ARUSHA, Tanzania – The Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania is whetting the appetite of travelers as it becomes one of the largest tourist destination in Tanzania, thanks to the re-excavation of its reburied world’s oldest hominid footprints.
Discovered by Dr. Mary Leakey in 1978, the 23-meter-long tracks of footprints at Laitole site were covered in 1995 with an elaborate protective layer after they allegedly began to deteriorate with exposure.
And since then, the 3.6-million-year-old tracks, which are the top-notch-tourist allure, were not open to the nearly 400,000 tourists annually who visit the 8th wonder of the world – the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where the oldest human trails are located.
The footprints demonstrate that the hominids walked upright habitually, as there are no knuckle impressions.
The feet do not have the mobile big toe of apes; instead, they have an arch – the bending of the sole of the foot – typical of modern humans. The hominids seem to have moved in a leisurely stroll.
Computer simulations based on information from fossil skeletons and the spacing of the footprints indicates that the hominids were walking at 1.0 m/s or above, which matches human small-town walking speeds. The results of other studies have also supported a human-like gait.
Other prints show the presence of twenty other animal species, among them hyenas, wild cats, baboons, wild boar, giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, and several kinds of antelope, hipparion, buffalo, elephants, and hare, as well as birds.
Tourists have been flocking to the Laitole site in hopes of seeing the origin of human kind, only to find none. But now they have a reason to smile, thanks to the state move of unveiling the early human trails for tourism and research interests.
Nearly 20 local and international archeologists and geologists have successfully managed to partially re-excavate the world’s oldest hominid footprints at Laetoli site and found them intact, ending 12 years of speculation that the whole thing was probably a hoax.
Impressed by the safe re-excavation of the tracks, the Tanzania head of the state, Jakaya Kikwete, unveiled a grand footprints conservation plan on February 13, 2011 that will see the construction of the world’s first “real human history” dome museum at an estimated cost of US$35 million (nearly 52bn).
Mr. Kikwete, who is credited as a conservationist at heart, announced the US$1,333,866.874 (2 bn) package as seed money to facilitate the state-of-the-art museum, shortly after having witnessed the tracks with his naked eyes.
The head of the state said he was not concerned with whatever cost the project may take, because once completed, the first ever Jurassic museum would be in a position to generate billions of foreign currency through thousands of tourists who would come to see real immortalized imprints of the world’s first human being.
“The world’s oldest footprints are [a] major tourist allure and for that matter, I don’t care its preservation cost; what I care is to keep them open forever for tourists to come and appreciate them,” Mr. Kikwete noted, adding that the proposed museum will ensure the tracks remain intact, but also allow tourists to see them.
He said that Tanzania was lucky to have such a historical site, even though there’s an obligation of conserving the footprints for the benefit of the present and next generations.
“I hope God will be kind enough and grant me life to witness [the] big day of inaugurating the museum,” Kikwete explained.
Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Ezekiel Maige said the initial feasibility study for the proposed Jurassic Museum is underway, but since the project won’t be an ordinary one, the partially-exposed, 3 meter-long section of the 23-meter long early human tracks would remain under cover until the large museum is completed and opened to the public.
Prof. Charles Musiba, who led the re-excavation process, said the museum, which will actually be a large dome that creates its own weather condition through special machinery and high-tech electronics, will need US$35 million.
But the state made it clear that it is willing to foot the bill for the construction of the state-of-the art, giant technological “green house” type of a museum, which will be able to regulate its own temperature and weather conditions in order to preserve the footprints and display the marvel to visitors.
“We have just proved to the entire world that footprints of humans who walked upright [on] the Earth some 3.6 million years ago indeed do exist in Tanzania, because having been concealed underground for 15 years, there have been speculations that probably the whole thing was a hoax,” Mr. Maige commented.
The minister announced that his docket is working out a strategy that will see both the Laetoli site, where the footprints are located, and the Oldupai Gorge to become the new tourist attractions for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority. Currently they are under the Antiquity department.
Ngorongoro, one of the leading tourism hotspots in Tanzania, is anticipated to receive 518,690 tourists this year and generate nearly US$50 million. Around 450,000 visitors descended in the Ngorongoro Crater last year, earning the country US$34 million, according to the area chief conservator, Bernard Murunya.
Called the eighth wonder of the world and stretching across some 8,300 square kilometers, the Ngorongoro boasts a blend of landscapes, wildlife, people, and archaeology that is unsurpassed in Africa.
Ngorongoro Crater is one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles; its magical setting and abundant wildlife never fail to enthrall visitors, compelling UNESCO to declare the sanctuary as a “Natural World Heritage Site,” way back in 1979.
Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB), the state-run marketing agency, is confident that the re-excavation of the footprints will add value to Tanzania’s northern tourist circuit, which comprises the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Manyara, Tarangire, Kilimanjaro, and Serengeti national parks.
“I am sure this move of unearthing the world’s oldest hominid footprints will play a significant role in boosting tourist flow in the near future,” TTB Managing Director, Dr. Aloyce Nzuki, told eTurboNews at the Laetoli site.
Dr. Nzuki said with a growth rate of 12 percent for the last four years, tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries, contributing 17.2 percent of the GDP and 41.7 percent of the country’s foreign exchange inflows in the last five years.
Available records show that Tanzania earned $4,987.5 million from the tourism sector in the last four years. The industry employs nearly 200,000 Tanzanians directly.
Renowned for its relative calm in the region, the nation of about 40 million people aims to earn US$1.5 billion annually by attracting 1 million tourists per annum from 2011.
”There are still great prospects for expansion and growth in this sector. There is a huge demand for more hotels, more trucks, more restaurants, more local and international flights, and more tour operators,” Dr. Nzuki, a soft-spoken tourism guru, noted.
Tourists come to Tanzania to enjoy the beaches on its eastern coastline and the Zanzibar archipelago, its national parks such as the Selous in the southeast and the Serengeti in the north, and to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
President Kikwete had, three years ago, ordered that the pedal imprints of creatures believed to be the world’s first ever upright-walking human beings, be exposed for both tourism purposes, as well as to enable local Tanzanians to witness for themselves this important part of human history.
The line of hominid fossil footprints was discovered in 1976 by Dr. Mary Leakey. The historical footprints are preserved in powdery volcanic ash from what scientists believe to be an eruption of the 20-kilometer Sadiman Volcano.
Soft rain cemented the 15-centimer thick layer bearing the imprints without destroying the prints. The hominid sole prints were produced by three individuals, one walking in the footprints of the other, making the original tracks difficult to discover.
As the tracks lead in the same direction, scientists say they might have been produced by a group. German anthropologist Ludwig Kohl-Larsen was the first to go to Laetoli to look for fossil remains. In 1934, he found the jaw of Australopithecus afarensis.
A physical anthropologist at New York University, Professor Terry Harrison, has continued research at the site since the late 1990s. Already, fiberglass-based imitations of the Laetoli hominid trackway are sold in the United States and Europe at prices starting from US$500 per slate upward.