Footprints on the Sands of Miocene Time… One day on the…

Footprints on the Sands of Miocene Time…

One day on the beach of Crete in the late Miocene, a bipedal creature walked through the sand, perhaps enjoying a day at the seaside.

One day on the beach of Crete in 2002, a Polish geologist named Gerard Gierlinski walked along the same seaside while on his vacation and saw… the tracks left by that creature of so long ago. Many tracks, not just one, with no tracks from forelimbs, that had to have been left by an animal walking upright. On two feet. Just like you and me.

Gerard and team returned to the site in 2010, and the hard work began. They scanned the footprints, they sampled the rock strata, and the results were so extraordinary that even the research team seemed astonished, showing a conservative difficulty to fully accept the implications of their own conclusions.

The rocks imprinted by these footprints are shallow carbonate sands. They contain microfossils, foraminifera that allow comparative dating. The sands are overlain by a rock formation associated with an abrupt and well-studied environmental change (the Messinian Salinity Crisis). This stratigraphy allows a spot-on determination of their date: the layer marked by the footprints are 5.7 million years in age! This is two million years older than any other hominid footprints yet discovered. And they aren’t even in Africa.

Let’s compare this age again: the well known hominid footprints at Laetoli, left in volcanic muds in Tanzania, are dated at 3.7 million years in age. Previous to that time, it is presumed that our ancestors walked on all fours, much in a style similar to chimpanzees. The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees has been estimated to have lived some 4 to 8 million years ago, though these dates are still open to heated discussion, with 7 million years as an accepted compromise.

So… if these footprints are indeed hominid, then the applecart of human paleontology has once more been overturned, upset to a degree that would require a complete re-think of early hominid history. There aren’t supposed to be hominids walking around the beach of Crete, not to mention the plains of Africa, at this date in the late Miocene. Is it possible these aren’t hominids, but some other life form that on occaision walks bipedally, you know, like bears or chimps? Comparison of footprints have been made, and there’s simply no match – except with your own tootsies.

There’s only one way to test this theory: visit Crete, and leave your own footprints in its glorious sands and wait around 5.7 million years to see what they look like.

“Here about the beach I wandered,
Nourishing a youth sublime,
With the fairy tales of science,
and the long result of Time.”

Annie R

With thanks to Charalampos Fassoulas of the Natural History Museum of Crete and Geopark Psiloritis, a co-author of the recently published study. Photos used with his courtesy.

Read more:
G.D. Gierlinski, et al., Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete?, Proc. Geol. Assoc. (2017), xxx–xxx.

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