A recent study conducted by archaeologists in South Africa has made a significant discovery. They have found footprints belonging to Homo sapiens, dating back to 153,000 years ago. These footprints are the oldest tracks ever found that can be attributed to humans like us.
More than 40 years ago, researchers reported the discovery of footprints that were 3.66 million years old at the Laetoli site in Tanzania. Since then, paleoanthropologists have come across over 100 tracks that have been preserved in rocks, ash, and mud.
These tracks were left behind by our ancient human ancestors, including both modern humans and those who are no longer alive, as well as our closely-related predecessors.
The footprints were found in seven different archaeological sites, known as “ichnosites,” located just east of the southern tip of Africa. These sites are situated several miles inland from the ancient coastline.
A 153,000-year-old footprint found in South Africa could be the world’s oldest ever made by our species.
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Discovery of personal adornments
In South Africa, four of the ‘ichnosites’ contain tracks left by our hominin ancestors. One of the sites even revealed knee impressions, while four others showcased “ammoglyphs.” This term refers to any pattern made by humans that has been preserved over time, not just footprints, according to researchers.
The significance of footprint evidence, as highlighted by the researchers, lies in its ability to greatly enrich the archaeological record. The footprints not only show human movement across these surfaces, whether as individuals or groups, but they also offer insights into the activities our ancestors were involved in.
In the South African context, early indications of modern human behavior include personal adornments such as jewelry, the development of intricate stone tools, the use of abstract symbols, the gathering of shellfish, and the presence of coastal caves and rock shelters.
The use of the OSL dating method
To determine the age of the track sites in South Africa, the researchers used a dating method known as optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL).
This technique relies on estimating the length of time that has passed since grains of quartz or feldspar near the fossilized tracks were last exposed to sunlight.
When surfaces, where humans walked, were swiftly covered, OSL becomes a valuable tool for determining the date of those tracks, mentioned Live Science.
One of the track sites, located in the Garden Route National Park (GRNP), contains seven well-preserved tracks found in towering cliffs.
By analyzing samples from this site, the researchers were able to find that these tracks date back to approximately 153,000 years ago, with a margin of error of about 10,000 years.
While there are older preserved footprints from other hominin species found in different parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe, the track site in GRNP now holds the distinction of being the oldest one created by Homo sapiens. It’s worth noting that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago, according to Live Science.