The tragic deaths in December 2019 of tourists visiting an active volcano in New Zealand made many people wonder why anyone would want to be that close to an active volcano. Those who attempt risky activities have an adrenaline-driven reason, but anthropologists think they may have another … it’s in our genes – or at least in the genes of anyone who has some Neanderthal DNA in them. Researchers studying the Devil’s Footprints on the side of the now-inactive Roccamonfina volcano in southern Italy have determined that a) the footprints don’t belong to the devil (no hoofprints), b) the footprints may actually be going up to the top, not running away from the eruption, and c) the footprints may belong to Neanderthals.
The Roccamonfina volcano in Campania, southern Italy, was active from about 650,000 to 50,000 years ago. A major eruption phase began about 385,000 years ago and lasted for 100,000 years, altering the course of two local rivers. As the layers of volcanic ashes eroded away, three sets of small human-like footprints (and a few hand and finger prints) were exposed, possibly in the late 18th century. Dating back to about 350,000 years ago, the prints appeared to be walking down the volcano and were called the "Ciampate del Diavolo" (Devil’s Footprints) because locals felt that no human could have walked or run don’t the slope in hot lava. The nickname stuck but the belief took a hit in 2003 when 2003, archaeologists led by Paolo Mietto from the University of Padua in Italy identified them as hominids, making them the oldest known hominid prints outside of Africa at the time.
But … what kind of hominids? These footprints predate the emergence of Homo sapiens, so they could be Homo heidelbergensis (an extinct hominid discovered near Heidelberg, Germany), Neanderthal, Denisovan or something else. Recent studies on the former Devil’s footprints found new prints of feet, hands and legs, pushing the total to 81. They were able to identify at least five distinct individuals, including one with rather large feet identifying it as an adult male. Those prints aided Adolfo Panarello, lead researcher in a study published recently in the Journal of Quaternary Science, to confidently identify them as Neanderthal – members of a gang of young Neanderthal adults.
As one mystery closes, another opens. The last 14 prints discovered show something else – rather than fleeing the volcano, they were headed UP to the summit. The measurements taken of the gait of the individuals shows that they were in no hurry (who hurries to peer into an erupting volcano?) – the individuals seemed to be walking at about one meter per second … more of a stroll than a run.
Could this have been the first example of volcano tourism … or was it just some teenage Neanderthals showing their misguided bravery? Adolfo Panarello told New Scientist that "We have decided to keep the attribution to a specific species still pending."
Whoever they were and whatever they were doing, it’s clear none of them were the devil.