IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF EVE
By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence
Washington, DC (August 14, 1997)- The discovery
in South Africa of the oldest known footprints of a modern human ancestor
provides exciting new clues about the "genetic Eve", mother of
the human race, reported enthusiastic researchers at a press conference
hosted by the National Geographic Society.
Caption: Site Map of Discovery, click for large version
The fossilized foot-prints were found in a previously little-explored
area of South Africa, and are believed to be about 117,000 years old. The
prints measure eight and a half inches (26 centimeters) in length. On one
foot, the big toe, ball, arch and heel are all clear. The prints were made
in wet sand by a small person walking downhill. The team that discovered
the footprints has also discovered scraping, cutting and hunting tools believed
to date from the same period.
"These footprints are traces of the earliest of modern people.
Unlike the footprints found at Laetoli (Tanzania), which were left millions
of years ago, these were made by modern humansóour direct
ancestors," said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University
of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Every single human on Earth is believed to have descended from a very
small group of African hominids living between 100,000 and 300,000 years
ago. These estimates are based on measurements of mitochondrial DNA on the
female side, which is preserved over the millennia. The hypothetical first
human mother is sometimes referred to as the "genetic Eve", explained
"It is highly unlikely, of course, that the actual 'Eve' made these
prints,î Berger said, ìbut they were made at the right time
on the right continent to be hers.î
The footprints were actually discovered by David Roberts, a South African
geologist from the Council for Geoscience, while walking along Langebaan
Lagoon, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Cape Town. Apparently,
hundreds of people had explored the area without noticing the prints.
"I had found fossilized carnivore tracks and rock fragments that
I thought had been worked by hominids in the ancient sedimentary rocks fringing
the lagoon," Roberts said. "On a hunch, I began searching for
hominid footprints óand found them!"
The find reflects new paleoanthropological research interest in South
Africa, an area previously overshadowed by dramatic discovered in East Africa
by the Leakey's and others. This particular area was isolated geologically
by deserts and mountains. This would provide the conditions for isolate
producing unique species of plants and animals, including humans. This genetic
isolation might begin to explain the development of distinctive human
traits such as jutting jaws, high foreheads and barely visible brow
ridges, Berger said.
Pieces of ocher found in the same area also suggest the intriguing idea
that these early humans may have already started to develop ritualized behaviors.
That is, this potential Eve may have worn make-up.
Casts of the footprints, the stone tools and other evidence of ancient humans
from South Africaóincluding a giant buffalo fossil whose horns span
almost 10 feet (3 meters)ówill be on display at the National
Geographic Societyís Explorers Hall in Washington DC, Aug. 15 through
Sept. 15 (1997).
The discovery was announced at a press conference at the National Geographic
Society in Washington. It will appear in the September, 1997, issue
of the South African Journal of
Science. A related article appears in the September issue of National