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Established story about how humans came from Africa may be wrong, claims controversial new study

A footprint could re-write the entire narrative of human evolution, according to the researchers that discovered it

Andrew Griffin
Monday 04 September 2017 17:50 BST
A sculptor's rendering of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis
A sculptor's rendering of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis (Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

The belief that humans came out of Africa millions of years ago is widely believed. But it might be about to be entirely re-written, according to the authors of a new study.

They claim to have found a footprint in Crete that could change the narrative of early human evolution, suggesting that our ancestors were in modern Europe far earlier than we ever thought.

The accepted story of the human lineage has been largely set since researchers found fossils of our early ancestors in South and East Africa, in the middle of the 20th century. Later discoveries appeared to suggest that those that followed remained isolated in Africa for millions of years before finally moving out and into Europe and Asia.

But the new discovery of a footprint that appears to have belonged to a human that trod down in Crete 5.7 million years ago challenges that story. Humans may have left and been exploring other continents including Europe far earlier than we knew.

"This discovery challenges the established narrative of early human evolution head-on and is likely to generate a lot of debate," said Professor Per Ahlberg, who was an author on the study. "Whether the human origins research community will accept fossil footprints as conclusive evidence of the presence of hominins in the Miocene of Crete remains to be seen."

The study looked at the characteristics of the footprint, in particular examining its toes. It found that the footprint didn't have claws, walked on two feet and had inner toes that went out further than its outer ones.

All of that led them to conclude that the foot appeared to belong to our early human ancestors, who could have been walking around Europe at an early time than we ever knew.

They also make clear that the owner of the footprint and their species could have developed the same traits separately from those in Africa.

At the time the footprint was made, the Sahara Desert didn't exist and lush, savannah-like environments went all the way from North Africa to the eastern Mediterranean, and Crete hadn't yet detached from the Greek mainland. All of that makes it easier to see how those early hominins made their way to the island.

But the journey might not run into problems. Mark Maslin from University College London told The Times that while the discovery supports the idea that our ancestors used their new found bipedalism to walk into modern Europe, the absence of evidence for later humans could suggest that the journey "may not have ended well".

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