How fossil footprints are revealing the joy and fear of Stone Age life

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A new wave of archaeological investigations is reconstructing intimate details of our ancestors’ lives from fossilised footprints. They give us glimpses of everything from parent-child relationships to the thrill of a giant sloth hunt



Humans



6 April 2022

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Rupert Gruber

A YOUNG woman is struggling across a muddy plain with a 3-year-old child on her left hip. She puts the youngster down to catch her breath. But she is too afraid to pause for long. The pair are alone, an easy target for the sabre-toothed cats that may lurk nearby. She picks up the child again and hurries on, vanishing into the distance. For a time, all is quiet. Then a giant ground sloth plods across the path she took. The animal catches the woman’s scent and is instantly on guard, rearing up and turning to scan the landscape for human hunters.

What was it like to live in the Stone Age? There must have been moments of joy, fear, love, pain and perhaps even wonder for the people who inhabited Earth tens of thousands of years ago. But emotions don’t fossilise, so we are shut out of those moments, separated by a vast chasm of time. We can find all the bones and tools we like, but they won’t tell us about the experience of life for our ancient ancestors.

Then again, a new window on their everyday existence may be cracking open. As people went about their lives, they left untold numbers of footprints behind. These recorded their behaviour in a unique way, capturing everything from nervous shuffles to determined sprints. What’s more, the tracks have an order to them, meaning events can be read like a narrative. That story of the woman, the child and the giant sloth is a vivid example we have found written in ancient tracks – but it certainly isn’t the only …

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