Our ancient hominid ancestors may have taken up residence in the Iberian Peninsula around 295,800 years ago, according to a new analysis of footprints found on a beach in Andalusia. Originally discovered in June 2020, the prints were first thought to have been made by Neanderthals about 106,000 years ago, yet the new evaluation suggests that they may have been left by an earlier species of human.
The tracks are imprinted into a layer of sediment within the Asperillo cliff in Matalascañas, and appear to have been made by at least three individuals, including a child aged six to eight years. More than 300 footprints have been discovered so far, and the fact that they lead towards a series of animal tracks suggests that they may have been left by hunters.
Despite the prints’ remarkable state of preservation, researchers say they can’t reliably attribute them to a specific hominid species because their anatomical features are not detailed enough. However, original estimates of the footprints’ age suggested that they came from the Upper Pleistocene, when Neanderthals inhabited the region.
To test this assumption, the authors of a new study re-calculated the ages of four sediment samples using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence. Results showed that the material was in fact significantly older than first thought, and originated in the Middle Pleistocene.
More specifically, the footprints appear to have been made between a warm period known as Marine Isotope Stage 9 (MIS 9) and the cooler MIS 8, when a major glaciation occurred. Hominid remains from this era are extremely rare, although the study authors say that the warmer climate of southern Spain would have provided one of Europe’s best habitats for humans during this time.
To date, only four sites have yielded hominid footprints from the Middle Pleistocene. Prints from two of these sites have been attributed to Neanderthals, while those from the remaining two sites are believed to have been made by an earlier ancestor called Homo heidelbergensis.
According to the study authors, the length of the prints at all four of these sites matches up with those at Matalascañas, suggesting they also belong to one of these two species.
“The Middle Pleistocene European hominin fossils belong to the Neandertal lineage, either Neandertals or Homo heidelbergensis,” they write. “Therefore, the most likely taxonomic assignment for the Matalascañas footprints would be one of the taxa within this lineage. However, a more precise attribution seems complicated as there are many debates about the evolution of this lineage but also about the taxonomic definition of Homo heidelbergensis.”
Interestingly, researchers also describe tracks belonging to extinct animals such as straight-tusked elephants and aurochs at Matalascañas. By re-evaluating the age of the prints, the authors are able to confirm that these species roamed the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Pleistocene.
Overall, the researchers say that “the Matalascañas footprints represent a crucial record for understanding human occupations in Europe in the Pleistocene.”
The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.