A massive eruption of the ‘Mountain of God’ volcano in Tanzania is imminent – and it could wipe out key sites in human history, scientists have warned.
Also known as Ol Doinyo Lengai, the 7,650ft (2,331m) volcano is less than 70 miles away from where footprints left by our ancestors 3.6 million years ago have been discovered.
And it is also close to a spot where 400 human footprints from 19,000 years ago have been found by scientists.
Researchers studying the tremors of the volcano have now warned it may erupt ‘any second’, destroying the invaluable sites forever.
In January of this year, the scientists recorded a shudder in their data, indicating that parts of the volcano were lifting upwards.
‘Several subsequent signals were also seen in real-time with additional on-the-ground observations by our local technician,’ Dr Sarah Stamps, a geophysicist at Virginia Tech, told National Geographic.
Footprints belonging to a group of early humans who lived 3.6 million years were discovered close to the volcano in 2016.
The early impressions were made when five of our ancient relatives – most likely Australopithecus afarensis – walked across wet volcanic ash.
Researchers say the footprints suggest that members of Australopithecus afarensis may have had a gorilla-like social arrangement of one dominant male mating with several females.
The researchers believe that they belong to five members of Australopithecus afarensis – the prehuman species best known for the fossil skeleton, nicknamed ‘Lucy.’
A man accompanied by four women was thought to have walked at least 30 metres over the volcanic ash that later hardened into rock.
Professor Giorgio Manzi, lead author of the study, said: ‘This novel evidence, taken as a whole with the previous findings, portrays several early hominins moving as a group through the landscape following a volcanic eruption and subsequent rainfall. But there is more.
‘The footprints of one of the new individuals are astonishingly larger than anyone else’s in the group, suggesting that he was a large male member of the species.
The volcano is less than 70 miles from Laetoli, where footprints from 3.6 million years ago has been found and Engare Sero, where 400 footprints from 19,000 ago have been discovered
‘These signals prompted rapid responses by our team to install three new real-time stations.’
Further signals, including an increase in gas emissions and earthquakes, have led the scientists to conclude that an eruption is now ‘imminent’.
‘Imminent in our case means in one second, in a few weeks, a couple of months, or a year or more,’ said Dr Stamps.
‘There are increased ash emissions, earthquakes, uplift at small volcanic cones, and an ever widening crack at the top of the volcano on the west side.
‘These are all signs of volcanic deformation that will likely lead to an eruption sooner rather than later.’
A set of more than 400 human footprints thought to date back to between 10,000 and 19,000 years ago have been found just nine miles from the volcano in Engare Sero.
It was previously thought that the footprints dated back as far as 120,000 years, and that they had been preserved by ash falling from the sky, following the eruption of a nearby volcano.
But the research team has now been able to date them more accurately after discovering that a muddy flow of debris and ash from the volcano’s sides was responsible.
‘It’s a very complicated site,’ William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the City University of New York and a member of the research team told National Geographic.
‘There’s one area where there are so many prints, we’ve nicknamed it the “dance hall”, because I’ve never seen so many prints in one place….it’s completely nuts.’
No other site in Africa has as many homo sapien footprints.
The huge collection of footprints was discovered on mudflats on the southern shore of Lake Natron in the village of Engare Sero in northern Tanzania.
She added that is not certain that an eruption will destroy nearby archaeological sites.
But if a large eruption coincided with the heavy rain season, it is possible that large debris flows could destroy the sites, according to Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce, an Appalachian State University geologist.
‘Historically, Lengai is capable of large debris flows and debris avalanches that reach the shore of Lake Natron, and these could potentially pose a significant threat to the site and to all of the camps that are here along the lake edge,’ she said.
‘I think that would be my biggest concern for this area—the potential for a debris flow or debris avalanche.’
She added that a similar debris avalanche was responsible for preserving the collection of 400 footprints at Engare Sero, which is just nine miles away for the volcano.
Around 19,000 years ago, a wave of volcanic mud created vast mudflats close to Lake Natron.
Humans walked across these mudflats within hours of the mudslide, and a second wave of material then filled in footprints, preserving them forever.