Discovery of 3.7 million year old footprints belonging to our oldest pre-human ancestors

A series of 13 fossilized footprints left by one of our pre-human ancestors, Australopithecus afarensis, around 3.7 million years ago has just been discovered in Tanzania.

It was during an international excavation campaign in Afar (Ethiopia) led by Donald Johanson, Maurice Taieb and Yves Coppens that one of the most famous fossils in the world was discovered. This female Australopithecus (Australopithecus afarensis) skeleton was named Lucy. Its main characteristic: an almost permanent bipedalism, however more swaying than that of Homo sapiens. The individual responsible for these 13 newly discovered footprints appears to belong to the same species. 26 centimeters long; the researchers suggest on the basis of these measurements that these footprints belonged to a hominid whose size was around 1m65, for 45 kilos.

However. Discovered in 1978, the famous Lucy measured only 106 centimeters. In comparison, the so-called S1 (name given by the researchers) responsible for these new footprints looks like a giant. A fairly average size for Homo Sapiens, but very overestimated for Australopithecus afarensis. Anthropologists indeed thought that our first ancestors to measure such sizes only appeared a little over two million years ago, about 1.5 million years after the formation of these footprints. Still, these prints attest to the contrary. This therefore makes it the largest Australopithecus afarensis ever discovered.

Credits: Javed Ahmed et al.

Because of its size, researchers have nicknamed it Chewie, in honor of the famous, tall and hairy wookie from the Star Wars universe. In their study published in eLife, paleontologists say they have actually discovered much more than a pair of footprints. It was finally a whole family, made up of five members, who moved. According to them, among these individuals was a giant Australopithecus, about 1.65 m tall, but also two others around 1.40 m, one measuring 1.30 m and a last, smaller one, about 1.15 m tall. metre. The researchers then suggest a group consisted of one male, the largest, two or three females, as well as one or two children.

Beyond the rarity of this discovery, these new footprints would thus seem to feed the hypothesis asserting that the australopithecines were, like the gorillas, polygynous (a form of polygamy, but from which only the males benefit). However, further work will be needed to resolve this debate around this species.


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