Hundreds of fossilized human footprints give clues of ancient African traditions

The footprints date back 5,760 to 19,100 years ago and the discovery sheds light on what life looked like back in ancient Africa.

This is the largest collection of fossilized footprints discovered to date. Researchers believe this 408 footprints from 17 different tracks and belong to 14 adult females and three males, two of whom are adults and the other a juvenile.  

The footprints were preserved by volcanic mudflow from the Pliocene, which dried up and hardened like concrete. According to lead scientists, despite the resilience of their surface, other layers of sediment buried over the years shielded their carvings from the worst of the elements.

More on the study that was done and the eventual publication can be found online. The footprints were discovered at the Engare Sero site in the Northern part of Tanzania, South of Lake Natron. According to research, the site hosts the largest assemblage of hominin footprints in Africa, which is 100 Km from the site of Laetoli - also known for preserving the earliest known hominin footprint.

The local Maasai community found the footprints in 2008 and notified conservationists. By 2009, 56 human footprints were visible at the site, having been exposed by erosion. Excavations were then done exposing the other footprints.  

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Where is Laetoli?

Laetoli is on the Southern regions of the Serengeti plains around the Ngorongoro conservation area. Other renowned palaeoanthropological locations are Olduvai Gorge, Nasera Rock, and Lake Ndutu. 

What do we learn from ancient behavior?

It is striking how scientists can predict ancient behavior through an analysis of fossilized footprints.

To derive information from the tracks, they examine their sizes, spacings, and orientations. The details then reveal the speed of movement, size of the walking party, and direction of movement. The data derived was compared with that of living humans to predict the age and gender.

Comparisons were done with present-day hunter-gatherer societies to understand the rationale behind traveling in grouped parties. 

Labor roles back then were apportioned according to gender. women did the foraging while the men followed closely behind. A practiced trend among the Aché in Paraguay and Hadza in Tanzania. Evidence of zebra, buffalo, and antelope footprints were uncovered 18 miles to the southwest. 

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Why are the footprints important?

Remains of teeth and archeological bones give paleontologists a lot of data on human evolution.  Footprints tend to be more informative as they are interpreted as snapshots of the past formed within a relatively short time span.

When impressed on the ground, they fossilize when exposed to certain geological conditions. Footprints help scientists reconstruct body size, locomotion, speed, variability, and speed of the extinction process. 

Fossilized footprints are relied upon as palaeontological tools. Their unique features help identify their composition and biological information. Most fossil human tracks are under the genus homo - Laetoli excluded.

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Opinions of the local Maasai

The local Massai are aware of the footprints and narrate how they are scattered across the volcanic Laetoli landscapes. Those who reside on the outskirts of Laetoli pass through the area regularly as they herd their livestock. The narrative behind Lakalanga’s footprints has been captured in Maasai folklore. 

Lakalanga was a man with big strides and left behind visible tracks as he walked. Locals believe he was bigger and more energetic than other members of society. Unfortunately, the myth does not correlate with the scientific narrative arrived at after an evaluation of the footprints.

They only tell a tale of Lakalang and other warriors beside him. The discovery of new prints in 2016, especially the larger set, gave the Maasai some reason to believe that their ancient folklore has credence. 

In 450 BC, Herodotus reported footprints along the Tyras Riverbank in Moldovia. He associated them with ancient gods who took the form of giants. Footprints discovered at Gallipoli Peninsula in the Northeastern part of Turkey were associated with a hero of the Trojan War. From this, we can understand the influence of local culture and belief as they try to interpret their unusual discoveries. 

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Address Laetoli, Dodoma, Tanzania

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Hundreds of fossilized human footprints give clues of ancient African traditions

Laetoli, Dodoma, Tanzania