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Oldest Indigenous African footprint ever found
Tracks made 117,000 years ago in Africa

 

Footprints left on a South African lagoon 117,000 Years ago have been identified as the oldest fossilized tracks of an anatomically modern African ever found.

The two amazingly preserved prints, each measuring 8 inches long barefoot or about a 7 to 7 woman's shoe size, represent a rare discovery from the crucial but poorly understood period of history when modern indigenous Africans first appeared, according to researchers who announced the discovery Thursday, (August 14, 1997).

The smallish individual who ventured barefoot down the sandy incline was an indigenous African, probably a woman an about 5 feet 4 inches tall, who "looked just like us." the researchers said. She lived in roughly the same time and place as the hypothetical female known to paleoanthropologists as "African Eve" or "Black Eve," the common genetic ancestor of every person alive today.

 

"These footprints are traces of the earliest modern people," said Lee Berger, a Kansas-born paleoanthropologist based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although special dating techniques show them to be ancient, the position of the toes, the distribution of weight and the well-developed arch are all so advanced that the prints "could have been made yesterday," he said.

 Lee Berger and Colleague David Roberts discussed their discovery at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington. where casts of the prints and related items are on display through Sept. 15. The work is described in the September issue of National Geographic magazine and in the August issue of the South African Journal of Science.

The tracks were discovered in September, 1995, in what was once a steel) sand dune, now hardened to gray sandstone, along Langebaan Lagoon, about 60 miles north of Cape Town. "Hundreds of people had walked over that area including scientists, and not noticed the prints." Berger said.

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The odds were "one in millions" that such prints would be preserved and then be found by someone expert enough to recognize what they were, Berger said. A paleoanthropologist such as him never would even have looked. "It took a geologist, who didn't know how impossible the event was."

Roberts, a South African geologist from the Council for Geoscience, said he was inspired to scramble up and down the rock faces on a search for footprints after finding fossilized carnivore tracks and evidence of toolmaking in ancient sedimentary rocks timing the lagoon.

"On a hunch, I began searching for hominids footprints and found them!" he said. (The term hominid refers to the family of two-legged primates that includes humans.) Berger said the team hopes to try to follow the trail of footprints back into the hills, but he acknowledged it will take "one hell of a mining operation."