A newly recently find of 115,000-year-old human footprints has given archaeologists more questions than answers.
They’re thinking about why these footprints are where they are, who exactly made them, and most notably, what can they tell us about early human migration.
In short, they seem to point to the fact that homo sapien roamed the Arabian Peninsula far earlier than we’ve once thought.
The seven footprints were discovered pressed into the land around an old lake bed in northern Saudi Arabia, according to National Geographic. Archaeologists spotted them while studying the nearby impressions left by animal paws and hooves that also surround the extinct body of water – it was a popular gathering place for elephants, camels, buffalo, and the precursor to modern horses.
The resulting analysis, published in Science Advances, argues that modern(ish) humans made the impressions between 112,000-121,000 years ago, which would make them the oldest ever found on the Peninsula.
They believe the findings if approved, could help us trace the routes ancient humans followed as they first went outside of Africa.
The bulk of non-African people in the world today descend from people who left the continent in enormous numbers around 60,000 years ago.
Researchers have long posited that smaller groups of Homo sapiens could have ventured out prior to the mass migration, and these footprints seem to point to that likelihood being true.
The lake bed also yielded 233 fossils that prove the area was likely greener and wetter during the time period – it would have looked more like a savanna than an arid desert to our ancient relatives, says study co-author Michael Petraglia in a statement.
“The presence of large animals such as elephants and hippos, together with open grasslands and large water resources, may have made norther Arabia a particularly attractive place to humans moving between Africa and Eurasia.”
Evidence – or lack thereof, when it comes to any hunting or other tools in the area – points to the humans’ visit to the area being a stopover and not a permanent settlement.
If you’re wondering about Neanderthals, those distant cousins of ours, the scientists involved admit the tracks could belong to them, but believe the longer tracks appear to have been made by taller, lighter hominins.
The fact that the footprints came from the last interglacial period when the climate was warm and wet, also points to them belonging to Homo sapien, says lead author Mathew Stewart.
“It is only after the last interglacial with the return of cooler conditions that we have definitive evidence for Neanderthals moving into the region. The footprints, therefore, most likely represent humans, or Homo sapiens.”
Our human ancestors continue to be as mysterious and fascinating as the people who descended from them – which is to say that though a lot has changed, many things have not.
And it seems that people a hundred thousand years ago also enjoyed a road trip with friends.