The Cradle of Humankind

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How do we tell better stories of our past? This question motivated my wife’s sabbatical trip. She was particularly interested in how we tell better stories of the more difficult parts of our past. So, our journey took us to post-Apartheid South Africa, post-Holocaust Germany (and Netherlands), and post-The Troubles Northern Ireland. We learned a lot about histories of these places, the contemporary challenges people face, and how they tell their stories past and present. I look forward in the coming months to see how this informs my wife’s ministry. (And I am grateful to the Lilly Endowment for supporting it through the Clergy Renewal grant program.)

While in South Africa, the first non-travel day of our six-week trip, we went to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site. This was a story that fascinates me—the story of our human origins as told by the remarkable collection of paleoanthropological finds about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg.

There I found fascinating details to a story that Science for the Church is eager to tell. It is a story told by both science and Scripture: not only are we one in Christ, all bearers of God’s image, but every human being shares 99.9 percent of our DNA. To use the words from the Cradle of Humankind’s website, “our collective umbilical cord lies buried” in Africa.  It is a story about the unity of humankind.

The Significance of South Africa for Humankind

Scientists have found the largest concentration of hominid remains in the limestone caves of the Cradle of Humankind. Back in 1935, Robert Broom found fossils that resembled both apes and humans. With John T. Robinson in 1947, Broom uncovered one of the most perfect pre-human skulls ever found. The Australopithecus africanus skull, named Mrs. Ples (Mrs. Ples was probably a Mr.), was just the first of many significant encounters in the 180-square-mile site.

After many years of additional finds, in 1997, a nearly complete Australopithecus fossil was discovered at the site. Dubbed Little Foot, it took nearly 20 years to separate the fossil from concrete-like stone. Both Mrs. Ples and Little Foot are over 2.5 million years old (some dating suggests they are over 3 million years old).

These finds came from the Sterkfontein Cave, a cave that back in 2010 accounted for over a third of the early hominid fossils that scientists had uncovered. Sadly, Sterkfontein flooded last fall so we could not enter the cave itself.

Around 2013, scientists began investigating the nearby Rising Star cave system, which has proven to be as fruitful as Sterkfontein. A team of six female cave specialists, small enough to access these caves, recovered over 1,500 hominin specimens. Two years later, lead researcher Lee Berger, announced the discovery of a new hominid species, Homo naledi. Research is still underway to identify new fossils, date the existing ones, catalog specimens, and determine what all these finds in the Cradle of Humankind mean for the story of how Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa.

The Cradle also boasts the discovery of some of the oldest stone tools (2.6 million years ago), early use of fire (1 million years ago), and rock art which, according to archeologist David Lewis-Wiliams, is more numerous, more varied, and older than the better known art in Europe (think Lascaux).

  • Here’s my earlier attempt to describe our common humanity, with multiple resources on the unity of our species.
  • This video series from the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at AAAS was designed to help seminary students understand the scientific story of how we became human.
  • “Little Foot” was examined at a lab where researchers learned fascinating new details about this important specimen.
  • Homo naledi might have been the first Homo species to bury their dead, in the Rising Star caves.
  • This 20-minute video reveals a lot more about the Cradle of Humankind, including footage inside the caves.
  • The curator of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins exhibit talks with BioLogos about paleoanthropology and how persons of faith interact with the story of our origins.
  • The stories we heard in post-Apartheid South Africa and in the science of human origins both inform how we understand race—a topic we have addressed repeatedly over the years.
  • I am available to help you and your church introduce topics like our common humanity. Reach out to me here.

Telling the Story of Our Unity

My purpose here is not to try to unravel the complicated history of our species (and the many extinct hominids that preceded us) or to debate how a Christian should understand a long human evolutionary history. Rather, I was amazed how science informed the way post-Apartheid South Africa is telling its story. Repeatedly, they acknowledged the evolutionary narratives that are informed by South Africa’s many fossils as well the more recent genetic discovery that show that, to use my own words, “despite all the difference and variation we see among humans—we share a common humanity.”

This message of humankind’s unity (and its origin in Africa) was told again and again in our tours. We heard it at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, during our tour of Soweto, at the Ditsong Museum of Natural History and at the Freedom Park Heritage Site in Pretoria, and it was also briefly mentioned in our tour of Robben Island.

In a nation that endured horrible racial oppression and strife, they chose repeatedly to introduce their tragic story of division by noting what all of us share in common—an origin in Africa and genetic similarities that should shatter the racial categories that continue to divide us.

It was inspiring to be reminded of what I shared in common with our Zulu guide taking us to the Cradle of Humankind; all of the figures white, black, and brown whose stories were told in the Apartheid Museum; our Zulu tuk-tuk guide and the many residents of Soweto; and our Xhosa guides on Robben Island, one of whom had been imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela.

I come home from our trip eager to tell this story—the story of our common humanity—through both science and our Christian faith. It is a story we should tell in our churches.

We worshiped at Every Nation Rosebank on Father’s Day, two days after South Africa’s Youth Day. During the service, the teens in the church remembered the school children (and the lives lost) at the start of the Soweto uprising on June 16, 1976. During their video, in a sanctuary that truly represented the diversity of South Africa with my wife and eldest daughters at my side, I felt a surge of emotion as I remembered what I had heard again and again in South Africa. Our unity does not wash away our differences, but it should keep us from repeating the tragic stories of our past.


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