29 September 2017: What ancient hominid left her footprints in Crete?

There is strong evidence that a hominid walked in Crete in the late Miocene, about 5.7 million years ago.

In an article in the 31 August 2017 issue of the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, the authors describe the discovery in western Crete of tracks in rock accurately dated to the Messinian age. To quote the abstract, ‘The tracks indicate that the trackmaker lacked claws, and was bipedal, plantigrade, pentadactyl and strongly entaxonic.’

Trachilos footprints Andrzej Boczarowski

Ancient hominid footprints near Trachilos, Crete. Photo: Andrzej Boczarowski

In plain English, the authors are describing footprints impressed in rock that suggest the creature that made them walked on two feet, not four (bipedal), that it walked on its whole foot rather than just on its toes or claws (plantigrade), that it had five digits on each limb (pentadactyl), and that its big toe was bigger than its other toes (entaxonic).

In short, a footprint that resembles those that are left behind by hominins – the family of humans that includes you and me.

The paper caused a small storm in palaeoanthrapological circles for two reasons. First, there is little direct evidence anywhere of bipedalism before the Pliocene (the epoch immediately following the Miocene, starting around five million years ago), and second, there was no evidence of bipedalism outside of Africa before the Pliocene.

If the tracks discovered in Crete have been accurately dated, and the evidence seems strong on this point, then several intriguing possibilities present themselves.

First, that bipedalism, as palaeoanthrapological orthodoxy has it, evolved in Africa in a species that subsequently migrated to Eurasia (or possibly one of that species’ close descendants made the journey) much earlier than first believed.

Second, that bipedalism in our family may have evolved in Eurasia and not Africa.

Third, that bipedalism evolved more than once in our family. This would make it an extraordinary example of convergent evolution.

At this point, without completely discounting it, the first possibility seems the most unlikely, simply because there is no evidence – fossil or footprint – to support it. However, if this turns out to be the correct answer, a prime candidate would have to be Orrorin tugenensis, the oldest hominid for which we have strong evidence for bipedalism. Orrorin lived in Kenya in the late Miocene, so the dates fit.

The second possibility has been championed by scientists who think it may have been left by Graecopithecus freybergi, a hominin known by one mandible and a few teeth discovered in Greece. Although we do not know if Graecopithecus was bipedal, a recent paper proposed that its dental morphology suggests it is the oldest hominin and that therefore humans first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa.

Graecopithecus_tooth

Teeth from Graecopithecus freybergi

While this claim has been controversial, if Graecopithecus was the first hominin then it was almost certainly bipedal and may well have left impressions of its footprints in Crete. However, generally speaking dentition follows diet. Our teeth can evolve quickly to take advantage of new resources in food, so it is possible that despite its human-like teeth Graecopithecus was a hominid (a member of the family that include great apes as well as humans) but not specifically a member of the tribe Hominini. If this is the case, then Graecopithecus is only our distant cousin rather than an ancestor.

This leads to the third possibility, that bipedalism evolved more than once in the hominid clade. If this is the case, then there is one other strong Eurasian candidate for the owner of those footprints left behind in Miocene Crete, and some scientists think this candidate may have been bipedal.

Oreopithecus bambolii is known from 9-7-million-year-old fossils discovered in Italy from the 1870s. The best and most complete fossil was found in lignite, earning it the name of the Abominable Coalman.

For a long time the position of Oreopithecus in the hominid record has been controversial, most disagreement revolving around whether it is part of the ape or the human family.

Oreopithecus

Oreopithecus bambolii – the ‘Abominable Coalman’

Work done on Oreopithecus in the 1990s controversially proposed it was bipedal, although with a curiously positioned big toe that meant its foot may have acted almost like a tripod. This suggests it could walk on two feet, but probably not at any great pace.

A recent survey of the hominid’s spine, however, has led some scientists to think Oreopithecus was not fully bipedal. Furthermore, the footprints in Crete do indicate a more conventionally shaped foot.

The tracks were discovered in Crete, and dated to the Messinian age when the sea level of the Mediterranean was probably similar to now. Graecopithecus somehow would have had to make it across the equivalent of the Aegean Sea to reach Crete, and Oreopithecus across the Ionian and Aegean seas. Orrorin would have had to make it all the way from Africa. Of course, many animals throughout history have crossed seas and even oceans to reach isolated islands, including members of the hominid clade (Homo erectus to Java and Homo floresiensis to Flores, for example), but to date there is no fossil evidence of either Graecopithecus or Oreopithecus having lived – let alone walked – on Crete.

(This blog entry is based on an idea proposed by Colin Groves, Emeritus Professor of Bioanthropology at the Australian National University.)

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