The Japan Times, February 27, 1998

World's oldest human footprints set to relocate

LANGEBAAN, South Africa (AP) They survived more than 100,000 years, but now the oldest-known human footprints are being damaged by modern man and will be moved to a museum, authorities said Wednesday.
Authorities said the fossilized footprints will be cut out from a crumbling stone ledge at Langebaan Lagoon and moved 120 km south to the South African Museum in Cape Town, possibly as early as May this year.
"The footprints are just too much at risk at the moment," said Johan Verhoef, cultural resources manager at the South African National Parks Board.
The ledge containing the footprints juts out of a cliff in an area popular with wind surfers and bathers. Though the delicate prints have been treated with preservative resin, curious visitors have damaged them by placing their own feet in them and even having picnics at the site.
Verhoef said erosion by wind and rain have also played a part in the decision to move the prints fossilised in sandstone. Once removed a cast will replace the original.
The footprints, 20 cm long, were made by a person who stood about 160 cm tall. It is the small stature and tiny size of the prints that led scientists to theorize that they were made by a young woman walking on a rain-swept sloping dune near the lagoon 117,00 years ago. Quickly buried by wind-blown sand, the preserved prints gradually turned to stone.
Although much older footprints of apelike human ancestors exist, the tracks are the oldest prints made by anatomically modern humans, indistinguishable from people living today. Geologist David Roberts discovered the footprints in 1995 after spotting ancient tools and fossilized animal prints in the area.
Park employee Alois Lebakeng, who guards the prints during the day, said a dozen or so tourists visit each day. Graffiti covers the cliffs around the prints, with some messages and names carved near some of the most valuable fossils in the study of mankind's ancient ancestors.
Roberts believes further excavations retracing the steps back into the cliff may uncover other prints, which can be left on site once the originals are safely preserved in a museum. More digging could even expose a trail left by a whole family on the move, he said. Small hollows around the prints could be eroded tracks left by children walking alongside their mother, he theorised.

A GUARD WALKS past the oldest-known human footprints near Cape Town Wednesday Visitors have damaged the delicate fossilised prints, prompting officials to move them to a museum later this year. AP PHOTO