Oldest Human Footprints Found, Experts Say

March 12, 2003
Stefan Lovgren, for National Geographic News

Ever since three sets of fossilized footprints on the Roccamonfina volcano in southern Italy were found, nearby residents have known them as Ciampate del Diavolo—the “Devil’s Trails.”

But researchers have now established that the footprints belong to humans. The tracks, etched in volcanic ash, date back 385,000 to 325,000 years, making them the oldest human footprints ever discovered. Occasional handprints are also visible, suggesting that the track makers used their hands for steadying during a difficult descent, but otherwise walked upright. 

“These tracks give us unique insight into the activities of some of the earliest known Europeans,” said Paolo Mietto from the University of Padua, Italy, whose research team established the true origin of the footprints. “No previous records of pre-late Pleistocene tracks are known that show associated hand prints, nor are there any such striking examples of deliberate efforts to negotiate steep surfaces.”

Not So Supernatural

Two archeology amateurs, Marco De Angelis and Adolfo Panarello, alerted Mietto and his team of paleontologists to the site. The tracks are impressed on a volcanic pyroclastic flow (ash, pumice, and rock fragments) deposit and buried under volcanic ash. The researchers were able to date the sediments around the footprints because the history of Roccamonfina’s volcanic activity is well known.

The footprints are much more detailed than others found in the past, allowing the researchers to make remarkably exact observations about the direction and stride patterns. The paths suggest the track makers carefully chose their route to descend the mountain.

One set of tracks consists of 27 footprints and is shaped like a “Z,” showing two sharp turns. The other two tracks, a series of 19 and 10 footprints, show the track makers crossing the volcanic slope in a relatively straight line.

The footprints are only eight inches (20 centimeters) long and four inches (10 centimeters) wide. The track ways are narrow with an average pace of two feet (0.6 meter) and a stride of about four feet (1.2 meters), made by track makers of similar size and movement speed. The researchers believe the humans were no taller than five feet (1.5 meters).

Walking Upright

According to Mietto, the track makers had a fully bipedal (two-footed) and free-standing gait and used their arms only for support or to regain balance in very steep areas. “These tracks were made by pre-sapien species, possibly a late European Homo Erectus or Homo Heidelbergensis,” said Mietto.

So what were the humans doing up on the mountain? The answer is unclear. But researchers speculate that they may have been trying to escape a volcanic eruption.

Based on the behavior of the zeolithic minerals (a mineral type found in lava) in the deposits on which the footprints are impressed, the researchers say the tracks were left when the compaction of the volcanic flow of ash, pumice, and rock fragments was not yet completed. “It is thus reasonable to infer that these humans actually witnessed the eruption,” said Mietto.

The theory is supported by the fact that all three tracks lead in the same direction, away from the volcano’s main crater.

The Oldest Confirmed Footprints

Up to now, only a poorly preserved and isolated footprint discovered in Terra Amata in France has been attributed to a human track maker. The famous footprints of Laetoli in Tanzania date back 3.5 million years, but they are referred to as hominids and not true humans: Genus Homo.

True human footprints from the Pleistocene era (dating back 1.6 million years) are known from a few other localities. Two footprints believed to be 117,000 years old were found on a South African sand dune. Several footprints were preserved in cave sediments in France. And a series of footprints dating back to the late Paleolithic age were discovered inside a cave in Toirano, Italy.

The latest discovery is particularly rare because the footprints are preserved in a subaerial setting rather than caves. “Whereas tracks from the late Pleistocene cave habitats are quite well-known, the Roccamonfina discovery suggests the potential to find other human and vertebrate tracks in older, subaerial, paleo-environments,” said Mietto.

A summary of the research team’s findings appears in the current issue of the science journal Nature.