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Magaliesberg excavasion site where Mrs Ples was found

About the Magaliesberg

An Overview of the Magaliesberg

For those interested in where The Feathered Nest is close to, read this article. It is also available on Wikipedia with all its relative links and references.

FYI: Magaliesburg = the town and Magaliesberg = the mountain range

The Magaliesberg is a mountain range extending from Pretoria in the north of the Gauteng Province to a point south of Pilanesberg, in the North West Province, South Africa (see also Pilanesberg National Park). The highest point of the Magaliesberg is reached at Nooitgedacht (1 852 metres).


The Magaliesberg Mountain Range has a very long geological history. Its quartzites, shales, chert and dolomite were deposited as sediments in an inland basin on top of the 3 billion year old Archaean Basement Complex. This process of sedimentation lasted for about 300 million years. About 2 billion years ago a massive upwelling of molten magma resulted in what is now known as the Bushveld Igneous Complex. The enormous weight of this intrusion depressed the sediments that lay beneath and tilted the sediments along the edges so that the broken scarps faced outward and upward,and the gentler dip slopes inward. During the same period these sediments were fractured and igneous intrusions of dolerite filled the cracks. With the passage of time these intrusions eroded, especially on the dip slopes, forming deep kloofs or ravines providing excellent rock-climbing potential to modern man. This large dogbone-shaped area is now termed the Transvaal Basin and includes the lofty escarpment of the Transvaal Drakensberg overlooking the Lowveld in the eastern part of the country. Massive outpourings of igneous material of the much younger Karroo System later covered the Transvaal Basin, but this was subsequently eroded so that it only remains along the Transvaal Basin's southern rim.

Rising 330 m above the surrounding plains, the Magaliesberg is the most conspicuous of the three parallel quartzite ridges dominating the landscape north of Johannesburg. With a length of about 170 km it stretches in an arc from just south of Rustenburg to Pretoria and then eastwards to the Bronkhorst Dam, forming a natural divide between the highveld and the bushveld. Dissected by numerous kloofs with crystal-clear streams, waterfalls and pools, the range is home to over 150 bird species, including three breeding colonies of the Cape vulture and a variety of other raptors, kingfishers, crimsonbreasted shrike, the elusive African finfoot and the Marico flycatcher. Animals occuring here include leopard, brown hyaena, mountain reedbuck. bushbuck, klipspringer and baboon. Although the Magaliesberg is almost entirely private property, most of the range was declared a Natural area in 1977 and a Protected Natural Environment in 1993.


The range forms a natural barrier between the lower lying Bushveld to the north and the cooler Highveld to the south. The range receives rainfall in summer in the form of thunderstorms, with an average of 650mm annually. In winter frost occurs frequently in the valleys on the southern side of the mountain, but almost never on the northern slopes.


The area around the Magaliesberg range has seen extremely lengthy occupation by humans dating back at least 2 million years to the earliest hominin species (such as Mrs Ples) in and around the Sterkfontein Caves, which lie at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, close to the town of Magaliesburg.

The later inhabitants of the mountain range called them the Kashan mountains, but the name was later changed to Magaliesberg after the Tswana chief Magali who ruled his tribe at the same time the Voortrekkers were entering this area. In the nineteenth century, explorers such as David Livingstone and William Cornwallis Harris traversed the area and made contact with some of the tribes living there.

In 1822 Shaka sent his most trusted commander, Mzilikazi, to conquer the Sotho tribes of the region. After accomplishing this task, Mzilikazi decided to break away from Shaka and found his own nation, the Matabele. As he feared an attack from Shaka if he returned home he settled in the Magaliesberg regions.

On 17 January 1837, after some Voortrekkers had been attacked and killed by Mzilikazi's impis they counter-attacked and, under the leadership of Hendrik Potgieter and Gerrit Maritz, drove the Matabeles north across the Limpopo River. The Boers subsequently settled in the valleys of the Magaliesberg Range and turned the region into some of the most productive farmland in South Africa.

The area saw some heavy fighting during the Second Anglo-Boer War. The Boers, being extremely familiar with the mountains, used secret pathways across the mountains to launch guerrilla attacks on the British soldiers. In response, the British forces built blockhouses on top of the mountains in order to restrict the movement of the Boer forces; ruins of these structures are still to be seen on the mountain.

Control of the Magaliesberg Mountain Range was of great importance to both the Boer and the British forces, especially the two routes between Pretoria and Rustenburg, which crossed it at Silkaatsnek and Kommandonek, respectively. As a result many battles, such as the battles of Buffelspoort, Nooitgedacht and Olifantsnek were fought in the area.

After the war, farms in the area were reoccupied and farming was resumed, tobacco and citrus being particularly successful.

In 1923 the Hartbeespoort Dam, situated in one of the valleys of the range, was completed. It became a popular holiday and weekend destination for the inhabitants of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the villages of Hartbeespoort and Kosmos developed as a result.

At present the Magaliesberg area is still largely agricultural, although tourism is a rapidly growing industry in the area.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve is a nature reserve above Rustenburg covering 4257ha of the Magaliesberg. Numerous smaller reserves, private and state, are to be found along the length of the range.

Sterkfontein (Afrikaans for Strong Spring) is a set of limestone caves of special interest to paleo-anthropologists located in Gauteng province, Northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa near the town of Krugersdorp. The archaeological sites of Swartkrans (Afrikaans for Black Cliff) and Kromdrai (Afrikaans for Crooked Turn) (and the Wonder Cave) are in the same area.

A number of early hominid remains have been found at the site over the last few decades. Sterkfontein was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000 and the area in which it is situated, was named the Cradle of Humankind.

Modern excavation of the caves began in the late 1890s by limestone miners who noticed the fossils and brought them to the attention of scientists. It was not until 1936 that students of Professor Raymond Dart and Dr. Robert Broom from the University of the Witwatersrand began concerted excavations.

These excavations revealed many early hominids. In 1936, the Sterkfontein caves yielded the first adult Australopithecine, substantially strengthening Raymond Dart's claim that the skull known as the Taung child (Australopithecus africanus) was a human ancestor. There was a pause in excavation during World War II, but after the war Dr. Broom continued excavations. In 1947 he found the almost complete skull of an adult female Australopithecus africanus (or possibly that of an adolescent male). Broom initially named the skull Plesianthropus transvaalensis (near-man from Transvaal), but it became better known by its nickname, Mrs. Ples. Mrs. Ples is estimated to be between 2.6 and 2.8 million years old placing it in the Pliocene. In 1997 a near complete skeleton of an early hominid was found in the caves by Ronald J. Clarke; extraction of the remains from the surrounding breccia is ongoing. The skeleton was named Little Foot, since the first parts found (in 1995, in storage) were the bones of a foot; it is estimated to be 3.3 million years old.

Excavations continue to this day and finds now total some 500 hominids, making Sterkfontein the richest site in the world for early hominids.

The Palaeo-Anthropology Scientific Trust (PAST), a non-profit trust fund established in 1994, sponsors over 90% of the research undertaken at Sterkfontein and was instrumental in its nomination as a World Heritage Site.

The Cradle of Humankind is a World Heritage Site first named by UNESCO in 1999, about 50 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa in the Gauteng province. This site currently occupies 183 square miles (474 kmĀ²); it contains a complex of limestone caves, including the Sterkfontein Caves, where the 2.3-million year-old fossil Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed "Mrs. Ples") was found in 1947 by Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson, as well as the Wonder Cave. The find helped corroborate the 1924 discovery of the juvenile Australopithecus africanus skull, "Taung Child", by Raymond Dart, at Taung in the North West Province of South Africa, where excavations still continue.

History of discoveries

In 1935 Robert Broom found the first ape-man fossils at Sterkfontein and began work at this site. In 1938 a young schoolboy, Gert Terrblanche, brought Raymond Dart fragments of a skull from nearby Kromdraai which later were identified as Paranthropus robustus. Also in 1938 a single ape-man tooth was found at the Coopers site between Kromdraai and Sterkfontein. In 1948 the Camp-Peabody Expedition from the United States worked at Bolts Farm and Gladysvale looking for fossil hominids but failed to find any. Later in 1948 Robert Broom identified the first hominin remains from Swartkrans cave. In 1954 C.K. "Bob" Brain began working at sites in the Cradle including Coopers and he soon would initiate his three decade work at Swartkrans cave which would result in the recovery of the second largest sample of hominid remains from the Cradle. The oldest controlled use of fire was also discovered at Swartkrans and dated to over 1 million years ago.

In 1966 Phillip Tobias began his excavations of Sterkfontein which are still ongoing and are the longest continuously running fossil excavations in the World. In 1991 Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand discovered the first hominid specimens from the Gladysvale site making this the first new early hominid site to be discovered in South Africa in 48 years. In 1994 Andre Keyser discovered fossil hominids at the site of Drimolen. In 1997 Kevin Kuykendall and Colin Menter of the University of the Witwatersrand found two fossil hominid teeth at the site of Gondolin. Also in 1997, the near-complete Australopithecus skeleton of "Little Foot", dating to around 3.3 million years ago (although more recent dates suggest it is closer to 2.5 million years ago), was discovered by Ron Clarke. In 2001 Steve Churchill of Duke University and Lee Berger found early modern human remains at Plovers Lake. Also in 2001 the first hominid fossils and stone tools were discovered in-situ at Coopers.

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