85,000-Year-Old Footprints Show Stepping Stone in Human Migration

The footprints of prehistoric humans, cast in the once-lush grasslands of present-day Saudi Arabia, offer new clues on how we left Africa.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 15 May 2018, 17:06 BST
Tens of thousands of years ago, Saudi Arabia had lush grasslands where animals like hippos roamed.
Tens of thousands of years ago, Saudi Arabia had lush grasslands where animals like hippos roamed.
Photograph by Saudi Press Agency SPA, Ministry of Culture and Information, Saudi Arabia

First it was a finger. Now archaeologists working in Saudi Arabia are finding remnants of other human appendages that point to an earlier migration out of Africa than has been previously assumed.

Human footprints have been found in the northwestern region of Saudi Arabia near a city called Tabuk. According to a press release sent by the kingdom's Ministry of Culture and Information, the footprints were found dispersing in different directions on what was once an ancient lakebed.

The find was announced by the president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Prince Sultan bin Salman, during his visit to the National Museum of Tokyo. The Japanese museum is hosting an exhibit showcasing ancient Saudi artefacts.

In his announcement, the prince suggested that the footprints dated back roughly 85,000 years. Archaeologist Huw Groucutt has been working in the region and says researchers are still analysing the footprint and plan to publish a paper in the coming months.

It's not the first time human footprints have left clues for archaeologists to follow. In 2006, 700 20,000-year-old fossil footprints were found in Australia, and in March, 13,000-year-old footprints were found on the west coast of Canada.

If scientists find that the footprint does date back more than 80,000 years, it would have been left around the same time a human finger bone was found near an ancient Saudi Arabian lake site called Al Wusta.

A study on the finger bone published last month revealed that it belonged to a human who lived 88,000 years ago. It too was found at the site of an ancient freshwater lake.

The footprint is adding to evidence that the Arabian Peninsula may have been an important stepping stone for humans leaving the African continent for the first time. Evidence of humans appears in East Africa around 200,000 years ago, but mass migration off the continent was long thought to have taken place 60,000 years ago. Newer finds—like the 180,000-year-old jawbone found in Israel earlier this year—suggest an earlier start.

See Oldest Human Fossil Outside Africa Discovered

Oldest Human Fossil Outside Africa Discovered in Israel
A human fossil found in Israel has revealed that our species left Africa more than 50,000 years earlier than thought. Part of an upper jaw with teeth, the fossil was discovered in 2002 on Mount Carmel in northern Israel. While large-scale migration didn't occur until around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, small groups ventured out before then. Previously, our ancestors were thought to have initially travelled outside of Africa as far back as 120,000 years ago, but the new finding now puts that number at around 180,000 years ago. Scientists used four different dating methods to identify the age of the newfound fossil.

It's unclear how many humans migrated into the Arabian Peninsula. Over 80,000 years ago, the vast, sandy region was a lush grassland. Ten thousand ancient lakes and bones from animals like hippos and aquatic mammals have been found throughout the region.

Of the 200 lake sites archaeologists have visited so far, about 80 percent have archaeological finds, said Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute in a prior interview. Some contain fragments from stone tools.

Archaeologists expect Saudi Arabia to be an increasingly important site for understanding ancient human migration. The country only recently began allowing foreign scientists to excavate its ancient sites.

Petraglia has said that the ancient team of archaeologists working there plan to continue working at ancient lakes and will eventually expand their work into caves.

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