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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Laetoli Footprints Explained

The Laetoli footprints are fossils of footprints that look suspiciously like human footprints of today. They appear to be the fossilized footprints of two or three hominids that walked through Laetoli, Tanzania, millions of years ago. The very idea that humanoids were walking upright for as long as these fossils suggest has sparked a great deal of controversy. Creationists typically believe that the Laetoli footprints are not millions of years old and that the footprints are not hominid, but human. Scientists tend to believe that these footprints could not have come from modern man, so it must suggest that hominids have been walking on two feet longer than previously thought.

In 1976, Dr. Mary Leakey was on an expedition in Tanzania with a group of other scientists when he found the Laetoli footprints. They were there to study ancient remains, but they found something equally, if not more, interesting. The group was walking toward Olduvai Gorge together one day during their expedition. Two of the paleoanthropologists began throwing elephant dung at one another and otherwise goofing off. During the action, the Laetoli footprints were literally stumbled upon.

The Laetoli footprints consist of two tracks of about 30 meters. One of the sets of prints is significantly larger than the other. This suggests that there were at least two hominids walking in Laetoli when the prints were made. The tracks were made by either a woman and a man or an adult and a child. There could also be a third set of tracks within the larger set. It looks as if a third hominid, that walked along behind the first two, had stepped in the larger tracks. Dr. Leakey made plaster casts of the tracks and then covered them. She marked the location so they could go back.
The fossils were dated at roughly 3.7 million years old. Most scientists agree that the Laetoli footprints must have come from a hominid species that walked bipedally, as it is obvious that the owners of these prints walked on two legs. Furthermore, it is believed that they belonged to the Australopithecus afarensis species of hominids, the same group that the Lucy Skeleton belongs to.

The Laetoli footprints probably did not come from great apes. Everything from the shape of the foot to the position of the toes suggests that hominids made the prints. The position of the foot from which the creature pushed to walk is also different. As far as being footprints from a human, the feet are much smaller than human feet and not shaped the way that you would expect a modern man’s foot to be shaped. The manner of walking that is deduced from the footprints is very similar to that of Homo sapiens. This makes them an obvious, or at least likely, link in the evolutionary chain.

Creationists, of course, do not believe in evolution. Furthermore, they do not believe that manlike creatures, or any creatures, walked the Earth millions of years ago. So, the date and type of fossils that the Laetoli footprints are, is quite unbelievable to them. They think that many of the dating techniques used by scientists are inaccurate and that the fossil record is misinterpreted by scientists. This is the mystery, or more accurately the controversy, over the Laetoli footprints.

Author Bio

Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. She’s a history fanatic and spends a lot of time reading about history from all corners of the globe and all time periods. I like to spend all of my free time outdoors or in museums. I live on the South Shore in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. This is the perfect place for someone like myself. Beautiful natural sites and historic city sites are all within a few minutes drive for me.

  • Pictures © GIRLintheCAFE
  • The Laetoli Footprints, retrieved 11/03/09, sain.sunsite.utk.edu/cgi-bin/textonly/0145/www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A94336
  • Peterson, Chris, Laetoli: Footprints in the Past, mnsu.edu/emuseum/archeaology/sites/africa/laetoli2

1 Comment:

Ratty said...

Very interesting. Maybe as time goes on they'll be able to tell even more from the size and shape of these prints.

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