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Ancient footprints reveal modern traits

27 February 2009

Laser scan of Kenya footprint BU expert leads international research into the world’s second oldest footprints.

BU Professor Matthew Bennett is the lead author of a landmark paper published in the acclaimed journal Science this week which reveals new evidence of early human development.

The study, which features on the front cover of Science, concludes that footprints recently 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.

The footprints are preserved in fine-grained mud on two distinct sedimentary layers in a single outcrop at Ileret. These surfaces have been dated precisely via volcanic ash layers and digitally scanned by Professor Bennett to create three-dimensional digital elevation models accurate to a fraction of a millimeter.

Laser scanning not only provides a unique method of analysis, but also allows for the footprints to be preserved where they are and shared digitally around the world.

“Our findings from Ileret show that by 1.5 million years ago, these individuals had evolved an essentially modern human foot function and a style of two-footed locomotion that we would recognise today,” says Professor Bennett.

“Foot bones are rarely preserved because they are small, encased in flesh, and easily consumed by carnivores,” Professor Bennett continues. “Consequently, our knowledge of foot anatomy and function in our early ancestors is poor. Fossil footprints are rare but when they are found, they provide an invaluable line of evidence.”

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