Along the coast of Morocco, archaeologists have uncovered the oldest human footprints ever discovered in Northern Africa and the Southern Mediterranean. Dating to some 90,000 years ago, they are also “among the oldest footprints attributed to Homo sapiens worldwide.”
An international team of archaeologists recently discovered the footprints near the city of Larache on the Northwest coast of Morocco. While there are older fossilized remains of humans in North Africa at a mountainous site called Jebel Irhoud, no evidence has yet been found in the Larache region, some 250 kilometers (156 miles) north towards the coast.
In total, the researchers counted 85 prints along a beach area that spans around 2,800 square meters (30,000 square feet) in size. Based on the shape, size, and location of the impressions, the team concluded they were made by the feet of Homo sapiens.
The group was made up of at least five individuals, including a young child, an older child, an adolescent or small adult, a medium-sized adult, and an extremely tall adult. This last individual is believed to have been a male with a height of 189 centimeters (6 feet 2 inches), which is exceptionally tall for a prehistoric human.
Most archaeological sites like this contain less than a few dozen footprints, which makes the 85 impressions at Larache all the more fascinating. To fully appreciate the discovery, you must think about the unique circumstances that allowed a human foot to be imprinted into the ground and then preserved for tens of thousands of years.
To put a solid date on the tracks, the researchers used optically stimulated luminescence. This cutting-edge technique shows how long ago a grain of sand was exposed to sunlight, thereby showing how long that section of sediment has been buried.
This revealed that the footprints were made approximately 90,300 years ago, with a margin of error of about 7,600 years either way.
“The Larache footprints represent an important discovery. Indeed, no other site in North Africa has yielded footprints dating from the Pleistocene or Pliocene. They are, therefore, the oldest human footprints in this region and among the oldest footprints attributed to Homo sapiens worldwide,” the study authors write.
The researchers go on to explain that just two other regions have yielded older examples of confirmed Homo sapiens footprints: a set of tracks on the Arabian Peninsula dating to around 120,000 years old and another collection in South Africa that date back a whopping 153,000 years.
Prior to 2000, there were just a handful of sites where you could find ancient human footprints that were more than 50,000 years old, all of which were in East Africa and South Africa. However, excavations in the past two decades have revealed many more footprints older than this time.
Even in North America, where human presence is relatively recent, archaeologists have recently uncovered human footprints in present-day New Mexico that could be as old as 23,000 years.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.