The city of Johannesburg, South Africa was literally built on a gold mine. Much of South Africa’s wealth was amassed through gold and diamond mining that began in the late 1800s, and it was this mining that shaped the social and political landscape for South Africans for generations. Gold mining also led to the discovery of South Africa’s rarest of all treasures: precious objects that are so uncommon and valuable that they have no price tag.
They are housed in two vaults, where they are kept safe behind thick metal doors, only accessible to those who understand their value. These treasures are fossils that tell the story of our shared humanity, our antiquity, and of South Africa’s place in the evolution of ourselves.
There is a place outside Johannesburg known as the Cradle of Humankind. The area, home to nearly a dozen fossil sites, has been named a World Heritage Site and is riddled with caves. It was in these caves that miners first discovered fossils of our ancestors – even though they weren’t looking for them or knew what they were. Quarrymen in the area were digging for travertine or flowstone, a type of limestone that forms when water moves through caves, to use in the process of purifying gold. They also unintentionally blasted out treasure troves of fossils that had been collected and protected in the caves for millions of years.
Some foremen collected these fossils for fun, some ignored them, and some displayed them as decorations on their mantles. In the early 1920s, a fossil skull from a lime mine in a different region in South Africa took a long, circuitous journey to eventually reach the lab of Professor Raymond Dart, an anatomist in the medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
He knew almost immediately what he held in his hands: a toddler from a species that showed characteristics of both humans and our closest ape relatives.
That skull, known as the Taung Child, was the first fossil of a human ancestor identified in Africa. The discovery of that skull, fortuitous as it was, revolutionized our understanding of our own origins, and led to the exploration of the Cradle of Humankind and the discoveries of hundreds of other fossils that help us piece together parts of the mysterious puzzle of how we became human.
Limeworks dumps from miners at sites like Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Sterkfontein in the Cradle became fodder for paleoanthropologists, or scientists studying the evolution of our species. They searched and scoured for pockets of bones that had become fossilized, discovering extinct monkeys, giant hyenas, antelopes that fell prey to leopards, and tantalizing clues to what our ancestors looked like millions of years ago. They discovered an adult of the Taung Child species of Australopithecus, calling her Mrs. Ples (the original genus name, Plesianthropus, wasn’t sexy enough for the newspapers), and skulls representing a lineage of ancestors that eventually went extinct.
But for decades, scientists working in South Africa fought a losing battle: European scientists refused to believe that human ancestors were to be found in Africa.
Among other concerns, the predominantly white, male scientific community could not reconcile their racist views of humanity with an African ancestry for our species. It was anthropologists, in fact, who introduced racism as a “science” first, organizing humans in a hierarchy based on attributes that were only skin-deep. An African origin for humanity upended this hierarchy, muddying what many European scientists grasped at to maintain white supremacy, forcing them to acknowledge that the data they collected and analyzed were biased from the beginning.
In Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, my study abroad students from VCU and I wound our way into the basement of the Ditsong Museum of Natural History to a thick door with a keyhole in the middle. We were escorted by the first black African woman to hold the position of Curator of Plio-Pleistocene Palaeontology, Dr. Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane. Opening the door, she showed us inside to a small room walled with shelves enclosed in glass. She smiled as she pointed out some of the fossil stars protected in this vault, humanity’s most precious treasures, including the bones of Mrs. Ples. She left us there with some of the fossils that eventually helped convince the world that all humans share one ancestry, and that ancestry is in Africa.
My five-year-old daughter has heard some of these stories about fossils and where we come from many times. But this year was the first time she entered the vault with us, and met who we described as her great- great- great-great-great-great-grandmother. A great-grandmother of all humans, an irreplaceable skull of stone through which each one of us can trace our humanity.
A second, newer vault at Wits in Johannesburg is home to the Taung Child and some of the more recent discoveries in the Cradle, including skeletons attributed to an additional species of the genus Australopithecus. Together, these two vaults house the evidence of our evolution, all the fossils of our ancestors that have been discovered in South Africa, the reasons that South Africa is sometimes called the Mother Country.
With all the turmoil, chaos, and complexity in the world today, growing racial tensions in America, and rising nationalism globally, a step into the bone vault reminds us that we all, indeed, share the same origin and humanity.