A set of 400 well-preserved footprints, found in Tanzania back in 2008, nine miles away from the “Mountain of God,” the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, can provide a lot of paramount information about our ancestors. Scientist Jim Brett called some years ago his colleague Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce, a geologist from the Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and told her to go to East Africa, where he was working to see something completely unbelievable. She did not believe him at first, but when she saw it, tears of excitement were streaming down her face. There were multiple human footprints spread all over the land. Not much time passed for them to recruit a team and start studying the encounter.

The Engare Sero prints, how they are called, were found in Northern Tanzania, a place recognized for its largest assembly of ancient footprints in Africa and one of the biggest in the whole world. Previous footprints were found in another location in Tanzania, which are around 3,6 million years old, others in South Africa about 12,000 years old and some 700 fossil footprints in the Australian Willanda Lakes from 20,000 years ago.

The Engare Sero prints, how they are called, were found in Northern Tanzania. Photo credit: Robert Clark, National Geographic Creative / Christian Science Monitor
The Engare Sero prints, how they are called, were found in Northern Tanzania. Photo credit: Robert Clark, National Geographic Creative / Christian Science Monitor

These recent ones are said to be from 5,000 to 19,000 years ago. At first, scientists thought that they preserved thanks to the volcanic ash from Ol Doinyo Lengai and were 12,000 years ago. After some analysis, they discovered they are made from ash-rich mud that washed off the volcano’s sides which formed the Engare Sero mudflats. They were later covered by some debris from the volcano, which allowed them to preserve after so many years.

The excitement behind these footprints

The reason so many scientists are excited about this is that these footprints can offer a lot of information. Briana Probiner, paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History and a member of the team, says that with them, information such as the group size, the structure, if they were males or females or kids, the directions and if they were running or walking can be gathered.

It was found that there were at least 24 distinct series of steps by different individuals who were going in different directions. There were dozen women and children going in a Southwesterly direction. Some of them were jogging, others were going in a slower pace and there even seemed to be a person who had a broken toe.

But more questions arise as they find more information about it. For example, what was the reason those humans were there?. The place is very hot and dry, near the Mountain of God volcano by the Maasai. The water of the lake is undrinkable because of its near position to the volcano. Scientists suspect that those conditions were the same in the prehistoric era.

The footprints were previously discovered in 2006 by a local villager, but it was not until 2008 that it became attractive to the scientists’ eyes. William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the City University of New York, said that it is a complicated zone. There was one place they called the “dance hall” because it had so many footprints. They have never seen something like that before.

Most of the knowledge there about humans during ancient times has been gathered from skeletons, scattered tools and animal bones. Footprints can provide more facts. Anthropologists use them to understand the social dynamics at the end of the Pleistocene era, when the Homo Sapiens was learning to farm and settle down, leaving their nomads lives behind.

This new discovery has potential, since it could say who lived there, how they related and where they might have been heading. All the area is about the size of a tennis court and possesses about 400 footprints.

The search was supported by the National Geographic Society´s Committee for Research and Exploration and the study was published in the Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology and Palaeoecology journal

Source: Christian Science Monitor