Footprints from dawn of modern humans found



EMBARGOED: For release 11 a.m. Thursday, 
Aug. 14, 1997

	WASHINGTON—A trail of fossilized footprints 
left more than 100,000 years ago by an anatomically modern 
human has been found on the shore of a South African 
lagoon. The fossils, found in a sand-dune-turned-rock dated 
at 117,000 years ago, are the oldest known footprints of an 
anatomically modern human. 
	“These footprints are traces of the earliest of modern 
people,” says Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the 
University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 
in announcing the discovery in the September issue of  
National Geographic magazine. “Unlike the footprints found 
at Laetoli (Tanzania), which were left millions of years ago, 
these were made by modern humans—our direct 
	The discovery was detailed at a press conference at 
the National Geographic Society in Washington and also 
appears in the August issue of the South African Journal of 
 	The footprints have other implications as well. 
“Whoever left these footprints has the potential of being the 
ancestor of all modern humans,” Berger said. “If it was a 
woman, she could conceivably be ‘Eve.’ ” 
	To paleoanthropologists, “Eve” is a hypothetical 
female who lived somewhere in Africa between 100,000 and 
300,000 years ago. She carried a particular type of 
mitochondrial DNA—genetic material that is passed on 
only through females. Scientists measuring the range of 
variation in mitochondrial DNA in different populations 
today have concluded that we all descend from one common 
female ancestor—“Eve.”
	“It’s highly unlikely, of course, that the actual ‘Eve’ 
made these prints,” Berger said, “but they were made at the 
right time on the right continent to be hers.”  
	The prints were discovered by Berger’s colleague 
David Roberts, a South African geologist from the Council 
for Geoscience, in rock along Langebaan Lagoon, about 60 
miles (100 kilometers) north of Cape Town. “Hundreds of 
people had walked over that area—including scientists—
and not noticed the prints,” Berger said.
	“I had found fossilized carnivore tracks and rock 
fragments that I thought had been worked by hominids in the 
ancient sedimentary rocks fringing the lagoon,” Roberts 
said. “On a hunch, I began searching for hominid footprints 
—and found them!” The prints measure eight and a half 
inches (21 centimeters) in length; on one foot, the big toe, 
ball, arch and heel are all clear.
	Since discovering them last year, Roberts also has 
discovered in underlying rock of the same age a group of 
Stone Age tools thought to have been crafted by the people 
who left the prints. They include scraping and cutting 
blades, a spear point and a large stone core from which 
flakes were struck. The implements probably were used by 
the early people to kill and butcher prey.
	The footprints and tools constitute evidence of 
modern human activity during a period that has a poor fossil 
record. Only about three dozen fossils from the period 
100,000 to 200,000 years ago have been found in Africa, 
believed to be the birthplace of modern humans. Most of 
these come from southern Africa, one reason that Berger 
believes that region was the cradle of modern humanity.
	Berger points out that deserts and mountains isolate 
that part of the continent, leaving it ripe for producing unique 
species of plants and animals, including humans. Genetically 
isolated, the inhabitants may have developed the distinctive 
traits viewed as modern—jutting jaws and high foreheads 
with barely visible browridges. 
	Whether or not these humans could think the way we 
do is debated by scientists. For instance, they certainly 
didn’t practice burial of the dead or leave traces of complex 
artwork as humans did 50,000 to 75,000 years later, Berger 
	Near Langebaan Lagoon, at Hoedjiespunt, pieces of 
ocher pigment that are 80,000 to 125,000 years old have 
been found, and Berger believes they were used 
ritualistically by the early humans. The person who left the 
footprints may have painted her body with ocher, he said.
	Casts of the footprints, the stone tools and other 
evidence of ancient humans from South Africa—including a 
giant buffalo fossil whose horns span almost 10 feet  (3 
meters)—will be on display at the National Geographic 
Society’s Explorers Hall Aug. 15 through Sept. 15.

Barbara Moffet
 (202) 857-7756