World Heritage Site

Posted in North West Stories

In a bright sunny morning in 1896, Italian prospector Guglielmo Marginalia set a dynamite charge that would yield, unbeknown to him at the time, one of the world’s most important palaeontological finds to date. The Sterkfontein Caves gave us Mrs Ples, and along with it an extensive knowledge of the origin of humanity, “and that’s no small thing”, as was once said by the internationally celebrated scientist Professor Phillip V Tobias.

Guglielmo was the grandfather of Constantia Kloof’s Michael Martinaglia, who fondly remembers accounts of this miraculous day as retold by his own father Giovanni (Jannie). “My father Jannie  -  as he was called by the Afrikaans-speaking community  - accompanied my grandfather to the mining claims in the vicinity of Sterkfontein, where he was prospection limestone. “Nearing lunch-time he sent Jannie to go fetch his padkos while setting a dynamite charge. “On his way back, my father heard a huge explosion and then my grandfather’s voice yelling to him urgently:  Jannie, kom kyk!!

“Amidst dust and rock Guglielmo pointed to a huge cavity in the earth saying to Jannie:  Kyk die Wondergat wat ek ontdek het.” After the dust settled, a curios father and son team inspected to cave by throwing in a burning bundle of grass.  “My father often recalled the intensity of the moment they first set their eyes upon the magnificent stalactites and stalagmites,” says Michael.  My grandfather often used to humor the children when they asked what he first saw after discovering the cave. “n Boesman het uitgespring en my gevra vir ‘n stompie,” he would say, sending the kids into waves of laughter.

Professor Tobias told the Record that many prominent reports of the discovery soon appeared in the local newspapers at the time. Says Tobias:  “In no time at all, visitors from all over came to look at the caves.  Underground caves of such magnificent beauty was rare at that time.  “Tourists would break off stalactites to take home as souvenirs.”
This was revealed during a meeting of the Geological Society of South Africa, and the Northern Lime Company-owner of the site, was urged to tighten up control.

Although Michael never knew his grandfather, he says that his own father and many others have always spoken very affectionately of him.

Guglielmo was born in 1857, the eldest of eight children in the small northern Italian village of Issiglio. His own father Giovanni, was involved in the building of the Simplon Tunnel between Italy and Switzerland, and taught Guglielmo all he knew of mineral engineering and mining.  As a young man, he left his birth country to seek his fortune in South Africa. He arrived in Durban in 1879, when the Anglo-Zulu was in full swing. Undeterred, he bought a horse and traveled to Kimberley in pursuit of diamonds.

There he soon achieved fame for opening underground springs and water courses. Soon after this, at the age of 26, he traveled to the Roodepoort area where he obtained mineral rights, and started mining gold.  The claims he staked here, he later sold. In the interim he met Maria Magdalena du Plooy at the Paardekraal Festival in 1886, and they were married by C von Brandis, Krugersdorp’s first “Special Landdrost.”

During this time Guglielmo built, with his own hands, the renowned Witpoortjie Hotel in the early 1890’s. This hotel was frequently visited by important travelers like President Paul Kruger and Ian Hamilton. It was after he sold this hotel that he obtained the lease on ground on the farm Zwartkrans in Sterkfontein. After fighting in the Anglo-Broer war on the side of the Boers in the Krugersdorp Commando, Guglielmo struggled to find work in a post-war Transvaal and left for Rhodesia.

At this point he had also lost his wife Maria and all his earthly possessions, causing his young son Giovanni (Jannie) to be sent to the Langlaagte (Abraham Kriel) orphanage. In later years Guglielmo returned to the Rand where he finally passed away in 1929. He was laid to rest in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Burgershoop, Krugersdorp, only a few miles from the Sterkfontein Caves.

His son Jannie would later receive a scholarship to study in Canada and the US, where he obtained his doctorate in veterinary science. Today he is still remembered for his research in the field of tuberculosis.

On 8 October 1996, a 100 years after the discovery of the now famous underground Sterkfontein caves, hundreds of scientists across the world gathered at Sterkfontein to celebrate his landmark discovery. On this occasion Professor Robert Charlton, vice-chancellor of Wits University, unveiled a plaque in honor of Guglielmo at the entrance of the cave.
“We remain very indebted to Guglielmo Martinaglia for his historic contribution to science, in that moment in time,” Tobias concluded.