 2007). The good news is that our field test of our GPS equipment was successful! Part of the site documentation process includes photographic recordings of the site and its features. Here is a photo that demonstrates just how dense the fossils in bone breccias can be:

For more information about our field crew and project partners, please click on the “About” tab.

Adams JW, Herries AIR, Kuykendall KL, Conroy GC. 2007. Taphonomy of a South African cave: geological and hydrological influences on the GD 1 fossil assemblage at Gondolin, a Plio-Pleistocene paleocave system in the Northwest Province, South Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews 26:2526-2543.