300,000-year-old human footprints found in Germany

An international team of researchers, led by scientists from the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, has made a significant discovery. In their recently published study in Quaternary Science Reviews, they unveil the earliest human footprints ever found in Germany. These remarkable footprints were unearthed in the Schöningen Paleolithic site complex in Lower Saxony and date back approximately 300,000 years. Believed to be left by Homo heidelbergensis, these footprints are surrounded by numerous animal tracks, offering a glimpse into the ecosystem of that era.

Picture a serene landscape featuring an open woodland dominated by birch and pine trees, with a grassy understory. Nestled within this picturesque setting lies a lake, stretching a few kilometers in length and several hundred meters in width. Along the muddy shores of this lake, herds of elephants, rhinoceroses, and other even-toed ungulates gather to quench their thirst or enjoy a refreshing bath. Amidst this idyllic scene, a small family of “Heidelberg people,” an extinct human species, stands.

Dr. Flavio Altamura, the lead author of the study and a fellow at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, sheds light on the significance of the findings. “These footprints provide us with a glimpse of what life might have been like 300,000 years ago in Schöningen, Lower Saxony,” he explains. “Through meticulous analysis of the fossil footprints at two sites in Schöningen, combined with sedimentological, archaeological, paleontological, and paleobotanical studies, we gain valuable insights into the ancient environment and the mammalian species that once thrived in this region. Among the tracks, we discovered three footprints that match those of hominins. With an age of approximately 300,000 years, these are the oldest human footprints ever discovered in Germany and are likely to have been left by Homo heidelbergensis.”

Fossil footprints from the site Schöningen 13 II-2 Untere Berme. Credit: University of Tübingen

The scientists have identified two of the three human tracks found at Schöningen as belonging to young individuals who formed part of a small, mixed-age group that relied on the lake and its resources. Dr. Altamura emphasizes that the availability of plants, fruits, leaves, shoots, and mushrooms around the lake varied depending on the season. This observation supports the notion that the extinct human species inhabited the shores of lakes or rivers with shallow waters, a characteristic also observed in other Lower and Middle Pleistocene sites featuring hominin footprints.

The diverse tracks discovered at Schöningen provide a captivating snapshot of the daily life of a family and offer insights into the behavior, social composition, and spatial interactions of hominin groups. They also shed light on their coexistence with elephant herds and other smaller mammals. According to the study, the presence of tracks from children and juveniles suggests that this particular occasion was likely a family outing rather than a group of adult hunters, as proposed by the archaeologist and fossil footprint expert.

Alongside the human footprints, the research team conducted an analysis of elephant tracks attributed to the extinct species Palaeoloxodon antiquus. These elephants, characterized by their straight tusks, were the largest land animals of their time, with adult bulls weighing up to 13 tons. The elephant tracks discovered at Schöningen were particularly impressive, measuring a striking length of 55 centimeters. Additionally, some of these tracks contained wood fragments that had been pushed into the soil, still soft at the time, by the animals. The excavation supervisor at Schöningen, Dr. Jordi Serangeli, highlights another remarkable find—a single track from a rhinoceros, specifically Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis or Stephanorhinus hemitoechus. This represents the first footprint ever discovered in Europe from either of these Pleistocene species.

Source: University of Tübingen

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