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350,000-year-old human footprints found

Thursday, March 13, 2003

By Rick Callahan, The Associated Press

Scientists in Italy have discovered 350,000-year-old tracks that may be the oldest known footprints made by Stone Age man.

The prints were made by three early, upright-walking humans as they descended the treacherous side of a volcano, perhaps to escape an eruption, researchers reported in today's issue of the journal Nature.

Other scientists said that while the prints appear well-preserved, they add little to knowledge about human evolution, since footprints of far older human ancestors have been found. But they said the tracks are still a sobering testament to long-ago journeys across a harsh terrain.

One of the footprint trails zig-zags to find the safest path down the steep incline. Another includes handprints someone left as he steadied himself in a precarious spot, only to slide a short ways down the slope.

"You're looking at an event that happened 350,000 years ago -- someone made an imprint on a surface, walking in a way you'd expect to see someone in these same conditions walk today," said Owen Lovejoy, an anthropologist at Kent State University who was not involved in the research. "It adds another cog in the connect between ourselves and our ancestors."

Who left the 56 footprints is not clear. But their discoverers suggest either late Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis -- two early human species found in Europe during the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age. The tracks were dated between 325,000 and 385,000 years old.

Footprints left by the upright-walking, prehuman species Australopithecus afarensis were found in 1977 in Tanzania, imprinted in volcanic mud 3.6 million years old -- making them 10 times older than the new discovery.

The footprints' makers were short, just under 5 feet tall, based on the prints' size of less than 8 inches in length.

The trails were left by three individuals who walked across a cooled but recent volcanic flow of rock fragments, ash and gases. A short time later, the volcano erupted again, blanketing the footprints with a thick layer of ash that preserved them for the ages, said Paolo Mietto of the University of Padua, Italy.

Local residents had long known of the footprints, and referred to them and animal tracks preserved near the volcano as "devils' trails."

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