Bournemouth University

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Footprints lead research trail to Namibia

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Ancient footprints Footprints in Namibia

BU Professor Matthew Bennett is travelling to the south west of the African continent this summer to continue his research into fossilised footprints.

The new site, close to Walvis Bay in Namibia, contains a range of animal and human footprints believed to be around 10,000 years old, or so, but could be older.

Professor Bennett is working with a group of international experts including Professor Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. The work is part of a Pan-African Footprint Project founded by Professor Bennett and Professor Thackeray. 

The research is also part of a collaborative project funded by an award from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for Professor Bennett and Professor Robin Crompton at the University of Liverpool to investigate the evolution of the human gait in our ancestors.

"In Namibia, we will map the site using a range of survey techniques including optical laser scanning which we have pioneered at BU for recording trace fossils of this kind," Professor Bennett explained. "It is a really exciting site with huge amounts of potential to help us understand the biomechanics of human locomotion and the record of this preserved in footprints.

"There are also some excellent animal footprints including large elephant tracks which are really nice,” Professor Bennett continued. “As far as we can tell at the moment, the prints are preserved on a marine mudflat from a former sea level high and are now covered by some huge sand dunes which are highly mobile. Their movement over a number of years reveals the prints in the inter dune areas."

Professor Bennett and his colleagues will access the site on a daily basis by Quad bikes, presenting a challenge in transporting equipment.  The team is also hopeful of visiting another 'new' footprint site elsewhere in Namibia as part of preparations for a further field campaign in the country at a later date.

In 2009, Professor Bennett was the lead author of a landmark paper published in the acclaimed journal Science which revealed new evidence of early human development. The study, which featured on the front cover of Science, concluded that footprints discovered near Ileret in Northern Kenya were left by one of our evolutionary ancestors, Homo erectus.  

Professor Bennett and an international team of colleagues believe that the prints, made between 1.51-1.53 million years ago, show clear evidence that Homo erectus had a modern foot anatomy and function, and walked much like we do today. This important feature is viewed as vital to the shift in cultural and biological adaptations of Homo erectus, believed to be the first species to migrate from Africa.

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