To send a tip to the author, please login.
We know Neanderthals mated with us, painted on cave walls and may have used herbal medications. Now an analysis of the biggest tranche of Neanderthal footprints yet discovered offers a window into their lives.
The 257 fossil footprints were found in a coastal creek bed in Le Rozel in northern France. They were made around 80,000 years ago and preserved in sandy mud. Most of the footprints were from children and may show that Neanderthals could have been taller than previously thought.
“The discovery of so many Neanderthal footprints at one site is extraordinary,” says Isabelle de Groote at Liverpool John Moores University, who was not involved with the study.
Before this, only nine Neanderthal footprints were known, from 4 different sites, says Jérémy Duveau of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in France, who led the team that carried out the analysis. “Footprints are very interesting because they give a snapshot of a moment of life of hominins such as Neanderthals, and allow us to estimate the size and composition of the group that made them.” This kind of information is hard to obtain from other archaeological artefacts such as skeletons and tools.
Although the researchers can’t be certain that the 80,000-year old footprints at Le Rozel were made by Neanderthals, as no hominin skeletal remains were found at the site, Neanderthals were the only known hominins in Europe at that time – Homo sapiens arrived some 35,000 years later.
The footprints of Neanderthals are wider than those of modern humans because their feet were broader. From the size of the Le Rozel footprints, the researchers could estimate the size of the individual who made them, and then infer their age.
The Le Rozel footprints were found in 5 different layers of sediment. Duveau and his colleagues focussed on one particular layer which contained about 80 per cent of the total number, extending over an area of 92 square metres. The analysis showed that more 90 per cent of the footprints were made by children and adolescents, with the youngest being around 2 years old. “The majority were children, there were very few adults,” says Duveau. They belonged to a small group of perhaps 10-13 individuals who occupied the site, but it’s hard to tell what they children were doing when their tracks were preserved.
“It’s difficult to figure out why those individuals were there at that particular time: were they looking for food or playing or doing something else?” says de Groote. “I would expect either more adults or more of a balance between the number of adults and young people.”
Some large footprints at the site indicate that they were made by an exceptionally tall individual. Evidence from skeletons shows that Neanderthals were smaller than modern humans, usually between 150 – 160 centimetres tall, but some of the Le Rozel footprints seem to have been made by someone with a height of 175 centimetres. This is the average height of a man in the USA today. An alternative explanation is that Neanderthals could have been taller than previous evidence suggests.
Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1901789116
More on these topics: