Italian volcano bears tracks of early Europeans.
Palaeontologists have found what could be the earliest human footprints, fossilized in volcanic ash in Southern Italy.
The 20-centimetre prints hint that early man was less than 1.5 metres tall when he walked down the Roccamonfina volcano between 385,000 and 325,000 years ago1.
The fossils give us "a unique insight into the activities of some of the earliest known Europeans", says one of their discoverers, Marco Avanzini, who works at the Natural Science Museum in Trento, Italy.
Others argue that the oldest human footprints are some 3.5-million-year-old tracks found in Tanzania in 19792. These were probably made by a more primitive human species, argue Avanzini and his colleague Paolo Mietto.
There are three sets of tracks at Roccamonfina: two in a straight line and one zigzagging down the steep volcano's slopes. Toe-prints can be made out in some places. A handprint suggests that one walker used his hands for balance when the terrain got rough.
Given that these tracks were made before the molten ash solidified, the trio that made them may have seen the volcano erupting, speculates Mietto, who works at Padua University in Italy.
Now inactive, the Roccamonfina volcano last erupted around 50,000 years ago, long after the footprints were made. Locals refer to the fossils as 'devils' trails' - folklore says that Satan made them. A pair of local archaeologists spotted their potential significance and alerted Mietto and Avanzini.
The site may hold other tracks hidden under vegetation or buried in the soil, Mietto hopes. He has submitted a request to the regional archaeological office in Italy to explore the area further.
Mietto, P., Avanzini, M. & Rolandi, G. Human footprints in Pleistocene volcanic ash. Nature, 422, 133, (2003).
Leakey, M. D. & Hay, R. L. Pliocene footprints in the Laetolil Beds at Laetoli, northern Tanzania. Nature, 278, 317 - 323, (1979).
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Pilcher, H. Earliest human footprints found?. Nature (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/news030310-9