Africa’s Footprint on World History


Several thousand years ago, on the African continent, 17 people decided to take a walk. They ended up stepping in some mud during their journey, leaving footprints behind. Those steps are still in the same location today.

In May 2020, researchers found over 400 footprints in Eastern Africa. This discovery is the most significant human fossil footprint location ever located on the continent. Archaeologists believe that the information left behind by our ancestors shows that ancient communities had a labor division.

Experts dated the footprints at more than 5,700 years old. They could be almost 20,000 years old.

What Was the Purpose of Their Travel?

When archaeologists reviewed the footprints, they determined that the group of 17 was mostly adult females. They were traveling together with one young boy and two adult males.

How did the footprints stay preserved for so long? The people were walking across an ancient volcanic mudflow. Experts believe the materials were produced by Ol Doniyon Lengai, which is still active along the East African Rift.

Ol Doniyon Lengai, or the “Mountain of God,” is in the Arusha Region of Tanzania. It’s one of only a handful of volcanoes in the world that produces natrocarbonatite lava. That unusual composition allows it to erupt at relatively low temperatures, appearing black in the sunlight instead of red when flowing.

That composition makes the lava more fluid than what other volcanoes produce, contributing to the fossilization of the footsteps.

When the people pressed their feet into the wet, warm ash, the material dried in ways similar to concrete. That kept the footprints remarkably preserved. Despite thousands of years of erosion, the hardened ground retains the details of each person.

Archaeologists believe the group was responsible for foraging activities for a broader community. The three males may have come with them to stand guard, meet up for a chat, or visited for another reason. This outcome would be in line with what hunter-gatherer tribes practice today, including behaviors reviewed by the Hadza and Ache people.

Could Ancient Cultures Have Emphasized Equality?

The hunter-gatherer tribe structure’s standardized concept is that the men were the hunters, and the women were the gatherers. Exceptions were possible for those of the opposite gender who showed a proclivity for the other talent, which is why researchers believe some men may have traveled with the women’s group.

The footprint fossils from the Late Pleistocene period may suggest that sexually-divided cultural behavior led to an equal balance of responsibility. Everyone was charged with assisting the overall tribe in whatever manner they could.

Human footprints are rare in the fossil record. When they are discovered, the information each step provides creates an exciting and direct glimpse into our past. With this recent African discovery, we can see a snapshot of people who walked across a potentially harsh landscape searching for food to survive.

It is one more specific moment in human history that would usually be overlooked, yet it also provides profound data about ancient cultures.

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