Plio-Pleistocence Palaeontology Collection

GENERAL

The Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology section is one of the largest collections of its nature in the country. The collection is comprised of hominin fossils from Cooper’s, Kromdraai (the type specimen of Paranthropus robustus), Sterkfontein (including the popular Mrs Ples fossil) and Swartkrans. The section prides itself in curating one of the most comprehensive fossil faunal collections from the fossil sites of Bolt’s Farm, Cooper’s, Gondolin, Hoogland, Kromdraai, Plover’s Lake, Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, all of which fall within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage area. This faunal collection plays a vital role in reconstructing and understanding the environments in which our hominin ancestors lived.

CHEMICAL PREPARATION LABORATORY

The museum boasts the largest chemical preparation facility for Plio-Pleistocene breccia material in the world and the only one in South Africa. Lazarus Kgasi directs work in the laboratory and has made an art of this process. Material currently undergoing chemical preparation is from the fossil sites of Bolt’s Farm, Hoogland and Swartkrans. Work is also being carried out on some of the Kromdraai material and future work involves Haasgat and Minnaar’s (pending on permit applications).

HISTORY

In 1911 Dr E.C.N. van Hoepen was appointed as the first staff member in Palaeontology at the museum. Van Hoepen built up the Karoo fossil collection but in 1922 moved to take on a position at the National Museum in Bloemfontein. During this time Dr Robert Broom, a Scottish medical practitioner, established himself as an international authority on the evolution of mammals from reptiles, based on fossil material discovered in the Karoo. In 1934, on instruction of General Smuts, a post was created for Broom at the museum. This happened a decade after Prof. Raymond Dart from the University of the Witwatersrand described the hominin child skull from Taung, Australopithecus africanus, or more popularly known as the Taung Child.

Broom set himself the task at the museum of finding more of these hominin fossils and was successful in 1936 at Sterkfontein caves near Krugersdorp with the discovery of an adult specimen. Broom’s work at Sterkfontein produced several significant discoveries which established australopithecines as distant ancestors of humans. During this time Broom also discovered a new species of hominin, Paranthropus robustus, at Kromdraai which is situated 2 km east from Sterkfontein. This time was the start of the museums involvement in Plio-Pleistocene Palaeontology, for which it has become an internationally renowned centre.

In 1947 Broom was 81 years of age and it was also the year John T. Robinson joined as a staff member in Palaeontology. This was also the year that Broom, along with Robinson’s assistance, discovered the most complete skull of a hominin, which was to become known as ‘Mrs Ples’. In 1948 Broom and Robinson participated in new excavations at Swartkrans where an abundance of hominin fossil remains of Paranthropus robustus was discovered along with early members of the genus Homo – this was the first time this coexistence of two species at one locality was demonstrated. Broom passed away in 1951, but Robinson continued work on hominin studies. In 1954 Dr C.K. (Bob) Brain joined the museum. Robinson left the museum to take on a position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1963. In the early 1960’s Brain worked at the National Museums of Rhodesia, but returned in 1965 to head Palaeontology at the museum. Brain re-investigated the fossil bearing locality of Swartkrans, a task to which he devoted 21 years, and the results of this work provided a wealth of information on early hominins and their environments. During the late 1960’s, Elisabeth Vrba completed her Ph.D. project on the museums fossil antelope collection and worked at the museum until 1987, when she left to work at Yale University. Vrba was succeeded by Dr Francis Thackeray who came to the museum in 1990, and whose interests were on past climate change and reconstruction of past diets from isotopic studies. Thackeray was also responsible for excavations at Plover’s Lake, a fossil site near Kromdraai, and re-investigated Kromdraai itself. In 2009 he left to take on the position of Director of the Institute of Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand. Currently the position at the museum has not been filled.

COLLABORATIONS

In 2000 the museum established HOPE (Human Origins & Past Environments) along with colleagues from France. A decade later this collaboration is still going strong with the HOPE Research Unit (HRU) currently working at the fossil site of Bolt’s Farm. Dr Dominique Gommery (primates & carnivores), Dr Frank Sénégas (micromammals) and Dr Sandrine Prat (hominins) from the CNRS in Paris France, form part of the HRU team. The museum has also been in working in close collaboration with Dr Justin Adams from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. Dr Adams, a palaeontologist specialising in Neogene mammal evolution with a focus on fossils from South Africa, has been working with us at the fossil locality of Hoogland and we have recently applied for a permit to resume excavations at the Haasgat site. Also from the United States, Dr Travis Pickering (University of Wisconsin – Madison) and Dr Jason Heaton (Birmingham Southern College, Alabama) have been working closely with the museum and are currently undertaking excavations at Swartkrans which continue to add to our existing Swartkrans collection, which is the biggest in the section comprising of over 50,000 specimens.

RESEARCH / COLLECTION VISIT

Those interested in researching the collection should email the curator in charge, Stephany Potze (potze@ditsong.org.za) with a detailed project proposal explaining their research intentions along with a completed and attached the visitor’s form, and the curator will reply to you ASAP regarding your application. PUBLIC TOURS The section also offers “Meet Mrs Ples” tours which concentrate on human evolution with a visit to the hominin vault, allowing you an opportunity to meet your distant ancestor in person as it were. As these tours involve seeing the original fossil specimens, a booking needs to be made in advance to avoid disappointment in the event the fossils are being studied. Please contact the staff to arrange a tour.

CASTS

A cast catalogue is available for those interested in purchasing casts of fossil specimens curated by the museum. The section’s operating hours are from 7:00 until 15:30.

Museum of Natural History

National Museum of Natural HistoryThe Ditsong National Museum of Natural History formerly known as the Transvaal Museum was founded as the Staatsmuseum of the ZAR on the 1st of December 1892.

And it has, since then acted as custodian and documentation centre of South Africa’s natural heritage.The Museum’s collections and exhibits include hominid fossils from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and associated fauna, including Mrs Ples [the nickname attributed to a fossil skull believed to represent a distant relative of all humankind]; fossils, skeletons, skins and mounted specimens of amphibians, fish, invertebrates, reptiles and mammals. On these collections are based the Museum’s educational programmes, research is done and information is communicated to all people of South Africa as well as to the international community.

The Ditsong National Museum of Natural History is the only natural history museum in Gauteng and one of the largest in South Africa. It is unique in that it is the only institute in South Africa that offers the local, national and international community the opportunity to view its collections including original fossil material usually denied the public.

Tours


Educational Programmes

A comprehensive series of programmes and conducted tours is offered to schools, students and tourists in various South African languages. All education programmes are aligned to CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement). Booking is essential to participate in these activities. Please use e-mail to contact us while our phone system is being upgraded – bongi@ditsong.org.za.

Discovery Centre

A hands-on activity centre, where the five human senses are used to discover the wonders of nature, offering an invaluable educational adventure. It affords easy access for wheelchairs and display texts are also transcribed in Braille. This centre is ideal for younger learners that are eager to explore with their hands.

Public Programmes

Throughout the year talks are held at the Museum by various established researchers and scientists. Please check back regularly with the “Upcoming events” page or contact the Public Programmes Department.

Museum View


Publications


The Ditsong National Museum of Natural History researchers, as well as scientists from other institutions doing research can submit scientific papers to the annals. The major publications are the Annals of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History and the Monograph series.

The Museum has exchange agreements with a large number of scientific institutions, both abroad and in South Africa and 342 copies of the Annals of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History and 280 copies of the Monographs of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History are distributed annually. Up to 2010 the annals were known as the Annals of the Transvaal Museum. For quality control of documents, articles, news releases and reports, please contact: Dr Martin Krüger at kruger@ditsong.org.za

 Admission Fees


Prices for Adults, Learners, Senior Citizens and Discovery Centre

ADMISSION FEES:

Adults
R35.00 p/p
Learners and Children
R20.00 p/p
SA Senior Citizens
R15.00 p/p
Students
R20.00 p/p
Educators
R20.00 p/p
Discovery Centre
R25.00 p/p
Behind the scenes tour
R50.00 p/p
Night tour
R100.00 p/p
Discovery + Museum
R40.00 p/p
Guided tour
Additional R5 to approporiate tariff

Contact Information


Physical Address:
432 Paul Kruger Street Pretoria 0001

GPS Coordinates:
S 25° 45’ 11.2” E 28° 11’ 21.6”

Contact numbers:
012 492 1358
012 492 5708 – from March 2018
Admission: Daily:
08:00 – 16:00
(Except Christmas Day and Good Friday)

Learn more