5.7 Million Year Old Footprints Discovered on Crete. Did a Bipedal Ape inhabit Europe Millions of Years Earlier than Previously Thought?

Not long ago (My Post of June 10th 2017) I complained that important finds of human and hominid fossils are too often reported in the press as ‘Shocking new Discoveries that will rewrite Human Pre-History’. Well I may have to eat my words this time because the recent unearthing at Trachilos on the island of Crete of 5.7 million year old fossil footprints could indeed rewrite human pre-history.

The footprints of human beings and the human like, upright walking apes called hominids are different from any other kind of creature. First of all like all of the primates we have no claws and our inner toes are substantially larger than the others, hence the ‘big toe’. Unlike our cousins the apes however our big toe does not stick out at a right angle the way our thumb does. These characteristics combine to make hominid footprints truly distinctive.

For the past 40 years the earliest known fossil hominid footprints were those discovered by Mary Leakey at lake Laetoli in Kenya, which were dated to 3.66 million years ago. These footprints are thought to have been made by a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis, the same species as the famous fossil Lucy. The images below show the fossils of Lucy and a reconstruction of what she may have looked like.

(Skeleton of Lucy: Credit Getty Images)
Reconstruction of A. afarensis (Credit: Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

The footprints at Laetoli, along with fossil remains like Lucy, are some of the key evidence for the ‘East African Cradle’ model of human evolution. The basic idea is that about 4.5 million years ago our ancestors moved from the jungle onto the East African grasslands. Adapting to their new environment by 3.5 million years ago our ancestors had become fully bi-pedal like Lucy and the makers of the Laetoli footprints. All subsequent hominid species, including us, are descended from those early walkers.

The footprints discovered on Crete could require a significant extension of if not an almost complete rewrite of that theory. Not only are they two million years older than the prints at Laetoli but they are on a different continent!

The Trachilos footprints were discovered and have been studied by a group of paleo-anthropologists led by Matthew Robert Bennett of the University of Bournemouth in the UK and Per Ahlberg of the University of Uppsala in Sweden. The footprints, several of which are shown in the images below, have been dated very precisely by the presence of fossil shells of marine microorganisms called foraminifera. The shells of these tiny single celled creatures evolved very quickly making foraminifera very useful fossils for dating the sediments in which they’re found.

Crete Footprints (Credit: Matthew R. Bennett)

Doctors Bennett and Ahlberg point out that at the time the footprints were made the sea level in the Mediterranean was much lower. Back then Crete was not an island but rather a part of the Greek mainland. In fact the size and depth of the Mediterranean Sea has varied greatly over the past 10 million years and it is quite possible that groups of early or even pre-hominid apes may have wandered around the eastern Mediterranean basin with one of them making the footprints on Crete.

Of course it is also possible that we have simply misidentified the footprints. Precise identification of any fossil is a hard thing to do and trace fossils, such as footprints or burrows, can be the hardest of all.

One thing is certain; if Greece or Sicily or east cost of the Mediterranean was inhabited by groups of early hominids then there are more fossils out there to be found. More evidence that could lead to a more complete picture of human evolution. Perhaps an ‘East Africa and Eastern Mediterranean Cradle’ model. If you’d like to read more about the footprints discovered at Trachilos Crete click on the link below.




New Fossils of Homo Sapiens extend the Origin of our Species back to 300, 000 Years Ago.

It seems like every couple of years there’s a new discovery of ‘Human’ fossils that ‘Completely Rewrites’ the history of our species. If you’re not paying attention it almost looks as if paleontologists have no idea of what they’re talking about and they contradict each other every time they find a new bone or tooth. Indeed creationists very often make just this argument and it’s hard to know just what the truth is.

The recent publication of the discovery of the oldest fossils of Homo Sapiens from Morocco by Jean-Jacques Hublin et al fits into this drama with even the prestigious journal Nature, which published the paper, used the phrase ‘rewrites our species’ history’. Notice however they don’t say completely rewrites and they’re only talking about our one species, not the ancestral species that evolved into us.

Earliest Homo sapiens skulls (left) compared to modern skull (right) (credit-Nature)

Therefore, before I discuss the significance of the work of Doctor Hublin and his co-authors I’m going to give a little background to add some context.

In 1871 Charles Darwin published “The Descent of Man’ in which he boldly predicted, without any fossil evidence at the time, that the origin of Humanity would be found in Africa. Today the evidence is so overwhelming, in numbers, variety and age of fossils that no paleoanthropologist doubts that Darwin was correct.

In fact much of the confusion that gets into the press is due to the great variety of different ancestors and cousins that working out the precise path that led to us is difficult. There are other species within the genus Homo, upright walking apes who used tools like H habilis, H erectus and H neanderthalis to name the best known members. (it is a common practice to shorten the genus name to just the first letter in multiple usages)

At the same time there are also species of upright walking apes who did not use tools, members of the genus Australopithecus like A afarensis, A africanus and A robustus. I doubt even Darwin would have predicted their existence but I’m certain it would have pleased him.

The basic path from ape to us, and I do mean basic, is that about 7 million years ago the increasing size of the savannas in Eastern Africa induced a tree dwelling ape to move out into the grassland and begin walking upright. There is strong evidence that by 3.7 million years ago the species A afarensis, the famous “Lucy” and her kind, were walking as well as you or I.

There is no evidence of extensive tool use by A afarensis however, the earliest tools discovered so far are associated with the species H habilis at sometime after 3.4 million years ago. In broad terms H habilis evolved into H erectus which then evolved into both H neanderthalis and H sapiens, us that is. If you like a more thorough review of how humanity evolved I strongly suggest the Smithsonian Institute’s ‘Introduction to Human Evolution’ which you can find by clicking on the link below.


Now remember, the new discovery by Doctor Hublin and his co-authors only effects us, only changes H sapiens, the last little part of 4 million years of evolution. This discovery is important but the broad outline of our evolution hasn’t changed a bit.

So now we can talk about what an important find Doctor Hublin has made and just what it means. At a site along the Atlantic ocean in Morocco in North Africa human bone fragments, including skull fragments have been found in association with stone tools. The bones have been identified as belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens and have been dated to about 315,000 years ago. These remains are about 100,000 years older than any previous finds and come from the wrong side of Africa!

According to Doctor Hublin, “Until now the common wisdom was that our species emerged probably rather quickly somewhere in a ‘Garden of Eden’ that was located most likely in sub-Sahara Africa”. The recent finds cast considerable doubt on this scenario indicating that our species evolved more slowly and across the entire continent.

But I have to say for myself, if you look at the ancient skull in the picture above, the brow ridge over the eyes, the wide face and low cranium say Neanderthal to me. Now we know the Neanderthals were living in Spain by 250,000 years ago and Spain is just north of Morocco. Could these humans have crossed the Straight of Gibraltar and become the Neanderthals? We need more data, more finds.

That’s the real point here. We need more finds, more bones. The broad outline of how our species came to be is well understood. We need to fill in all the details. If you’d like to read more about the finds by Doctor Hublin and his associates click on the link below.