Hundreds of ancient human footprints discovered near African volcano


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A massive set of more than 400 human footprints found by geologists is thought to date back to between 10,000 and 19,000 years ago.

Hundreds of ancient human footprints discovered near African volcano
The huge collection of footprints was discovered on mudflats on the southern shore of Lake Natron 
in the village of Engare Sero in northern Tanzania [Credit: Cynthia M. Liutkus-Pierce]

It was previously thought that the footprints dated back as far as 120,000 years, and that they had been preserved by ash falling from the sky, following the eruption of a nearby volcano. But the research team has now been able to date them more accurately after discovering that a muddy flow of debris and ash from the volcano’s sides was responsible.

The footprints were preserved in the mud nine miles away from a volcano that is sacred to the Maasai.

‘It’s a very complicated site,’  William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the City University of New York and a member of the research team told National Geographic. ‘There’s one area where there are so many prints, we’ve nicknamed it the “dance hall”, because I’ve never seen so many prints in one place….it’s completely nuts.’

No other site in Africa has as many homo sapien footprints. The huge collection of footprints was discovered on mudflats on the southern shore of Lake Natron in the village of Engare Sero in northern Tanzania. The Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, known to the Maasai people as ‘Mountain of God’, towers over the lake.

The researchers were led by Appalachian State University geologist and National Geographic grantee Dr Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce.

‘The footprints were created (and then preserved) sometime between 19,000 and 10-12,000 years ago,’ Dr Liutkus-Pierce told MailOnline. ‘This means that the Engare Sero prints are latest Pleistocene in age.’

Hundreds of ancient human footprints discovered near African volcano
No other site in Africa has as many homo sapien footprints 
[Credit: AfricaImageLibrary]

‘The footprints at Engare Sero add to the unique record of fossil footprint sites throughout the world. They record traces of our ancestors, their activity and behaviour during the latest Pleistocene along the margin of Lake Natron in Tanzania.’

The Maasai regularly travel on pilgrimages to the volcano to pay tribute to their god Engai.

Due to high levels of ash present in the mud preserving the footprints, researchers the believe it may have washed down from the volcano. It is thought that the the surface would have dried out in days, or even hours, preserving the prints.

‘Immediately after the footprints were pressed into the wet mud and ash, the wet sediments dried out and hardened,’ Dr Luitkius-Pierce told MailOnline.

‘We see evidence of this because the footprinted surface has large polygonal mudcracks on it. However, our laboratory research indicates that once that hardened mud and ash gets wet again, traces of any impressions are destroyed. Therefore, in order to preserve the Engare Sero footprints, the hardened, dried surface had to be buried soon after it formed.’

After the footprints were made, they were buried by another flow of mud and ash from the nearby volcano.

‘Because they were buried, they were now protected from weathering and erosion until some time much later when the modern Engare Sero River wore through the rock units and exposed the footprinted surface.’

Hundreds of ancient human footprints discovered near African volcano
Researchers were able to identify at least 24 tracks, including evidence that some of the prints 
were made by people jogging [Credit: AfricaImageLibrary]

Researchers were able to identify at least 24 tracks, including evidence that some of the prints were made by people jogging. They were also able to identify a group of more than 12 people travelling together. Some of the footprints were found by a local villager more than ten years ago, but only came to the attention of the scientific community in 2008 when an American conservationist visited the area.

The team had originally believed that the mud preserving the footprints had resulted from falling ash, following a volcanic eruption. This led them to initially estimate that the prints were around 120,000 years old.

However, the team later concluded that the ash had been carried by water, enabling them to determine a maximum age for the footprints by finding the youngest crystal present in the mud. A shell discovered in the mud above the footprints eventually led the team to conclude that the prints were between 5,000 and 19,100 years old.

As well as carrying out geochemical, the researchers teamed up with the Smithsonian to create 3D scans of the entire area, reports National Geographic. The team is looking into the long-term preservation of the site, but the 3D modelling acts as a useful backup.

The researchers believe that there are probably even more footprints buried beneath the area’s northern sand dunes. The findings could shed light on ancient human behaviour in the latest Pleistocene.

They could give an insight into ancient humans’ potentially hazardous interaction with the area’s volcanically active shoreline.

The research is published the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Author: Libby Plummer | Source: Daily Mail [October 13, 2016]


  1. So, how tall and what size feet did they have .. how many toes .. five or six. Where I live there are ancient horse tracks preserved by lava filling the tracks of running horses .. you have a washed out mud lens in the side of a canyon and at the top are the lava feet coming down into the mud area .. Hagerman Fossil Beds. These could be around somewhere also.



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