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What These 19,000-Year-Old Human Footprints Say about Prehistoric Life

By BETH HARPAZ

They look like footprints you’d find at any beach: big feet, little feet, fat toes, skinny toes, a gentle curve outlining the arch, and a deep impression where the heel and ball of the foot hit the ground. 

But unlike footprints in the sand that get washed away, these human tracks have lasted thousands of years. They were preserved in volcanic ash in Tanzania, and a painstaking analysis by a team of researchers has turned them into time machines, providing a snapshot of life among our prehistoric human ancestors. 

The findings were published in a study in Nature Scientific Reports co-authored by Professor William Harcourt-Smith (Lehman College, The Graduate Center). 

The footprint site of Engare Sero, looking south towards the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai. Photo Credit: William Harcourt-Smith.
The footprint site of Engare Sero, looking south towards the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai. Photo Credit: William Harcourt-Smith.

Researchers counted 408 footprints in all, likely made by at least 20 individuals at the site in Northern Tanzania called Engare Sero. Radiactive carbon decay techniques date the footprints to somewhere between 6,000 and 19,000 years ago. 

These people were us,” said Harcourt-Smith, who is also a fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. “They were modern humans. Their experience of the world was different, but they’re the same people as us, as a species. These footprints are absolute moments in time preserved forever. These people lived such a long time ago, but their footprints allow us to imagine this moment in time.”

One of the most interesting findings was the gender makeup of a group of 17 people who appeared to be walking together. Of those, 14 were adult females, two were adult males, and one was a younger male. (Gender and age were determined by comparing the footprints to a database of dimensions of modern feet.) Researchers believe the group was “cooperatively gathering food together,” Harcourt-Smith wrote in The Conversation. The predominance of women may also suggest a societal division of labor by gender in which women were the primary foragers. 

An important part of this research was digitizing the footprints and making the images available online, thanks to the Smithsonian 3D Digitization project. If you have a 3D printer, you can even use the files to create a tangible model of a prehistoric foot. Just don’t be too surprised when it turns out to look remarkably like your own foot.