153,000-year-old Homo sapiens footprints identified in South Africa

They used optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to determine the age of these impressions.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Representational image of old human fossilized footprint.
Representational image of old human fossilized footprint.


The world's oldest Homo sapiens footprints have been identified on the Cape coast of South Africa.

Archaeologists have dated these set of footprints back to 153,000 years ago, making them the oldest recorded tracks of our ancestors. These human tracks were discovered by an international team of researchers led by the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. 

The discovery of the footprints

The team discovered seven distinct ichnosites — impressions left by early humans — just east of Africa's southern tip. According to a report, these ichnosites featured four hominin tracks, one knee impression, and four ammoglyphs, which refer to any imprinted pattern made by humans that got preserved over time. 

They used optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to determine the age of these impressions. “This method of dating shows how long ago a grain of sand was exposed to sunlight; in other words, how long that section of sediment has been buried,” the authors mentioned in the Conversation report. 

It was discovered using this technique that the tracks range somewhere between 153,000 to 71,000 years old. These 153,000-year-old footprints were found in the high cliffs of the Garden Route National Park (GRNP) track site.

Interestingly, archaeologists have previously documented ancient intricate stone tools, art, jewelry, coastal cave, rock-shelter sites, and shellfish harvesting from this region of South Africa. According to the researchers, the findings support that early modern humans may have lived and evolved on the south coast of Africa before migrating to other continents.

Moreover, 14 dated African hominin ichnosites are now more than 50,000 years old. Researchers believe that more hominin ichnosites await discovery on the Cape South coast.

Footprints serve as a valuable palaeo-record and help us understand ancient hominins in Africa. As per the study, it "can provide not just an indication of humans traveling across these surfaces as individuals or groups, but also evidence of some of the activities they engaged in." 

The details have been published in the journal Ichnos.

Study abstract:

Seven hominin ichnosites in aeolianites on the Cape south coast of South Africa have been dated using Optically Stimulated Luminescence, yielding age estimates from Marine Isotope 6 through Marine Isotope Stage 4. All rock outcrops containing these sites are situated on the modern coastline. The new ages are consistent with geomorphological expectations, and with other numerical dating results from the wider southern Cape coastline. Seen in a global ichnological context, the cluster of South African sites (including two previously dated sites) contains nine of the twenty-three sites older than 70 ka from which hominin tracks have been reported. With a single exception they are also the only sites older than 40 ka that have been attributed to Homo sapiens, and include the oldest tracks (153 ± 10 ka) thus far attributed to our species. The South African coastline contains an archaeological and palaeoanthropological record of global significance, to which the hominin ichnological record, preserved on aeolianite palaeosurfaces and now chronologically constrained, can make a substantial contribution.

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