Around 100,000 years ago, a Neanderthal child was dancing around outside and the footprints have been fossilized for us to see today. The tracks, which were revealed due to stormy weather, high tides and an eroding sand dune on a Spanish beach, have palaeontologists claiming that they could be the oldest footprints ever discovered from the late Pleistocene Epoch as well as the first ones found on the Iberian Peninsula.
At least 87 footprints were discovered by two biologists walking along Matalascañas beach in the southwestern Spanish province of Huelva. They also found a watering hole that our ancient ancestors and animals frequented. They used the area to drink water, look for seafood, hunt, and even the children played there.
Some of the footprints were believed to have been made by a child who was “jumping irregularly as though dancing.” One of the study’s authors, Eduardo Mayoral, stated how significant the footprints are, “The biological and ethological information of the ancient hominin groups when there are no bone remains, is provided by the study of their fossil footprints, which show us certain ‘frozen’ moments of their existence.”
Experts scanned the footprints in 3D which provided them with more details. They were able to determine that the prints had a rounded heel, fairly short toes, non-opposable big toe, and a longitudinal arch.
And 37 of the prints were preserved well enough that experts were able to determine that the foot sizes ranged from 5 inches to 11 inches in length which means that they belonged to numerous individuals from children to adults. More specifically, based on the foot sizes, the individuals who left them ranged in height from 3 feet 4 inches tall to 6 feet 1 inch tall, with most of them being left by those between 4 and 5 feet in height.
Furthermore, 7 of the footprints belonged children, 15 were from adolescents, and 9 were made by adults. While the smallest two prints were estimated to have been made by a 6-year-old, the four longest ones were by someone who was taller than 6 feet. Since that is quite a bit taller than the estimated height of a Neanderthal, it either means that some of them were significantly taller than previously thought, or a smaller individual made the footprints by moving around in one spot which made them appear bigger.
Mayoral went on to say, “The wide range of sizes of the footprints suggests the existence of a social group integrated by individuals of different age classes but dominated, however, by non-adult individuals,” adding, “Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers so the reasons for their presence are mainly due to travel, transportation of resources or foraging strategies.” (Pictures of the footprints can be seen here.)
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports where it can be read in full.