A new discovery of early human footprints in Greece doesn’t just stand out because the footprints are said to be close to 6-million-years-old. Instead, it’s because of where the footprints were spotted, as the findings could challenge the accepted theory that humanity began in Africa and didn’t spread out to other continents until millions of years later.
The study, which was published Thursday in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, described a set of human footprints found in the Greek islet of Trachilos in western Crete. The footprints were said to have dated back about 5.7 million years ago, with the tracks coming from a creature that had some “hominin-like characteristics.” Additionally, the creature’s feet didn’t have any claws, and it might have walked on two feet with five toes each, with the inner toes more advanced than the outer ones.
In a statement quoted by the International Business Times, the researchers differentiated human and great ape feet, lending credence to the claim that the ancient footprints may have belonged to one of our early human ancestors.
“Human feet have a very distinctive shape, different from all other land animals. The feet of our closest relatives, the great apes, look more like a human hand with a thumb-like [big toe] that sticks out to the side.”
Although the age of the human footprints found in Greece was a key takeaway from the discovery, the most fascinating implication is the chance that there were early humans outside of Africa well before they first migrated out of the continent about 2 million years ago. According to the Business Standard, Africa has long been considered the cradle of humanity, with body fossils of hominids dating as far back as 6 to 7 million years ago. The oldest human footprints found in Africa, however, may have only been 3.66-million-years-old, though the Business Standard noted that these footprints are more human-looking than the ones that were found in Greece.
Making things even more interesting is the lack of connection Crete had with the southern shore of the Mediterranean at the time the footsteps were made in Trachilos. Crete is presently located southeast of the Greek mainland and north of the border between the Northern African nations of Libya and Egypt. Before a land bridge collapsed about 5 million years ago, western Crete was still connected to the rest of Greece, although already in the process of separating from the mainland.
“Whatever the exact timing of the separation process, it is clear that Crete never had a direct connection to the southern shore of the Mediterranean,” the study authors wrote.
“Its late Miocene mammal fauna, including the Trachilos trackmaker, must have arrived from the north.”
As the International Business Times explained it, the maker of the human footprints found in Greece could have theoretically made it out of Africa with a group that passed through the Levant (Israel, Lebanon, and Syria), then through Turkey in Asia Minor, and then through Bulgaria before making it to mainland Greece as we know it today, and finally arriving in Crete.
In addition to the possibility that early humans may have taken an unusually long path out of Africa to make it to Crete, the study authors noted that there’s also a chance that the footprints weren’t made by an early human after all, but rather by an undiscovered primate that could have had “human-like foot anatomy.” As such, there are a lot of unanswered questions at the present, but if the human footprints in Greece are indeed legitimate, and as ancient as the researchers believe they are, the discovery could change the way we think about how humans evolved in the species’ earliest years.
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