The world’s oldest human footprint has been discovered – and it’s 153,000 years old.
Scientists say they have identified a track made by Homo sapiens on South Africa’s Cape south coast.
It was found in the Garden Route National Park, west of the coastal town of Knysna.
And it’s older than the two previously dated South African sites, Nahoon and Langebaan, (124,000 years and 117,000 years respectively).
A recently published article in Ichnos, the international journal of trace fossils, details the find.
The study authors include Charles Helm, Research Associate at Nelson Mandela University, and Andrew Carr, Senior Lecturer at University of Leicester.
“It is the oldest footprint thus far attributed to our species, Homo sapiens”
They explain: “We found that the sites ranged in age; the most recent dates back about 71,000 years.
“The oldest, which dates back 153,000 years, is one of the more remarkable finds recorded in this study.
“It is the oldest footprint thus far attributed to our species, Homo sapiens.
“Just over two decades ago, as the new millennium began, it seemed that tracks left by our ancient human ancestors dating back more than about 50,000 years were excessively rare.
“In 2023 the situation is very different. It appears that people were not looking hard enough or were not looking in the right places.
“Today the African tally for dated hominin ichnosites (a term that includes both tracks and other traces) older than 50,000 years stands at 14.
“These can conveniently be divided into an East African cluster (five sites) and a South African cluster from the Cape coast (nine sites).”
Lightly outlined in chalk, it appears long and narrow because it includes a heel drag
There are a further ten sites elsewhere in the world including the UK and the Arabian Peninsula.
Charles Helm says: “The footprints are ‘natural casts’. That is, they are from the layer of sand that filled the footprints in.
“The South African hominin track sites are globally unusual in that this is a common mode of preservation. It means that, counterintuitively, we look on cave ceilings and rock overhangs for such footprints.
“The ‘oldest footprint’ is lightly outlined in chalk. It appears long and narrow because it includes a heel drag.”
The South African sites on the Cape coast, attributed to Homo sapiens, bear tracks that tend to be fully exposed when they’re discovered, in rocks known as aeolianites, which are the cemented versions of ancient dunes.
Excavation is therefore not usually considered.
And because of the sites’ exposure to the elements and the coarseness of dune sand, they aren’t usually as well preserved as East African sites.
The researchers explain: “They are also vulnerable to erosion, so we often have to work fast to record and analyse them before they are destroyed by the ocean and the wind.
“While this limits the potential for detailed interpretation, we can have the deposits dated. That’s where optically stimulated luminescence comes in.
“A key challenge when studying the palaeo-record – trackways, fossils, or any other kind of ancient sediment – is determining how old the materials are.”
In the case of the Cape south coast aeolianites, the dating method of choice is often optically stimulated luminescence.
This method of dating shows how long ago a grain of sand was exposed to sunlight. Iin other words, how long that section of sediment has been buried.
The researchers say: “Given how the tracks in this study were formed – impressions made on wet sand, followed by burial with new blowing sand – it is a good method as we can be reasonably confident that the dating “clock” started at about the same time the trackway was created.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Saba Fatima and Newsdesk Manager