Planet Earth

The Year in Science: Human Origins 1997

Footprints from the human dawn

By Shanti MenonJan 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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One day after a heavy rain, a small person—a woman or a teenager—walked across a wet sand dune toward what is now Langebaan Lagoon near Cape Town, South Africa, and turned to walk east along the water’s edge. The footprints that person left behind, around 117,000 years ago, are the oldest known tracks made by a modern human. Geologist David Roberts spotted the prints in late 1996 while studying the dunes. His colleague Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, announced the discovery in August.

The prints have been dated by several methods that converge on 117,000 years. The arch, the ball of the foot, everything says these are anatomically modern human footprints, says Berger. The stride length and the depth of the prints suggest they were made by a person just over five feet tall. At one point he or she curled a big toe into the wet sand. It’s a tremendous thing to think that 117,000 years ago, a person was squishing through that wet sand just like we do today, says Berger. He admits he tried to fit his foot into one of the dainty prints—but only after putting a preservative in first. Come on, could you resist? he asks.

The two and a half steps, one of only three sets of human tracks in the African fossil record, were preserved when loose, dry sand blew over the wet, packed tracks, after which the underlying sand turned into rock. Berger plans to excavate more of the trackway, which is cut off by the sheer face of a dune. I hope she tripped a few feet back so we can see her splayed out like a sand angel, he jokes.

Tools and bones from nearby sites show that the earliest modern humans originated in this area before—according to the out-of-Africa theory—they spread across the globe. This might sound funny coming from a scientist, says Berger, but I think the emotive impact of these footprints is the most powerful message. It’s incredibly exciting to put your foot into that print. This is from the time period from which every living human inherited his genetic potential. This is in fact one of us.

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