120,000-year-old human footprints found in Saudi Arabia

This detailed scene has now been reconstructed thanks to the discovery of 120,000-Year-Old Human Footprints in the An-Nafud desert that shed new light on the routes followed by our ancestors as they spread out of Africa.

120,000 years ago, in what is now northern Saudi Arabia, a small group of Homo sapiens stopped to drink and forage for food in a shallow lake frequented by different animals. 

One of the 120,000-Year-Old Human Footprints  found in Alathar.
One of the human footprints found in Alathar. 
Credit: Stewart et al, Science Advances, 2020.

Today, the Arabian peninsula is characterized by its vast and arid deserts that would have been inhospitable to early humans and the animals they hunted. 

But research in recent decades has shown that this was not always the case ; Due to natural variations in climate, in the past the area was much greener and wetter – in a period known as the last interglacial.

“During certain times in the past, the deserts that currently dominate the interior of the peninsula were transformed into vast areas of grasslands, lakes and rivers,” explained study co  author  Richard Clark-Wilson of the Royal Holloway School of the University of London.

On the other hand, Mathew Stewart, lead author of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Germany, told AFP that the footprints were discovered during his doctoral work in 2017, following the erosion of the sediments that cover the ancient lake named Alathar. (‘the trace’ in Arabic).

(A) Map showing the location of the site in the An-Nafud desert, Saudi Arabia. (B) Oblique three-dimensional map of the location of footprints, fossils and samples for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). 120,000-Year-Old Human Footprints
(A) Map showing the location of the site in the An-Nafud desert, Saudi Arabia. 
(B) Oblique three-dimensional map of the location of footprints, fossils and samples for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL).

‘Footprints are a unique form of fossil evidence, providing snapshots of the past that usually represent a few hours or days. It is a resolution that we do not usually obtain from other registries, “he said.

The 120,000-Year-Old Human Footprints were dated using a technique known in geomorphology as optically stimulated luminescence, which allows us to determine how long ago mineral grains in the sediments were last exposed to sunlight or sufficient heating.

Arabia Used To Be Green

In total, seven of the hundreds of tracks discovered were identified as hominid, including four that, given their similar orientation, distance between them and differences in size, were interpreted as two or three individuals traveling together.

The researchers argue that these belonged to modern humans and not Neanderthals, on the basis that our extinct cousins ​​were not present in the Middle East region at the time. Furthermore, the estimated height and mass inferred from the footsteps confirms the above.

Hominid Three-Tread Digital Elevation Models (HPR001, HPR002, and HPR003). 
Credit: Klint Janulis, University of Oxford.

‘We know that humans were visiting this lake at the same time as the animals, probably looking for water and food. Unusually for the area, we found no stone tools, ”Stewart explained.

In addition to the footprints, the team managed to recover some 233 fossils that suggest carnivores were drawn to Lake Alathar in search of herbivores, similar to what we see in the African savannas today.

(A) Lateral view of the deposits in the Alathar paleolago. 
Arrows indicate investigators at work. 
(B) First stratigraphic section. 
(C) Second stratigraphic section. 
(D and E) Elephant footprints. 
(F) Camelid footprints. 
(G) Camelid forefoot print. 
(H) Camelid hind footprint. 
(I) Equid footprints. 
(J) Eroded bovid vertebra in lake sediment. 
Credit: Gilbert Price, The University of Queensland and Richard Clark-Wilson, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The fossil records of Homo sapiens outside Africa date back between 210 and 180 thousand years, in southern Greece and the Levant. According to the new study, land routes, following lakes and rivers, had a particular importance in human spread outside the continent.

“The presence of large animals such as elephants and hippos, along with the open grasslands and large water resources in northern Arabia, probably attracted humans from Africa and motivated them to move there,” concluded Michael Petraglia, senior author of the study.

Source: ScienceAlert . Edition: Infinity Explorers .

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