Like footprints in the sands of time, treadmarks on the side of an old volcano have turned out to be the oldest human prints known, Italian scientists announced Wednesday.
Three sets of tracks were stomped into soggy ash about 350,000 years ago as ancient people hurried downhill near a volcano. The prints were found along the southern side of the Roccamonfina volcano in southern Italy, said scientists Paolo Mietto, at the University of Padova, Marco Avanzini, at the Museum of Natural Science in Trento, and Giuseppe Rolandi, at the University of Naples.
"We believe these are the oldest human footprints found so far," the researchers wrote in the journal Nature published today. Along with the footprints are some human handprints, also the oldest known.
Evidence seen in the hardened ash also suggests the three people who left footprints were "fully bipedal," meaning they walked upright, "using their hands only to steady themselves on the difficult descent."
They added: "These tracks give us unique insight into the activities of some of the earliest known Europeans. No previous records ... are known from Europe, or anywhere in the world, that show associated hand prints, not such striking examples of deliberate efforts to negotiate steep surfaces."
Older footprints have been found in Tanzania, but they were left by hominids, not considered fully human. The Italian team said the three sets of human footprints in ash had been known for some time, but had not been identified as human imprints. The markings were known to local people as "devils' trails," but had not been studied in detail. The prints seem to have been made in fairly fresh ash saturated with water. The ash came from a so-called pyroclastic flow, which can be extraordinarily dangerous.
A descending cloud of volcanic ash can be scalding hot and moving more than 100 miles an hour; too fast to be outrun. Because the prints were made in wet ash, it's believed the humans were traveling on a recent but cooled volcanic trail.
Analysis of individual footprints -- averaging about 10 inches long and 5 inches wide -- indicates that the people who made them were probably no taller than 4 feet, 9 inches. Mietto said all three tracks were likely made by adults.