The narrative of life
Although the Vredefort Dome is deservedly famed for its geology, there is aspect of the area that has been little studied – the ancient evolution of life and its more recent history. This section of the website takes up the theme, looking at the accumulating scientific evidence that South Africa, and the Dome in particular, bring to the story of evolution. There are actually three story-lines to be developed about life in the area:
- Archaic life: the emergence of life itself, recorded in the most ancient fossilised rocks or stromatolites. Read more about them here.
- Humankind: the discovery of humanity’s origins in the remains of proto-human skulls and skeletons, as well as diggings revealing Africa’s rich cultural past. Watch this website for more on these topics.
- History: reconstruction of the human record from the “first people” (the Bushmen) through settlements, wars and migrations to modern life. A special interest is Dome Battlefields.
The earliest life forms of which we have a record around the Dome are stromatolites – ancient fossilised bacterial structures – dated between 2.6 and 2.4 billion years ago. This does not make them the oldest traces of life on Earth, which may go as far back as 3.9 billion years, but the stromatolites in this region are significant because they predate the Vredefort blast. There is a debate about whether the course of evolution was changed by the blast.
The story of life encompasses several narratives that have anchor points in this region. Just north of the Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site (WHS) lies the Cradle of Human Kind, also a Unesco WHS. The Cradle is where fossils of some of the earliest human beings have been found in the caves at Sterkfontein and Drimolen, some 45 km west of Johannesburg.
Much of Cradle site is on dolomite – a rock type which is slightly soluble in water – which resulted in the formation of the caves that trapped the bones of animals and early man. In some 200 caves in the area, paleoarchaeologists have found the remains of our ancestors and their stone axes and scrapers. Amazing finds such as “Mrs. Ples” and the lesser-known, but equally significant “Mr Ples” and “Little Foot” have led scientists to suggest that humankind first appeared in this corner of Africa up to 3 million years ago. Fossils of other creatures include those of extinct animals such as short-necked giraffe, giant buffalo, giant hyaena and several species of sabre-toothed cats.
The Vredefort area has no dolomite caves and hence no fossils of the kind dug out at the Cradle, but since the areas are closely adjacent and the landscapes of both would have supported animal and human life, we can assume that early man flourished here too.
The region formed by Johannesburg and Pretoria in the north, Vereeniging in the east and the Vaal River stretching to Kimberley in the west has played an important role in South African history. Agriculturally it is the centre of the “maize triangle” and its mining wealth is based on the greatest concentration of gold on earth. Successive waves of human migration passed across the area for many centuries before modern tribes and white settlers arrived. The Vredefort Dome is in the heart of this culturally and historically rich region. Watch the battlefields and history sections of the website for pages that are being steadily added.