Newly discovered fossilized footprints left behind by Homo erectus, the extinct ancestor of modern humans, are believed to be approximately 800,000 years old and are potentially the oldest such remains ever discovered by researchers, according to published reports.
Discovered in the deserts of south eastern Eritrea by a team of local and Italian paleontologists, the prints were left behind in the sands of what had been an ancient lake at the time, The Local and the ANSA news agency reported this week. The footprints have been described as virtually indistinguishable from those of a modern man.
“Their age is yet to be confirmed with certainty,” Alfredo Coppa, an archaeologist from Rome’s Sapienza University and the leader of the expedition, told The Local. He added that footprints such as these are “extremely rare” and that they would “reveal a lot about the evolution of man, because they provide vital information about our ancestors gait and locomotion.”
Coppa and his colleagues found the fossils in a 26 square meter stone slab, and reported that the shape indicates that the prints had been filled with water after formation but before they dried out and became buried beneath the sands of what is now an extremely arid desert region.
Findings provide insight into human ancestors, surrounding ecosystem
Working with researchers from the National Museum of Eritrea, the Sapienza University team discovered the footprints at the Aalad-Amo site in eastern Eritrea. As the paleontologists pointed out to ANSA, the toes and the sole of the foot indicate that Homo erectus was an efficient runner and walker.
In addition, the prints run in a north-south direction, matching those left behind by now-extinct antelopes. That discovery, combined with the fact that the prints were preserved in a sediment of hardened sand, suggests that the area was once a lake surrounded by grasslands. The discovery is the first time that mid-Pleistocene era have ever been discovered, the news agency said.
Homo erectus lived between 1.9 million to 70,000 years ago and is believed to have originated in Africa before migrating throughout Europe and Asia. While the newfound remains could well be the oldest footprints of this species ever discovered, they are far from the oldest hominid prints to be unearthed, according to The Local. That honor belongs to Australopithecus footprints found in Tanzania in 1976, as those remains were dated to be roughly 3.8 million years old.
Coppa told the newspaper that his team planned to “carry out more digs in the area, which has so far turned up the fossilized remains of five or six different Homo erectus specimens.”
Image credit: Sapienza University