The earliest footprints showing evidence of modern human foot anatomy and gait have been unearthed in Kenya.

1.5-million-year-old footprints have been found that display signs of a pronounced arch and short, aligned toes, in contrast to older humanlike footprints. The size and spacing of the Kenyan markings - attributed to Homo erectus - reflect the height, weight, and walking style of modern humans. The findings have been published in the journal Science.

The footprints are not the oldest belonging to a member of the human lineage. That title belongs to the 3.7 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis prints found in Laetoli, Tanzania, in 1978.

Those prints, however, showed comparatively flat feet and a significantly higher angle between the big toe and the other toes, representative of a foot still adapted to grasping. Exactly how that more ape-like foot developed into its modern version has remained unclear. The fossil record is distinctly lacking in foot and hand bones, according to lead author Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University, UK. "The reason is that carnivores like to eat hands and feet," Professor Bennett told BBC News. "Once the flesh is gone there's a lot of little bones that don't get preserved, so we know very little about the evolution of hands and feet on our ancestors."

The footprints were found near Ileret in northern Kenya. The site, on a small hill, is made up of metres of sediment which the researchers carefully cleared away. What they found was two sets of footprints, one five metres deeper than the other, separated by sand, silt, and volcanic ash.

The team dated the surrounding sediment to between 1.51 and 1.53 million years old by comparing it with well-known radioisotope-dated samples from the region, finding that the two layers of prints were made at least 10,000 years apart. Another critical feature that the series of footprints makes clear is how Homo erectus walked.

There is evidence of a heavy landing on the heel with weight transferred along the outer edge of the foot, progressing to the ball of the foot and lifting off with the toes. "That's very diagnostic of the modern style of walking, and the Laetoli prints don't give that same character," Professor Bennett said.

The finding is a critical clue for mapping out the evolution of modern humans, both in terms of physiology and also how H. erectus fared in its environment. H. erectus was a great leap in evolution, showing increased variety of diet and of habitat, and was the first Homo species to make the journey out of Africa.

"There's some suggestion out there that Homo erectus was able to scour the landscape for carcasses and meat...and was able to get there very quickly, had longer limbs and was much more efficient in terms of long distance travel," Professor Bennett added. "Now we're also saying it had an essentially modern foot anatomy and function, which also adds to that story."
— BBC article, 26 February 2009, reporting on a paper in the journal Science

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Replies to This Discussion

Yes, I heard about this in my Human Evolution class! Fascinating!
I still like little Lucy's species' footprints! So cute!
Very interesting indeed.
It is yet another step (speaking of footprints) in an amazing collection of learning about where we come from. Ain't it great?

I did not actually know that H. erectus was the first in the human lineage to leave Africa...guess I'm a bit rusty on some details after 20 years out of college biology. Those feet were made for walking, indeed.
I see this was in the journal Science. Which research group or individuals has this find been attributed to so I may research it a little more?


Somehow, footprints seem so much more personal than bones.

The bones tell us that a person (or creature?) existed. The footprints tell us what the person was "doing" - like walk. Walking with the weight of the body falling on the heel would also indicate that this person was not running - then the weight should be on the toes. The footprints are preservation of motion and, to a limited extent, situation.

Imagine ANY vestige of your existence being around in 100 or 1,000 years, let alone 1.5 million years. Maybe if you are a stone mason, or artist, or architect, or potentate - but something that shows the shape of your hand or foot? Not someone special, just someone? Not doing something special, just "doing"? Incredible.

Here's a question - do we call H. Erectus a person or a creature? What about Neanderthal? What about G.W. Bush?
I would have to say H. Erectus was definitely a person as any bipedal, large brained ape would be. However, my opinion contradicts what I (and some other more qualified paleoanthropologists) think of Homo Habilis. While this species probably used tools and walked upright it has more in common with an Australopithecine than a Human. The brain was larger as well.

I wish we had more information on H. Ergaster. That would probably shed more light on Habilis and Erectus (and, ultimately, us). I have a feeling, though, that the more info we do find on Ergaster will lead it to be to Erectus as Cro-Magnon is to Sapiens which brings us back to being descended from early Erectus, once again. Man, I love this stuff!
H. erectus and the australopithicines are all but confirmed, but I still wonder about an "acquatic ape." It could be that early hominids were prey to the wild dogs and cats, and needed the refuge of the ocean.

There's webbing between our digits, unlike the hominoids; human babies can swim without learning, and the hair on our back points point to the spine, making us more aerodynamic in water.

People get a pleasure just being around water.
Now that's interesting... It's rather doubtful that we were strictly aquatic apes but maybe "terraquatic" a lot later than currently estimated or even "terraquatic" again. We do have many commonalities with marine mammals but this could be due to earlier evolution before we split with them. I like the idea though - I'm a fish myself (actually, at my size, I more resemble a small whale).

I just read Your Inner Fish by Neal Shubin and his observations can attest to inheriting many physical traits from our fish ancestors. I devoured this book faster than The End of Faith. I highly recommend it.
Just fyi, here is the link to the science article:


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