The human footprints from Gombore II-2 (Melka Kunture, Ethiopia)
Only a handful of sites with human footprints are earlier in age than 300,000 years. A recently discovered one is Gombore II-2, which is part of the cluster of archaeological and palaeontological sites of Melka Kunture, at 2,000m asl in the upper Awash River (Ethiopia). Research at Melka Kunture is part of the field activities of Sapienza University of Rome, within the framework of Grandi Scavi di Ateneo, and is co-funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The footprints of Gombore II-2 are sealed by a 700,000 years-old volcanic tuff and accordingly very precisely dated. At the time, the area was the edge of a small pond which was a watering place for hominins and animals. Wildebeest and gazelle, birds, equids and suids, as well as hippos, all printed the soft ground, often overprinting each other and the tracks left by hominins. The tracks point to adults as well as to 1, 2 and 3 years-old children. One of these was not really walking, but rather standing and swinging: its footprint is the imprint of a foot that tramples repeatedly over the ground, resting on the heels. It left a series of small fingers (more than five) imprinted, partly overlapped by the repetition of the movement.
A whole set of activities is documented: stone knapping (obsidian and other volcanic rocks) to produce stone tools, and hippo butchering. Carnivores were roaming in the area, but there is positive evidence that they were able to access hippo carcasses only after the hominins: they were gnawing butchered bones, the leftovers of the hominins who were in control of the environment. Adults and children belonged to the species Homo heidelbergensis, that is to the common root of modern humans and Neandertals. This is proven not just by the age of the footprints, but also by fossil remains of Homo heidelbergensis discovered at Gombore II-1, at short distance from Gombore II-2, and earlier in age, as they are 850,000 years-old.
“It was a very intense emotion - Flavio Altamura, the young researcher who signed first the article recently published in Scientific Reports and to whom we owe the discovery of the children footprints, explains - At Gombore II-2 we almost have a "snapshot of prehistoric life". In a way, 700,000 years ago, those were "the first steps of a child", while the rest of the group and other little ones devoted themselves to daily activities". As Margherita Mussi, coordinator of the research, adds “Gombore II-2 is important not only because sites with human footprints are rare, but because for the first time we don't have just a "path in the landscape", as in Laetoli, for example, but instead an archaeological site where the daily activities are recorded. Moreover, for the first time there are traces of very young children, which indicate their constant presence even when adults chipped and slaughtered”.
Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 2815 (2018) - Archaeology and ichnology at Gombore II-2, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia: everyday life of a mixed-age hominin group 700,000 years ago - Flavio Altamura, Matthew R. Bennett, Kristiaan D’Août, Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser Rita T. Melis, Sally C. Reynolds & Margherita Mussi. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-21158-7