Tag Archives: Ancient footprints

Ancient footprints

To see traces of where our forebears walked, such as the famous Australopithecus afarensis trackway at Laetoli in Tanzania, the footprints of Neanderthal children in 350 ka old Italian volcanic ash (The first volcanologists? Earth Pages March 2003) or even those of Mesolithic families in estuarine mud is about as heart stopping as it gets for a geologist. But imagine the astonishment of members of a multinational team working on Miocene shore-line sediments on Crete when they came upon a bedding surface covered with what are almost certainly the footprints of another bipedal animal from 5.7 Ma ago (Gierliński, G.D. et al. 2017. Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete? Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, online; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.006). Trackways preserve a few moments in time, however old they are and the chances of their being preserved are very small, yet they can supply information that is lost from even the best preserved fossil, such as gait, weight, speed and so forth.

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Track bearing surface; (b) two footprints in 5.7 Ma old Miocene sediments at Trachilos, Crete (credit: Gierliński, G.D. et al. 2017; Figures 2 and 8)

The tracks clearly indicate that whatever left them was bipedal and lacked claws, and closely resemble those attributed to A. afarensis at Laetoli in a 3.7 Ma old volcanic ash. What they do not resemble closely are those of non-hominin modern primates, such as chimpanzees. They are diminutive compared with adult modern human prints, being about 12.5 cm long (equivalent to a UK child’ shoe size 4 – US size 4.5, EU 20) and about a third to half the size of those at Laetoli. Were they around the age of those at Laetoli or younger there seems little doubt that they would be widely interpreted as being of hominin origin. But being from an island in the Mediterranean as well as far from sites in Africa that have yielded Miocene hominins (Ardipithecus kadabba from Ethiopia, Orrorin from Kenya and Sahelanthropus from Chad),  such an interpretation is bound to create controversy. Somewhat less controversial might be to regard them as having been created by a late-Miocene primate that convergently evolved a hominin-like upright gait and foot. Being preserved in what seem to be coastal marine sediments, there is probably little chance of body fossils being preserved in the exposed horizon. Since foot bones are so fragile, even if a primate fossil is discovered in the late Miocene of Crete the chances of resolving the issue are pretty remote. Yet fossil primate specialists will undoubtedly beat a well-trodden path to the Trachilos site near Kissamos on Crete

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Traces of the most ancient Britons

Perhaps the most evocative traces of our ancestors are their footprints preserved in once soft muds or silts, none more so than the 3.6 Ma old hominin trackway at Laetoli in Tanzania, discovered by Mary Leakey and colleagues in 1978. Such records of living beings’ activities are by no means vanishingly rare. In 2003 footprints of Neanderthal children emerged in volcanic ash that had formed on the slopes of an Italian volcano. The fact that the tracks zig-zagged and included handprints seemed to suggest that the children were playing on a tempting slope of soft sediment, much as they do today (see The first volcanologists?   and Walking with the ancestors). The muddy sediments of the Severn and Mersey estuaries in England yield younger footprints of anatomically modern humans of all sizes every time tidal flows rip up the sedimentary layers. Now similar examples have been unearthed from 1.0 to 0.78 Ma old Pleistocene interglacial sediments at a coastal site in Norfolk, England, in which stone tools had been found in 2010 .

Coastal exposure of Pleistocene laminated sediments at Happisburgh (credit: Ashton et a. 2014 PLOS1)

Coastal exposure of Pleistocene laminated sediments at Happisburgh; the top surface exposes the hominin trackway  (credit: Ashton et al. 2014 PLOS1)

A team funded by the Pathways to Ancient Britain Project, involving scientists from a consortium of British museums and universities, rapidly conserved a 12 m2 surface of laminated sediments fortuitously exposed on the foreshore at Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Haze-burra’) by winter storms. It was covered in footprints (Ashton, N. and 11 others 2014. Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS ONE v. 9: e88329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329). Analysis of the prints suggested a band of individuals who had tramped southwards across mudflats at the edge of an estuary. They were possibly members of an early human species, known as Homo antecessor, skeletal remains of whom are known from northern Spain. The Happisburgh individuals were of mixed size, probably including adults and juveniles: three footprint sets suggested 1.6 to 1.73 m stature; nine less than 1.4 m.

View from above of the well-trodden trackway at Happisburgh, with an enlarged example of one of the foot prints (credit: Ashton et al 2014 PLoS1)

View from above of the well-trodden trackway at Happisburgh, with an enlarged example of one of the foot prints (credit: Ashton et al. 2014 PLoS1)

From pollen samples, East Anglia during the interglacial had a cool climate with pine, spruce, birch and alder tree cover with patches of heath and grassland. That it had attracted early humans to travel so far north from the Mediterranean climate where skeletal remains are found, suggests that food resources were at least adequate. It is hard to imagine the band having been seasonal visitors from warmer climes further south. They must have been hardy, and from the stone tools we know they were well equipped and capable of killing sizeable prey animals, bones of which marked by clear cut marks being good evidence for their hunting skills.

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