New research has determined that a set of hominin footprints found in Spain are 200,000 years older than previously thought.
The footprints were first identified at Matalascañas, on the south-west of the Iberian peninsula, in 2020, after the surface was exposed by winter storms. They were originally dated to the Upper Pleistocene, c.106,000 years ago, but recent OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dating has revealed that the layer containing the footprints actually dates to c.295,8000 years ago. This new date places the footprints in the Middle Pleistocene, a time of significant climatic change, during the transition from a warm, interglacial period to a colder, glacial period.
The footprints themselves are insufficiently well-preserved to determine which species of hominin created them, so researchers must rely on their chronological context. When they were first discovered, the Matalascañas footprints were attributed to Neanderthals, but the Middle Pleistocene date makes this less certain. However, it is likely that they were created by a member of the Neanderthal lineage, although this could be either Homo neanderthalensis or Homo heidelbergensis, both of whom lived in Europe around this time.
The existing hominin fossil and footprint record for the European Middle Pleistocene is very limited, and the Matalascañas footprints represent an important addition, particularly as the first palaeoanthropological evidence (that is, hominin skeletal remains or footprints) from this period of climatic transition in the Iberian peninsula. Originally, 87 hominin footprints were identified at Matalascañas; this number has now increased to 236, although only c.10% are considered well-preserved. They are believed to have been made by at least three individuals – including one child aged 6-8 years old – who were probably seeking resources. As well as the hominin footprints, the surface contains tracks from a number of animals including aurochs, red deer, wild boar, and waterbirds. The orientation of the hominin footprints towards some of these animal tracks could suggest that they were hunting, offering a valuable insight into Middle Pleistocene hominin cultural and social behaviour. The new date also means that these animal tracks can provide important information about the fauna in the area at the time.
The study has been published in Scientific Reports (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-22524-2).
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