Stalking across the sandy shoreline of a lake around 800,000 years ago, a small hunting party closed in on a herd of antelope that had come to drink from water’s edge. Now the footprints these early human hunters left in the soft sediment as they approached their prey have re-emerged for the first time since they were made.
Anthropologists discovered the tracks of ‘multiple’ individuals, which they believe were created by the early human species Homo erectus, in the middle of the desert in southern Eritrea.
A series of footprints left by ‘multiple’ Homo erectus have been uncovered on a slab of sandstone (pictured) in the Danakil desert of southern Eritrea. The footprints are thought to be around 800,000 years old and were made in soft sand along the shoreline of a prehistoric lake
HOMO ERECTUS, THE UPRIGHT MAN
First thought to have evolved around 1.9 million years ago in Africa, Homo erectus was the first early human species to become a true global traveller.
They are known to have migrated from Africa into Eurasia, spreading as far as Georgia, Sri Lanka, China and Indonesia.
They ranged in size from just under five feet tall to over six feet. With a smaller brain and heavier brow than modern humans, they are thought to have been a key evolutionary step in our evolution.
They are thought to have disappeared around 70,000 years ago and may have given rise to a number of different extinct human species including Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antecessor.
Homo erectus is thought to have lived in hunter gatherer societies and there is some evidence that suggests they used fire and made basic stone tools.
Scattered across a 280 square feet (26 square metres) stone slab, the fossilised footprints are the oldest to have been discovered in the area.
They promise to reveal new details about how this prehistoric human ancestor walked.
Homo erectus is thought to be the first early species of Homo to have been recognisably human – walking upright on two legs and similar in size to modern man.
The footprints, which were discovered at a site near Buia in the middle of the Danakil desert in southern Eritrea.
The area is thought to have been home to a community of Homo erectus living there up to one million years ago.
Professor Alfredo Coppa, an anthropologist at La Spaienza University in Rome, has been leading excavations at the site – Aalad-Amo – for several years.
The prints were discovered moving north to south, alongside prints left by an extinct species of antelope that had been preserved when the lake flooded and the sand hardened.
Speaking to MailOnline, Professor Coppa said the footprints were made by ‘more than one individual’ and could reveal new details about the foot anatomy and movement of these human ancestors.
He said: ‘Due to their ephemeral nature in soft sediments, footprints tend to be altered and eroded very quickly.
The preservation of the imprints of footsteps is an exceptional phenomenon representing a glimpse of the lives of Homo erectus individuals in motion in their ecosystem hundreds of thousand years ago.
‘Homo erectus a key species in human evolution that evolved into the big-brained ancestors of modern people today.
Anthropologists say the footprint were made by ‘more than one’ individual and promise to reveal new insights into how humans evolved to walk upright. The prints reveal details of the toes, footshape and arch. A scan of the sandstone slab with the footprints is pictured
The footprints were found at a site called Aalad-Amo in the middle of the Danakil desert in southern Eritrea (shown on map above)
‘The print shapes resemble the prints made by modern humans, suggesting an overall modern foot shape and way of walking.
‘Fossil sets of footprints are very rare. Those found in Eritrea show details of the toes, and the foot shape includes a prominent arch and big toe in line with the others, features that make human feet distinctive and efficient when walking and running.’
The prints were discovered by Professor Coppa and his team’s local Eritrean guide, Hussain.
At first glance the footprints appear to be very similar to those left by modern humans, but closer examination has revealed they belonged to a far older species.
Professor Coppa and his colleagues at the National Museum of Eritrea are now conducting scanning and dating of the rock in the hope of confirming who they belong to.
The prints (pictured) were initially spotted by the research teams local guide. They are the odlest footprints to be found in Eritrea and were discovered at a site where the remains of five to six Homo erectus individuals have been discovered in the past
They are, however, far from being the oldest footprints left by an early human species that have been discovered.
A series of tracks discovered in Laetoli in Tanzania date back 3.7 million years and were probably left by an early human species like Australopithecus afarensis.
Last year anthropologists announced the discovery of dozens of human footprints in Kenya dating back 1.5 million years.
They are thought to have been left by a group of Homo erectus during an antelope hunt.
In 2014 researchers announced they had discovered what are thought to be the oldest human footprints outside Africa, discovered in Happisburgh, Norfolk.
The footprints were found alongside the hoof prints of extinct antelope (pictured), leading researchers to believe they may have been left by a hunting party tracking the antelope
Around 50 prints, of both adults and children, are thought to be at least 850,000 years old and may have been made by an extinct human ancestor known as Homo antecessor.
Professor Coppa said the age of the prints discovered in Danakil have yet to be confirmed but if they relate to the human remains found in the surround area they are likely to be around 800,000 years old.
Speaking to MailOnline, Professor Coppa said: ‘At that time, we have evidence that only Homo erectus lived in that area. The level where we find the footprints is well dated geologically.
‘It was probably more than one individual who left the footprints, but we need more accurate evidence to be more accurate.
Homo erectus (skull pictured left, reconstruction pictured right) is thought to have been a key early human ancestor in our own evolution. Although it had a smaller brain than modern humans, Homo erectus is thought to have mastered the use of fire and basic stone tools
‘We will return in November to try to have a broader and more detailed documentation that can look at body mass, height, weight and sociability of the group.’
His team have discovered several teeth and part of a skull at the two sites in Danakil in the past. They say they have found the remains of five or six individuals.
At the time the area is thought to have been covered in a vast lake surrounded by grassland.
Whether this band of early human hunters managed to snare any prey during their hunt is not clear, but the marks they left in the sand as they closed in have survived the test of time.
Professor Coppa said he believes there may be far more footprint at the site waiting to be uncovered.
He said: ‘The probable Homo erectus footprints found at Aalad-Amoare preserved in an indurated silty sand sediment that was uncovered by water erosion, and may represent multiple individuals.
‘Currently, 26 square metres of the sediment bearing the footprints is exposed and much more of the surface appears to remain covered by overlying sediments.’