Tracing human origins by foot

A new study has pushed back the estimated age of 50 footprints preserved in rocks on the Mediterranean island of Crete – footprints that were already thought to be among the oldest pre-human prints in the world, and have now been dated to around 6.05 million years ago.

The international team of researchers, whose study was published this week in Scientific Reports, used refined dating techniques to more accurately place the precious imprints in history, but the claims are deeply controversial, challenging prevailing wisdom about human evolution.

Back in 2017, when these footprints were first dated to the Miocene, some 5.7 million years ago, the authors of that paper in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association claimed they placed some of the earliest human wanderings in Eurasia as well as Africa, and challenged the hegemony of the Out of Africa theory. The authors noted what they saw as key similarities between the ancient Cretan footprints and those of humans.

The findings were controversial and rebuttals were swift, with other researchers likening the footprints to those of gorillas rather than something resembling human.

But the Cretan camp has redoubled its efforts with a new study by a mixed team of researchers – some of whom worked on the original 2017 paper – pushing the dating of the footprints back a further 300,000 years, and insisting on their morphological human likeness.

So why is the debate so controversial, and why does it matter anyway?

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