Scientists find ancient human footprint ‘injected with texts’

Image: Go Enright/CDC

A tricolour hand print discovered by scientists in Siberia’s Altai region is now being hailed as one of the most well-preserved prehistoric human prints ever found.

These prints are so clearly etched that they could have been made by the same person who created the footprints of five people earlier in the year, or by the common ancestor to the Neanderthals and other modern humans.

“People will try to work out whether these were associated with modern humans or other modern humans,” says study lead author Prof Steve Brusatte of Cambridge University.

“But I think it would be more of a mental furore,” he said of questions as far-reaching as whether Neanderthals or modern humans played a role in this find.

The 20cm-long (8 inches) prints from a site near the village of Chertskezentop are remarkably well-preserved. The candidate prints, some of which were found with eroded lines suggesting they had been “screwed on” by a thin layer of clay, are right up to the rim of the printer’s ruler.

Each print is marked with a darker layer of clay, which when blasted, appears on the surface of the older printer’s blanking square. It suggests that an early modern human was very skilled at engraving large surface areas with fine sanding tools.

“One could argue that these were made by Neanderthals, as indeed they are in a lot of the best modern human Homo erectus prints,” Prof Brusatte says. “But so many modern humans have made these same steps.”

He says the technique has “never been duplicated” so clearly.

“It is the first example I know of in modern humans. It is the first example I know of in people other than Neanderthals,” he says.

The researchers were determined to see whether this unique style could be discovered in modern humans too, and in two English human ancestors, the Acheulean in Britain and the Tasmanian giant.

All humans today use clay imprints, which were created for religious rites. But the process is much different in modern humans, meaning that all the mud- and clay-minted prints still have a trace of natural pigments.

The researchers say this demonstrates that the ancient humans of Siberia and the southern Roman empire etched the very same objects, just as today’s people do, since they did it in a much faster and more refined way.

Describing the new prints in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr Eric Delson of New York University, who was not involved in the research, says he “cannot put into words how mesmerising” they are.

The researchers say the footprints of five people whose footprints were first discovered in August reveal that modern humans had essentially invented art. Dr Jose Cepeda, who led the study of the human footprints, told CNN that one foot print had “one word written on it in only two letters”.

The tracks of the five individuals (from left to right) are all connected and appear to be independent efforts. Image: Dr Jose Cepeda / Color and conservation

The early humans and Neanderthals are among six human relatives still known to have lived in Europe or Asia thousands of years ago, alongside the Denisovans, who appear in a very small number of fossils as the first humans to venture to Eurasia.

This latest discovery indicates that early humans were more technologically sophisticated than scientists have thought. Before this discovery, many experts believed that early humans living in Europe and Asia died out about a million years ago.

“I think this is a game-changer. We are seeing the evolution of the first human steps on this [European] continent,” says Dr Cepeda.

“The characteristics of the prints are very different from modern humans. Those features that we thought made modern humans Neanderthals’ cousins now look more and more like hominins.”

Prof Brusatte says he believes such “radical” discoveries are now inevitable. “Our only option, therefore, if we want to save people’s memories, is to make some startling discoveries,” he says.

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