February 26, 1998 in Nation/World

Tourists Walk All Over Ancient Human Footprints South African Fossils Withstand The Test Of Time But Not The Onslaught Of Modern-Day Visitors

Paul Harris Associated Press

Laid down by a traveler walking across a rain swept dune, the oldest-known footprints of modern humans survived the cataclysms of more than 100,000 years only to be ground down in the three years since their discovery by the sneakers and boots of curious tourists.

Visitors following in the walker’s ancient footsteps slowly are wearing them away. They place their own feet in the delicate, fossilized prints to marvel; scratch their names on surrounding rocks to show they, too, once passed by; even picnic on top of the site.

On Wednesday, South Africa decided to cut out the prints in their soft sandstone and remove them to safety at the South African Museum, 75 miles away in Cape Town, possibly as early as May.

“The footprints are just too much at risk at the moment,” said Johan Verhoef, cultural resources manager of the South African National Parks Board.

Verhoef said erosion by wind and rain also had played a part in the decision to move the prints, believed to be those of a young woman.

The work is to be done with the guidance of international conservation experts; afterward, a cast will be left in the place of the originals.

Quickly buried by windblown sand after the traveler laid them down, the prints gradually turned to stone. Geologist David Roberts uncovered them after spotting ancient tools and fossilized animal prints in the area.

“They should be preserved. The importance of these prints lies in their age and rarity,” Roberts said. “Finding them was a million-to-1 chance.”

Though the prints have been treated with preservative resin, the crumbling of the stone ledge on which they sit still threatens them.

Sloping down to the beach, the ledge juts out of a cliff in an area popular with windsurfers and bathers, who easily could damage the eroded prints further.

Graffiti covers the surrounding cliffs, with some messages and names carved near some of the most valuable fossils in the study of mankind’s pioneers.

Alois Lebakeng, who works for the national park in which the lagoon sits, guards the prints during the day. Although only a dozen or so tourists may visit the footprints each day, they still are vulnerable to damage, he said.

The stone bears two clear footprints. Going by the size - 8-inches long, probably made by a person standing about 5 feet 3 - scientists decided the ancient passer-by likely was a female.

Roberts says further excavations retracing the steps back into the cliff may uncover more prints - perhaps even the steps of a whole family on the move.

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