I had a marvelous opportunity on Friday to again experience the peace and quiet of the Cradle of Humankind; I'm sure God lives there. This time I was able to be present - behind-the-scenes - as a new fossil exhibition was set up. Getting up close and personal (yes, the covers were taken off!) with these magnificent fossils is, excuse the cliché, nothing short of awe-inspiring. The perfectly preserved, few million year-old teeth were what really did it for me... God is undoubtedly in the most intricate details of our Creation.
Yes, the vaults have been opened and original fossils of both Paranthropus and early Homo – what scientists believe to be our direct ancestors and which coexisted in the Cradle of Humankind about 2-million years ago – are seeing the light of day in a new, fascinating exhibition entitled Paranthropus in Context just opened at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site's visitor centre, Maropeng.
"These fossils only very rarely go on display – some have only been displayed a few times since their discovery," says the visibly excited Maropeng Curator, Lindsay Marshall.
Marshall explains that Paranthropus is currently at the centre of some major scientific debate.
"Although at Swartkrans (in the Cradle of Humankind) there is fossil evidence of Paranthropus robustus as well as Homo ergaster, which have been found along with fossils of baboons, leopards, sabre-toothed cats, hyenas and antelope, scientists have traditionally thought that Paranthropus was not capable of tool-making, and that only hominids belonging to the Homo genus, were toolmakers. Now, this assumption is being challenged."
Marshall says that University of the Witwatersrand paleontologist Dr Lucinda Blackwell suggests that Paranthropus may have made these tools: "Blackwell's research suggests that indeed, Paranthropus was using bone tools to extract termites, a rich source of protein, and the fact that they might have been making the bone tools does not reflect a species that is as inferior as previously thought."
Marshall emphasises that these questions and others will be scrutinised in the display: "You are able to see real hominid fossils, which are normally kept locked away from the public eye."
In September, Marshall - who has a BA Honours Archaelogy and a Postgraduate Diploma in Heritage Studies - approached Wits University (part of the Maropeng Public Private Partnership), the Northern Flagship Institution (NFI) and the Transvaal Museum (part of the NFI), to discuss doing a collaboration for the display.
"Setting up this exhibition was straightforward because everyone collaborating was very enthusiastic about having this material on display," she explained. It seems that the most complex aspect of this process was having to organise a secured armed escort for the material: "As it is hominid material and seldom out of the vaults where it is stored, we had to guarantee as safe a passage as possible."
Marshall, who is passionate about sharing this incredible heritage with the general public, says this opportunity to put hominid material on display was very exciting: "I'm very proud of this exhibition. It is the first time we are putting so much emphasis on a display, so it is my hope that we will grow and learn from here and the displays will just get better and better."
She explains that the first ever Paranthropus robustus was discovered at Kromdraai in 1938, where it was coexisting with another hominid species Homo ergaster, from which humans are directly evolved.
"So instead of a linear evolutionary line it rather looks like a tree or bush with some of the branches snapping off, as is the case of Paranthropus who eventually died out."
Thanks to generous loans from the Transvaal Museum (part of the Northern Flagship Institution) and the University of the Witwatersrand's Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research, visitors will be able to view these magnificent fossil specimens up close from 6 December 2008 to 6 March 2009.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, not to be missed," Marshall emphasised.
The 47000 hectare Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COH WHS), situated 45 minutes north-west of Johannesburg, is a scientific treasure house containing valuable information about the human family, as well as early human and cultural development.
Gauteng's premier tourist destination, the Cradle of Humankind is one of eight World Heritage Sites in South Africa, and the only one in Gauteng.
Just by the way, Maropeng, the world class official visitor centre for the COH WHS, won the South African tourism sector's most prestigious award, namely 'Best Tourist Attraction' at the third annual Welcome Awards at Indaba earlier this year.