Mysterious footprints discovered in Tanzania were left by early humans 3.7 ...

Mysterious footprints discovered in Tanzania were left by early humans 3.7 ...
Mysterious footprints discovered in Tanzania were left by early humans 3.7 ...

Mysterious footprints first thought to have been made by ancient bears were actually left by early humans millions of years ago, a new study has found.

Evidence of a big toe and large heel in the fossilised impressions, discovered at a site in Tanzania in 1976, helped classify them as belonging to an unidentified bipedal hominin that may have had a strange cross-stepping gait.

It suggests that more than one such species was walking on two legs 3.7 million years ago, as separate footprints found at a nearby site in Laetoli have previously been identified as the earliest definitive evidence of bipedalism in hominins.

Researchers believe they belonged to Australopithecus afarensis — the hominin species of the famous partial skeleton 'Lucy', the longest-lived and best known example of one of our early human ancestors. 

It is unclear what type of early human was responsible for the prints found in 1976, but the impressions reveal that whoever it was either had a bizarre cross-stepping gait or was perhaps navigating hazardous terrain.

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Mysterious footprints (shown in picture a and b) that were first thought to have been made by ancient bears were actually left by early humans millions of years ago, a new study has found. It compared the impressions to another early hominin footprint found nearby (c), as well as bears (d) and chimpanzees (e)

Mysterious footprints (shown in picture a and b) that were first thought to have been made by ancient bears were actually left by early humans millions of years ago, a new study has found. It compared the impressions to another early hominin footprint found nearby (c), as well as bears (d) and chimpanzees (e)

Evidence of a big toe and large heel in the fossilised impressions (pictured), discovered at a site in Tanzania in 1976, helped identify them as belonging to an unidentified bipedal hominin

Evidence of a big toe and large heel in the fossilised impressions (pictured), discovered at a site in Tanzania in 1976, helped identify them as belonging to an unidentified bipedal hominin

WHAT IS THE EARLIEST KNOWN EXAMPLE OF HUMANS WALKING ON TWO FEET? 

The oldest definitive evidence of upright walking in the human lineage are footprints discovered at Laetoli, Tanzania in 1978, by paleontologist Mary Leakey and her team.

The bipedal trackways date to 3.7 million years ago and were found close to another set of mysterious footprints that were partially excavated in 1976.

These were initially dismissed as possibly being made by an ancient bear, but now researchers have found that they actually belonged to a different species of early human.

In comparing the two sets of Laetoli footprints, including the foot proportions, morphology and likely gait, the study led by the University of Ohio concluded that they were made by varying species.

The earliest-known example, found in 1978, belonged to Australopithecus afarensis — the hominin species of the famous partial skeleton 'Lucy', the longest-lived and best known example of one of our early human ancestors. 

But it is unclear what type of early human was responsible for the prints discovered in 1976.

The impressions reveal that whoever it was either had a bizarre cross-stepping gait or was perhaps navigating hazardous terrain.

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Researchers said the footprints were placed in such a way that the creature must have been placing each foot past the body's midline to touch down in front of the other foot. 

'Although humans don't typically cross-step, this motion can occur when one is trying to re-establish their balance,' said the study's lead author Ellison McNutt, an assistant professor at Ohio University.

'[The] footprints may have been the result of a hominin walking across an area that was an unlevel surface.'

In 1978, five consecutive footprints discovered at the Laetoli site provided the earliest definitive evidence of bipedalism in hominins and were linked to Australopithecus afarensis.

'Lucy', who belonged to that hominin species, was discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 1974 and is thought to have been a young adult when she died 3.18 million years ago. 

Researchers have previously claimed that she died after falling out of a tree, offering unusual evidence for tree dwelling in the extinct species.

However, other footprints discovered around the same time at a nearby spot named Site A, before being subsequently covered over, prompted debate.

Some thought they were made by a bear walking on hind legs, while others believed that a different kind of hominin to 'Lucy' may have been responsible.

In 2019, McNutt and her colleagues re-excavated these unusually-shaped footprints and compared them with impressions made by bears, chimpanzees and humans. 

'Given the increasing evidence for locomotor and species diversity in the hominin fossil record over the past 30 years, these unusual prints deserved another look,' McNutt said. 

The footprints were measured, photographed and 3D-scanned and revealed to have a large

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