Scientists from the National Museum of Eritrea and Rome’s La Sapienza University have discovered what appear to be the oldest footprints belonging to Homo erectus – an ancestor of modern humans – ever found. Thought to be about 800,000 years old, the prints belong to multiple individuals who the researchers believe may have been stalking a gazelle-like animal at the time the markings were made, due to the presence of animal tracks interspersed among the footprints.
Homo erectus – meaning “upright man” – is an extinct hominid that is believed to have first appeared on the scene around 1.9 million years ago in eastern Africa, before spreading to Europe and Asia. Fossil records show that their bodies were proportionally similar to those of modern humans, indicating that they were specially adapted for life on the ground rather than in trees.
The species became extinct as other hominids appeared and became dominant, with Homo sapiens making their entrance around 200,000 years ago.
Speaking to Discovery News, lead researcher Alfredo Coppa explained how these rare footprints could help scientists learn more about the body mass, walking style, and social interactions of Homo erectus, thereby providing key insights into the evolution of modern humans. “The prints show toe details, a marked longitudinal arch, and an abducted toe, all features distinctive of human feet,” he said.
The footprints were found in a slab of stone, thought to have once been sandy sediment on the shore of a large lake, that hardened after becoming submerged, dried out, and buried beneath several more layers of sediment.
Said to be about a size 12, the prints are remarkably similar to those of Homo sapiens, though they are far from being the earliest hominid footprints ever found. That particular honor goes to a 3.7-million-year-old print left by an earlier species called Australopithecus afarensis in Tanzania.
However, the importance of this latest finding lies in the fact that it represents the earliest confirmed Homo erectus footprints. Though some other similar discoveries have been made at sites like Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya, Coppa says that because several hominid species are known to have inhabited these regions, researchers can’t be certain which species these footprints belonged to.
“It is very likely the area around Ileret and Koobi Fora was populated by H. erectus, although also Homo habilis and perhaps members of the Paranthropus genus lived there,” said Coppa. "On the contrary, the area where our footprints were unearthed was inhabited only by H. erectus, thus the importance of the finding.”
Image in text: Sapienza University