Book ID 584
The News Times (Connecticut),
Extract Author: SUSAN LINNEE Associated Press Writer
Extract Date: September 16, 1996
Copyright 1996 Associated Press.
Laetoli SITE, Tanzania (AP) - Mary Leakey and the Masai wore red - the favorite color of the Masai people who first drew the attention of the English archaeologist to the site of her most important discovery.
A short distance from the gathering of herders and scientists lay the 89-foot-long trackway of footprints. They were left by beings nearly human walking south-to-north 3.6 million years ago.
At the time, the Sandiman volcano was belching ash across what is now known as the Serengeti Plain and the prints were preserved as the volcanic sludge hardened.
By the end of September, the footprints will be covered over again to conserve them for posterity - this time with high-tech synthetic materials embedded with time-release capsules of herbicides.
The decision in 1994 by the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities and the California-based Getty Conservation Institute to bury the tracks after cleaning and restoration was difficult to take, said the project's director, Martha Demas.
It means that, for the foreseeable future, no one will be able to see the real thing - the sets of three separate hominid footprints complete with the the imprint of the skin. It is the only fossilized evidence of soft tissue of the beings who first walked upright.
Mary Leakey, the 83-year-old widow of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, came to the gathering from her home in Nairobi, Kenya, for a last glimpse of the footprints she first saw 18 years ago.
``They looked startlingly like our own,'' embedded in the volcanic tuff in a sloping, grassy gully that the Masai call ``Laetoli'' after the red lilies that grow in the area.
Asked what she thought about covering over her famous discovery, Leakey had a terse reply: ``You've got to bury it if you want to conserve it.''
Long covered over by dirt, the footprints became visible again when natural erosion wore away the protective layer and were discovered by Leakey in 1978. But water and wind have been eroding the prints and some have been damaged by roots of the acacia trees that abound in the region. There was also the danger that people would try to collect souvenirs.
Leakey said it would be ``very desirable'' for people to see the trackway as it was - if it were somewhere more easily protected. The site in northern Tanzania was judged too remote to justify housing it in its own museum.
Numerous casts of the footprints have been made for exhibit in the museum at Olduvai Gorge and for further study and educational purposes. The gorge, 35 miles to the north, is where Louis Leakey uncovered some of the earliest evidence of man.
Louis Leakey came to Laetoli in 1935 after a Masai herder told him about all the ``bones like stone'' lying around. His wife, who was on her first trip to Africa, remained at the Olduvai site.
She recalled that on that first trip, several Masai offered to trade her a side of beef for her tube of bright red lipstick. But she refused because ``it was the only one I had and it had to last the summer.''
It wasn't until 40 years later that the footprints were discovered.
Their discovery reinforced the theory that bipedalism - walking upright on two feet - preceded tool-making, said Neville Agnew, associate programs director for the Getty Conservation Institute.
This was established through potassium argon dating of the footprints and fossilized tools found in the same area. The footprints were much older.
After excavating the site in 1978-79, Mary Leakey and her colleagues, whose budget was tight, covered the spot as best they could with rocks and a simple structure of wooden supports and corrugated tin roof.
Acacia trees took root among the several trackways that bear hundreds of animal footprints as well as the hominid prints. Wind and rain chipped away at the cracked, slate-like layers. And the Masai, who have lived in the area for centuries, thought the building materials were more useful to live humans than to their fossilized memories.
The recent gathering at the site was arranged by the Getty institute and Tanzanian authorities to impress upon the local Masai the importance of the footprints and to seek their cooperation in preservation.
Demas, the Laetoli project director, said protecting such sites is difficult ``because people like the materials.''
The trackway will be buried under layers of synthetic netting and sheeting and topped with black volcanic rocks to deter casual diggers. When finished, the whole thing will look like a big burial mound.
Larazo Mariki, a local official, said the Masai might not initially think the footprints are very important.
``But the footprints are not only for the Masai,'' he said. ``Everybody is supposed to protect them - Americans, Tanzanians - but the nearest people who have to protect them are the Masai.''
Naanga Siaro ole Kiroway, a 27-year-old ``moran,'' or member of the Masai warrior group of men aged 15 to 25, thought for a while and then decided that, all things considered, protecting the footprints was worthwhile.
``It's better to cover them and save them,'' he said. ``Otherwise we won't have them at all.''
End Adv for Mon PMs, Sept. 23