Just over 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the infamous Mount Vesuvius lies the Roccamonfina volcano; once active, now extinct. For centuries local people had questioned the humanoid footprints down the volcano’s edge, assuming only the Devil could walk on the flowing lava unharmed.
Since archaeologists discovered the site in 2001, traditionally known as the Ciampate del Diavolo (Devil’s Footprints or Devil’s Trails), several tracks of our ancestors, and other mammals, have been identified, dated to between 385,000 and 325,000 years ago. Until now, all the tracks were understandably directed downhill, but several of these new prints indicate one individual was traveling uphill.
Published in the Journal of Quaternary Science, the discovery of 14 new footprints by the Italian-based team brings the total to 81, produced from at least five different trackmakers.
The formation of these prints is attributed to a pyroclastic flow from the Roccamonfina volcano. The extremely dangerous flow of lava chunks, ash, and hot gas produced from volcanic eruptions can move at speeds of up to 200 meters (656 feet) per second. Researchers can deduce that the footprints were left shortly after a pyroclastic flow, when the ground was soft and plastic enough for them to form.
The spacing between the prints also suggests that the trackmakers did not run, but instead moved at a relaxed walking pace. This indicates that enough time had elapsed following the pyroclastic flow for the ground to be cool enough to walk on.
Further analysis of the footprints has also enabled the team to tentatively suggest the origins of the tracks. The size, shape, and arch of the foot appear to match that of the hominin foot from the Sima de los Huesos, or “pit of bones”, site in Spain. DNA sequencing of these bones found them to belong to Neanderthals. Therefore, the footprints at Roccamonfina are also thought to be from Neanderthals, but the official species status is still pending.
Alongside the footprints, the team also found two stone artifacts. Both obtained from the same basalt material, markings on their surface suggest that they were used as tools.
The evidence gathered by the team, such as uphill tracks, a leisurely pace of walking, and the existence of stone tools, has led them to suggest that the well-studied site may not have just been a transit area for ancient hominins. It seems the side of the Roccamonfina volcano might have been home to at least some form of temporary home environment too.