FOOTPRINTS FOUND IN SOUTH AFRICA
COME FROM DAWN OF MODERN HUMANS
EMBARGOED: For release 11 a.m. Thursday,
Aug. 14, 1997
WASHINGTONA 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 humansour 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 DNAgenetic 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
Its 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 Bergers 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 areaincluding 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 modernjutting 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
didnt 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 Africaincluding a
giant buffalo fossil whose horns span almost 10 feet (3
meters)will be on display at the National Geographic
Societys Explorers Hall Aug. 15 through Sept. 15.