Another piece has been added to the puzzle of modern humans' great migration out of Africa, as researchers have uncovered a set of 85,000-year-old human footprints in Saudi Arabia.
This joins the earlier discovery of a modern human finger bone from the same region dating to roughly the same time, indicating that our ancestors were clearly maintaining a foothold in the Middle East tens of thousands of years earlier than was once thought.
Discovered in the northwestern region of the country, the find was announced this week by the president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Prince Sultan bin Salman, during a visit to the National Museum of Tokyo where he is opening a new exhibition highlighting some of the extraordinary and internationally significant human artifacts unearthed in the Kingdom.
Researchers are still analyzing the footprints, which according to reports show multiple individuals dispersing in different directions, and plan on publishing their results, including a final estimate of their age, in the coming months.
At the time that our ancestors would have been making a living here, Saudi Arabia would have been unrecognizable. Today much of it might be a desert in which only the toughest can stick it out, but back when these footprints were formed the people who left them would have been wandering across the soft mud of a lake bed.
This lush environment would have been teeming life. Grasslands flourished around the wetlands, and grazing animals such as kudu, African wild asses, and the now extinct auroch would likely have provided ample prey for the humans to hunt, alongside lions, leopards, and hyena that would have also been attracted by the herbivores.
It is thought that this would have provided an ideal springboard for modern humans to finally make a successful exit out of the African continent. It is also where we most probably first bumped into our Neanderthal cousins, who would have been stalking the plains for the exact same reason our ancestors settled there.
While it is now known that our ancestors evolved in Africa at least 300,000 years ago, and likely in multiple pockets spread across the continent, discerning when exactly we colonized the rest of the world has been tricky. It was originally thought that modern humans migrated out around 60,000 years ago, but over the last few years, this theory has rapidly been eroded.
Artifacts discovered in Australia dating to 65,000 years old imply that we left Africa at a much earlier date, while a modern human jawbone uncovered in Israel dating to 120,000 years old adds weight to this. Whether or not these early excursions from Africa were successful or not is still to be figured out, but what is certain is that we were pushing the boundaries and exploring far earlier than thought.