South Africa’s ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites

South Africa is home to ten United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites, testifying to the country’s wonderful variety across cultural and natural heritage. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites are places of importance to cultural or natural heritage. and with six cultural and four natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, South Africa is a global hotspot for both cultural and natural treasures.

Evidence of early humans at the fossil hominid sites of South Africa: The fossil evidence contained within these sites proves conclusively that the African continent is the undisputed Cradle of Humankind. This site includes the Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs caves, as well as the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site. They create a network of some of the most important fossils in understanding the evolution of early modern humans over the past 3.5 million years. These fossils have allowed archaeologists to identify a range of early humans from more than 4 million years ago. They also show evidence of the domestication of fire by humans and ancient fauna and flora. Despite so much having already been uncovered, the UN believes there is the possibility of finding even more.

A melting pot of habitats in Isimangaliso Wetland Park: This region is where coral reefs, sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lakes, swamps, and wetlands meet and harmonise. The five interlinking ecosystems support a large number of threatened and/or endemic species which continue to adapt and thrive. A few stand-out species include the sea turtles which nest on the sandy shores, and the enormous flocks of flamingos which roost on the edge of the lakes.

The layered history of Robben Island: Robben Island’s history goes back to the 17th century. It was the final resting place of Hadije Kramat in 1755, once housed a leper colony, was a WWII base, and was also, of course, a maximum security prison under the Apartheid era where Nelson Mandela lived out his 25-year sentence.

Relics of all these eras remain and this layering reflects Robben Island’s history. The symbolic value of Robben Island lies in its somber history, as a prison and a hospital for unfortunates who were sequestered as being socially undesirable. This came to an end in the 1990s when the Apartheid regime was rejected by the South African people and the political prisoners who had been incarcerated on the Island received their freedom after many years.

The art and animals of Maloti-Drakensberg Park: The crannies of this enormous range fostered not only widespread plant species, but also provided a place for human expression. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho is home to the largest and most concentrated group of rock art paintings in sub-Saharan Africa. This diverse collection ‘represents the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in this area over a period of 4,000 years.

Relics of an ancient kingdom at Mapungubwe cultural landscape: This site is where you can find the virtually untouched remains of palaces and villages belonging to the largest kingdom to have existed in Africa. This site holds evidence of more than 400 years of social and political life there before it was abandoned in the 14th century due to a drought. This kingdom was at the crossroads of trade routes into southern Africa, making it the most important inland settlement in the region. Archaeological finds attest to this.

Forever-changing Fynbos in the cape floral region protected areas: This site is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. Although it is the smallest of the world’s 6 Floral Kingdoms, it is relatively the most diverse. With 13 clusters spreading out over 1 million hectares collectively, the Cape Floral Region is made up of national parks, nature reserves, wilderness areas, state forests, and mountain areas. All of this is home to the iconic Fynbos vegetation. This vegetation keeps on changing. It has been recognised for its ongoing adaptation to fire and drought, its continued speciation and the new ways in which insects, bird and mammals disperse pollen and seeds.

Delving below the earth’s crust at Vredefort Dome: Just south of Johannesburg lies the biggest and oldest known meteorite impact site in the world. It dates back 2 million years and has a radius of 190km. The impact left layers of the middle and upper zones of the earth’s crust exposed. This makes for accessible, good-quality geological sites to better our understanding of both the earth and meteorites.

Harmony in the Richtersveld cultural and botanical landscape: The Richtersveld Community Conservancy, a communally-owned and managed area, is the only place where the Nama can migrate freely and make sustainable use of the succulent ecosystem. The UN has recognised that the Nama’s lifestyle sustains the biodiversity of the area in a time where this landscape is under threat outside of the protected zone.

Preserving life in the Khomani cultural landscape:  The communal land belonging to the Khomani-San show human adaptation to the desert past and present. This space, part of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, allows them to spread their knowledge of the veld as they see fit. One project has been to record and teach the !UI-Taa languages and the stories, memories and the knowledge it spreads.

Marvel at the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains: Packed into just one mountain range are some of the world’s most pristine examples of meteorite impacts, volcanism, continent shifts and the environment of everyday life. This range is one of the world’s oldest geological structures.