Digging up the secrets of humankind below the belly of a spider


In an arid corner of Gauteng, a giant spider sinks its metal legs into the ground. It won’t move from this spot – not until its purpose has been fulfilled. The arachnid is in fact a complex structure, designed to protect a vertical cave beneath its belly. At first glance, there’s nothing special about the opening in the earth. But it’s here that scientists found fossils dating back nearly two million years, giving us new insight into our origins. To Krynauw Nel, the spider’s creator, Malapa Cave holds even greater significance.

“This site represents our common ancestors,” Nel says. When the architect first encountered the cave, he was humbled by its importance. Nel designed the spider-like cover to protect the fossils, provide shelter for scientists as they work, and allow visitors to view the cave from above. But his greatest accomplishment will be the inevitable disappearance of the structure from the landscape. “I wanted to make a building that could be removed in the future and leave no traces of itself,” Nel says. The preservation of this remarkable site means eventually withdrawing modern human influence. “If you care about something, you’ll do anything to protect it,” Nel says.

Malapa is situated in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site that has had a profound impact on our knowledge of evolution. “Coming here is like taking a journey through the past,” Nel says. The cave is still being excavated, and is only accessible on guided tours provided by the Cradle Boutique Hotel. Even though an off-road vehicle is necessary to get there, every opportunity to be on the site is worth it. When we venture into our history, we can recognise our role in shaping the future. Throughout the aeons that have passed, our understanding of humanity is constantly changing. But one thing is for sure: it all begins on this dusty earth, in this country we call home.