What to do with the Laetoli footprints?

Rex Dalton reports on Charles Musiba's efforts to preserve the Laetoli footprints with a new museum:

[The weathering to the trackways] prompted Tanzanian anthropologist, Charles Musiba, now at the University of Colorado in Denver, to call for the creation of a new museum to reveal and display the historic prints. But other anthropologists question this idea -- as they did when the tracks were covered -- because Laetoli is several hours' drive into Ngorongoro National Park, making guarding and maintaining any facility extremely difficult. Musiba presented his proposal for the museum last month at the International Symposium on the Conservation and Application of Hominid Footprints, in South Korea. He says that Tanzania now has the scientific capacity and the funds to construct and monitor a museum.

Dalton quotes Tim White and Terry Harrison as skeptics, citing them as

among a group that favours cutting the entire track out of the hillside, then installing it in a museum in a Tanzanian city

The article weighs pros and cons. Dalton also gives a good description of the problems that arose with previous attempts to preserve the trackways. Initially covered with dirt, the trackways were endangered when acacia trees sprouted and started breaking up the ash layer. The current setup, constructed in 1995, involves a mat overlain by fill, but this is eroding out.

I tend to think they should be managed in a way that maximizes their benefit to local people. It's hard for me to believe that chunking the whole thing out and moving it in trucks halfway across Tanzania would be better than whatever might happen in a poorly-guarded museum. But clearly there are no perfect choices. It is a real challenge to start and build continuing interest in a museum like this without very strong support -- but I would like to see it succeed.


Dalton R. 2008. Fears for oldest human footprints. Nature doi:10.1038/451118a