Arusha, Tanzania (eTN) – The state has formally announced its plan to unveil the reburied world’s oldest hominid footprints in Laitole vicinity in Northern Tanzania for the sake of conservation and tourism undertakings.
Discovered by Dr. Mary Leakey in 1978, the 23-metre-long tracks of footprints at Laetole site were in 1995 covered with an elaborate protective layer after they allegedly began to deteriorate with exposure. Since then the 3.6-million-year-old tracks have not opened to the nearly 400,000 annual tourists that visit the Laitole site in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Flagging off the 50 years of the discovery of the skull of the earliest man, which is believed to be the oldest in world archaeological history, Natural Resources and Tourism Deputy Minister Ezekiel Maige said the half of the 14 oldest human trails will be uncovered in two years time.
“Scientists are currently studying how best the first human footprints can be unveiled and preserved,” Maige said on Thursday shortly after officiating the 50th Golden Anniversaries of Zinjanthropus Discovery and establishments of two famous tourist parks in Africa, the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Responding to the question posed by this reporter, Maige said the ambitious project to uncover the footprints will take time because it is a big plan that involves scientific studies and cost implication amounting to billions of money.
Commenting, the director of Tanzanian Department of Antiquitie, the agency responsible for the Laetoli footprint site, Donatius Kamamba said they have engaged a local scientist to study and come up with the “road map” towards unveiling the footprints. “The scientific road map will include all the requirements for the footprints to be uncovered safely, the best ways of conserving them and the costs implications” Dr. Kamamba explained.
President Jakaya Kikwete, who of late has become a regular visitor of Ngorongoro Conservation Area, has never been happy over the footprints reburial and directed the relevant authorities to uncover the oldest human trails for the sake of tourism.
“President Kikwete found no logic at all to continue covering this potential tourist attraction site. He ordered the tracks uncovering for the benefits of our dear visitors,” assistant conservator of Antiquities, Godfrey Ole Moita, told the Guardian last year.
NCAA acting chief conservator Bernard Murunya concurs with the president’s argument of uncovering the footprints. “I concur with our President Kikwete that once the footprints are open, it will be an additional tourist attraction package and more tourists will stream in to witness the tracks,” Murunya explained.
The state’s announcement to open the site may see the beginning of the end for stirring debate over how to best protect the 3.6-million-year-old tracks.
In recent years, experts have been expressing fear for oldest human footprints fossilized tracks preservation, saying weathering has begun to undermine those protections, raising concerns that the prints preserved in a volcanic ash bed could be harmed by erosion, livestock or humans.
It has prompted Tanzanian anthropologist Charles Musiba to call for the creation of a new museum to reveal and display the historic prints.
But foreign anthropologists question this idea — as they did when the tracks were covered — because Laetoli is several hours’ drive into Ngorongoro Conservation Area, making guarding and maintaining any facility extremely difficult.
Musiba presented his proposal for the museum recently at the International Symposium on the Conservation and Application of Hominid Footprints, in South Korea. According to him, Tanzania currently has the scientific capacity and the funds to construct and monitor a museum. “I feel compelled to bring this issue out,” said Musiba. “The current conditions show the protections are temporary. A fully fledged museum could be part of a walking safari trail for tourists.”
But this concept worried other researchers such as anthropologists Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, and Terry Harrison at New York University. They are among a group that favors cutting the entire track out of the Satman hillside, then installing it in a museum in a Tanzanian city, either Dar-es-Salaam or Arusha.
“If they are uncovered, they will be a magnet for trouble,” said White. “Then the prints will be worn away.”
However, Kamamba had also expressed surprise over the erosion report and the museum proposal, promising his agency to investigate the site, but he questions the feasibility of moving an ash bed that could potentially crumble apart.
The protective layer now in place was constructed by specialists from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. A layer of dirt had been placed over the footprints by researchers such as Leakey and White.
But acacia seeds weren’t sifted out of the soil, so trees started growing, threatening to tear apart the layer of hardened volcanic ash.
Getty conservationists Neville Agnew and Martha Demas removed the old layer and growth, covered the prints with a special fabric mat designed to limit water intrusion, then covered this with cleaned soil and rocks in 1995.
This worked well until the past couple of years when increased rains filled the surrounding run-off ditches with silt, leading to erosion exposing the mat’s edges.
All agree that the mat needs to be covered swiftly, in case, for example, local tribe’s people attempt to remove it for other uses.
But a long-term solution is still up for debate. President Kikwete thinks it would be ideal to leave the footprints there where tourists can have access and appreciate the tracks.
Tanzania is marking this milestone anniversary on wildlife and nature conservation after half a century of the establishment of two famous tourist parks in Africa, the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with an eye to promote the sites.
In line with the two parks, which are unique in Africa, archaeologists are celebrating 50 years of the discovery of the skull of the earliest man, which is believed to be the oldest in world archaeological history.
Inside Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the Olduvai Gorge, where Dr. and Mrs. Leakey found the 1.75 million-year-old remains of Australopithecus boisei (‘Zinjanthropus’) and Homo habilis, which suggest that the human species first evolved in this area.
Two of the most important paleontological and archaeological sites in the world, Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli Footprint site at Ngarusi are found within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Further important discoveries may yet to be made in the area.
Serengeti National Park is undoubtedly the best-known wildlife sanctuary in the world, unequaled for its natural beauty and scientific value. With more than two million wildebeest, half a million Thomson’s gazelle, and a quarter of a million zebra, it has the greatest concentration of plains game in Africa. The wildebeest and zebra moreover form the star cast of a unique spectacular – the annual Serengeti migration.