Small steps made 350,000 years ago prove giant find for scientists

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The Independent Online

A series of fossilised tracks preserved on the slopes of an extinct Italian volcano was made by humans about 350,000 years ago, scientists claim in a study published today.

A series of fossilised tracks preserved on the slopes of an extinct Italian volcano was made by humans about 350,000 years ago, scientists claim in a study published today.

The trackways, known locally as "Devil's trails", were made as early humans no bigger than pygmies scrambled down the sides of the Roccamonfina volcanic complex in southern Italy, say Paolo Mietto and his colleagues at the University of Padua.

"We believe that these tracks are the oldest human footprints found so far and that they were made by hominids [early humans] who had a fully bipedal, free- standing gait," the scientists write in the journal Nature.

Dating of the volcanic ash suggests the tracks were made between 325,000 and 385,000 years ago. The scientists analysed three tracks preserved when the ash set. Each footprint is about 20cm (8in) long and 10cm (4in) wide. This suggests the individuals were about 1.5m (4ft 10in) tall.

"In some of the prints, the impressions made by the heel and ball of the foot are clear, and there are even small depressions that can be interpreted as toe impressions," the study says. The central area in some of the impressions is narrowed, suggesting the foot was arched. "Although the footprints do not show all of the known features of contouring human bipedalism, there are enough similarities to support the idea that they are indeed human and fully bipedal," it adds.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said: "The footprints fall into an interesting time period in Europe when Homo heidelbergensis was evolving into Homo neanderthalensis. So the prints were probably made by early Neanderthals, rather than possible ancestors of ours."

The tracks could be the oldest recorded for humans. The oldest footprints of human ancestors are those at Laetoli in Tanzania, which are 3.6 million years old.

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