ON SABBATICAL: Everywhere there are graveyards

I also told you I would like to visit graveyards; as recently I've developed a deeper connection with those who have moved on and what better way to connect but to visit the tombs of people I truly admire, respect and love. In fact, on my last day in Davao I went to visit the Davao Memorial Park where the remains of my beloved parents and a brother rest. That was to kick-start the sabbatical year.

Given what I have consciously desired for this sabbatical, you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was that one of the first things that happened as I began my journey in South Africa was to visit a graveyard.

But this is no ordinary graveyard. As this is the graveyard of "Little Foot" and Mrs Ples. Little Foot who? Mrs Ples who? Those who have done basic Archaeology would be familiar with these names and would have immediately gasped upon reading the names. Paleontologists from the University of Witwatersrand (nicknamed Wit) have found their fossils in the place we visited today, a cave known as Sterkfontein.

Little Foot's fossils are believed to be 3.3 million years old while those of Mrs. Ples would be 2.6 million years old.

Sterkfontein – which has now a major museum that includes entering into the huge cave – is in the 47,000-hectare area now referred to as the "Cradle of Humankind" which is a "unique location blessed with a grater wealth of the prehistory of humankind than almost any other place on earth..(consisting of) 13 major fossil sites and dozens of minor ones" according to a brochure available at the on-site museum.

More quotes from the brochure:
"Within the Cradle's 2.6 billion-year-old dolomitic hills lies a series of extensive underground caverns (Reminds me of the huge caverns in Kulaman, Sultan Kudarat). These geological time capsules have preserved thousands of fossil remnants of extinct animals, as well as the bones and cultural remains of our own ancestors, the hominins. (Hominins refer to our bipedal (the ability to walk on two legs) relatives going back to the earliest ape men".

"The story told by the Cradle's fossils is basically this: at some point around three million years ago, a hominin with a blend of ape and human characteristics occupied the Gauteng highveld. This ape man (Australopithecus africanus) was not the earliest hominin discovered in Africa, but may well have been an ancestor of our own genus Homo."

With these findings, this place has the right to claim itself as the Cradle of Humankind. If one visits this site, one is reminded that the ancestors of all humans, wherever they live today, originally came from Africa. Thus, when one visits this site, people are actually "returning to their place of origin".

This is why this place is called Maropeng which in the local language known as Setswana, means – "returning to the place of origin."

With a deep sense of pride, the South Africans assert that "the outline of Africa denotes humankind's origin as a species… (given that) about 6-million years ago in Africa, our hominid ancestors evolved to stand upright, and began walking on two feet, taking their first steps along the path to humanity."

No wonder, Maropeng and the rest of this area has been declared World Heritage Site. At Maropeng is the newly-opened Cradle of Humankind Museum consisting of a huge four-storey building most of which is underground. Less than 20 minutes away, is the Sterkfontein Caves with a guided tour through the caves. Both sites are awe-inspiring with the deep significance of the fossils as well as the impressive blend of science and art aesthetics. One day is too short to fully take in all the sights
and sounds, the data and information, the looking back to billions of years and taking in the challenges of the future.

It was, however, the knowledge that these ancestors were buried here that gripped my heart. Actually, we were not yet allowed to see the fossils of "Little Foot" as the work to extract the stones inside the caves is still ongoing. As for the skull of Mrs Ples it is deposited elsewhere; if I heard the guide clearly, it is still in the Wit University, being examined.

But being right there in the savannah – which consists of undulating hills where once the primal forests were and have since disappeared – where our great ancestors roamed while alive was an experience of a lifetime. I wanted to kiss the ground which now boasts of African wildflowers with orange as their dominant color.

And while climbing up and down the steep alleys of the Sterkfontein Caves (which brought happy memories of being a spelunker in Kulaman) along with 20 other people in our tour group, I couldn't help but imagine how insects, animals and hominids walked the same alleys through the last millions of years.

It was, indeed, a most moving experience. One was constantly in awe; one was wrapped in a prayerful mood. It was truly a pilgrimage, of being in touch with the earliest of human spirits and of seeking a divine explanation to this magnificence.

After all, one gets transported to the Africa of long, long ago, of moons back.

For, indeed, "Africa gave birth in her steamy jungles and great rift valleys and along her pristine coastlines to humankind. You and I, and all our ancestors, can trace back our bloodlines to our common ancestry in the heat, dusty and beauty of this continent."

But one's heart gets broken in this pilgrimage. There are warning signals in the museum reminding us that humans have only been in this planet a fraction of time compared to the whole cosmic reality.

That there have been five periods in earth's history where extinction took place, and right now we are on the sixth with us, humans, taking a major role in making this extinction possible.

As we left the museum, there were a collage of photos that shows wars, pollution, poverty, population explosion (there is a section that makes a count as to the total number of people in the world today which was 6.6 billion and counting) and other man-made calamities that are the clear signs of the extinction process evolving. It made me want to cry at this reality.

In that collage, one could also see easily the scourge of AIDS.

Here in this part of the world where the hominids reached a new level of evolution is also where the pandemic rages.

Everywhere there are graveyards.

I will be visiting more in the days while I am here in South Africa.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” is on a year-long sabbatical since June 30. He wrote this piece on July 10).