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.
The paleontological "interest of the footprints really lies where they were found," said Janette Deacon, an archeologist at the monument council. "Once you remove them to a museum, they are really nothing more than a few dents in a piece of rock."
Picnicking on Prehistoric Site
But Roberts was back with a more urgent application after the Christmas holiday, when countless visitors--many wading through high-tide waters--mounted the sloping rock. Some picnickers sprawled out on beach towels on the site, while others played a Stone Age version of Cinderella and the glass slipper: Would-be Eves crammed feet of all shapes and sizes into the 8 1/2-inch-long petrified impressions.
Deacon and other officials visited the lagoon with Roberts and were stunned by the misuse: Nearby rocks had even been etched with graffiti. This month, the monument council recommended to the park board, which has final say on the footprints, that they be taken away. The council also accepted an offer from Engen Limited, a South African oil company, to post security guards for the next few months.
"We were very much against moving them but now accept it as inevitable," Deacon said.
Scientists say the threat to the footprints goes beyond human recklessness. Even if the sandstone boulder were to survive the trouncing of a thousand feet, Mother Nature has begun exacting a toll as well.
The prints had been protected in a rocky dune for nearly 117,000 years, breaking away only in the past 25 years or so. The breakage made Roberts' discovery possible, but it has also exposed the prints to rain, wind and lapping seas. In his application to the monument council, Roberts said that, if careless humans do not do in the footprints, coastal erosion most certainly will. Measures to protect the site, he said, would only delay the inevitable.
"People are worried about preserving the context of the footprints, but something that is destroyed has no context," Roberts said. "For the life of me, I can't perceive why people don't understand why these footprints can't stay where they are."
Berger, the paleoanthropologist, said the jury is still out on whether the footprints can be protected from natural erosion, but he said scientific debate has been overtaken by the pressing concern of the human threat.
"With the enormous impact those footprints have had worldwide, they deserve to be preserved as natural heritage," Berger said. "It is one of those things where you are damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Barring a miracle remedy, speculation is that the park board will approve the prints' removal to the South African Museum in Cape Town but only if a concrete replica is mounted on the shores of Langebaan. Scientists have already made casts of the rock face in case something goes wrong during any move, and they plan to bore into the sandstone ridge above the footprints to search for more impressions.
"Unless that person could fly, she must have gone back onto the cliff," Roberts said. "Who knows? We may have a whole family walking around."