Oldest human footprints will soon be on public view

History buffs love to see the places where famous people walked, but how about the thrill of seeing where some of mankind’s earliest ancestors strolled by? Footprints dating back 3.6 million years were discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania by the famous paleontologist Dr. Mary Leakey back in 1976. The prints of three individuals and several animals had been pressed into a layer of ash deposited by a nearby volcano and became fossilized as more and more ash and dirt piled up and pressed the lower layers into a soft rock called tuff.

This find is of major importance to the study of human evolution but the site itself hasn’t been open to the public for 15 years. Now Tanzanian officials have announced that the footprints will again be on view. The prints are in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which already attracts about 400,000 tourists annually.

The tracks are those of three individuals walking upright. One walked in the footprints of another and all lead in the same direction. It’s unclear what hominid (early form of human) made the tracks, but several skeletons of the Australopithecus afarensis were discovered in the region and date to the same approximate period. The famous Lucy skeleton is an Australopithecus afarensis. The photo shows a reconstruction of one at the Cosmocaixa museum in Barcelona.

Scientists are currently studying how to open the site with minimal impact. They expect the process to take up to two years.

This is the latest round in a continuing controversy over how to preserve the prints. Some scientists say the entire section of rock should be removed and placed in a museum. Others say they’re much more compelling where they were found. A protective sealant was placed over the prints in 1995 and the whole area was covered with earth. While this has kept the prints in good condition, it means nobody gets to appreciate them. Hopefully Tanzanian scientists will find a way to preserve the prints while allowing visitors to enjoy this one-of-a-kind discovery.

[Photo courtesy user Esv via Wikimedia Commons]