Michael Greshko writes in National Geographic about new findings about the possible social structures of our hominid ancestors.
Adding to an electrifying discovery made almost 40 years ago, researchers have uncovered a new set of footprints made by an early human ancestor that roamed Africa more than 3.6 million years ago.
Found in Laetoli, a renowned archaeological site in northeastern Tanzania, the 14 newfound footprints add to a set of 70 tracks uncovered in 1978 by paleontologist Mary Leakey. In all, the tracks are the oldest prints of their kind ever found, providing crucial evidence that walking on two legs was picked up early in the human lineage.
Spread out over an area three times bigger than an average parking space, the prints most likely belong to two individuals of Australopithecus afarensis, the hominin species most famously represented by the fossil known as “Lucy.” (Read more about how Lucy might have died.)
The footprints are among the many cultural treasures found in Tanzania, a country rich in ancient paleontological sites. Olduvai Gorge, some 20 miles to the northeast of Laetoli, famously harbored some of the earliest known human fossils.
Celebrating that heritage was the only reason the new prints were found at all: In 2015, Tanzanian archaeologists Fidelis Masao and Elgidius Ichumbaki, both of the University of Dar es Salaam, found the new footprints while evaluating the potential impacts of building a museum on the Laetoli site.