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Cradle of Humankind Sunset | © Martin Heigan/Flickr
Cradle of Humankind Sunset | © Martin Heigan/Flickr
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This African Country Has a History of Great Scientific Discoveries

Picture of Carina Claassens
Updated: 15 May 2017
One of the most famous South-African scientific discoveries or innovations involved the first heart transplant, performed in 1967. The country also boasts many archaeological finds, which changed the way scientists look at the origins of mankind, as well as discoveries that are drastically improving the lives of those living in rural areas.

CDH2, 2017

Through a global collaboration, the CDH2 gene was identified by South-African researchers. The gene causes Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a genetic disorder that leads to sudden cardiac arrest. A major cause of death among young South Africans, the discovery is a massive leap forward in the medical-sciences field and will allow the diagnosis and possible treatment of heart-muscle diseases.

Mrs. Ples, 1947

The approximately two-million-year-old skull—nicknamed Mrs. Ples—is among the most important early-hominid fossils ever discovered. Found at the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, this important discovery allowed scientists to delve deeper into the origin of mankind after its reveal by Dr. Robert Broom of the Transvaal Museum of Natural History (now the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History) in Pretoria. The Cradle of Humankind is rich in Australopithecus africanus fossils (which Mrs. Ples is classified under), and excavations continue to this day. These fossils display human-like characteristics: their teeth are similar to humans’, and they are believed to have walked in an upright position; essentially, they were closer to humans than to apes genetically.

Mrs. Ples
The original complete skull (without upper teeth and mandible) of a 2,1 million years old Australopithecus africanus specimen so-called “Mrs. Ples” (catalogue number STS 5, Sterkfontein cave, hominid fossil number 5), discovered in South Africa | ©José Braga/WikiMedia

Cryoprobe, 1965

The Cryoprobe, a pencil-shaped tool with a small tip used for modern-day eye surgery, was invented in 1965 by ophthalmologist Dr. Percy Amoils. Ten years after his breakthrough, he won the Queen’s Award and soon afterwards, was recognised with the Medal of Honor by the US Academy of Applied Science. Used in cataract-removal procedures, in a nutshell, The Cryoprobe works by freezing gas that is released from a small nozzle in a closed tube. As the gas expands, the temperature of the probe’s tip drops and can then freeze to a cataract, making it easy to remove. Amoils famously treated ex-President Nelson Mandela for eye cataracts the day after he was sworn into office.

Heart Transplant, 1967

The world’s first heart transplant, performed by Dr. Chris Barnard at the Grootte Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, took place on 3 December 1967. The patient, Louis Washkansky, was suffering from heart failure at the time. Although Washkansky only lived for 18 days after the transplant, the procedure was deemed successful, and Dr. Barnard went on to perform more than 10 heart transplants. One of the recipients of a new heart survived for 23 years after the transplant.

Detail – Groote Schuur Hospital
Detail – Groote Schuur Hospital | © Andrew Moore/Flickr

Cybertracker, 1996

Fascinated by the hunting and tracking skills of San hunters in the Kalahari Desert, Louis Liebenberg wanted a way to record this knowledge. He believed that their methods could be implemented to track game animals and learn more about wildlife behaviour and management. After experimenting with a variety of technologies, he and Justin Steventon created the Cybertracker—a handheld computer with a built-in GPS in 1996. Instead of recording the information in text, they used a series of icons (small diagrams of animals) to represent game species, their tracks, and other information. San trackers, who can’t read or write, are then able to store and access information on the device, which in turn provides invaluable information regarding wildlife behaviour.

Hippo Roller, 1994

The Hippo Roller makes it easy to collect water in challenging rural conditions by simply rolling it along the ground. The barrel, originally called Aqua Roller, was the innovation of two South-African engineers, Johan Jonker and Pettie Petzer. These barrels have since been used all over the world in areas where people have to walk far distances to access clean water. Currently used in more than 20 countries, a total of 50,000 Hippo Rollers have been distributed thus far.