Bizarre Tanzanian Volcano May Destroy Ancient Hominin Footprints

The Ol Doinyo Lenagi volcano is really weird, with lava so cool someone has survived falling into it.

The Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano is really weird, with lava so cool someone has actually survived falling into it. MrLis/Shutterstock

A supremely odd volcano in Tanzania is rumbling and grumbling, and researchers suspect it may erupt “imminently”. But the fact that it’s just a stone’s throw from the scientifically important Olduvai Gorge, where ancient hominin footprints have been uncovered, means that researchers are concerned that a critical piece of human history may be lost.  

When it comes to mountains that spew molten rock, Ol Doinyo Lengai is a real oddity. The lava erupts at a bizarrely cool temperature of just 510°C (950°F), which is positively chilly compared to the normal temperature of lava, around 1,000°C (1,832°F). In fact, the lava is so cool, a man once fell into a crater of it, and survived. The strangeness of the lava doesn’t stop there, either, as it even flows like water.


But monitoring over the past few years has revealed something worrying. The volcano has started rumbling, with the magma beneath the surface physically lifting parts of the volcano upwards. The researchers are warning that this means an eruption is imminent, likely to occur within if not months, then a few years at the latest.

The footprints close to the volcano, and most likely to be destroyed, are thought to have been made some 19,000 years ago. Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock

“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,” volcanologist Sarah Stamps told National Geographic. “These are all signs of volcanic deformation that will likely lead to an eruption sooner rather than later.”

And when it does blow, it won’t just be volcanologists and geologists interested in the results. The ash, lava, and debris emitted are expected to rain down on the surrounding landscape, and are predicted to destroy some of the earliest evidence of human history, to the dismay of the anthropologists who have been studying the footprints over the last few decades.

The eruption itself is not thought to be a danger to the ancient hominin footprints. But the fear is that if the volcano happens to blow its top during the rainy season, the mix of ash and rain, coupled with the weird liquid lava, means that it would flow over the footprints and smother them entirely.  


Within just 14.4 kilometers (8.9 miles) of Ol Doinyo Lengai, researchers recently discovered over 400 hominin footprints at Engare Sero, perfectly preserved over 19,000 years ago. Known as the “dance hall” due to the surprising number of prints, it appears some of our ancestors wandered across a grassland that itself had recently been strewn with ash from the volcano when it erupted way back then.

Of even more concern is a set of footprints made by our even more ancient ancestors some 3.6 million years ago at Laetoli, although at 114 kilometers (70 miles) away, they are more likely to be spared.

Either way, there is not much that can be done. The prints have all been 3D-scanned, and lifting them out is not really an option. It seems we’ll just have to wait and watch, and see if the natural event that led to the creation of the prints in the first place also takes them away.


  • tag
  • lava,

  • volcano,

  • Africa,

  • eruption,

  • hominin,

  • history,

  • Tanzania,

  • footprints,

  • ancient human