Footloose in the Sands of Time

Human footprints are fascinating archaeological finds. They are intimate snapshots that provide a tangible connection to our ancestors who walked the Earth thousands of years ago. And now, a study led by an international team of researchers from the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment have discovered the oldest known human footprints in Germany. These 300,000-year-old footprints, located in the Schöningen Paleolithic site complex in Lower Saxony, offer a remarkable glimpse into the ecosystem and the lives of the Homo heidelbergensis, the species thought to have left these footprints.

The scene from that time could have been something out of a prehistoric picture book. Imagine an open birch and pine forest, dappled sunlight streaming through the leaves onto the grassy understory. Nearby, a lake stretches out, several kilometers long and hundreds of meters wide, its muddy shores a gathering place for herds of elephants, rhinoceroses, and ungulates. Amidst this idyllic landscape, a small family of Heidelberg people, a human species that has since become extinct, leaves their mark in the form of footprints in the mud.

According to Dr. Flavio Altamura, lead author of the study, this is the first time a detailed investigation of the fossil footprints from two sites in Schöningen has been conducted. The researchers analyzed the footprints and gathered information from sedimentological, archaeological, paleontological, and paleobotanical analyses. The footprints and the accompanying data provide insights into the paleoenvironment and the mammals that once shared this space with our ancient ancestors.

Two of the three human tracks at Schöningen are attributed to young individuals who would have used the lake and its resources in a small mixed-age group. Depending on the season, the area around the lake was rich with plants, fruits, leaves, shoots, and mushrooms. Evidence from this study and other Lower and Middle Pleistocene sites with hominin footprints suggest that these ancient human species often dwelled on lake or river shores with shallow water.

The footprints offer a snapshot of daily life from thousands of years ago, providing information about the behavior and social composition of hominin groups, as well as their interactions with the surrounding fauna. The presence of tracks from children and juveniles suggests that the group was likely a family unit rather than a group of adult hunters.

In addition to human tracks, the team analyzed a series of elephant tracks left by Palaeoloxodon antiquus, an extinct species of straight-tusked elephant that was the largest land animal of the time. The elephants’ tracks were an impressive 55 centimeters long. There were also tracks from a rhinoceros—either Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis or Stephanorhinus hemitoechus—the first footprint of either of these Pleistocene species ever found in Europe.

This discovery is a significant contribution to our understanding of the paleoecology of the Lower Paleolithic period, shedding light on the coexistence of early humans with other large mammals of the time. As we continue to unearth and study these ancient footprints, we are able to piece together a more complete picture of our shared human history.

For more details, you can refer to the original study: Flavio Altamura et al, Fossil footprints at the late lower Paleolithic site of Schöningen (Germany):

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