Laetoli Footprints: Who Left These Traces In Tanzania 3.6 Million Years Ago?


In 1978, Mary Leakey and her husband Louis Leakey, one of the greatest anthropologists of the 20th century, were on an expedition in Tanzania when they came across a group of footprints of probably early human species that were dated to 3.6 million years.

It is believed that a volcanic eruption caused hominid footprints to be preserved on the ground. There were a total of three trails found in Laetoli in the Arusha Region, Tanzania that became the oldest footprints known to date.

During the expedition in 1978, Mary Leakey discovered some strange footprints on the ground of volcanic ash, immediately alerting her husband. When they looked closely, they noticed that there were the marks of 3 individuals, very similar to human footprints. However, there was a problem.

Tanzania footprints
A replica of the footprints found in Tanzania. Credit: James St. John, Wikimedia Commons

When the dating was done, the Laetoli footprints were estimated to have been at least 3.6 million years old. This is something that totally contradicts science. The discovery was examined by different experts, from anthropologists to animal marking specialists, archaeologists, and other professionals. Everyone agreed that they were human.

The footprints had only small differences from modern man, which completely baffled the experts. However, despite the fact that this could prove that man existed millions of years ago, it was determined that it would be the footprint of “Australopithecus afarensis.”

The early humans that left these prints were bipedal and had big toes in line with the rest of their feet. This means that these early human feet were more human-like than ape-like, as apes have highly divergent big toes that help them climb and grasp materials like a thumb does. The footprints also show that the gait of these early humans was “heel-strike” (the heel of the foot hits first) followed by “toe-off” (the toes push off at the end of the stride)—the way modern humans walk.”

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Another set of mysterious footprints was partially excavated at nearby Site A in 1976 but dismissed as possibly being made by a bear. A recent re-excavation of the Site A footprints at Laetoli and a detailed comparative analysis revealed that the footprints were made by an early human— a bipedal hominin.

Senior author Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth said: “We now have conclusive evidence from the Site A footprints that there were different hominin species walking bipedally on this landscape but in different ways on different feet. We’ve had this evidence since the 1970s. It just took the rediscovery of these wonderful footprints and more detailed analysis to get us here.”

3.6 Million Years human footprint
Model of Laetoli Site A using photogrammetry showing five hominin footprints. Image credit:

But what most confuses experts is the number of tools and artificial pieces that belong to the Precambrian Eon, found in the area. For this reason, the existence of elements that require the ability of an intelligent being to be able to manufacture them reinforces the theory that the Laeoli footprints are indeed human, but their existence belonging to this time period is questionable.

It is extremely difficult to determine which species the footprints belong to, but other experts believe that the age and size do not leave many options to choose from. Therefore, the closest specie is “Homo ergaster” or, at most, an early “Homo erectus.”

It is worth mentioning that Homo ergaster is the first hominid whose proportions of the extremities were similar to those of the modern human. The Laetoli site is located about 45 kilometers southwest of the Olduvai Gorge or Oldupai Gorge, close to the Serengeti National Park. The site is dated to the Plio-Pleistocene and is famous for its hominin footprints, preserved in volcanic ash.

In 2002, the researchers who had discovered hominid footprints on the Greek island of Crete found out they were made an incredible 5.7 million years ago. In 2017, Dr. Per Ahlberg from Uppsala University and his colleagues determined that the footprints that had become fossilized in a rock on Crete were 5.7 million years old and made by a human ancestor.

Image of Laetoli A3 footprint (on left) and image of a cast of Laetoli G1 footprint (on right). Analysis shows similarities in length of Laetoli A3 and G footprints but differences in forefoot width with the former being wider. Credit: Image on left by Jeremy DeSilva and on right by Eli Burakian/Dartmouth

This was a revolutionary finding, indicating that it was possible that humans evolved in Europe — launching a curveball into African-origin evolutionary theory. But the latest research shows that the 50 footprints are more than 300,000 years older than previously thought, according to a scientific paper published in Scientific Reports.

It is incredible how, despite the fact that modern science has reached an unthinkable development in recent years, the origin of the human being remains a mystery. Therefore, it is possible that the Laetoli footprints do belong to humans but are very ancient.

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