Oldest known prehistoric footprints found in Crete

The six-million-year-old footprints may challenge beliefs about the evolution of humanity.

Crete (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Footprints found in the Greek Mediterranean island of Crete have been dated to over six million years ago and are now the oldest known pre-human footprints, according to a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.

An international team led by the University of Tübingen in Germany made the discovery in 2017, and after initially believing the prints to be 5.7 million years old, the age of the footprints have finally been confirmed as 6.05 million years old.

Prior to the findings, the oldest fossil records researchers had on record were the 3.5 million year-old “Australopithecus afarensis”– otherwise known as Lucy, one of humanity’s most famous ancestors. This makes the Cretan footprints a full 2.5 million years older than anything scientists have previously been able to rely on.

The footprints and their subsequent findings give new insights into the early evolution of humans. “The oldest human foot used for upright walking had a ball, with a strong parallel big toe, and successively shorter side toes,” Per Ahlberg, professor at Uppsala University and co-author of the study, said. “The foot had a shorter sole than (the oldest known hominid otherwise known as Lucy) Australopithecus. An arch was not yet pronounced, and the heel was narrower.”

The findings also question the “Out of Africa” theory that humanity originated in Africa before spreading across the globe, as these new footprints indicate that life existed in Eurasia over six million years ago. This new evidence challenges what we know about humanity’s long-term evolution.

 A rock slab with the Cretan footprint  (credit: OLAF TAUSCH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) A rock slab with the Cretan footprint (credit: OLAF TAUSCH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The findings may, however, not prove to be sufficient evidence of a totally different evolutionary path than we’ve come to recognize. According to Julien Louys, a paleontologist and palaeo-ecologist at Griffith University, footprints are notoriously difficult to draw inferences from without accompanying bodily materials, such as fossils and teeth.

“The difficulty with working with footprints is it’s very difficult to tie them to a particular species,” says Louys. “With a lot of footprints, it’s much more difficult to tell what species they belong to – to the point where footprint researchers have their own taxonomic system in place to deal with the naming and the classification of footprints.”

We may never know what – or who – laid down these prints across ancient Crete more than 6 million years ago, but these imprints – a rare snapshot of prehistoric life – will cause a scientific ruckus for some time.