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Scientists Tempted to Seek Shelter for 'Eve' Footprints

S. Africa: Critics fear value of oldest human tracks would diminish if they were moved from natural setting.

February 22, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANGEBAAN, South Africa — The oldest known footprints of an anatomically modern human are in danger of destruction on the shores of a sparkling lagoon here after having been preserved by nature for 117,000 years.

The sudden menace? Human feet. Lots of them.

Scientists say the extraordinary pair of footprints, discovered in 1995 but revealed to the public only last year, have become so popular among barefoot beach-goers that the soft sandstone impressions may not last the South African summer.

"People are climbing the rock and putting their feet in the prints," said David Roberts, the geologist who made the discovery while scaling sand dunes at the West Coast National Park about 70 miles northwest of Cape Town. "It looks like the front left print has already been damaged."

The threat to the rare prints has become so worrisome that the National Parks Board will meet Monday to consider removing them to a museum for safekeeping. Officials said the National Geographic Society, which publicized the existence of the prints in its September magazine, has offered to pay for the move.

But extracting the calcified impressions from the jagged coastline carries tremendous risks, with geologists fearing that the fragile gray sandstone could crumble. Some scientists have suggested that the prehistoric footprints need to remain in their natural setting to be truly understood and appreciated, while tourism officials fear that a huge attraction will be lost if the archeological novelty is relegated to a stuffy museum display.

"I would hate to see them moved. I am sort of desperate about that," said Noel de Villiers, director of the Open Africa Initiative, a group that promotes tourism. "These footprints are among the assets which we believe Africa has got but doesn't appreciate the value of."

Technical Advice Sought

Park board officials have sent urgent requests around the world for technical advice about how to handle the prints and the 2-ton slab in which they are embedded. Among those being consulted are experts at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.

"We are doing our utmost to get the best information so we can make a responsible decision," said Johan Verhoef, cultural resources manager for the park board. "We have never had to deal with anything like this. It is about the origin of man and all the symbolism involved in that."

Last year's announcement of the footprints by National Geographic and the South African Journal of Science created a worldwide sensation. Unlike much older prints of apelike beings found elsewhere in Africa, the Langebaan Lagoon discovery offers a direct link to a critical period in human evolution believed to have been the cradle of humankind as we know it.

"You could sit next to this person on the bus and not get too scared," said Roberts, a British-born scientist with the Council for Geoscience in Cape Town.

Although there is no way of knowing who left the two impressions, experts and novices alike have been swept up by the discovery and have posed theories about who made the prints, most likely a small woman with a modern-day shoe size of 7 1/2.

Roberts and Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, have determined that the prints were left after a turbulent rainstorm on a steep and shifting sand dune.

Researchers have named the mystery walker Eve, a provocative reference to the hypothetical woman some scientists believe was the common ancestor to all humans. That so-called genetic Eve--she carried a particular type of DNA measured in women today--is thought to have lived in Africa between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago.

Possible Mother to Us All

Much of the popular intrigue surrounding the prints stems from the theoretical possibility that the Langebaan Eve was mother to us all.

"The genetic and fossil evidence supports an 'out of Africa' hypothesis that a small population in Africa gave genetic rise to humans today," Berger said. "The footprints are having an enormous emotive impact, because they are living evidence of someone coming from that time period. My normal work is with fossils and bones--somebody has to die for that work. These were made while the person was still alive."

The excitement of the scientific discovery, however, has been dulled by the unexpected run on Langebaan. Although National Geographic and the Journal of Science did not disclose the exact whereabouts of the footprints, the lagoon is a favorite recreation and tourist attraction, particularly among windsurfers. It was not long before a South African television crew pinpointed the spot.

Fearing the worst, Roberts applied in October to the National Monument Council, which has jurisdiction over archeological artifacts, to have the prints removed. The council refused, suggesting instead that they be covered with a protective seal and that authorities "trust that public interest would wane" over time.

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