JOHANNESBURG (AP) - South Africa's economic hub is the very model of a skyscraping major city. But Johannesburg also is a mecca for those with an interest in the pre-modern - the very, very pre-modern.
First stop, the Origins Centre, a museum on the University of Witwatersrand's central Johannesburg campus that uses science and art to trace man's development. Visitors can get details of their own genetic makeup to underline one of the center's themes: that all of us are connected through a common, African ancestor.
Then, a short drive northwest to caves where scientists have discovered the fossilized remains of some of man's earliest relatives, and where the story of evolution is told with the fanfare of a theme park.
If you're not South African, you may never have heard of either spot. The fossils were found in a more than 11,000-acre region declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 that recently underwent a major renovation. The visitors' center, known as Maropeng, opened in 2005 and welcomed 230,000 people in 2008, its best year so far. Most were day-trippers from Johannesburg or Pretoria.
Origins, opened in 2006, averages 1,000 visitors a month, again mostly South Africans. They enter through a garden planted with 700 species used for food, medicine and ritual by the San, the earliest inhabitants of the tip of Africa. Then they pass under a canopy woven from aluminum wire by South African artist Walter Oltman: a deconstructed world map, with Africa at its heart.
A few steps to the right, children will be tempted to pick up a faintly engraved stone the color and size of a faded brick. A sign says it's OK to ''touch.'' The stone is a holograph. Passing a hand through it starts a 3D video of archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood describing finding the stone in South Africa in 1999.
Its fine tracings are believed to be early man's attempts to record and share knowledge - the beginnings of art, books and computers.
Henshilwood's discovery ''completely overturned the idea that culture and the modern human mind developed in Europe,'' said Origins curator Geoff Blundell, who is a social anthropologist and archaeologist. Researchers now believe we began to become who we are 75,000 years ago, in Africa.
Along another hall, visitors are invited to pull out drawers and handle the replicas inside - the skulls of human ancestors. Touch screens scattered throughout the halls and galleries draw children into games, and their parents into short video interviews with world -renowned scientists.
In a darkened gallery resembling a cave, a giant screen video of a San dance gives a sense of the energy of a ritual believed to have healing powers. Elsewhere, the work of contemporary artists explores the ancient themes of man's relationship to the natural world and to his community, and the search for self-understanding.
''The primary experience we want people to have ... is an emotionally moving experience,'' said Blundell. ''Throughout the design process, we kept thinking about how we can make this engaging.''
If Origins is where science meets art, Maropeng is where it meets entertainment. A tour starts, quite literally, with a splash. Awkward little rafts bump along a shallow manmade river through dioramas created with snow machines, lights, paint and plaster depicting the formation of the earth's crust and volcanic and ice ages.
''We don't like to call ourselves a museum - that sounds so staid and stuffy,'' said Erica Saunders, Maropeng's marketing manager. ''We believe in edutainment. It's taking something that's incredibly scientific and making it entertaining.''
The boat ride takes visitors to a more conventional display hall, with an almost overwhelming amount of material to touch and interrogate. Replicas of fossils float from the ceiling in plastic bubbles. There are buttons to push, puzzles to complete, all accompanied by a murmur of audio and video commentary. Adults might find it a relief to enter the last exhibit, a glass-enclosed room in which precious fossils are displayed like jewels.
''There's a tremendous amount of focus on children,'' said Maropeng curator Lindsay Marshall. ''We wanted to make it fun.''
Marshall works closely with researchers from the University of Witwatersrand, including some involved in ongoing archaeological digs in the area, to ensure the fun has a rigorous foundation when it comes to subjects like evolution and extinction.
Maropeng - which means ''returning to the place of our origins'' in Tswana, the language most widely spoken in the area - is housed in a glass and concrete structure sprawling over three and a half levels and planted on one side to resemble one of the surrounding grassy hills. A top-floor restaurant with a dramatic view of those hills is popular for Sunday brunch among South Africans who drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, some skipping the exhibits altogether and heading straight for the roast lamb buffet and the jazzy sounds of a guitar and marimba duo.
For those with appetites for exploring, a tour of Sterkfontein Caves, a six-mile drive away, is a highlight of a Maropeng visit. Sterkfontein is the best-known of a dozen sites in the area where a wealth of important fossils and stone tools have been found.
Sterkfontein, formed 20 million years ago, was explored in the 1800s by prospectors who found limestone, used for cement and gold processing. Sterkfontein was also quickly recognized as a treasure trove of fossils, though it was not handed over to researchers until the 1930s.
In 1947, a skull fossil known as Mrs. Ples was discovered in Sterkfontein. The nickname was derived from the classification of the skull as a female Plesianthropus, ''almost human.''
Mrs. Ples, believed to be more than 2 millions years old, was later determined to be the best specimen of the species Australopithecus africanus ever found, and may be male. ''Little Foot,'' another specimen that could be a complete Australopithecus africanus skeleton, is being excavated from Sterkfontein's stone walls now. ''Little Foot,'' discovered in the mid-1990s, is believed to be more than 4 millions years old.
Australopithecus africanus had a large brain, walked upright as well as climbed trees, and is thought to be a distant relative of modern humans. Discovery of its remains at Sterkfontein helped cement the theory of mankind's origins in Africa, and research on those remains is answering questions about our development. Sterkfontein has yielded hundreds of fossils and thousands of stone tools.
The 60 -yard descent down cement and rock steps is a walk through time. Ripples in the cave's stone floor are the marks of the waves of the warm sea that once covered the area. One rock formation resembles an elephant.
A section of the walls, with their almost painterly swirls of dark and light rock, is covered with graffiti scrawled in lantern soot by 19th century miners.
Tourists in flip-flops have little trouble negotiating the uneven surface, thanks to a pathway of rubber webbing. Some serious crouching is required - this is not for the claustrophobic.
It's almost too dim to see the underground lake where blind shrimp survive on bacteria. A child afraid of the dark might find some comfort in the words of guide Adelaide Motsanani:
''There's nothing to fear in the place of our ancestors.''
If You Go...
ORIGINS CENTRE: Museum on the University of Witwatersrand's central Johannesburg campus; www.origins.org.za. Don't miss the Origins gift shop, for pottery, jewelry, antique walking sticks, and pop art recycled from bottle caps and detergent containers. It also stocks books, from illustrated folk tales for children to philosophical dissertations on mankind's origins.
MAROPENG: Exhibits (with a popular restaurant on the top floor) and Sterkfontein caves where fossils have been found; http://www.maropeng.co.za. Located about an hour's drive from Johannesburg, over well-maintained roads. Rent a car and drive yourself, or spend a little more and hire a car with driver if you are nervous about South Africa's reputation for high levels of violent crime.