Fossil Footprints

Footprints have been preserved as fossils and provide evidence of prehistoric life. Known as "ichnites", these trace fossils can give clues to the behavior of specific species of dinosaur. The study of such fossils is known as ichnology and the footprints may be given scientific names (ichnospecies). Grallator is one example of an ichnogenus based on ichnites. Strictly speaking, an ichnospecies is the name of the trace fossil, not of the animal that made it.

For example, an international team's discovery of a set of 1.5 million-year-old human ancestor footprints in Ileret, Kenya has shown the earliest direct evidence of a modern human style of upright walking. The team believe that the prints were probably formed by the species Homo erectus.

Other footprint findings:

The appearance of footprints, or marks interpreted as footprints, have led to numerous myths and legends. Some locations use such imprints as tourist attractions.

Examples of footprints in myth and legend include:

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In the News ...

Fossil footprints tell story of human origins   BBC - December 14, 2016

Footprints made by early humans millions of years ago have been uncovered in Tanzania close to where similar tracks were found in the 1970s. The impressions were made when some of our distant relatives walked together across wet volcanic ash. Their makers, most likely Australopithecus afarensis, appear to have had a wide range of body sizes. Scientists say this gives clues to how this ancient species of human lived. Australopithecus afarensis is one of the longest-lived and best-known early human species. The fossil of "Lucy", a young adult female who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago, is perhaps the most famous individual. The newly discovered footprints may have been made by a male walking with smaller females.

Scientists find 800,000-year-old footprints in UK (Update)   PhysOrg - February 7, 2014

Archaeologists announced Friday that they have discovered human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old—the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe. Preserved in layers of silt and sand for hundreds of millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors. They were left by a group, including at least two children and one adult male. They could have been be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.

  Earliest footprints outside Africa discovered in Norfolk   BBC - February 7, 2014
In 2014 the oldest human footprints outside of Africa, being more that 800,000 years old, were reported to have been discovered on the beach. Scientists have discovered the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa, on the Norfolk Coast in the East of England. The footprints are more than 800,000 years old and were found on the shores of Happisburgh. They are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe. The footprints are one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery, that has been made on these shores. Such discoveries are very rare. The Happisburgh footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa.

Discovery of oldest footprints gives clues to Mexico's climate   PhysOrg - January 2, 2014

The oldest human footprints in North America have been dated for the first time and could help scientists to understand what Mexico's climate was like 7000 years ago. The new climate data comes from two sets of footprints found in the Chihuahuan desert in north-eastern Mexico. At 10.5 thousand years old, the museum footprints pre-date the oldest evidence of humans previously known in the area - a 9000 year old piece of human feces.

Kenya: Oldest Human Footprints With Modern Anatomy Found   National Geographic - February 26, 2009
Earliest 'human footprints' found   BBC - February 26, 2009

The earliest footprints showing evidence of modern human foot anatomy and gait have been unearthed in Kenya. The 1.5-million-year-old footprints display signs of a pronounced arch and short, aligned toes, in contrast to older footprints. The size and spacing of the Kenyan markings - attributed to Homo erectus - reflect the height, weight, and walking style of modern humans.

Nevada: Oldest 'Footprints' on Earth Found Live Science - October 5, 2008

The oldest-known tracks of a creature apparently using legs have been discovered in rock dated to 570 million years ago in what was once a shallow sea in Nevada. Scientists think land beasts evolved from ancient creatures that left the sea and evolved lungs and legs. If the new finding is real - the discoverer anticipates skepticism - it pushes the advent of walking back 30 million years earlier than any previous solid finding.

The aquatic creature left its "footprints" as two parallel rows of small dots, each about 2 millimeters in diameter. Scientists said today that the animal must have stepped lightly onto the soft marine sediment, because its legs only pressed shallow pinpoints into that long-ago sea bed.

The tracks were made during what is called the Ediacaran period, which preceded the Cambrian period, the time when most major groups of animals first evolved. Scientists had once thought only microbes and simple multicellular animals existed prior to the Cambrian, but that notion is changing, said Ohio State University Professor Loren Babcock. "We keep talking about the possibility of more complex animals in the Ediacaran soft corals, some arthropods, and flatworms, but the evidence has not been totally convincing," Babcock said. "But if you find evidence, like we did, of an animal with legs, an animal walking around then that makes the possibility much more likely. We came on an outcrop that looked like it crossed the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, so we stopped to take a look at it. We just sat down and started flipping rocks over. We were there less than an hour when I saw it."

Little can be gleaned about what sort of creature it was, but Babcock is "reasonably certain - not 100 percent" that it was an arthropod, such as one resembling a centipede or millipede, or by a leg-bearing worm. It might have been about as wide as a pencil and may have had multiple, spindly legs.

In 2002, other researchers reported a similar fossil trail from Canada that dated back to the middle of the Cambrian period, about 520 million years ago. Another set of tracks found in South China date back to 540 million years ago. At approximately 570 million years old, this new fossil not only provides the earliest suggestion of animals walking on legs, but it also shows that complex animals were alive on Earth before the Cambrian.

Oldest Identifiable Footprints Found Live Science - September 12, 2007

Two reptile-like animals living 290 million years ago are the oldest creatures to have their footprints positively identified after a fortuitous discovery allowed scientists to match fossils to preserved trackways. Fossils of Diadectes absitus and Orobates pabsti were recently found in the Tambach Formation in central Germany. Nearby and in the same sediment layer, scientists found well-preserved footprints made by creatures that plodded through the region's soft sediments long ago. The footprints turned out to be a match for the fossil animals. The work, detailed in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, marks the first footprints of the Paleozoic Era, a time before the dinosaurs that lasted from 540 to 240 million years ago, to be associated with the animals that made them. It could also force scientists to rethink how the ancient creatures moved.

Ancient human footprints found in Australia NBC - July 28, 2006

Researchers believe prints were made approximately 20,000 years ago when humans trekked along the margins of a shallow lake in Australia, leaving behind records of their passage in the soft, wet sand. In 2003, an aboriginal woman who is likely a descendant of those early Australians stumbled across dozens of timeworn footprints in the same area. Excavations of the site have since uncovered hundreds more. The discovery, detailed in a recent issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, represents the largest collection of Pleistocene human footprints in the world, and the only footprints from that era ever found in Australia. In total, 457 footprints have now been uncovered. The Pleistocene stretched from about 2 million to 12,000 years ago. Highlights from the era:

Humans weren't the only ones that passed through the area. The prints from two kangaroo hind paws are visible, as are the tracks of a baby emu, a large flightless bird similar to an ostrich. The emu prints might be an important clue about when the human footprints were made.

Footprints of 'first Americans' BBC - July 5, 2005

Human settlers made it to the Americas 30,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to new evidence. A team of scientists came to this controversial conclusion by dating human footprints preserved by volcanic ash in an abandoned quarry in Mexico. They say the first Americans may have arrived by sea, rather than by foot. The traditional view is that the continent's early settlers arrived around 11,000 years ago, by crossing a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. The footprints were preserved as trace fossils in volcanic ash along what was the shoreline of an ancient volcanic lake. They were soon covered in more ash and lake sediments and, when water levels rose, became as solid as concrete.

Oldest human footprints found - 350,000 years ago BBC - March 2003

The oldest human footprints have been found in volcanic ash in Italy. They were made by individuals scrambling down the flanks of an active volcano about 350,000 years ago. Italian scientists, who identified three separate fossilized trackways, say the people that made them walked on two feet using their hands only to steady themselves on a difficult descent.

French team may have found Europe's oldest footprints

AP - June 11, 1999 - Paris

A young boy walking inside a cave 25,000 to 27,000 years ago left what French archaeologists believe may be the oldest human footprints in Europe. French archaeologists discovered the four footprints while exploring the so-called Chauvet cave, which already boasts the world's oldest reliably dated wall paintings, in the southern Ardeche region. Scientists studying the site said there was no way to precisely date the prints in the damp clay, but that carbon datings nearby in the cave strengthen their case. The cave, discovered five years ago by an amateur spelunker, contains 300 prehistoric wall paintings, considered the world's oldest. The radiocarbon datings of the paintings, as well as campfire remains, range from 23,000 to 32,000 years.

The footprints were discovered by a team of 15 scientists who joined those already studying the paintings in May. The markings, which measure 8.3 inches long, are thought to have been made by a boy 8 to 10 years old. If the scientists are correct, the footprints are the oldest known in Europe, belonging to Cro-Magnon man. The Chauvet cave's walls are adorned with animals of the glacial era and the floors littered with campfires, flints and the bones of bears.

Sacred Caves