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Sterkfontein (South Africa)


Sterkfontein, South Africa

Sterkfontein, South Africa

Thomas Sly (c) 2006

The ancient archaeological site of Sterkfontein is a network of caves in a dolomite hill of the Blaaubank River Valley, about 10 kilometers northwest of Krugersdorp, South Africa.

The site was quarried as early as the late 19th century, and several fossil apes were discovered in the early decades of the 20th century. In the 1930s, excavations recovered fragments of hominids, eventually assigned to the Australopithecus africanus family. Since its discovery, deposits of Sterkfontein have included hundreds of hominid specimens, including Homo, Paranthropus, and Australopithecus.

Dating Sterkfontein

Dating Sterkfontein's deposits has proven to be particularly difficult. Dates for the deposits range between 2 and 5 million years ago. The cave is complicated, with multi-level, multi-period system and active rooms which are continuously building new spaces and undermining older deposits.

Nevertheless, recognized artifact layers within the cave deposits have been identified, including Acheulean and Oldowan membeers. Paleomagnetic investigations of these layers suggest a likely age of 1.32 million years for the Oldowan and 1.13 million years for the Acheulean.

Mrs. Ples and Australopithecines at Sterkfontein

In the 1940s, Robert Broom excavated in the site, and found the nearly entire skull of an adult Australopithecine called Mrs. Ples. Several other fossils of this species have been identified since, and some scholars argue that at least one Australopithecus sediba is among them. Australopithecus in Sterkfontein date between 2.5 and 2.8 million years ago. The A. sediba, if that's what it is, may be ca. 2 million years old.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Lower Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Avery DM. 2001. The Plio-Pleistocene vegetation and climate of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, South Africa, based on micromammals. Journal of Human Evolution 41:113–132.

Carrion JS, and Scott L. 1999. The challenge of pollen analysis in paleoenvironmental studies of hominid beds: The record from Sterkfontein caves. Journal of Human Evolution 36:401-408.

Herries AIR, and Shaw J. 2011. Palaeomagnetic analysis of the Sterkfontein palaeocave deposits: Implications for the age of the hominin fossils and stone tool industries. Journal of Human Evolution 60(5):523-539.

Kuman K. 1994. The archaeology of Sterkfontein--Past and present. Journal of Human Evolution 27:471-495.

Partridge TC, Shaw J, Heslop D, and Clarke RJ. 1999. The new hominid skeleton from Sterkfontein, South Africa: age and preliminary assessment. Journal of Quaternary Science 14(4):293-298.

Pickering TR, Dominguez-Rodrigo M, Egeland CP, and Brain CK. 2004. Beyond leopards: Tooth marks and the contribution of multiple carnivore taxa to the accumulation of the Swartkrans Member 3 fossil assemblage. Journal of Human Evolution 46:595-604.

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