Prehistoric Human Evolution Sites in Africa: A Balancing Act

A cast of the Laetoli Footprints

Maintaining research and preservation, while also providing accessibility and interpretation to engage public communities at human evolution World Heritage sites is a balancing act.

Conard states, “As I see the situation, the challenges in both cases relate not to the scientific importance of the potential nominations, but to preserving and managing the sites, while at the same time fostering an environment for productive research.”

Accessibility and interpretation, I argue should be key to the mission of the World Heritage Convention. UNESCO was created to encourage international peace, and the greatest avenues for peace are education and multicultural understanding. Public access and interpretation of World Heritage Sites promote education and multicultural understanding. Human evolution sites are the definition of world heritage as they are our cultural and biological beginnings.

Clarke states “it is important not only to conserve such early heritage but to find ways of making it accessible to all mankind.”

Accessibility endangers a sites value through erosion from foot and vehicle traffic, the building of visitor centers, visitors disturbing open air sites, and people taking souvenirs.

The Leakeys, pioneers in early hominid studies, were able to manage the balancing act between preserving their site discoveries and making them publicly accessible through site museums and guides. The Leakeys established interpretative museums at Olduvai, Olorgesailie and Kariandusi. Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a mixed natural and cultural World Heritage site which encompasses the Olduvai Gorge and the Laetoli foot prints in Tanzania (Conrad 2012). Providing guides and also having wooden walkways, barriers and thatch roofs over important archaeological sites allowed for public access while also preserving them. Although Clarke (2012) regrets that the efforts taken for providing guides and maintaining a site museum fell into disrepair after Mary Leaky’s involvement ended. These are example of sites that have strived to provide access and interpretation of human evolution while also protecting their research value.

Melka Kunture Prehistoric Site

Melka Kunture and Bachilt Archaeological Site in the Upper Awash Valley of Ethiopia is on the World Heritage Tentative list. Researchers at Melka Kunture are taking similar efforts as the Leakeys did in Olduvai. More than 80 archaeological layers have been identified at the site and excavations have resulted in the recovery of stone tools, faunal remains, and human remains including Homo erectus and archaic Homo sapiens (Clark 2012). There is a helpful website for the public to plan a visit to the site encouraging access. The website also has a virtual museum increasing public access and interpretation. The physical site has museum buildings as well as an open air museum. The onsite museums and virtual museum on Melka Kunture’s website help provide interpretation and access while conserving the archaeology.

Northern Cape in South Africa

Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, also on the world heritage tentative list, is another example of management methods that help to balance conservation with accessibility. Both cave walls contain Late Stone Age rock paintings and the floor of the chamber is rich in archaeological deposits (Ruther et al. 2009). Yielding one of the longest and richest archaeological sequences, the cave is significant in South Africa. The interior of Wonderwerk Cave was laser scanned for archaeological research and historical documentation purposes, but the data provided from the scans can also be used to make the site accessible to the public while preserving it (Ruther et al. 2009). Wondwerk Cave is important to the local economy as a tourist attraction and educational resource (Ruther et al. 2009). The data from the laser scan of the cave interior can be used to create safe access for visitors while not having a negative impact on the archaeological deposits. The 3D model created by the laser scan is used in management planning for the site by engineers to create walkways for visitor access that will cause the least amount of damage. Through the African Cultural Heritage Landscape Database the 3D model of Wonderwerk Cave is available to the public. This online virtual tour of the site provides greater access and interpretation of the site for the public while not endangering the preservation of the site.

These three examples from Olduvai, Melka Kunture, and Wonderwerk help set a standerd for striking a balance between increasing access and interpretation to prehistoric sites and protecting the sites research value and authenticity in Africa. Management plans that increase access and interpretation while preserving the site should be standard for human evolution World Heritage Sites.