LANGEBAAN, South Africa (AP) Threatened by vandals and erosion, the oldest known set of human footprints were plucked from the earth and ferried by helicopter and truck Monday to a conservation workshop. They will later go to a museum.
For 117,000 years the tiny female impressions, dubbed "Eve's Footprints," lay undiscovered on the shores of Langebaan Lagoon, about 120 km north of Cape Town.
But since their discovery in 1995, the delicate tracks have suffered at the hands of modern man, with visitors scratching their names near the fossilized footprints and placing their feet in them.
Set in crumbly sandstone, they are also vulnerable to the rain, wind and waves.
"If human beings don't get the footprints, nature will," said geologist Dave Roberts, who discovered them.
Aiming to save the prints, geologists and engineers toiled over the weekend to cut them out in a single block of stone. Supported by a steel box and covered with conservative resin, the mass was lifted by helicopter onto a truck for the trip to Cape Town.
After a brief stop at an engineering workshop for more conservation work, the prints will be moved to the city's South African Museum at the end of this week.
A tense and edgy Roberts watched the prints being moved, and said he would only relax when the steel box is opened and he sees the prints have survived their journey unscathed.
"I feel a distinct sense of relief," he said. "But we are not out of the woods yet."
The footprints, 20 cm long, were made by a person who was about 160 cm tall.
This small stature led scientists to theorize they were made by a young woman. Laid on a rain-swept sloping dune, they were quickly buried by wind-blown sand and gradually turned to stone.