Ancient human footprints found in southern Spain two years ago have been declared nearly 300,000 years old, making them unique in Europe.
The footprints are now believed to be 200,000 years older than previously thought, meaning they correspond to a hominid species that predates the Neanderthals.
The prints – found next to the Asperillo Cliff natural monument in Matalascanas, Huelva Province, in June 2020 – were first believed to be around 106,000 years old.
That was an important palaeological discovery in itself, but research carried out in recent months has shown that they are, in fact, much older.
Experts now date them to the Middle Pleistocene 295,800 years ago – the dawn of an ice age – making them unique in Europe.
This makes Huelva Province, according to many experts, the best deposit of hominid footprints in the world.
In a statement obtained by Newsflash, Prof. Eduardo Mayoral of the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Huelva said: “Recent investigations carried out at the Matalascanas site, in the surroundings of the Donana National Park (Huelva, Spain) have shown that the age initially considered in the year 2021 (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598- 021-83413-8), established around 106,000 years, now shows an age almost 200,000 years older, specifically at 295.8 ± 17.8 ka (https://doi.org/: 10.1038/s41598-022 -22524-2).
“This study has been carried out by the Applied Geosciences Research Group of the University of Huelva, led by Professor Eduardo Mayoral Alfaro, in collaboration with leading specialists from the universities of Oviedo, Rio Negro (Argentina), Tuebingen (Germany) and the UCM-ISCIII Joint Centre for Research into Human Evolution and Behaviour, as well as technicians from the Research, Technology and Innovation Centre of the University of Seville and the Donana Biological Station.
“These new data place the site in the Middle Pleistocene and it implies changes in the palaeoenvironmental framework, as well as a taxonomic reconsideration about the producers of these footprints.
“Thus, the traces were printed in the last phases of Marine Isotope Stage 9 (MIS 9) in transition to MIS 8.
“This period was characterised by important variations in the landscape that would have consisted of an extensive coastal plain with large dune systems in an interglacial period (MIS 9) progressively extended for several tens of kilometres due to a retreating sea during the glacial period (MIS 8).
“In fact, according to the composite curve of the sea level for the Pleistocene epoch, this level would be about 60 m below the current one, which would imply a position of the coastline some 20-25 km away from the current position.
“This implies, in turn, that the stadials (cold periods) that were considered drier with a predominance of dune dynamics now correspond to a more temperate and humid climate, with high water tables, abundant vegetation and edaphic and/or lagoon development.
“Another of the important changes that arise with this new age is in relation to the producers of the footprints.
“Until now, the taxonomic attribution was based solely on the chronological context, as is always the case in most hominid footprints, which is why they were initially attributed to Neanderthals.
“All fossil records of Middle Pleistocene European hominids belong to the Neanderthal lineage, either Homo neandertalensis s.s or Homo heidelbergensis s.l.
“Therefore, the most likely taxonomic assignment for the Donana footprints would be one of the taxa of this lineage.
“In short, regardless of which hominid species produced them, these footprints complement the existing partial fossil record for European Middle Pleistocene hominids, being, in particular, the first palaeoanthropological evidence (hominid skeleton or footprints) of the MIS 9-MIS 8 transition discovered in the Iberian Peninsula, a time of profound climatic changes, which went from warm to cold.
“That is why these footprints represent a crucial record for understanding human occupation in Europe during much of the Pleistocene.”