The Makapan’ Caves are situated in a valley on the farm Makapansgat, 23km northeast of Mokopane (Potgietersrus). They are of the greatest historical and scientific importance. Visitors are allowed on the sites only if they have a permit from the Bernard Price Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. The history of the caves is closely related to the events described in connection with Moorddrif. The caves have been proclaimed a historical monument and part of the valley in which they are located is now a natural and scientific monument.
According to Pretorius, the caves were 600m long and between 150 and 200m wide. These limestone caves, which communicated with one another and really formed one enormous cave, which had two entrances in a cliff overlooking a steep kloof; these Makapan fortified by means of rough walls of stone. Makapan thought he and his followers would survive on the natural water and the supplies of grain brought with them. Ensconced in the caves and protected by them as well as by cross-walls and dark passages, they were in a position to beat off any attack so the Boers decided not to risk an attack but to besiege the cave.
It was during this siege that Pieter Potgieter, venturing too near the entrance, was shot and fell into the trench where a defender was hiding. Field-cornet Paul Kruger then aged 29, coolly ignoring the danger to himself, went in under heavy fire, which also gave a smoke screen, and rescued the body of his leader.
After a siege of 25 days the defenders were so reduced by starvation that the Boers were able to take the cave with little trouble and the tribe was practically exterminated.
Many years after these dramatic happenings, more peaceful events brought even greater fame to the Makapan’s Caves and others in the vicinity. It was discovered that they contain deposits of great scientific importance.
The cave known as the Cave of Hearths adjoins the historic cave and indeed at one stage was a part of it. Prehistoric men occupied it in very early times. The deposits accumulated as a result of many thousands of years of human occupation. Scientific excavations in these deposits by the Archaeological survey revealed one of the most complete series of archaeological remains known, in which successive periods are represented and documented by stratified layers.
The earliest inhabitants of the Cave of Hearths were men of the Early Stone Age who specialized in making hand-axes, cleavers and other relatively large tools. They were eventually forced by extensive rock falls to vacate the cave. When a period of instability ended Middle Stone Age men who practiced the Pietersburg Culture took possession of the cave and lived in it until later Stone Age people who were probably akin to the Bushman in turn succeeded them. When these people abandoned the cave, people who were familiar with the art of making pottery and smelting and working metals, the Bantu, occupied it.
About one kilometer below the Makapan’s Caves and the Cave of Hearths are the caves known as ‘the lime works’. Here the original caves were filled with dripstone and stalagmite formations as well as breccias like those found at Sterkfontein. These deposits were exploited on a large scale for the manufacture of lime. After the lime-works had closed down Professor Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand was able to undertake extensive scientific researche in collaboration with the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research and the Archaeological Survey.
Unfortunately the public cannot be permitted to visit the caves. Not only are the caves extremely dangerous on account of the possibility of serious rock-falls, but they are seriously infested with the fungus or mold which causes cave sickness – an illness which has already been contracted by several of the scientists who have worked in them.