Earliest Americans and Denisovan art

It was Mary Leakey’s jaw-dropping discovery in the 1970s of the footprints of two adult Australopithecus afarensis and an accompanying juvenile in 3.6 Ma-old volcanic ash at Laetoli, Tanzania that provided the oldest palpable evidence of a bipedal hominin species. Just seeing a high-resolution image of this now legendary trackway made me determined to call my book on Earth and human evolution Stepping Stones: the Making of our Homeworld. Human footprints have figured several times in Earth-logs articles. A jumble of footprints in 1.0 to 0.78 Ma old Pleistocene interglacial sediments at Happisbugh on England’s Norfolk coast marks the presence there of Homo antecessor: the earliest known, northern Europeans. In The first volcanologists (March 2003) I noted the discovery of evidence that Neanderthal children played in 350 ka volcanic ash on the Roccamonfina volcano in Italy. The emotion generated by seeing such relics has never left me. Two similarly important proofs of human presence emerged in September 2021.

Footprints thought to have been made by children and teenagers between 23 and 21 thousand years ago in lake shore muds at White Sands, New Mexico. (Credit Bennett et al. 2021)

Since 2011 a variety of evidence has accumulated that the Americas began to be populated by anatomically modern humans before what had long been assumed to be the ‘first arrivals’: the Clovis people who made finely-worked stone spear points first found in 13 ka-old sediments in New Mexico. To the pre-Clovis artefacts that suggested earlier immigrations have been added indisputable signs of human presence even earlier than anticipated. They were uncovered in lake sediments beneath the gypsum sand dunes of White Sands National Park in New Mexico. The site is not far from where Robert Oppenheimer exclaimed to himself ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’ after he witnessed his creation, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on 9 July 1945. These lake sediments have yielded thousands of human and animal footprints over the years, but the latest have been dated at between 23 to 21 ka (Bennett, M.R. and 13 others 2021. Evidence of humans in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum. Science, v. 373, p. 1528-1531; DOI: 10.1126/science.abg7586). As with the Happisburgh and Roccamonfina human trackways, size analysis suggests that they were made mainly by children and teenagers! Other animal trackways show that the lake edge was teeming with game at the height of the last Ice Age: abundant food for hunter-gatherers generally results in lots of free time. So maybe these early American people were having fun too. When ice sheets were at their maximum extent sea level had fallen, leaving the Bering Strait dry. The broad Beringia land-bridge made the Americas accessible from Eurasia. Whatever objections have previously been raised as regards human penetration south from Alaska during the Last Glacial Maximum, the White Sands find sweeps them away; people overcame whatever obstacles there were.

Travertine outcrop covered with hand- and footprints at Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau (Credit: Zhang et al., Fig. 1c)

Much older footprints and handprints, preserved in a biogenic carbonate (travertine) deposit from the Tibetan Plateau – more than 4,000 metres above sea level – are reported in an article soon to be published by Elsevier (Zhang, D.D. and 17 others 2021. Earliest parietal art: hominin hand and foot traces from the middle Pleistocene of Tibet, Science Bulletin v 66 online; DOI: 10.1016/j.scib.2021.09.001). Travertine forms when calcium carbonate is precipitated from lime-rich spring water onto films of algae or bacteria. At first it is soft and spongy, hardening as more carbonate is precipitated and solidifying when dried out to form a porous rock. People made a jumble of prints when they pressed their hands and feet into the originally spongy biofilm. Three-dimensional images of the slab provide the basis for interpreting how the prints were made. There are 5 handprints and 5 footprints. From comparing their sizes with modern humans’ feet and hands, it seems that the handprints were made by a single 12-year-old, and the footprints by a child of about 7. Although the travertine layer would have been steep and slippery none of the prints show signs of falling or sliding. They seem to have been deliberately placed close to one another, with suggestions that at least one thumb was wiggled. The authors argue that the prints are a form of art similar to the hand stencils commonly seen on Palaeolithic cave walls. It could be that a couple of kids took delight in leaving signs that they had been there, ‘messing around’: but still an art form. What is especially exciting is their age, between 169 and 226 ka. The children are unlikely to have been anatomically modern humans, who first reached Tibet only a little before 21 ka. One alternative is that they were Denisovans (see: Denisovan on top of the world, May 2019.

See also: Bennett, M.R. 2021.  Fossil footprints prove humans populated the Americas thousands of years earlier than we thought. The Conversation, 23 September 2021. 2021Metcalf, T. 2021. Art or not? Ancient handprints spark debate. NBC News, 16 September 2021.