What Made These Footprints 5.7 Million Years Ago?

By Gemma Tarlach | September 1, 2017 12:14 pm
Is this depression and others like it at a site in Crete actually footprints? If so, what made them? Researchers believe they are indeed footprints — and were made 5.7 million years ago by hominins. (Credit Andrzej Boczarowski)

Is this depression (and others like it) at a site in Crete actually a footprint? If so, what made them? Researchers believe they are indeed footprints — and were made 5.7 million years ago by hominins. If they’re right, it changes much of what we thought about human evolution. (Credit Andrzej Boczarowski)

UPDATE, 15 September: Reports are beginning to surface that the site may have been destroyed by a vandal, but details are slim and conflicting. Follow this developing story here.

UPDATE, 6 September: Had a great chat with Uppsala University paleontologist Per Ahlberg, the corresponding author for the study, who clarified what the landmass situation was at the time the trackways were made. Turns out I was jumping the gun in the original version regarding the amount of exposed land; see below for clarification and some additional thoughts from Ahlberg (in bold), and watch for a story in print soon.

It’s the Friday before a long weekend (at least for most of us in the U.S.) and I get it: You’re thinking about your plans for the next few days, wrapping up some stuff before slipping out of the office maybe a little early. You’re not in the mindset of having your paradigm shifted. Sorry. A new study suggesting hominins were walking across a Greek island 5.7 million years ago is here to blow your mind.

In a year of big shake-ups in the story of human evolution, a study published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association may be the biggest shock yet: A team of researchers says multiple depressions preserved in a layer of 5.7 million-year-old sediment belong to a hominin, a member of our family tree.

Okay, you’re thinking, that seems legit. After all, we’ve known that Sahelanthropus, the oldest known hominin to date, was hanging out in what’s now Chad at roughly that time.

Well, here’s the thing: the footprints are at a site called Trachilos, on the Greek island of Crete. That’s a vacation destination no hominin was supposed to set foot on until millions of years later.

Depressions found at Trachilos, Crete, in 2002 and re-examined in 2010. Are they the footprints of a distant ancestor who walked this way more than 5 million years ago? (Credit Andrzej Boczarowski)

Depressions found at Trachilos, Crete, in 2002 and re-examined in 2010. Are they the footprints of a distant ancestor who walked this way more than 5 million years ago? (Credit Andrzej Boczarowski)

Walk This Way

Dated by analyzing marine microfossils in layers of rock above and below them, the multiple track-like depressions would have been laid down right before the time of the Messinian Salinity Crisis, a weird moment when the Mediterranean pretty much dried up. It’s likely the process was already well underway when the tracks were made. That means, if these are footprints (and the authors make a strong case for that), they were laid down when one likely could have walked the length of Africa and well into Europe without getting one’s feet wet. Although there’s evidence of hypersalinity in the layers the researchers studied, suggesting, as study co-author Per Ahlberg put it, that “the Mediterranean was already going a bit funny,” the span between the site and Africa was still a shallow marine environment. That means that, if these are footprints (and the authors make a strong case for that), they were laid down by something living in Europe. Crete, at the time, was still attached to the Greek mainland.

Do not, by the way, confuse the idea of hominin evolution with modern human evolution. Hominins include a number of fossil finds not directly ancestral to us, such as “the hobbit” Homo floresiensis of Indonesia, the archaic Homo sapiens announced earlier this year from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, the surprisingly recent, small-brained Homo naledi of South Africa and the mysterious Dmanisi hominins from the Republic of Georgia, just to name a few. The hominin family tree is really more of a bush, after all.

Reacting to some critics who’ve interpreted the paper as an attempt to stake a Eurocentric claim on the roots of our species, Ahlberg minces no words: “We are making no claim whatsoever. I don’t give a flying [bleep] where the origins of Hominini is.”

(And no, I’m not censoring him. He bleeped himself.)

Ahlberg adds: “It’s clear modern humans evolved in Africa.”

The Game Is Afoot

As to why the team thinks they’re hominin, take a look at your foot, at anyone’s foot. The human foot is some pretty fancy, uh, footwork, evolutionarily speaking. We’ve got those five forward-facing toes (even the big toe is in line, which is unique among primates) and that thing we call the ball of the foot, plus a long sole and other traits made for walking over long distances.

The Trachilos tracks appear to have all those features, albeit not quite as highly evolved as modern human feet. But close… in fact… almost a little too close.

Even if you accept these are 5.7 million-year-old hominin footprints, there’s still a problem. And how do you solve a problem like Ardi?

That would be Ardipithecus ramidus, who was walking around Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago and is often placed as a direct ancestor to the australopiths (including Lucy) and, eventually, our own genus. Ardi’s feet are much more ape-like, including that big toe sticking out, or diverging, more like a thumb. In other words, Ardi’s feet appear to have been more primitive than those of the potential Trachilos trekker, even though Ardi is more than a million years younger.

“Ardi is a magnificent discovery, and I don’t want to put it down in any way,” says Ahlberg. “But there is no evidence it’s a direct ancestor.”

Remember: with so many hominins running around prehistory, it’s possible the fossil record has not yet answered that burning question, who’s your (ancestral) daddy?

The Next Step…

The paper comes just a few months after a separate team re-examined a couple teeth, both more than 7 million years old, from Greece and Bulgaria, and concluded they might belong to an early hominin. Personally, I think those conclusions aren’t supported by the evidence, but maybe more convincing material will come to light. In a year when we’ve learned our species is at least twice as old as we thought, and some researchers have claimed that hominins were in the Americas more than 100,000 years before the conventional arrival date, hey, anything goes.

If you don’t have time to read the paper, I encourage you to check out the Author Presentation by Ahlberg (in the right column of the online version of the paper. It’s less than five minutes long and gives a great overview). You should also check out an interesting commentary on the paper, and the process of trying to get their peers to pay attention, written by Ahlberg and another co-author, Matthew Bennett, the leading expert on ancient trackways. They make a compelling case for their conclusions far more eloquently than I ever could.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: human evolution

Comments (35)

  1. Raimo Kangasniemi

    Trachilos isn’t actually on Crete, it’s an island on the Cretan coast.

    If proven, this find will certainly remove Ardipithecus genus from among the direct human ancestors – although it’s possible that the Trachilos hominid could have evolved from an early member of the Ardipithecus lineage.

    One thing I’ve seen claimed is that these footprints are very small, so either the species which made these footprints was small even in hominid terms or it was a sub-adult who made the footprints.

    • I wouldn’t rule out Ardipithecus just yet. It’s possible that our foot structure evolved through convergence more than once.

      • Raimo Kangasniemi

        That’s of course possible, but the similarity of these footprints to the Laetoli footprints makes a good case that the maker of these was if not ancestral then closely related to a species giving rise to the Australopithecine genus.

        But on the convergence front there’s the possibly bipedal Oreopithecus that theoretically could have evolved human-like foot structure. Perhaps real bipedalism in primates tends to favour human-like foot eventually?

        • Yes, I think the configuration of the human foot is most ‘ergonomic’ (for want of a better word) for the demands of bipedalism in apes.

          On Oreopithecus, it seems that the comparisons to human feet might be more descriptive of the proportions than the structure (Köhler & Moyà-Solà 1997) – however its habitat was more marshy/swampy than forest-like; and we’ve certainly observed modern primates wade through water bipedally! Perhaps this was an environment that encouraged/favoured bipedality? Only food for thought…

    • J Smith

      Raimo, once again you are wrong. Trachilos is the name of a locality on the mainland of Crete near Chania (where this find is). That there is also a tiny islet with that same name does not change that.

      • Raimo Kangasniemi

        “Once again”?

        The geographical point you make is right, I checked it on the study itself – its near Kissamos in Chania prefecture.

        When it comes to “leaping to a conclusion”, I can only wonder who is doing it here.

        The study seems solid, what is open is the nature of the maker of those footprints.

        • J Smith

          The area is the NW of Crete, not the small islet to the SE.

          And you leapt to a conclusion here.

          • Raimo Kangasniemi

            Yes, in Chania region, agree on that. Not the island – but it doesn’t make any difference, as both were part of mainland back then.

  2. Erik Bosma

    The lengths Eurocentrics will go to constantly amazes me. And, obviously, there’s covert racism behind Eurocentrism.
    It’s just not acceptable that our ancestors came from Africa. Oh my god? You know what that means don’t you?
    Bring back Piltdown Man!

  3. lupusposse

    It is important to understand that the water of the Mediterranean Basin was at that time shrinking, and separate from the Atlantic. Because it hadn’t been picked over and polluted my massive technological humanity, it was a rich linkage of ecosystems..
    The world was geologically different, the African Plate farther and all elevations different.
    But just as the bear or wolf or the Eurasian lion, or the bison, moose, elephant species and elk species walked around dispersing vast distances, so, likely did some primate.
    Worse for those who cannot conceive of the spaciousness of time, human cognitive biases misattribute to themselves an importance unwarranted in nature.

    When thinking of 5 Million years, and 5.7 million, what sounds close together, actually is a greater distance than can be imagined. TRiple the time of your entire species’ existence.

    Try not to compress time in your mind, nor go all berserk over contingent scientific hypotheses. Things outside your ken and capacity have ALWAYS been more complex than your brains can accommodate.

    Sahelanthropus appears to have likely walked mid-north Africa 7 million years past, and in just 8 years alone, I computed that I walked with a tragically captive-born wolf a distance equal to the equatorial circumference of the earth.

    Two million years ago, Homo erectus was widely distributed in Eurasia, from Indonesian islands to China and north of the Caucasus, as well as East Africa. Mountains, water-crossings, deserts, forests with all their complex understory intact. Almost none of you have even walked a mile in such understory, but those lonng-legged erectus – about your height, were at home in these places, utterly unlike your manipulation of landscape to get to supermarkets.
    . You must consider every other primate, every other walker, as another being separate from yourself – they were gracile, able to move quickly and for long distances. They share a styloid process in the metacarpal making the hand useful for more complex articulation, and even carved on seashells. But they did not so hammer either rock or life to impress themselves.

    You must not think of them, or any who lived twice as long before, as “leading to you.”
    They were themselves, with brains that were surely not have been about deception and extreme social manipulation.

    Present humans are certainly the result of certain bursts of adaptation to social and actual habitats – evolution tends to result in adaptation to specific circumstances.

    For example, the Neanderthal and Denisovan species differed profoundly from you, While they came from the same stock, their kind lived for twice as long as has your species, in significant harmony with temperatures you avoid with heated houses and clothes.

    While they did come from the same stock, separated for a time, again, longer than twice the entire existence of sapiens.
    Interbreeding later shows how conserved are certain genetic gestation attributes – looks like Neandertal females mated with sapiens males, which might give rise to speculations on attributes of sociality.
    Tthe morphology of brains suggests that that species may have been more spatially capable, while your species was more about the self-absorption that causes us to be Machiavellian, and use imaginary symbolic language, with all its capacity for deception and extremely fine gauging of PERCEIVED reciprocity – rather than actual altruism assisting life in harsh climates or sharing bounties of large carrion or prey.

    My point in this comment, made due to reading the benighted tweetlike comments spewed under several websites’ reportage of the prints around Mediterranean shores, is that any species, like any individual, is primarily THEMSELVES, and not just something that led to you.

    Their lives were at least as adventurous, cognizant, emotional, thrilling, and brilliant. Their world more inclusive of other species, less eusocial.

    When the Mediterranean refilled, it, just as when the Pontus Euxinus filled about 7600 years ago, pouring in and inundating the lowlands, estuaries, wetlands so richly amenable to complex biota and ecosystems, it covered the most common passages for migration and dispersal.

    Humans of the most recent century fail to understand that the world was open, not paved, fenced, belligerently occupied by thousands of millions.
    For most of your species’ time, your own population fluctuated around 5 million or less when the entire world was saturated by humans,a process occurring between about 60 thousand to 10 thousand years ago.
    So often when your type of brain saturated any habitat or island, such an incredible die-off occurred to other animals which these other hominins lived among in harmonious living system, that you must never consider yourselves as being led to, instead being an aberration so destructive that in a single century, you have impoverished the earth.

    Such an arrogance as the “Anthropocene”, describes an extinction event, and not an era.

    Drop by La Brea tarpits sometime – although there existed a small Pleistocene trap that killed many astonishing other animals, let the present impress you:
    The dead cement, the foul concrete buildings, asphalt, smog.
    Then consider that the real earth differs from your pretense that it has all led to you.
    This ugliness of city has existed for a mere moment, not even the length of a breath in the period of which is spoken.
    The acids carried by water, air, life, will break it down incredibly slowly, and life and the footprints of other kinds will again mark their passage.

    Erosion, subduction, will erase your own footprints, with only a few eroding again into view in a timespan dwarfing that discussed; you yourself live less than a billion relaxed breaths, exchanging oxygen and carbon that has been exchanged by countless others, and will be used by equally countless others.
    It does not even matter if your species leads to anything else at all.

    • OWilson

      Well said!

      To understand anything you need perspective.

      To judge the past from your the present social and moral point of view, is ridiculous and airheaded, and even dangerous!

      For example, tearing down Confederate icons, while fawning over Native Indians celebrating War Dances, around Totem poles signifying victories over poor innocent undocumented immigrants, where they used horrible forms of torture and enslavement.

      That was then. This is now! Leave George Washington alone!

      • lupusposse

        Well, societies experiencing revolutions almost exclusively just replace one aesthetic with another. I use the term with slight derogatory implication because revolution also implies mere turnover.

        Enslavement was indeed part of indigenous Mississippian culture, when it hit a large population. That culture may have disappeared as recently as the period when communicable disease was brought by Spanish exploration. The groups known as Choctaw and Cherokee have some relationship with those who enslaved without possibility of future raise in social status.

        While culture may evolve, evolution is not really understood by most. Evolution describes changes associated with adaptations to spatially and/or temporally present habitats.
        It is as likely that conditions can pressure descendants right back to older expressions.
        Remember, now that we can read genes , we have learned that parasites were once more complex animals, evolved to simplicity and commensal living!

        More support for your wise injunction to live in the now, is the problem o f blame itself.
        We cannot accurately apportion (serve out) blame, ever. Our personal biases and incapacity to either completely know the impulses of others past, or to know all the factors, prevents any pizza with mixed toppings from being equal.

        So we’re stuck with adjusting equality under law. But everybody wants a bigger piece for themselves!

        George had wooden teeth, a wig, and worried a lot from his exalted position. I wouldn’t want to be him.
        Totem poles were stacks of animal head carvings advertising some characteristics observed and/or imputed by the carver, his clan, and tribe, to those animals.

        They were not in the least like the big statues of Stalin, Mao, or portraits, unless somehow neurally connected, as in the brains of schizophrenics where inappropriate connections, well, trump useful ones.

        This culture does “idolize”, “iconize”, or whatever slips most easily out one’s noisemaking apparatus. KKK leaders or presidents do not in actuality deserve as much adoration as they get, but the images do reflect the mixed-up heuristics and biases of adherents in the present.

        I still prefer pix of hot chix, myself.

        • OWilson

          We are fortunate indeed to live in an era, when our paid and unpaid volunteer armies of panty-waist gatekeepers of the Nation’s Morality, deem all photos of hot chix, however demeaned and debauched, to be acceptable!

    • chrysostomos

      Please, kill yourself.

  4. Ebola1900

    Albert Einstein once said the worst thing that ever happened to him was becoming, “The recognized authority.” While science follows the facts, scientists follow the funding which overwhelmingly fund research into establishing what people expect to find. That is why scientific frauds like Piltdown Man were not detected for generations. As long as “breakthroughs” support the consensus view of how things are supposed to be, few question the findings and the funding keeps flowing. Here is my prediction. Now that it has been publicized that footprints have been discovered where they don’t belong, suddenly “aberrant” fossils and tools that have been ignored in museum collections for decades, because they were found where in the wrong places, will suddenly be “discovered.”

    • OWilson

      Well said, but most scientists are smarter than the average bear, and always hedge their bets with enough wiggle room, and so can turn on a dime with “new” evidence.

      Often leaving their the less open minded adherents with a little egg on their faces.

      • Ebola1900

        Scientists hedge their bets, they want to preserve their position and their dignity. Science looks for demonstrable repeatable evidence of the truth. “Successful” scientists perform as little genuine science as they can, because grant money goes to those that “prove” they were right all along. Besides, almost everyone thinks the same thing, even if it is shown to be wrong the consequences are minimal. If one person or a small group posit a theory at odds with conventional wisdom, they must contend with the weight of all those arrayed against them and endure the dire consequences imposed upon those guilty of challenging the recognized authorities, even when they are right.

        • OWilson

          Some of the world’s greatest thinkers paid the ultimate price for their unconventional, skeptical, infidel, apostate, denier, blasphemous, heretical, opinions.

          Totalitarianism is always just around the corner. The mob is always ready to rumble!

          Even today, some politicians seriously want to criminalize dissenting opinion on man made global warming!

          • Ebola1900

            That is why it has been stated, “For some scientific opinion becomes their religion.” Religion demands blind faith, hence the hostility towards any opposing facts or opinions.

          • OWilson

            Best exemplified by the Chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) Rajendra Pachauri, who explained:

            “‘For me the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.”

            Dharma, is that like a jihad? 🙂

          • Ebola1900

            I think Dharma was a character in a short lived sitcom, but I could be mistaken.

  5. OWilson

    In school we had the typical “evelution of man” poster on the wall. We were hip and cool and recognized where we came from.

    Unfortunately in the animal kingdom, evolution is not a straight line progression, lots of similar species were competing desperately for surival.

    We have anthropologists rooting for their particular favourite ancestor, homo sapien, and more recently, neathdertalls have come into fashion.

    Asia, China, Europe and Africa all have a legitimate claim to be first place man came down from the trees, but it’s not that simple.

    Like with apes and other animals there were probably a lot of different branches competing at the same time, interbreeding here, and wiping each other out there.

    Best to put all the artifacts in one box and take them out for inspection occasionally as more remains are found, and not not be so quick to nominate the contest winner, there were plenty of Miss Congenialities around too!

    We need much more evidence before the “experts” can argue convincingly.

  6. RickFromTexas

    There are fictional stories that what we call modern man isn’t the first evolution of homo sapiens, like the Ancients (Atlanteans) from Stargate SG-1, but it would be quite a coincidence if a story like that turned out to be close to reality. Now if only we could find a stargate….

  7. Not_that_anyone_cares, but...

    I do hope they get this resolved. I would hate to die not knowing for sure.

  8. No doubt the vandalization was the work of atheists.


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