JKM Home page The Riddled Chain PEER into your past! JKM credentials

Nestled in the gorgeous Makapansgat valley, near Potgietersrus in South Africa’s Northern Province, is a series of fossil sites. The oldest and best known is the Makapansgat limeworks, with Australopithecus-bearing deposits dating to around 3 million years ago. 



During mining operations in the 1920's, a local mathematics teacher, Wilfred Eitzman, first drew Raymond Dart’s attention to the abundance of fossil bones being blasted out of the cave breccia by limeworkers. Dart published a short note on Makapansgat as an early human occupation site but did not investigate the site thoroughly until 1947, at which time he discovered that a sample of the vertebrate fossils contained free carbon, leading him to speculate that the bones had been intentionally burned by early hominins inhabiting the cave. 

In September 1947, one of Dart’s researchers, James Kitching, discovered the occipital portion of an australopithecine skull on one of the limeworkers’ dumps. Reasoning that this early hominin might have been responsible for some of the burned bones in the deposit, Dart named the new hominin Australopithecus prometheus.

By the mid-1960s however, most workers concluded that the majority of australopithecine fossils previously described as A. prometheus and Plesianthropus (named for Broom’s adult specimen discovered earlier at Sterkfontein) should be included in the single taxon, Australopithecus africanus.

Other important hominin discoveries were made at Makapansgat 1948, including an adolescent mandible, an infant’s right parietal bone, several craniofacial fragments and isolated teeth, and two fragments of an adolescent pelvis. The discovery of the pelvis was critical to paleoanthropological thinking at the time, since it proved conclusively that A. africanus was bipedal.

 At present, 35 hominin specimens (representing about a dozen individuals) have been recovered from the Limeworks site. These included the recent discovery of two mandibular fragments found by the Makapansgat Field School. Thus far the fossil hominins are known only from Members 3 and 4, as judged by the breccia matrix from which they were extracted.


What was the Makapansgat valley like 3 million years ago?  In contrast to the ancient savannah of  Taung, the valley was a rich tropical paradise of biodiversity ... depending on what you call "paradise."  There were many predators and competitors with which Australopithecus had to contend.  The fossils we have of Australopithecus were probably brought into the cave by predators and scavengers.  But from all indications of the fossils, outside the cave (left) was a tropical forest, with more open lands nearby.  Between Taung and Makapansgat, we see the richness of habitats exploited by Australopithecus, one of our early ancestors. 
Makapansgat Member 2 is an exciting new prospect, as the fossils predate the hominin deposits at the site and throughout South Africa.  Whereas Member 2 has not yet yielded any hominin fossils, our pilot excavation demonstrated that the sparsely fossiliferous nature of the deposit is sufficient to produce a good yield of fauna that will aid in the understanding of the paleoecological sequences and geological history of the Limeworks, as well as the rest of the Makapansgat valley sites.


The excavations and research at Makapansgat and Taung are featured in The Riddled Chain.

Click here to find out about the Paleoanthropology Field School at Makapansgat, South Africa.

Further research on the site will be made possible by the PEER fund.

Select References:

Dart R (1925) A note on Makapansgat: a site of early human occupation. S. Afr. J. Sci. 22:454.

KL Kuykendall, CA Toich, and JK McKee (1995). Preliminary analysis of the Fauna from Buffalo Cave, Northern Transvaal, South Africa. Palaeontologia Africana 32:27-32.

Latham, AG, A Herries, P Quinney, A Sinclair, and KL Kuykendall, (1999). The Makapansgat Australopithecine Site from a Speleological Perspective. IN Pollard, A.M. (ed.), Geoarchaeology: exploration, environments, resources. Geological Society, London, special Publications, 165: 61-77.

McKee, J.K. (1999c) The Autocatalytic Nature of Hominid Evolution in African Plio-Pleistocene Environments. African Biogeography, Climate Change, and Early Hominid Evolution, Eds. F. Schrenk & T. Bromage. Oxford University Press, pp. 369-399.

McKee, J.K. (2000) The Riddled Chain – Chance, Coincidence, and Chaos in Human Evolution. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

McKee J, Thackeray J, and Berger L (1995) Faunal assemblage seriation of southern African Pliocene and Pleistocene fossil deposits. Amer. J. Phys. Anthropol. 96:235-250.

Rayner RJ, Moon BP, and Master JC (1993) The Makapansgat australopithecine environment. J. Hum. Evol. 24:219-231.

Reed, K.E. (1996) The Paleoecology of Makapansgat and Other African Plio-Pleistocene Hominid Localities. Ph.D. Dissertation, SUNY at Stony Brook. Ann Arbor: UMI.

Reed, K, Kitching, J, Grine, F, Jungers, W, Sokoloff, L (1993) Proximal femur of Australopithecus africanus from Member 4, Makapansgat, South Africa. Amer. J. Phys. Anthropol. 92:1-15.

Zavada MS, and Cadman A (1993) Palynological investigations at the Makapansgat Limeworks: an australopithecine site. J. Hum. Evol. 25:337-350.


  Home page The Riddled Chain PEER into your past! Jeffrey K McKee's credentials