24 December 2005
20,000 BCE human footprints found in Australia
Hundreds of human footprints dating back to about 20,000 BCE - the oldest in Australia and the largest collection of its kind in the world - have been discovered in Mungo National Park in western NSW. They were left by children, adolescents and adults at the height of the last ice age as they ran and walked across a moist clay area near the Willandra Lakes.
The first footprint was spotted by Mary Pappin Junior, of the Mutthi Mutthi people, two years ago and more than 450 more have been uncovered by a team led by Steve Webb of Bond University. They were made in silty clay containing calcium carbonate that hardened like concrete as it dried. The imprints were preserved when they were covered by a layer of clay and then sand from shifting dunes.
"We’ve got 23 track ways of men running; children walking and wandering around and I want to find where these tracks go and what these people were doing by following them around," Webb said. The prints, ranging in size from 13 cm to 30 cm (5.1 to 11.8 inches), provide an insight into the anatomy and behavior of the people who left them. Some of the people appeared to be hunting, with emu and kangaroo footprints also in the area and what appeared to be spear holes in the ground, they said. One man, estimated at two meters (six feet) tall, appeared to be sprinting at about 20 km/h (12 mph). Another set of tracks, perhaps of a weary child, slows the group down to a speed of only 3 to 5 kph. The strangest tracks of all were left by what appears to be a one-legged man. The thories are either he was playing a hopping game with a child running alongside, or he was standing with one leg in a boat while he propelled himself with the other through shallow water.
The traditional custodians of the area, members of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area Three Traditional Tribal Groups Elders Corporation, said they were very excited by the find. Ms Pappin, a Mutthi Mutthi elder, said walking alongside the footprints was like "walking with a family group today. They're the same people". Roy Kennedy, a Ngiyampaa elder, said the area had been a special meeting place for his tribe since the Dreamtime. "It was an oasis in the desert."
The Pleistocene period is from around 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago and includes the most recent Ice Age. The footprints were dated - through a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence of the sand - at between 19,000 and 23,000 years old. About 20,000 years ago the now dry lakes would have contained fish, mussels and crayfish. The team estimated the height of the people from their foot size, and their speed from the distance between paces. Professor Webb has also recently excavated two 17,000-year-old skeletal remains found about six kilometres away. "They were athletic and very strong and fit. I assume some of the men on this site were very similar," he said.
Dave Johnston, chairman of the elders corporation, said the site was closed to the public to preserve it, and the elders were developing a management, conservation and tourism plan. Webb estimated that his team has uncovered less than a third of the prints in a clay pan beneath the dunes. Australia's oldest human remains are 40,000 years old and were found in Lake Mungo in Mungo National Park, where the footprints were discovered.
Sources: Reuters, Yahoo! News (21 December 2005), Irish Examiner, The Sydney Morning Herald (22 December 2005), Telegraph, The Times (23 December 2005)