21 July 2008

Tanzania: Prehistoric Footprints Stir Fresh Controversy

Ngorongoro — Archaeological experts are divided on a plan to exhume the hominid footprints at Laetoli for public display, some arguing that this could lead to erosion of the rare imprints.

The 3.6 million- year old footprints, discovered in 1978, have since the 1990s been reburied for protection while a replica of the original cast is on display at the site.

Government authorities recently intended to exhume the oldest known footprints of human ancestors for public view in order to attract more tourists and researchers.

An assistant conservator of Antiquities now in charge of the facility, Mr Geoffrey ole Moita, told The Citizen last weekend that there was a possibility that the footprints would be brought to the land surface for public view.

He said President Jakaya Kikwete, who visited the area recently, expressed his concern that the archaeological relics have been preserved in a grave-like monument.

"The president directed a team of local experts to exhume them from their likely permanent grave for the sake of both tourism and studies on human evolution", he explained.

However, he said no conclusive decision had been made on the fossilised imprints of early hominids which were discovered by Dr Mary Leakey 30 years ago.

The late British-born Kenyan scientist also played a key role in the discovery of the famous Zinjathropous skull at the nearby Olduvai Gorge in 1959 alongside her late husband, Louis.

With the assistance of scientists from Getty Conservation Institute of Los Angeles in the US, the track-way was reburied in 1995 to save it from erosion. But this has been criticised by some experts.

The original track was covered by fine silicone rubber which made it impermeable to water and other materials.

A copy of the original cast is on display at the site and the Olduvai Gorge museum.

Critics say reburying the world's oldest hominid footprints was not the best option to preserving them because they could neither be seen by visitors nor other interested parties.

Getty Institute scientists and officials of the department of Antiquities in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism say the 20-metre long track way was buried because it had started to deteriorate with continued exposure after its discovery in 1978.

Both the Laetoli and Olduvai Gorge sites are within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area whose officials support the government's plans to have the footprints exposed for public view.

The acting conservator, Mr Bernard Murunya, says the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority was ready to set aside funds to uncover the footprints as the president directed.

"The site is set to become an additional tourist attraction and we expect even more tourists to flock here to view the tracks," he said.

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