CRADLE OF LIFE: The story of the Magaliesberg and the Cradle of Humankind by Vincent Carruthers. Published by Struik Nature, 2019.
No matter how dedicated a student, how rapid a reader, how enthusiastic an amateur, no one can absorb this amazing accumulation of knowledge in one sitting. Or even three. This is a treasure house - profusely illustrated - of the evolution of life up to the present, as found in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve.
Author and award-winning environmentalist Vincent Carruthers – who has spent his adult life living and working in the Magaliesberg, takes us along a timeline, from the birth of our planet through to the 21st century. What an extraordianary journey he presents, as we unearth the formation of our landscapes, the emergence of life, the rise of humankind. On we go through the Stone and Iron ages, early settlements, migrations, wars and modern developments.
The greater Magaliesberg has a unique geology, history, and biodiversity. Paleontologists, archaeologists, botanists, military historians and environmental lawyers were all among the academics and specialists that Carruthers worked with during his endeavours to get the entire Cradle-Magaliesberg region registered by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. A decade later the proclamation took place in Paris in 2015.
Main chamber Sterkfontein Caves.
The book opens with the birth of our planet, 13,800 million years ago. Fast forward to 3,100 million years ago and we learn about the first landmass, then about The Magaliesberg and the Pretoria Group at mere 2,350 million years back. In the section headed Africa, time moves on to the breakup of Gondwana, mammal and primate evolution at 65 million, and climate change and the spread of grasslands at 15 million years ago.
Humans enter the scene in Part 2, sub-headed Evolutionary Science. The section ends with the arrival of Homo sapiens some 200 000 years ago. Part three deals with the First People populating the world, the Stone age hunter-gatherers, early farming at Broederstroom (1 600 years ago) and the development of cattle economy as recently as 200 years back.
Maropeng Visitor Centre
There’s more detail in the later chapters covering the 19th century, which includes the South African War and revival of Afrikaner nationalism after World War I. Modern developments make the final part, as in engineering (Hartbeespoort dam), and in science (the Leiden telescopes and Hartebeesthoek radio astronomy observatory.)
Carruthers concludes with the sobering thought that human activity is altering many of the evolutionary processes of the planet, including climate, atmospheric conditions, ecosystems and the hydrosphere. In the midst of this evidence (platinum, chrome and manganese mines and urban pollution) the Cradle-Magaliesberg retains much of its rural character and unspoilt natural environment. It is a model to be emulated because of its combination of scientific endeavour, sustainable economic enterprise, environmental responsibility and community development.
A detailed glossary, bibliography and index complete the text.
The back cover describes this book as “spectacular.” To which I would like to add “and awe-inspiring.”