Trace fossil footprint talk – comment from U3A Newsletter

Below is a comment published in the March 2012 U3A Newsletter (University of the 3rd Age interest group). The talk was about the ……..

Nahoon Human & Animal Trace Fossil Footprints 

Kevin Cole of the East London Museum but has a solid background in nature conservation, having worked at Mala Mala game reserve after qualifying 24 years ago at Port Elizabeth University. The story of the famous Nahoon Point footprints started in 1964 when Municipal employees Bill Hartley and Rhett Kayser were doing some work at Nahoon Point near East London. Being a hot day they sheltered from the sun under an overhanging rock, and looking up they saw what looked like some animal tracks, a bird track and three human footprints in the roof. They reported it to Margaret Courtney-Latimer who was then head of the Museum, and on investigation, she confirmed that they were footprints, fossilised in the sandstone. Soon after this, the whole roof collapsed, but miraculously, in one piece. Kevin explained to us, with the help of some excellent graphics, what had happened. The footprints were left in damp sand and afterwards dry sand would have been blown in by the prevailing westerly wind. Over thousands of years, many extra layers of sand built up, and eventually by pressure, the lower layers turned to sandstone. As the sea level was rising at that time, wave action eventually eroded the edge of the dune which had formed over the rock containing the footprints, and scooped out the lower layers, leaving a shallow cave.

The huge piece of rock which had collapsed was now lifted and transported to the laboratory at the museum where, using luminescence techniques, (which are far more accurate than Carbon-dating) they dated the footprints to approximately 124,000 years old. This made the prints the oldest fossil footprints of true modern humans. Fossils aged  from 200,000 to 125,000 years old are classified as Archaic, less than that, as modern. At first it was thought that the animal tracks were those of some sort of buck, but later they decided that they could be rabbit tracks. To test the theory, they borrowed a rabbit from the zoo and chased it over some wet sand, and sure enough, the tracks were identical! The human footprints are thought to be those of a child of about 9 or 10 years old.

In 2004 Kevin proposed that the area be proclaimed as a Nature Reserve, and was faced with the usual red-tape and bureaucracy of politicians, until he discovered in the archive that in 1907 King Edward vii had ceded the area to the people of East London, to be used as a nature area. So it is now proclaimed and boardwalks have been built so that the public can get to see the areas being investigated without the danger of disturbing the sites. There is also a large Educational Centre that Kevin designed, which is used for teaching Palaeontology and Ecology to the wider public of east London.Eventually he was instrumental in getting the whole Nahoon Point area proclaimed as a nature reserve so that the site of the archaeological dig could be protected while the painstaking work of chipping through the layers of rock looking for further tracks continued. When digging out pieces of rock, they first have to be treated chemically so that the sandstone does not break up when moved.
About seven years ago a huge rock which was part of the roof of the well-known Bat Cave near Nahoon Point fell down, again luckily in one piece. It took ten men to lift and carry the huge rock which was then taken back to the lab. There are still traces of fossil footprints in the roof of bat cave, but it is too high to be readily investigated at this stage. But the rock pieces at the lab are being investigated using the very latest techniques that can scan the interior of the rock in 3D.

The talk was thoroughly enjoyed by the capacity crowd and Kevin fielded the many questions from the floor with the ease of the true teacher.

Trevor Langley 

About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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