The Japan Times, June 27, 1998

S. African geologists safely rescue fossil footprints from tourist traffic

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) South African scientists Thursday unveiled the oldest footprints yet discovered after a daring airlift rescued them from tourists and coastal erosion.
"This is the moment of truth," Dave Roberts, the geologist who found the prints, told a crowd of journalists, scientists and friends as he gingerly lifted the cover off an aluminum box that had been painstakingly constructed around the fossils.
"Well folks, they're all in one piece," he said, running his hand over the imprint of the big toe, ball arch and heel of one of the prints. There is actually very little damage."
"Let's have the champagne," he said.
Experts believe the three footprints, dubbed Eve's prints, were made 117,000 years ago by a woman, 1.6 meters tall walking in wet sand near the shore.
On Tuesday, a helicopter lifted the box holding the prints away from the West Coast National Park, a popular stretch of coastline 96 km from Cape Town, where tourists, graffiti and waves threatened to destroy the fossils.
Roberts, who found the prints in 1995 but announced his discovery only last year, said the soft sandstone had been irnpregnated with resin to bind it together.
Engineers then cut around the fossils and constructed a specially designed box to protect the prints during transport to the South African Museum in Cape Town.
The prints provide an important clue to when anatomically early modern humans first emerged and backs up the theory that modern man came from Africa.
The "Out of Africa" theory holds that all living humans are descended from a common ancestor, "genetic Eve" who lived in Africa during the last 200,000 years.
The first modern humans probably left Africa to colonize the rest of the world between 180,000 and 90,000 years ago, meaning these 117,000-year-old prints fit the theory well.
Roberts joked that Eve would cast a curse on the scientists for removing the prints, and said the team had returned to clear up the fossil site after complaints their work had left the beach looking like a quarry.

GEOLOGIST DAVE ROBERTS and associates uncover a special box which was constructed to transport 117,000-year-old footprints found in South Africa. The prints were airlifted to the South African Museum in Cape Town Thursday. AP PHOTO