What do 100,000-year-old footprints in Morocco tell us about early humans? Science and technology news

What can indentations in the Earth from ancient times tell us about our early ancestors? A lot, as it turns out.

In January, an international team of scientists from Morocco, France, Germany and Spain published details of a remarkable discovery: a set of well-preserved human footprints believed to be 100,000 years old.

It is believed that the footprints belong to a group of five individuals and were found on a rocky beach in a town in northern Morocco.

This research, published in the scientific journal Nature, adds to a growing body of work that is helping scientists piece together the true and elusive origins of the human species. But while their discovery is an archaeological achievement, coastal erosion threatens the existence of these ancient ruins.

Here’s what we know about this latest discovery and other ancient human artifacts that scientists have discovered so far.

Morocco footprint
A team of Moroccan and European scientists found a set of about 85 footprints from five human ancestors (Fadil Sina/AFP)

What did scientists find in Morocco?

In June 2022, archaeologist Moncef Sedrati was leading field research focusing on rocks near the Moroccan coast in the southern Tangier region when his team found gaps in the ground in the city of Larache.

Looking closely, they discovered that the indentations were footprints of different sizes. For Sedrati, an expert in coastal dynamics and marine geology at France’s University of Southern Brittany, the scene was “extraordinary.”

“We were not 100% sure at first about the first version, but little by little, we found a second and third path, and then a very clear path and more and more,” Sedrati told Al Jazeera. “Then the doubt disappeared. Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens) left the initial traces on sandy beach sediments about 100,000 years ago.

About 85 footprints in total were found, likely made by a group of five people walking towards the water, using the site as a path. These are the first early human tracks discovered in North Africa and the southern Mediterranean.

The gaping arch, rounded heel, and short toe marks confirmed that they were traces of Homo sapiens, or modern humans like us. Their different foot sizes indicate that there are adults and children of different ages.

But scientists still don’t know what the group was doing at the site. Were they trying to collect food from the sea? Or were they simply moving through the area and crossed the beach road by chance?

Sedrati’s team studied sediments at the site and the footprints themselves to determine how long they might have been there.

Optically stimulated luminescence dating, a research technique that helps archaeologists determine when metals or carbon surrounding unearthed artifacts was last exposed to heat or sunlight, has allowed researchers to estimate the age of prints.

They linked the origins of the marks to the late Pleistocene, the period in which the last ice age occurred. The earlier Middle to Late Pleistocene, which includes periods from 770,000 to 120,000 years ago, is widely believed to be the era in which ancient humans – separate from modern humans – roamed the Earth.

Using a drone to take 461 photographs of the prints, the team processed the images using specialized software and extracted 3D models to accurately measure the depression and width of each print, and to measure the ages of group members.

The trellis footprints likely remained intact due to a combination of factors, the researchers wrote in the study, including its location, soil type and sea waves. The location of the beach on a rocky platform allowed the tides to bury the mud deposits that form the tracks, keeping them preserved until recent erosion exposed them again.

For Sedrati, who is of North African descent, the discovery is personal.

“You can imagine how proud I am to lead the research team that made this discovery, especially in a Moroccan city close to my heart,” he said, adding that he enjoyed working with colleagues from other fields such as geology to complete it. the study.

But there is more work for the team to do. Only a portion of the publications have been processed, and the team has questions.

“What were the climate and weather conditions at that time? Where was the coastline, sea level?” Sedrati asked.

Anna Sedrati
Archaeologist Moncef Sedrati examines a set of ancient footprints, believed to have been left by Homo sapiens more than 100,000 years ago, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Tangier in northern Morocco (Fadil Sina/AFP)

Where else have ancient human traces been found?

Finding footprints thousands of years old is rare but not unheard of.

The oldest known human traces were discovered in 1995, a set of three prints belonging to a hypothetical “Eve” and called “Eve’s Footprints”. They were discovered in Langebaan, a coastal town in the West Cape province of South Africa. It is believed that Eve lived about 117 thousand years ago.

David Roberts, who formed part of the team that discovered the prints, said at the time that they were likely made on a steep sand dune during a storm before dry sand filled the gap and hardened.

The print measures 22cm (8.7″), which is the same size as a modern woman wearing a US size 7.5. “Eve” was probably about 122 cm (4 ft) tall.

In 2022, another team of researchers found two human traces on the surface of a cave in the same area. It is not well preserved. The sediment in which the prints were made had been eroded away, but the outlines of the footprints were still visible. The distance between the two tracks — 49 centimeters (19 inches), consistent with the distance between an average human’s legs while walking — suggested to the team that it was from one of our direct ancestors, rather than from a hominid — another species of modern human that is now extinct.

Outside of the African continent, there were also ancient trails Discover in the United States of America. In 2009, a park manager in White Sands National Park, New Mexico, discovered a trail and led scientists to discover thousands more spread across 325 square kilometers (80,000 acres). These included child-sized footprints, and one set in particular showed a woman who likely placed a child on the ground. Researchers said in 2021 that it was likely made 22,800 years ago.

White Sands
Thousands of footprints found in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park are believed to have been left by humans nearly 23,000 years ago. (NPS via AP)

What do these findings tell us about prehistoric humans?

Together, the prints provide us with a snapshot in time, helping us determine what life was like for our early ancestors, said anthropologists – researchers who study the evolution of modern humans.

One possibility, for example, is that ancient females anointed their bodies with ingredients similar to modern makeup: the scientists who discovered Eve’s footprints also found ochre, a colored pigment, in the same area. It is believed that body paint was applied for rituals.

Other times, scientists have found hearths, suggesting that older humans knew how to make fires. Bone remains and stone tools also indicate the possibility that early humans first relied on dead animals for food and may have only begun setting traps and hunting animals about 20,000 years ago.

But the footprints also give scientists an estimated time frame for when humans began to branch out and move around the world.

For many years, researchers believed that modern humans first arrived in Alaska and spread across North America about 13,000 to 16,000 years ago after the last Ice Age.

But footprints in White Sands Park in New Mexico refuted those studies. In the new scenario, humans were already spreading around New Mexico, and may have traveled across the continent as early as 23,000 years ago when glaciers were still expanding and spreading across the region.

Unfortunately, many of these finds, including the white sand and trellis prints, are threatened by changing terrain, linked in part to climate change. In their study, Sedrati’s group noted that the rocky beach is collapsing due to rising sea levels and that it may eventually disappear.

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