300,000-year-old human footprints are oldest found in Germany

Fossilized footprints that are about 300,000 years old have been discovered at the Schöningen open-cast lignite mine. They are the oldest known human footprints ever found in Germany. Three footprints of Homo heidelbergensis, the pre-Neanderthal early humans who inhabited the area, were found between Paleolithic elephant tracks.

The site was the shoreline of a lake in the Paleolithic era, a watering hole for large mammals (horses, saber-toothed cats, deer, bears, wild boars, wolves, elephants, rhinoceros, aurochs, water buffalo), reptiles, birds and home to fish, mussels and microscopic organisms like diatoms. Remains and traces of all the creatures have been found, preserved in the dense layers of waterlogged soil and silt depositions.

The scientists attribute two of the three human tracks at Schöningen to young individuals who used the lake and its resources in a small mixed-age group. “Depending on the season, plants, fruits, leaves, shoots, and mushrooms were available around the lake. Our findings confirm that the extinct human species dwelled on lake or river shores with shallow water. This is also known from other Lower and Middle Pleistocene sites with hominin footprints,” says [Dr. Flavio Altamura, a fellow at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen].

The various tracks at Schöningen offer a snapshot of a family’s daily life and may provide information about the behavior and social composition of hominin groups as well as spatial interactions and coexistence with elephant herds and other, smaller mammals, according to the study. “Based on the tracks, including those of children and juveniles, this was probably a family outing rather than a group of adult hunters,” says the archaeologist and expert on fossil footprints. […]

“The elephant tracks we discovered at Schöningen reach an impressive length of 55 centimeters. In some cases, we also found wood fragments in the prints that were pushed into the—at that time still soft—soil by the animals,” explains Dr. Jordi Serangeli, excavation supervisor at Schöningen. “There is also one track from a rhinoceros—Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis or Stephanorhinus hemitoechus—which is the first footprint of either of these Pleistocene species ever found in Europe.”

Homo heidelbergensis made ample use of the lake’s abundant plant and animal resources. Stone tools and wood weapons have been excavated at the site, and butchering marks have been found on more than 10,000 animal bones. The local hominins didn’t just hunt the large mammals that frequented the lake; they also took advantage of their natural deaths. In 2017, archaeologists unearthed the nearly complete skeleton of a female straight-tusked forest elephant. She was about 50 years old and weighed almost seven tons, larger than a modern African elephant, with tusks 7.5 feet long. She almost certainly died of old age at the end of her natural lifespan. Elephants often came to the shore to die, and most of the bones were found in their anatomically correct arrangement. Even though she died in the water, bite marks on the bones indicate the carcass must have been available to scavengers above the surface for some time. Homo heidelbergensis helped themselves too, as evidenced by the three bone artifacts and 30 stone ones honed for butchering use.

The study of the fossil footprints has been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews and can be read here.