Why are human footprints so evocative?
If you were marooned in the desert, seeing footprints may evoke feelings of hope and elation. If you attended a crime scene after the act, the sight of footprints may chill you to the bone. When I first saw some of the 5,000 year-old footprints that appear randomly off Formby Point, just 10 miles down the coast from where I live, I felt a profound connection with the ancient people who made them. They looked as if they had been made that very day and, on that deserted beach, I was whisked back in time to the Neolithic. My footprints briefly co-existed beside theirs, then both sets were washed away by the tide.
Recognising the impressions left behind by someone’s feet in a particular place and time was a key milestone in human development. To understand them for what they are, you have to grasp the concept of ‘the past’, visualize the person who made them, and think about the context they were acting in. From footprints alone, skilled trackers can infer an individual’s height, weight, age, sex, deformities, gait, speed of travel, emotional state, whether they’re right- or left-handed, carrying a heavy load, even whether they are pregnant or not.
Here are 10 sets of footprints which paint a split-second picture of their creators and the world they were living in:
1. 3.6 million years ago
The Laetoli footprints in Tanzania were created 3.6 million years ago by a species of hominin known as Australopithecus afarensis. The footprints, preserved in volcanic ash, were produced by 3 individuals. Two of them walked side by side, while the third hung back and walked in the footprints of the other. As the tracks lead in the same direction, they may have been visiting a waterhole together. The walked upright, possessing a foot arch typical of modern humans, and seem to have moved in a leisurely stroll. The lead pair were around 4 ft 9 ins and 4 ft 1 ins respectively, suggesting they were male and female.
2. 1.5 million years ago
The remains of footprints found in sedimentary rock near Ileret in northern Kenya were created around 1.5 million years ago. They were found in an area of the Rift Valley, near what would have been the muddy bank of a river which had recently flooded. There were actually two sets of prints appearing in two layers, separated by 15 feet of soil and 10,000 years, but both sets were made by our human ancestor Homo erectus. The prints were made by individuals who had heels, insteps and toes almost identical to those in modern humans, and who walked with a similar long stride. The individuals were an average of 5 ft 7 ins tall; one, presumably a child, was 3 feet tall.
3. 117,000 years ago
The 117,000 year-old fossilized footprints discovered on the shore of Langebaan Lagoon, South Africa, are the oldest known footprints of an anatomically modern human. Because they were made by a female, they have become known as the Footprints of Eve. She was around 5 ft 4 ins tall, and was climbing a steep sand dune during a turbulent rainstorm. Her footprints are about the size of a modern-day woman’s (British) size 6 shoe (US size 7½, European size 39½).
4. 20,000 years ago
The 20,000 year-old aboriginal footprints found at Willandra Lakes, New South Wales, are the oldest ever found in Australia. One set were made by a group of several adults, adolescents and a few young children walking across the claypan heading east. Some of the adult men were up to 5 ft 11 ins tall. One young child paused, turned and ran away from the group, before walking briskly back towards them – perhaps called back by an adult. A day or two after the first group, a second group of men ran across the claypan at speed, probably in pursuit of prey (emu and kangaroo tracks were also found in the area); a spear was thrown, but missed and skidded into the ground. Remarkably, a single line of right footprints pushed heavily into the clay, with no corresponding left footprints, suggests that one of the hunters was a one-legged man, adept at hopping very fast with the aid of a stick along with the other hunters.
5. 7,500 years ago
Footprints dating back 7,500 years have been found in the salt marshes of the Severn Estuary at Goldcliff, Wales. In all, the prints identified 21 Mesolithic people who were all barefoot. The majority of belong to children, some estimated to be a as young as 3-5 years. Based on associated animal tracks belonging to aurochs, deer, wolves, and waterfowl, they explored the salt marshes during the spring and summer, and the children may have helped to forage for seafood.
6. 5,000 years ago
At this stage, I must mention again the ancient footprints that occasionally appear at low tide at Formby Point on the West Lancashire coast, near my home in northwest England. Adult and adolescent male footprints, together with associated red and roe deer tracks, show that hunting was a regular event. Other footprints leading out to the open sea and back indicate that they also fished. Young females, sometimes accompanied by children, gathered seafood such as shrimps and razor clams, or looked for birds eggs among the reed beds. A mass of much smaller footprints suggest that younger children played around in the mud. Photographs and plaster casts of individual tracks identify a man crippled with arthritis, another who had only four toes on one foot and whose metatarsals had completely collapsed, and another with claw foot. The gait of one adolescent girl suggests that she may have been pregnant – her feet arched and toes curled under as she tried to compensate for her changing body shape and keep her balance as she slowly made her way over the slippery mud.
7. 4,000 years ago
Thousands of footprints recently discovered in 4000 year-old ash deposits under present-day Naples show that thousands of people fled a Mount Vesuvius eruption around 2000 BC. The footprints, pressed into layers of wet ash that rained from the sky, show a sudden mass exodus of adults, children and animals to the northwest, away from the volcano. This Bronze Age eruption, called the Avellino catastrophe, was far more powerful than its more famous recorded eruption in 79 AD. It produced a cubic mile of pumice and ash that rose in a plume 22 miles high and would have caused total devastation as far as 7 miles away, reaching well into present-day Naples. Floods, mudflows and ash fall affected people as far as 40 miles from the volcano. Fortunately, most of the 10,000 or so inhabitants of the region seem to have got out safely, suggesting that the eruption was preceded by a warning blast. Archaeological evidence indicates that some people returned and tried to set up settlements again, but ultimately failed as the deposit of millions of tons of ash and pumice made the area uninhabitable for hundreds of years.
8. 2,000 years ago
The solitary footprint imprinted on a tile may be the result of the boredom of a Roman soldier of the Tenth Legion Gemina, garrisoned near present-day Nijmegen, Holland in the late 1st century AD. The soldiers of the Tenth Legion established a pottery close to the garrison, where they produced roof tiles, bricks, and ceramics. After being mixed with loam and water, the bricks and tiles were put into moulds and exposed to the sun to dry them out. As one batch lay on the ground, a certain individual decided to leave his signature for posterity. After drying, the tiles and bricks were put into the kilns and baked hard.
9. 1,200 years ago
The carved outline of a foot on the deck of a longboat may be the similar result of the boredom of a young Viking oarsman 800 years later. For about a decade from 890 to 900 AD, the Gokstad Ship sailed on many voyages on the open sea – as evidenced by the well worn oar holes along its upper hull. The ship’s deck was fitted with loose floorboards, which could be lifted up to store supplies and plunder below deck. The distinct outline of a right foot covers two of these floorboards; the weaker outline of a left foot is on a different floorboard. The ship ended its days buried on land in a massive grave and the loose floorboards were disordered when excavated, so it isn’t sure whether the planks with left and right feet were originally next to each other, or the work of two separate individuals. Given the size of the small size of the feet, it’s thought their owner was an adolescent. Perhaps at a loose end when the wind was in the sail and there was no rowing to do, he took out his knife and carved around his foot in a kind of ‘I was here’ message. He even made sure he included his toenails in the outline.
10. 20 July 1969
This iconic NASA photo of a bootprint on the moon is not a historic record of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. In fact, the print was made by Buzz Aldrin for one of Apollo 11‘s scientific investigations: to study how the moon soil (regolith) would behave when compressed by the boot, and thus learn about its geological properties and how it would affect the crew’s ability to work on the lunar surface. This bootprint, and all other traces of human activity on the moon, should be preserved for millions of years. The moon’s lack of atmosphere means that neither wind nor water will erode them. However, nothing is forever – the moon is constantly bombarded by micro-meteoroids which will, eventually, rub them away.