A remarkable scientific discovery has taken us a step further back in time, shedding light on our ancient human ancestors. Scientists have unearthed what they believe are the oldest human footprints ever found – tracks etched into the earth by an extinct human family as far back as 300,000 years ago.
The footprints, impeccably preserved, once belonged to a small band of “Heidelberg people,” an extinct species of humans known formally as Homo heidelbergensis (see image here).
These archaic humans were the pioneers of home-building and large animal hunting. However, roughly 200,000 years ago, they vanished from the face of the Earth. Experts attribute this disappearance to climate change.
In the Paleolithic site complex of Schöningen, Lower Saxony, Germany, the footprints were discovered. This site is also home to ancient animal imprints, including the region’s first evidence of elephants.
The team from the University of Tübingen (SHEP) made the groundbreaking discovery, methodically examining the ancient evidence found at the site. They paint a vivid picture of what life might have been like for these prehistoric humans.
“In an open birch and pine forest overgrown with grass, a lake stretches a few kilometers long and several hundred meters wide,” the team described. “Herds of elephants, rhinos, and even-toed ungulates frequent its muddy shores to drink and bathe. Amid this scenery stands a nuclear family of the ‘Heidelberg people.'”
The researchers assigned two of the three human traces in Schöningen to young individuals, suggesting a small mixed-age group utilized the lake and its resources.
Dr. Flavio Altamura, the study’s lead author, revealed more about the family’s lifestyle. “Depending on the season, plants, fruits, leaves, shoots, and mushrooms were available around the lake,” he said.
“Our finds confirm that the extinct human species lived on the shores of lakes or rivers with shallow water. This is also known from other sites with Lower and Middle Pleistocene hominin footprints. Due to the footprints of children and young people, it is more of a family outing than a group of adult hunters.”
Beyond the human tracks, the researchers delved into a series of elephant tracks from the extinct species Palaeoloxodon antiquus. These straight-tusked elephants, the largest land animals at the time, could weigh up to 13 tons as adult males.
D Jordi Serangeli, who led the excavation in Schöningen, shared details about the elephant tracks. “The elephant tracks we discovered in Schöningen reach a remarkable length of 55 centimeters. In some cases, we also found wood fragments in the ruts that the animals had pressed into the soft ground. One trace also comes from a rhino – Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis or Stephanorhinus hemitoechus – and is the first footprint of this species from the Pleistocene that was found in Europe.”
In 2021, archaeologists unveiled a set of 23,000-year-old human footprints in New Mexico, believed to be the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas – a full 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The footprints were found in soft mud adjacent to Alkali Flat, a dry lakebed at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. Radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the tracks dated the footprints to at least 2,000 years, with the oldest tracks dating from around 23,000 years ago.
This era, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, saw ice sheets covering much of North America, and sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today.
For many years, the widely accepted theory held that homo sapiens first set foot in North America between 13,000 and 16,000 years ago. This migration was made possible after the North American ice sheets melted, opening up new routes for exploration. The findings at White Sands National Park challenge this timeline.
Sally Reynolds, one of the study’s co-authors, and her colleagues suggest that human habitation in the Americas could date back much further than the generally accepted 16,000-year mark. Few archaeologists, however, have been able to present conclusive evidence of human habitation that predates this timeframe.
Interestingly, radiocarbon dating of sediments, animal bones, and charcoal from the same site indicated even earlier dates — approximately 33,000 years ago. However, these findings have been met with skepticism. Critics have questioned whether humans truly created the stone samples from this period.
These recent discoveries, from the footprints of the Heidelberg people in Germany to the ancient tracks in New Mexico, have turned our understanding of human history on its head.
As we delve deeper into the past, we learn more about the ancient humans who walked the Earth before us, enriching our understanding of our species’ history and evolution. The narrative of human history continues to evolve, and with each new discovery, we come a step closer to understanding our ancient past.
The story of early humans is a complex one, full of twists and turns, and it’s all about evolution and migration. The very earliest humans weren’t humans as we know them today, but rather a group of beings that would eventually evolve into modern humans.
Hominids, which include all modern and extinct Great Apes (such as gorillas, chimpanzees), as well as all their immediate ancestors, emerged and diversified in Africa about five to eight million years ago.
The first species in the human genus, Homo, appeared in Africa around two million years ago. This species, Homo habilis, is the earliest known species to have made stone tools, and is thus considered the first in the Homo genus.
This was followed by Homo erectus, a species that emerged around 1.9 million years ago. Homo erectus was the first to leave Africa and spread across parts of Asia and Europe. Their remains have been found in various places, including Indonesia and China.
Around 300,000 to 700,000 years ago, Homo erectus gave rise to Homo heidelbergensis in Africa and Europe. This species is likely the ancestor of both Neanderthals in Europe and modern humans.
Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, lived in Europe and western Asia, from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. They lived alongside modern humans for some time before becoming extinct, and recent genetic research indicates that they interbred with our ancestors.
Homo sapiens, our own species, first appeared in Africa about 300,000 years ago. Around 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, a small group of Homo sapiens left Africa and began to spread across the globe, eventually populating every continent.
One of the oldest known Homo sapiens sites is located in Omo Kibish, Ethiopia, where remains have been dated to about 195,000 years ago. Another significant location is Herto Bouri, also in Ethiopia, where Homo sapiens idaltu lived around 160,000 years ago.
Throughout their history, early humans lived in a variety of environments, adapted to different climates, invented many technologies, and developed complex social groups. The discovery of early human fossils, footprints, and artifacts like tools provides a window into this prehistoric world. As new discoveries are made and techniques for analyzing them improve, our understanding of early human history continues to evolve.
image Credit: University of Tübingen