Palaeomagnetic analysis of the Sterkfontein palaeocave deposits: Implications for the age of the hominin fossils and stone tool industries Academic Article uri icon


  • Palaeomagnetic analysis was conducted on speleothems from Members 1-5 at Sterkfontein Cave, South Africa. Palaeomagnetic analysis of siltstone and speleothem from the bulk of Member 4 indicate a reversed magnetic polarity that dates the deposits and its Australopithecus africanus fossils to between 2.58 and ~2.16 Ma. Further confirmation of this age comes in the form of two short normal polarity events correlated to the Rèunion (~2.16 Ma) and Huckleberry Ridge (~2.05 Ma) events in speleothem capping the bulk of Member 4 and coeval with deposition of the final phase of Member 4, including A. africanus fossil Sts 5. At ~2.16-2.05 Ma, Sts 5 is the youngest representative of A. africanus yet discovered. Palaeomagnetic analysis of the Silberberg Grotto deposits identifies a single short geomagnetic field event in flowstone overlying the StW 573 Australopithecus fossil, which is suggested to represent the Rèunion event at ~2.16 Ma. This further supports the uranium lead age estimates of 2.3-2.2 Ma for the StW 573 fossil. Based on a reversed polarity for the deposits below the skeleton it cannot be older than 2.58 Ma. If StW 573 is considered to be a second species of Australopithecus then this indicates that two species of Australopithecus are present at Sterkfontein between 2.6 and 2.0 Ma. All of the Member 5 deposits date to less than 1.8 Ma based on a comparison of palaeomagnetic, faunal, and electron spin resonance age estimates. The StW 53 fossil bearing infill (M5A) is intermediate in age between Member 4 and the rest of Member 5 (B-C) at around 1.78-1.49 Ma. The rest of Member 5 (B-C) containing Oldowan and Acheulian stone tools and Homo and Paranthropus fossils was deposited gradually between 1.40 and 1.07 Ma, much younger than previously suggested.

publication date

  • May 2011