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).
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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.