for National Geographic News
View Oldest Human Footprints Photo Gallery: Go>>
Ever since three sets of fossilized footprints on the Roccamonfina volcano in southern Italy were found, nearby residents have known them as Ciampate del Diavolothe "Devil's Trails."
But researchers have now established that the footprints belong to humans. The tracks, etched in volcanic ash, date back 385,000 to 325,000 years, making them the oldest human footprints ever discovered. Occasional handprints are also visible, suggesting that the track makers used their hands for steadying during a difficult descent, but otherwise walked upright.
"These tracks give us unique insight into the activities of some of the earliest known Europeans," said Paolo Mietto from the University of Padua, Italy, whose research team established the true origin of the footprints. "No previous records of pre-late Pleistocene tracks are known that show associated hand prints, nor are there any such striking examples of deliberate efforts to negotiate steep surfaces."
Not So Supernatural
Two archeology amateurs, Marco De Angelis and Adolfo Panarello, alerted Mietto and his team of paleontologists to the site. The tracks are impressed on a volcanic pyroclastic flow (ash, pumice, and rock fragments) deposit and buried under volcanic ash. The researchers were able to date the sediments around the footprints because the history of Roccamonfina's volcanic activity is well known.
The footprints are much more detailed than others found in the past, allowing the researchers to make remarkably exact observations about the direction and stride patterns. The paths suggest the track makers carefully chose their route to descend the mountain.
One set of tracks consists of 27 footprints and is shaped like a "Z," showing two sharp turns. The other two tracks, a series of 19 and 10 footprints, show the track makers crossing the volcanic slope in a relatively straight line.
The footprints are only eight inches (20 centimeters) long and four inches (10 centimeters) wide. The track ways are narrow with an average pace of two feet (0.6 meter) and a stride of about four feet (1.2 meters), made by track makers of similar size and movement speed. The researchers believe the humans were no taller than five feet (1.5 meters).
According to Mietto, the track makers had a fully bipedal (two-footed) and free-standing gait and used their arms only for support or to regain balance in very steep areas. "These tracks were made by pre-sapien species, possibly a late European Homo Erectus or Homo Heidelbergensis," said Mietto.
So what were the humans doing up on the mountain? The answer is unclear. But researchers speculate that they may have been trying to escape a volcanic eruption.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES