300,000-year-old early human footprints found in Germany

A new study has been published that showcases a set of 300,000-year-old Homo heidelbergensis tracks from rock strata in Saxony, Germany.
Christopher McFadden
The tracks might be the oldest ever found in Germany.

Flavio Altamura et al 2023 

A fascinating new study has been released that may have discovered the oldest human footprints ever found in Germany, perhaps throughout all of Europe. Published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, an international team of researchers describes a set of 300,000-year-old footprints from a Paleolithic site complex in Lower Saxony.

The prints are presumed to have been made by Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species or subspecies of archaic humans, which are also associated with other prints from large mammals like prehistoric elephants and rhinoceros. The set of prints paints a fascinating insight into the ecosystem of the time in Germany.

“This [discovery lets us see] what it might have looked like at Schöningen in Lower Saxony 300,000 years ago,” explains the lead author of the newly published study, Dr. Flavio Altamura, a fellow at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen (SHEP), and he continues, “For the first time, we conducted a detailed investigation of the fossil footprints from two sites in Schöningen. These tracks and information from sedimentological, archaeological, paleontological, and paleobotanical analyses provide us with insights into the paleoenvironment and the mammals that once lived in this area. Among the prints are three tracks that match hominin footprints – with an age of about 300,000 years, they are the oldest human tracks known from Germany and were most likely left by Homo heidelbergensis,” he added.

From an analysis of the tracks, the team has determined that the tracks were made by three individuals, probably relatively young, accompanied by a larger adult, presumably part of a family unit. The presence of younger members also indicates, according to the researchers, that this group was likely gathering rather than hunting.

”Depending on the season, plants, fruits, leaves, shoots, and mushrooms were available around the lake. Our findings confirm that the extinct human species dwelled on lake or river shores with shallow water. This is also known from other Lower and Middle Pleistocene sites with hominin footprints,” says Altamura.

The Schöningen tracks provide insights into the daily life of a family and can reveal details about the behavior, social structure, and interactions between hominin groups and other animals, such as elephant herds and smaller mammals. “Based on the tracks, including those of children and juveniles, this was probably a family outing rather than a group of adult hunters,” Altamura explains. The other non-human tracks are also very interesting.

“The elephant tracks we discovered at Schöningen reach an impressive length of 55 centimeters. In some cases, we also found wood fragments in the prints that were pushed into the – at that time still soft – soil by the animals,” explains Dr. Jordi Serangeli, excavation supervisor at Schöningen, and he adds, “There is also one track from a rhinoceros – Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis or Stephanorhinus hemitoechus – which is the first footprint of either of these Pleistocene species ever found in Europe,” he added.

You can review the study for yourself in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Study abstract:

“The ca. 300 ka Paleolithic sites of Schöningen in northern Germany yielded a number of localities with archeological and paleontological remains representing a rich paleoenvironmental record of the late Middle Pleistocene in northern Europe. An important line of research focused on the ichnology of two localities: Schöningen 13 I-Fs2 and Schöningen 13 II-2 Untere Berme. Here we present the first detailed study of these fossil footprints, which provides insights on Schöningen's paleoenvironment and a snapshot of the mammals once living in the area. Herds of elephants and other species of herbivores congregated along the muddy shores of a paleolake during birch, pine and grass-rich woodland phases. In addition, three potential hominin footprints, probably belonging to a late Homo heidelbergensis, are recorded at Schöningen 13 II-2 Untere Berme. This confirms the complementary potential of ichnology in reconstructing a reliable picture of prehistoric sites.”

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